Should you be using energy gels for your runs?

Confession time…although I’ve been running half marathons for four years I only started using energy gels earlier this year when I started training for my first full marathon. There are many reasons why I’ve avoided using energy gels, but mainly because I was worried about how my stomach would react – I’ve heard horror stories about runners taking them with no nearby toilets! I also wasn’t sure when to take them and if I really needed them for the half marathon distance.

This year using energy gels has been a massive learning experience for me. I now use them regularly when training for long distance races. I’ve also used them in two half marathons, plus a full marathon. I still feel that I’ve got a lot to learn about using gels in races, but I’m much more confident in incorporating them into my training and, although I still don’t like the taste (I don’t know many runners who do!) I think they are now a vital part of my training and race day nutrition.   

Here are a few things I’ve learnt about using energy gels this year:

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Don’t try new gels on race day

Luckily this hasn’t come from first hand experience, but is something I have been warned about! Some races, especially marathons, will provide free energy gels along with water at key water stations. The Manchester Marathon I ran in April did this and it was a great, it meant I didn’t have to carry loads of gels on me at the start, as I knew I could pick them up on the way round. The key to remember if the race does provide gels is to make sure you’ve trained with the gels provided and not a different brand. Each brand will have slightly different ingredients to their energy gels and the slightest change could result in a very upset stomach, and as gels are designed to work quickly, it won’t take long to feel the impact during the race!

Gels are only needed for long distances

If you’re training and running a 10k you won’t need an energy gel. Normally they will only make an impact if you’re running for 60 minutes or more. The reason to take gels is that after 60 minutes of running your body starts to need more fuel to sustain the activity and pace, a gel provides a convenient way of giving your body the fuel it needs quickly and while you are running. Ensuring your body has enough fuel not only helps during the run but also helps with recovery, which is why it is ideal to take them when training long distances, as well as on race day.

Choose gels that don’t need water

When using energy gels during runs you want them to be as hassle-free as possible so make sure you choose the ones that don’t need water. This means that you can take the gels between water stations and don’t have to worry about ensuring you mix the right amount of water with the gel to take it. I made this mistake early on when buying energy gels and accidently bought one which needed water to take with it, so I’m now really careful when buying them to make sure I’m choosing the right type.

Using energy gels in half marathons

Normally I will only take one gel during a half marathon race. I aim to take it at about mile 6, which at my normal half marathon pace is getting to about 50 minutes. Taking it at this time gives the energy gel enough time to kick in before the end of the race, but not too early that I will need more to keep going.

In all honesty, at the half marathon distance I haven’t noticed the gel making a difference to my time or ability to complete the race (I got my half marathon PB without using a gel), although I have been told by sports nutritionist that it is advisable to take gels with the half marathon distance.

Using energy gels in marathons

I don’t think I would have got round the Manchester Marathon without the use of energy gels. As I’ve only done one full marathon I’m still perfecting when I need to take them at this distance. During the marathon I took 4, the first one at about the 8 mile mark and then every 30 minutes from there. I think I underestimated the amount of gels I would need and in the future I will probably take the first one at an earlier mile; talking to an experienced marathon runner before the race I was told that it takes a few marathons to find out when is best to take gels and how many are right for you.

 

I’m still not a massive fan of energy gels, but they are a quick and easy way of getting enough fuel during a long run. So although I would rather not use them, they are now a firm part of my long distance training routine and hopefully with future races I will get more experienced with when and how many to take.   

 

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