CYCLING PERFORMANCE TIPS
Energy gels (also called carbo gels) are a thick carbohydrate containing syrup or paste designed to supplement and thus extend your muscle glycogen stores while exercising, providing additional Calories and energy for rides of longer than 2 hours. They are a combination of simple and complex carbohydrates (usually maltodextrin, rice syrup, or polysaccharides) packaged in a palm sized packet of plastic or foil which allows the athlete to "suck" out the contents rather than needing to chew a bar.
Being semi-liquid, they empty more quickly from the stomach and provide a more rapid energy boost than solid sports bars, but at this time studies comparing solid and gel carbohydrate supplements haven't been published. However a previous study of solid vs liquid carbohydrate supplements on cycling performance failed to show a difference between two groups of cyclists using equivalent amounts of water and carbohydrate consumed as a sport drink or a solid sport bar with a water chaser. This finding suggests that aside from taste and ease of use, energy gels are a relatively pricey snack with little to recommend them as a carbohydrate supplement over other easy to use on-the-bike snacks such as bagels or fig newtons.
A gel packet provide between 70 and 100 Calories (17 - 25 grams of carbohydrate). An additional advantage is that they are completely fat free thus minimizing a delay in gastric emptying. To provide the 60 grams of carbohydrate per hour generally suggested to supplement exercising muscle glycogen supplies, you would need to use 2 gel packets per hour.
Being semi-liquid, they should empty more quickly from the stomach providing a more rapid energy boost than solid sports bars, but at this time studies comparing solid and gel carbohydrate supplements haven't been published. And in a previous study of solid vs liquid carbohydrate supplements, cycling performance was similar in the two groups of cyclists using equivalent amounts of water and carbohydrate consumed either as a sport drink or as a solid sport bar with a water chaser. This suggests that aside from taste and ease of use, energy gels are a relatively pricey snack with little to recommend them over bagels or fig newtons as an on the bike carbohydrate supplement.
I still receive anecdotes such as this:
"I have to disagree with your point about no proven help from gels. I am an ultra marathon cyclist - having completed numerous double centuries. I train long, hard miles and have had to be extremely targeted in my Calorie intake for training. After trying a variety of products, I found my solution. ***, a Sustained Energy drink from ***. I agree that gels don't make you fast. However, Calories must be replaced when cycling, and replacing calories with pure sugar has been a disaster for me (and many people I know). ** and ** provide the proper Calories without the sugar. All the endurance riders I know here in Northern California use the products. We swear by them. They do work. The only time we drink Coke is near the end of a ride when we need a spike of energy (and caffeine) and aren't worried about the side effects of sugar."
Is there any scientific data to back up this rider's observation? I found two articles that might be relevant. The first looked specifically at absorption rates of various sugars in the small intestine. It showed no difference in absorption rates of simple glucose versus a complex carbohydrate - assuming a normal intestinal tract. The second looked one step further along the absorption process, studying blood sugar levels (all complex carbs are broken down in the small intestine BEFORE being absorbed) to see if a difference could be demonstrated. Again, blood glucose levels were the same (both in terms of blood sugar levels and timing) with simple glucose and complex carbohydrates.
So what is the answer?? Perception of improvement, whether placebo or unproven fact, should not be ignored. However, the scientific literature offers no credible rationale to differentiate the benefits of the glucose from Coke versus a complex carbohydrate in the commercial product sold by ***. I wonder if these riders are actually ingesting equal grams of carbohydrates per 15 minute interval when they use cola drinks with simple glucose versus complex carbs? Gels are easier to use, and less sweet per Calorie consumed. So they may be subconsciously using fewer calories per hour when they are drinking a glucose product. Finally, timing is key. Start too early before the start of a ride and you will have the variable of an insulin surge added into the equation. But I try to avoid arguing with personal perceptions. So the use of gels remains a personal choice, but without any hard facts to back up the marketing hype often encountered.
Most gels will also list additional ingredients such as:
You can make your own energy gels. (Or if you are adventuresome, a few other interesting ideas.)
Are energy gels worth it? It is really a matter of personal preference. Some riders find it annoying to have to chew and swallow a sports bar while pedaling. Others develop taste fatigue to sports drinks on long rides. For these individuals, gels provide an alternative. But aside from taste and texture, there is no data as to a performance advantage no matter the claims you've read in the ads, and they are expensive if used on a regular basis on your long rides.
AND THEN WE HAVE THE "NEW" ENERGY DRINKS
Energy bars, gels, and drinks (the original Clif Bars and Gatorade for example) got their start as a convenient source of carbohydrate energy for aerobic muscle metabolism while on the bike. Then the black magic of "additives" was applied and we have now seen the second iteration in energy drinks such as Red Bull and Monster.
Do these energy drinks improve performance? When compared to an carbohydrate equivalent (equi-caloric) caffeine/glucose drink - NO. Are you risking more than your wallet? Are they potentially harmful? - YES.
They not only lead to an immediate increase in blood pressure, but also have been linked to cardiac arrhythmia and sudden death. This interview from Medscape.com provides additional insight into the reasons for their negative cardiovascular effects.
And they can increase inflammatory blood markers such as C-reactive protein. Chronic inflammation will injure normal tissues, and when monitored over time, groups with elevated C-reactive protein levels have been shown to have higher rates of diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and cancer.
I'm sticking with coke and fig newtons for my riding snacks. With an occasional bar if I need a change in taste. And for the adventuresome, a few other interesting ideas.