Gels or Sports Drink?
When I race, should I choose gels or sports drinks? Or a combination of both?
During a race of 90 minutes or more glycogen levels need to be topped up on a regular basis or they’ll become depleted, you’ll run out of steam and you’ll ‘bonk’ or ‘hit the wall’. Drinking water is not enough! You’ll need to rapidly replenish depleted muscle glycogen and restore body salts lost through sweat. That’s why we have to take on board gels and sports drinks. Unfortunately, most of them are disgusting, unpalatable and sickly…that’s because they’re more or less pure glucose, designed to be digested as quickly as possible. Using homemade sports drinks in training is fine, but this is usually an impractical solution for racing. The only option is to try out different brands to find one you can stomach.
With the ongoing success of FuelSmart for Race Day, I’m frequently asked whether it’s best to top up these glycogen levels with gels or with sports drinks during triathlon, half-marathon and marathon endurance training and races, and whether there is any difference between them.
Discover your ideal personal strategy.
Firstly and most importantly, what works for you is unlikely to work for your fellow competitor! You need to practice different strategies in training to discover what will suit you and your physiology best. Whether you choose gels, sports drink or a combo depends more on your personal preference than on any performance advantage.
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Gels – don’t forget to wash them down with water
Gels, designed to be rapidly digested to replenish muscle glycogen as quickly as possible, provide between 20-30 grams of carbohydrate. Your body requires 30-60 grams of carbohydrate per hour, depending on workout intensity, so you’d need 2-3 gels per hour. Each gel must be washed down with plenty of water, for good hydration and for the effective absorption of the gel.
What about Sports Drinks?
Sports drinks are essentially gels with water, providing you ‘two for one’: hydration and carbohydrates. 500 ml typically contains between 30-45 grams carbohydrate, so you would need around 600 ml per hour, again depending on your workout.
Try a Gel/Sports Drink Combo to minimise Gastrointestinal discomfort
If, like me, you find sports drinks and gels too sickly-sticky, and water boring, try my combo method which maintains good hydration, body salt and glycogen levels.; a gel every 30-40 minutes, washed down with a 50% diluted sports drink. You never know, it might work for you!
Don’t forget electrolytes and protein
For best performance and recovery, choose a gel or sports drink which also contains protein and electrolytes; this helps prevent muscle damage and replaces lost body salts.
Solids can be kinder to the stomach
Overconsumption of gels and sports drinks can leave your gut feeling extremely uncomfortable. Energy bars, dried fruit, marmite, cheese or honey sandwiches, bananas and rice balls can be kinder to the stomach and many cyclists find it more pleasant and effective to eat these on the bike. Solids on the bike works for triathletes and ironman competitors, followed by sports drink and/or gels on the run to minimise gastrointestinal discomfort.
If you suffer GI problems, keep it simple!
Your stomach comes under all sorts of stress during endurance events. Many competitors suffer gastrointestinal problems. The more gunk you put inside you the likelihood is that the more uncomfortable your stomach will feel!