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Marathon Ready: What are Running Gels and Will They Help?

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With summer, and therefore marathon season, approaching, a lot of you will be dusting off your old trainers and searching Google Maps for the best nearby jogging routes.

Running gels are a major part of race-prep for a lot of people, and you may well be wondering what all the hype’s about.

Is it worth picking up a few tubes? Will they really help your performance? Let’s take a look.

What are running gels anyway?

Running gels, also known as energy gels or sports gels, are gels containing simple sugars. Most are based on maltodextrin, which is rapidly absorbed and digested by the body.

The idea of these gels is to provide a quick mid-race energy boost and raise blood sugar so that the athlete has the fuel they need to make it across the finish line. 

Do running gels boost performance?

A 2006 study on well-trained runners participating in a half marathon, found that energy gels had a negligible effect on running performance.

Another study, from 2014, looked at the performance of marathon runners when they were assigned to either a “scientifically-formulated” nutritional group (including energy gels) or allowed to follow their own nutrition plans. In this study, the “scientific group” had faster race times by 10 minutes 55 seconds on average.

The jury’s out on whether running gels have a significant impact on race performance. They can be used — and may help — but the impact isn’t likely to be major. Good overall nutrition leading up to the race is far more important. If you haven’t put the work in, running gels will not save you on the day; but they could provide an energetic lift that shaves several minutes of your time and helps you win the mental fight. 

Are there any risks or downsides to running gels?

Running gels may come with some risks or downsides. These include the following:

Certain gels may cause digestive issues — Not everyone’s digestive system responds well to running gels, and even if one brand serves you well, a different brand with different ingredients may cause issues. If you’re going to use a gel during a race, use the same brand during training to be sure it agrees with you. Don’t just pick up a new one for the first time on the day of your race.

Running gels can be used as an excuse for a poor diet — The promise of running gels is that they’ll give you the energy you need during a race to make it to the end. Sometimes these gels can be used as a crutch or an excuse for a poor overall diet. Bad idea. Good nutrition is just as important as proper training for success in any race.

Gels may cause you to experience sugar crashes mid-race — As running gels are largely sugar-based, you may find that using them during a race causes you to experience short-term highs followed by sugar crashes. To avoid this hampering your performance, practice timing your use of gels during training to keep your energy levels constant.

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