Episode 13 - Everything you Need to Know About Sports Gels

Everything you Need to Know About Sports Gels

Not all gels are created equal! Some are definitely better than others but it also comes down to your personal preference on flavour, texture, cost and how gels fit into your overall race nutrition plan. 

In this episode I talk you through:

  • What to look for when buying gels
  • Can they be mixed with water? And what does Isotonic mean?
  • Do gels need to be consumed all at once?
  • Why do gels upset some athletes stomachs? Plus two suggestions on how to fix this
  • How much do you need during endurance events?
  • Alternatives to gels all together!

Sports gels are a big minefield of information with new products coming on the market all the time. But I’m hoping this episode fast tracks your research when it comes to finding what’s best for you.

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Episode Transcription

Episode 13 – Everything you Need to Know About Sports Gels 

Taryn Richardson  00:00
Welcome to the Triathlon Nutrition Academy podcast, the show designed to serve you up evidence-based sports nutrition advice from the experts. Hi, I'm your host Taryn, Accredited Practicing Dietitian, Advanced Sports Dietitian, and founder of Dietitian Approved. Listen as I break down the latest evidence to give you practical, easy to digest strategies to train hard, recover faster and perform at your best. You have so much potential, and I want to help you unlock that with the power of nutrition. Let's get into it.

Welcome to this episode of the Triathlon Nutrition Academy podcast. Strap yourself in. This one's going to be a big one. Today I want to talk about sports gels. There's a lot of information out there. So I really want to try and fast track your research. Because not all gels are created equally. There's a huge variety of brands and flavours and the content of them varies as well.

But they're beautiful, aren't they? They remind me of apps. They are bright and colourful, and apps are designed to make you want to eat them and gels packaging are designed the same. They're designed to encourage you to eat them. So I want to go through what to look for when you're buying your gels and there's a number of things that you want to actually have a look at when you're looking at the label, etc. So we're going to go through some of those things.


  1.  Carbohydrate Content

The first thing that I always check when someone shows me a new gel, or I'm looking at new products on the market is their carbohydrate content. Now what's out there now has a huge range of carbohydrate content. There are brands that range from around 20g of carbohydrate per gel. There are other brands that contain around 30g, so things like the Ironman brand and Pro4mance up to 45g of carbohydrate per gel. So there's a huge spectrum of how much carbohydrate is in that packet. Like they're all relatively similar sizes. Obviously, they're smaller gel packets and bigger gel packets. But that carbohydrate range is huge.

You don't have to consume it all at once. I don't think we can get it in Australia. But if you're listening in overseas, you can get Sponser Sport Food. They have a gel that's in a cool little toothpaste container so it's got that toothpaste lid that you can flip off and put back on again, that cap. Those gels are a double gel, and they've got 50g of carbs in them. But what I like about those is that you can take that cap off and have some and then put the cap back on and stash it for later. So you don't have to have the whole thing at once and you can do that with other brands as well just depends on their consistency and how you're going to carry it.

So when you're looking at buying gels, the first thing you want to have a look at is how much carbs it contains and that is going to be relevant depending on what your overall fuelling plan is. We'll come back to that later.

  1.  Type of carbohydrate

The next thing that I have a look at is the actual carbohydrate type that's in the gel. So have a look at the ingredients and see what's actually in there. A lot of gels are made on just maltodextrin, which is two glucose molecules joined together. Because that's so simple, it's actually really easily broken down and pulled apart in the gut, so that you can absorb it really quickly into your bloodstream and use it as a quick fuel source. So that's why a lot of sports nutrition products are made with maltodextrin because it is quickly broken down and usable for energy. There are also products that have maltodextrin plus fructose, which is a different type of sugar and that's actually absorbed differently across the stomach lining to glucose. So Pro4mance is a brand that uses glucose and fructose. It does that by relying on sucrose, which is one molecule of glucose and one molecule of fructose, which is just like white table sugar. So have a look at the brand that you're using and what ingredients it contains in terms of the carbohydrate types because they are all different.

What one is right for you really just depends on what your overall nutrition plan is. You don't necessarily need to pick a certain gel because of a certain type of sugar because you can probably get it from other components of your overall nutrition plan. It would only really matter if you were solely using gels.

  1.  Is it Isotonic or not?

The other thing you might see on gel labels is the word isotonic. Now that's just a measure of the concentration of it. So isotonic is a solution that has the same salt concentration as our cells and our blood. Hypo means less so it's less concentrated, and hyper is high so it's more concentrated. So isotonic essentially means that you don't need to take your gel with water. So it's the right concentration to absorb it without needing to drink, say a whole glass of water to dilute that down. Often for it to be isotonic, a gel, there's probably going to be a lower carbohydrate content in that gel for it to have that same concentration as our blood. So as an example, SiS do an isotonic gel, but it only has about 20g of carbohydrate in it and it's a fairly large packet. Out of the gel sizes, it's probably one of the biggest I've ever seen.

So depending on what you're doing, if you like those gels, you've got to stash them and carry them somewhere. So if you're doing long runs, and you're relying solely on big isotonic gels, then you need to decide where you going to put them all because if you need 10, I don't know where you're going to carry 10. But they can be useful if you just want a couple for a change of texture or change of flavour, or somewhere where you don't have as much access to water. But regardless, you're probably going to need to carry water anyway, because a gel alone, even if it is 10, it's not really likely to meet your fluid needs with just gels alone. If a gel doesn't say it's isotonic, then it's not. So you do need to consume that with water to help its absorption across the stomach lining and that's because they are really concentrated. There's a lot of particles in that solution, it's more concentrated than our blood. So you need to have water to dilute that to help it digest and break down and actually be absorbed across our stomach lining.


  1.  Consistency

Consistency is another factor that varies widely with gels. They range from really liquidy to really, really thick, and some people purely have a preference on the gel-based on consistency. So some brands that are really thick would-be GU or Clif and they can actually be quite good to rip off the top and nibble on, easier to have small amounts then having to have a really liquidy gel and having to have it all in one go. Because if you're running and it's liquidy, you're likely to get sticky fingers and it's all going to go everywhere. Some people just hate that. Whereas if you hate sticky fingers and you don't want to have it all at once, then go for a thicker gel because you can rip the top off, have a nibble and stash it or hold it in your hand and keep running without the risk of getting sticky fingers. So, some of the more liquidy brands would be things like Highfive or SiS or Pro4mance but there's a huge range out there. So if consistency is your thing, if you're a consistency eater, then you can play around with the different brands for the consistency that you like.

There are also more jelly consistency type products. So things like the Maurten gel, it has a different sort of gel matrix. One of my clients calls them snot rockets, and that's kind of a really good way of describing them. They are quite gooey. Some people love them, and some people absolutely hate them because of that texture. It might be a factor for you when you're looking at buying gels is to take consistency into consideration.

Can you mix gels with water?

You can mix them with water if you want to, to dilute them down and make them more liquidy. I don't think you meant to mix those Maurten gels with water as an example. The gel matrix is designed for maximum absorption across the stomach but there are other different products that you can actually dilute down with water if the consistency is killing you, but you like the flavour.


  1.  Flavour

On flavour, there is a huge variety of flavours of products out there. You've got your standard sort of berry and lemon and lime, they're pretty common they must be crowd favourites. Then you have the sort of vanillas, chocolates, mocha type flavours and then you've got some really cool fancy ones that sound delicious, like salted watermelon, toasted marshmallow, salted caramel would be one of my favourite flavours in the world. Flavour might be something that you want to play with when it comes to gels and picking gels.

Go out and try a range of flavours. If you think that you're just a berry person, then you could stick with the berry's but try and branch out a little bit and try a few different things. See if there's something cool that you like that might be a bit different.

Let me know if this sounds like you. Do you feel exhausted by the end of the training week? Do you crave sweets in the afternoon and feel like you need a nap? Training for three disciplines can be absolutely exhausting if you haven't dialled in your nutrition. It can be frustrating when you can't quite piece together the solid race performance you know you're capable of and confusing when there's so much information out there. But you're not sure what's the right method for you.

My goal for you is to unlock your true potential and feel like a supercharged triathlete, firing on all cylinders full of energy and not only smashing quality training sessions, performing in every race too. If you're finally ready to start nailing your nutrition, join a powerful community of like-minded athletes in the Triathlon Nutrition Academy Program. Head to dietitianapproved.com/academy to check it out now. For less than the cost of a coffee a day, you will finally have a plan for your nutrition instead of winging it and hoping for the best.


6. Sodium content

When it comes to the other ingredients, the other main one to consider with gels is the sodium content because this again varies so widely. Some are really, really, really low, like I don't even know what the point was of putting it in there and some are really, really high. There's some extra salt boosted sort of gel products out there. There's no right or wrong answer here because it depends on what your overall plan is. You're not using entirely gels, so you can get your sodium from other sources without having to rely on the sodium in gels.

Although in saying that I've had two Ironman athletes in my career, come and see me because they needed help and they were both doing their entire Ironman on gels. They came to see me because they weren't feeling great. They were having terrible runs. Partly it was because they were using solely gels. For an Ironman, you know, you're out there all day, you might ride for five or six hours, you might run for three and a half, four hours plus, you're out there for a long time. It's a long time to be consuming the same flavour, the same texture and they were also actually using a shit gel. It was low in sodium; it didn't have a good range of carbohydrates. It wasn't ticking all the right boxes for me when I look at race nutrition for someone. So for both of them, I took them away from just gels as their strategy and we introduced some other things to give them actually what they needed. Both of them are going way better now that they're not doing that. Now, if you wanted to just use gels, you can but then it's really important that you do have a gel that's got enough sodium in it, it's got different types of carbohydrates for you, it's meeting your fuelling needs, but I would say that it's rare that somebody actually wants to do that.


7. Cost

The other thing you want to consider with gels is the cost. They range from $1 a gel all the way up to $5-6 a gel. So for some people that can be cost prohibitive. When you're buying, have a look at all of those factors. Because if you're using a lot of gels in training and heading into events, you might actually go through a fair amount of product. It's not like you're just using one or two here and there. You can go through a fair amount. If you're really practising your race nutrition and dialling that up as you head into sessions, then you will probably go through a fair bit of stuff. So when you're buying, start ticking off each of those components and have a think about what's going to work best for you. You can just start by going into a bike shop or run shop and get a range of things to try or hit up a mate for just one of theirs. There'd be nothing worse than buying a whole box of something because you saw it on special and then hating it. I'd encourage you to get one or two of something somehow and test it out before you go and invest in a whole box.

If you're one of my clients, I like to give you a couple of samples to try to sort of help start that journey, because that'll help direct you with what you like in terms of flavour and consistency, without having to waste too much money buying heaps of product. Some companies will do a mixed box as well like a trial pack, if that's what you wanted to do for a certain brand and then you can try a variety of flavours and see which ones you like the best. At the end of the day, you really need to like your nutrition, because you're more likely to consume it, if you like it. If you don't like it, then you're not really going to consume it when it matters. You will second guess yourself and think "Ah no, I can get home without it". Whereas if you loved it and you were looking forward to it, then you're more likely to consume it and you're more likely to then meet your fuelling needs.

So find something that you enjoy taking, it doesn't really matter, particularly if gels form part of your overall race nutrition plan. Because I can write a race nutrition plan based on whatever it is that you like, it doesn't matter. Find a couple of things that you like and then I will always direct you to get other components in your plan to help give you exactly what you need.

How many gels do you need?

Now how many gels do you actually need or how much should you have? I guess the answer is how long is a piece of string. It's highly, highly individual how much you need in terms of gels and overall fuelling. What I would recommend you not do though is don't blindly follow the instructions on the packet. A lot of gels will have on there, take one every 20 minutes or have three an hour or whatever it is. Don't blindly follow that because that's just blanket generic cookie cutter advice. So how many gels you have really just depends on your overall fuelling and hydration plan. You can use a lot of gels, or you can only use a couple sprinkled throughout. It doesn't really matter, as long as your overall plan is dialled in.


In the Triathlon Nutrition Academy, we actually go through, specifically what you need for rides and runs so that you can start to dial in your nutrition during exercise. Then I'll teach you how to build that up so that you can increase your gut tolerance as you head towards key races.

Why do gels upset my stomach?

One of the most common questions I get from people is "why do gels upset my stomach?" A lot of people completely avoid gels, because they just don't sit right and there could be a number of reasons why that happens.


  1.  You may not tolerate the ingredients

Number one, it might be what they're actually made up of, that you don't necessarily tolerate. So for example, the type of carbohydrate. So it's about having an understanding of what type of carbohydrates or sugars are in the gels, which we talked about and then because they're not all equal, they're all different, some people don't necessarily tolerate or digest fructose very well and that could be a problem if you don't digest and absorb and break down fructose that well. So you might want to avoid fructose in your products altogether or find a product that's got a good glucose to fructose ratio, because we know that glucose helps to carry fructose across the stomach lining. That could help alleviate your symptoms for some people.


  1.  It’s the way you’re taking the gels

The second reason you could be getting gut upset is the way that you're taking them. You could be taking them all at once and it's too much in one go or they could be too concentrated and you're not having enough water to help dilute that down in your stomach for it to actually digest and absorb properly. So if it's not isotonic, then you might need to look at increasing the amount of water you have with it to help get it absorbed properly. They are concentrated little suckers; they've got maybe 30g of carbs in a tiny little 45g packet. They have a really high osmolarity which means that there's a high number of particles in the solution per one litre of solvent. So to dilute that down to be able to digest it and absorb it across the stomach lining, you're going to need to lower the osmolarity. Dilute it down to lower the particles in the solution and that will help your digestion and that could potentially help with your gut upset as well.

I worked with a guy heading into Cairns Ironman this year, and he spent his whole run feeling sick and nauseous. He was a good athlete and knew how to put himself into a hole so he could sort of switch that off until he finished and then he'd spend an hour spewing afterwards because he wasn't digesting and absorbing his nutrition at all. He was just blindly following this set amount of carbohydrate per hour that he'd pulled off the internet because that's what his training buddy said he should do, and he just couldn't tolerate it. There's no point doing that if you don't tolerate it. It makes no sense to put the fuel in if it's not digesting and absorbing. You could smash 200g of carbs an hour if you wanted to, doesn't mean it's going to do anything. It's going to slowly and slowly fill up your tummy until the only way is out.

So my strategy with him was to actually pull his nutrition back and then we slowly chipped away at trying to build it up again so that you get used to a certain amount of nutrition and you know you tolerate it, and you can digest it. If it's not digesting, you're not using it for energy anyway, because the bloods not really in your stomach when you're running away from a lion. Your digestion pathways are minimised. Your blood is diverted away from your stomach. It's in your heart, it's in your lungs, it's in your diaphragm, it's in your working muscles. It's not really going to help you with the digestion side of things. So you do need to train your body to deal with taking nutrition while you're exercising, and particularly exercising at higher intensities.

Do you have to use sports gels?

Gels are a massive minefield of information. There are new products coming out on the market all the time. I struggle to keep up with it and taste them all. But you don't actually have to use gels. There are so many other options. You might want to use sports drinks or bloks or food. I'm seeing a real movement away from commercial sports nutrition products at the moment. Probably for the last few years, maybe five years. People are starting to use more real food options when they're exercising and that's totally fine. As long as it's part of your overall nutrition plan and you tolerate it.

It's one of the reasons actually created the Fuel your Adventure Book. It's a little recipe book with more real food options for fuelling. It's got energy balls, some bars, it's got some savoury options because a lot of gels are sweet. In fact, I don't know any savoury gel on the market. There used to be one in Australia, but it doesn't exist anymore, and gels are certainly being produced with low flavour profiles to help combat that but let me know if there's a savoury gel on the market that I don't know about. The fuel your adventure book has some savoury options in there because you just get so sick of sweet. There's also a homemade sports drink recipe in there too which you can do yourself. So I might link that in the show notes if you want to check it out.

All right, that is everything that you need to know about sports gels, to get started. Definitely not all gels are created equal, some are better than others, but it comes down to one, your personal preference and two, what fits in as part of your overall nutrition plan. It's unlikely that you're going to do something like an Ironman on just gels, although I have seen it twice. So don't stress if your gel doesn't have much sodium or it doesn't have different types of carbohydrates because you're going to be able to fill those holes with something else. So find something that you like having and then you're more likely to do it when you're in a hole or you're feeling flat or fatigued or your brains not working because you've been running for like three hours. Use a variety of flavours too, that can be useful for people and save your most favourite flavour for the back end where you're really looking forward to it and it helps you to get there.

So I hope that's helped. I would love it if you could send me a DM on Instagram and let me know what your favourite gel is and definitely let me know if there is a savoury gel somewhere in the world. I've not come across one for years, but there's definitely a hole in the market if you want to develop one. Alright, that's it for today. If there's anything you're still unsure about when it comes to gels, just send me a DM on Instagram and let me know what you're struggling with.

Thanks for joining me for this episode of the Triathlon Nutrition Academy podcast. I would love to hear from you. If you have any questions or want to share with me what you've learned. Email me at [email protected]. You could also spread the word by leaving me a review and taking a screenshot of you listening to the show. Don't forget to tag me on social media at @dietitian.approved so I can give you a shout out too. If you want to learn more about what we do, head to dietitianapproved.com. And if you want to learn more about the Triathlon Nutrition Academy program, head to dietitianapproved.com/academy. Thanks for joining me and I look forward to helping you smash it in the fourth leg - nutrition!

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