Have you ever asked yourself if you should be taking energy gels or using electrolyte or energy drinks? Wondered what kind or how often? Figuring out whether or not to fuel while running, what to take and when to take it can be confusing. I’ve run full marathons on Powerade only, or taking nothing until I bonked, and also gel strategies of all sorts. I’ve tried to get through half marathons on nothing at all. They’ve culminated in a load of stories about what doesn’t work when it comes to distance running!
To Fuel or Not to Fuel?
You’re getting ready for a long run – could be anywhere between 90 minutes and 3 hours you’re going out for. Or, you’re getting ready for a track workout, hill repeats or a tempo run that will last longer than 40 to 60 minutes. The question is, should you be bringing gels or energy drink with you for during these workouts?
Nine times outta ten – yup, you most definitely should be fuelling during these workouts!
You always want your long runs to mimic race day. Practice makes perfect, right? You’ll need to fuel on race day if your race is longer than 60-90 minutes, so you’ll need to gel in training.
Track, tempo or hill workouts will drain your glycogen stores fast and furious, so if you’re out there for longer than an hour, you’ll have a better workout if you top up those glycogen stores on the run.
Want an insider tip? Try taking one gel 10 minutes before your long run, pace workout, or race (don’t ever do this before a race though unless you’ve practiced!). It’ll give you an energy boost and top up your glycogen stores before you begin.
Gels or Energy Drinks?
If it’s a marathon you’re training for, get used to taking gels. You’ll need to find one that works for you. Many runners experience various levels of gastrointestinal distress from gels, dependent on the ingredients. Most gels offer carbohydrates in the form of maltodextrin, which is supposed to be easy to digest. Personally, I like to reach for the most natural product available that still tastes good and literally melts in my mouth. That would be Honey Stingers organic energy gels (I am not affiliated with the brand). So far I haven’t met anyone who experienced GI distress after taking one of these gels and everyone loves the flavour, texture and consistency. Gels contain electrolytes, so you may or may not wish to take an electrolyte drink on top of gels. If you’re a heavy and salty sweater, you may need to. Typically, it’s not required.
If it’s a half you’re training for, you may be able to get away with consuming only energy drink while you’re running. If you can complete 21.1km in less than 1:45:00 and you regularly practice carb-depleted runs, relying only on an energy drink could work for you. If not, you’ll want to gel. When taking gels, ensure you’re washing them down with a cup of water. This is important to avoid any GI distress.
Vega Sport Pre-Workout Energizer and E-Load Endurance Formula Sport Drink are great electrolyte drinks that also provide 12 and 27 grams of carbohydrate per serving respectively (gels typically provide 25g carb/serving).
How much carb to get into you while you’re running will vary depending on your size and metabolism. However, general recommendations are 30 to 60 grams of carb per hour. This translates into 1 gel every 45-50 minutes on the low-end or 1 gel every 25-30 minutes on the high-end. Normally I recommend starting with one gel every 45 minutes and going from there.
If you’re not a huge fan of gels but you’re going to be out there a while, try pairing gels with energy drink. For example, if you’re going out for a 2 hour run you’d want to bring 2 gels with water OR 1 gel with water plus 1 serving E-Load.
Gatorade, a popular electrolyte drink on race courses, has only 14 grams carb per 8oz serving, so you’d want to drink 2-4 cups (500mL to 1 L) in one hour to achieve minimum optimal carb intake (likely not a feasible option when racing – that’s a lot of liquid).
Whether to gel or use energy drink, what type and how often is something you really need to experiment with well before race day. It is well worth the extra effort however, to have your fuelling go smoothly on race day. Don’t bonk in your next race because you ran low on glycogen!
Do you have a favourite gel or energy drink that works for you? How often do you take them while running? Share in the comments below!
Happy running 🙂
Another great post and something I’d been wondering about.
I am new to this and am wondering what the difference between gels and the “gummies” like sharkies or the sport beans. Would you recommend using these? I tried them for my 12 miler last week and they seemed to give me the kick that I needed.
Hi Tara… Great question! Gels and gummies (such as sharkies or sport beans) both offer us carbohydrates and electrolytes – so in essence they are not much different. However, you must chew the gummies whereas the gel tends to dissolve in my mouth and I find that single difference makes them impossible for me to take while I am racing.
I was actually introduced to Honey Stingers with their Organic Energy Chews (similar to sharkies and sport beans, only I think better!!), and I really wanted them to work because I love the taste and texture so much. However, when I realized chewing just couldn’t cut it for me, I switched over to gels. And in all honesty, the Honey Stingers gels are so darn good, I don’t miss the chews!
If you know you’d be able to chew while racing (maybe you’re better at it than me, or maybe you might want to stop and walk while fuelling), than chews or gummies are a great alternative to gels. But whatever you choose to race with, you want to train with. And if they worked for you in your 12 miler and that’s what you’ve trained with, that’s what you want to keep with on race day. You can always experiment with other alternatives when training for your next race!
Thanks again for the great question 🙂
I have been using a product called Chocolate #9. It’s two ingredients, belgium dark chocolate and avage. I try to keep my fueling foods as natural as possible, and still achieve about 45 gram of CHO per hour. The down fall with the Chocolate #9 gels, is they are only about 17 CHO. This means at least 2 gels per hour, which I think is a lot, and gets to be a lot to carry. Any other suggestions? Great post!!
Hi Tracy! I’ve seen Chocolate #9 before, but never picked it up to try as I do not like agave at all (it unfortunately got pegged as a ‘healthy’ sweetener, but it’s highly processed and contains far more free fructose than high fructose corn syrup does!!).
Anyway, I did some quick google research to get more info on this #9 product and find it very curious that the companies website does not exist (the url chocolate9.com goes to bluehost, a web hosting company site and then tries to redirect to performance-9.com which doesn’t exist). I did see on Amazon that the ingredients are organic agave and breakfast cocoa processed with alkali (it is advertised as belgian style dark gourmet chocolate – sneaky)! So I already mentioned I stay far away from agave, but I also do not care for processed cocoa powder because pretty much all the flavanols are removed in the processing – and it’s the flavanols (flavonoids that are strong antioxidants) that are the main reason I promote cacao as a healthy addition to our diet!
Too bad though, because this product was on to something, headed in the right direction.
So the fact that they also only contain about 17g CHO (15g from the info I’m seeing on Amazon) – would be just another downfall as I see it. Time to search out a new gel!! As you saw in the post above, I recommend honey stinger gels and they offer 24g CHO – better. You might try Vega sports gels, wonderfully natural – they offer 22g CHO per gel.
That should bring you to 2 gels every 1.5 hours – a bit better! The other thing I do personally, is to do carb-depleted runs to help me rely less on gels overall.
Do you carry water bottles when running? You might put something like Vega sports drink or eload in it to up your CHO intake without having to carry extra gels…