Carbo Gels for Marathon Training

by Graeme Hilditch

Do marathon runners need gels?

Following a recent Marathon Preparation Day with The Prostate Cancer Research Centre (PCRC) and a number of questions from other marathon runners on Facebook, I figured a short blog post giving the low down on “carbo gels” for marathon training was needed.

I need to clarify a few things and dispel some myths.

After speaking to runners at our marathon preparation days, it seems there is a lot of confusion out there on the role and importance of carbohydrate gels.

So many people either take them when they don’t need to, or take too many and suffer the consequences.

This blog post will hopefully clarify a few things about “carbo gels,” so you can continue with your marathon training with confidence that you know if and / or when you should be using them to help fuel your training.

What exactly are Carbo Gels?

Carbo (carbohydrate) gels are small packs of carbohydrate rich “food” produced, as the name implies, as a gel. They contain the perfect balance of sugars and salts to make them easily digestible and not too rich.

There are many brands on the market, all with a range of different flavours, consistencies and formulations.

High 5 gels for example are a lot more watery in texture than Science in Sport( SiS) gels with runners often finding they prefer one texture over the other.

Are all Gels made to a similar recipe?

Mostly yes, but there are subtle differences, which is why you should always stick to a brand you are familiar with and not use a different gel on the day of your race.

Even a small change in formulation can have you running faster than you’ve ever run………. to the toilet. You have been warned!

For example, Science in Sport (SiS) manufacture gels with 75mg and 150mg of caffeine in, along with the usual 22g of carbohydrate. Having used the SiS Go Energy + Caffeine Gel (150mg caffeine) on several occasions, I can tell you from personal experience that you have to really like coffee / espresso to enjoy this gel. I like it - others don’t.

When do you need Gels?

Gels are manufactured to help prevent you from running out of glycogen (carbohydrate) on long runs - such as marathon training and racing, so unless you run for very long durations, gels are not really necessary.

If your everyday diet is good and you are consuming sufficient carbohydrates throughout the day to meet your training needs, you should have sufficient amounts of carbohydrate to see you to mile 18 or so. Some people less, others more.

If you are taking on a long run of 18-20 miles or so, the general advice is to consume a gel every 20-30 mins after you start your run.

NEVER consume more than 3 gels in an hour - or you’ll likely to suffer from stomach cramps as the stomach is not able to digest the excessively rich sugar solution fast enough, causing cramping.

Are Gels necessary?

This is a common question and one which will prompt a different answer from different people.

The fact that hundreds of thousands of people ran marathons (and further) way before Gels were ever even thought of, is testament to the fact that they are not essential - but they are useful and very convenient.

Gels take the guess work out of mid run nutrition.

You have one every 20-30 minutes after your first hour of running and that’s it. You know you are consuming the ideal amount of carbohydrate to meet training demand and, provided you don’t eat too many in an hour, you avoid the risk of consuming too much sugar and getting crippling stomach cramps.

All that said, they are certainly not essential. There are alternatives…..

What are the alternatives to Gels?

Common alternatives to Carbo Gels are Jelly Babies and other sugary sweets.

They are small, glucose rich and tasty, making them a favourite with a lot of “anti gel” runners.

The problem with Jelly babies however, is that it is very easy to eat too many of them, especially on the day of the marathon, where you’ll often see children holding out buckets of Jelly Babies for you to grab as you run past.

As touching as this gesture is, you really only need 12-15 Jelly babies an hour to consume the right amount of sugar for your needs.

If you eat more than this, as with excessive Gel consumption, you’ll find that your stomach can cramp up and running will be uncomfortable.

Jelly babies and other sweets also do not contain electrolytes (salts) , which need to be replaced during long training run due to sweat loss.

What do you advise?

Practice and experiment.

Use the upcoming weeks of training to experiment with your nutrition, as well as with your running pace etc. If you think you’d like the convenience of gels, then by all means buy a few brands and practice with them whilst out training.

Try one initially, (preferably close to home in case your stomach protests) and if you like the taste, texture and convenience, then stick with it.

Alternatively, see how you get on with Jelly babies, making sure you only consume no more than 4-6 every 20-30 mins.

What are common mistakes runners make with Gels?

Perhaps the three most common mistakes are:

  • Eating too many,
  • Drinking them at the same time as a sports drink
  • Not drinking them with any water.

As discussed, eating too many gels will slow down the gastric emptying in stomach, causing cramps. As blood is needed elsewhere when running, (diverted to the legs, for obvious reasons) there is not enough blood to aid digestion and the result is stomach cramping.

If you consume a gel at the same time as you consume a sports drink (which also contains sugar) you run the risk of the above happening. Too much sugar in the stomach leads to abdominal cramping.

If you consume a gel without any water, it can often leave you mouth feeling “sticky” and pretty horrible, especially if you are dehydrated, so always make sure you wash down a gel with some water.

Which Gels do you recommend?

Well I can recommend the gel that works for ME, but I can’t guarantee that my choice will also be your choice. You have to experiment and chose a gel that works for you - if any.

You may hate them, in which case, opt for Jelly babies instead.

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