Here’s a secret to marathoning: those who nail their fueling plan run well. Those who don’t hit the wall. That means you need to find the best energy gel for you, figure out the timing of these energy gels, and train your stomach to take them in.
So many runners wait until race day to take energy gels. This is a huge mistake as it can lead to GI distress like runner’s trots or runner’s stomach that can torpedo your marathon.
Unfortunately, too many of us learn this the hard way.
Related: The 6 Best Energy Gels for Runners
My Energy Gel Mistakes
My first marathon I was just a college kid. I didn’t train or even think about energy gels.
This was my first major mistake (common among many new runners).
On race day at the Marine Corps Marathon, I tucked a few Power Gels into my pocket and ran the best I could. I sporadically took the energy gels as I wound my way through Washington, D.C.
I took some of the energy gels with water. Some I took with energy drinks.
This was my major marathon mistake number 2:
don’t take energy gels with energy drinks. It’s too hard on your stomach when your stomach is already working overtime with less blood to digest your fuel.
Towards the end of the marathon, my stomach started cramping. I had to stop and walk a couple of times. As soon as I crossed the finish, to the porta-potty I went. My stomach was done.
You’re already ahead of me! Good for you for doing your research now on how to fuel for a marathon! I didn’t think twice about it.
However, even diligent runners who know they should take energy gels when running a marathon take the wrong energy gels, wreaking havoc on their stomachs. We all are different and what works for one runner may not work for another.
In this article, I’m going to cover:
- The basics of the best energy gels for runners
- Why runners need to take energy gels
- How to find the best energy gels for you
- Tips for taking energy gels, and
- The 3 best energy gels according to runners and reviews
To write this article, I spoke with experts, scoured reviews and research, and surveyed fellow runners. I hope it helps you run a personal best in your marathon!
Related: 26 Marathon Tips for Going 26.2!
What is an energy gel?
Energy gels are gels with concentrated amounts of carbohydrates, about 25 grams per package, in the form of simple sugars such as glucose, maltodextrin, dextrose, sucrose, and fructose to provide fuel for exercise. They are easily taken in and digested so that they can fuel your running while you’re running.
Studies show they boost performance and help athletes maintain blood sugar levels.
Energy gels come in a variety of flavors from vanilla, chocolate, coffee, fruit flavors, and honey. Some include all-natural ingredients while others have artificial sweeteners and additives. Some energy gels also have caffeine and electrolytes.
If my energy gel has electrolytes, do I still need to drink a sports drink?
Yes, you most likely should still drink a sports drink between your gels. Most gels have less than 50 milligrams of electrolytes (sodium in most cases) and don’t have much potassium. Athletes lose about 200 milligrams or more of electrolytes an hour, so supplementing your gels with an electrolyte drink is a good call, suggests running coach Laura Norris.
How much caffeine should I have in a marathon?
Caffeine is a performance enhancer, but too much can elevate your heart and breath rate and upset your stomach. Registered dietician to elite athletes, Amy Stephens, recommends taking one to two caffeinated energy gels in the second half of a marathon. Caffeine starts having an effect in about 15 minutes and lasts for about an hour.
The amount your body can handle is trial and error for a runner.
How many energy gels should I have in a marathon?
Aim to have two energy gels an hour in a marathon. So, if you are running a four-hour marathon, you should have up to 8 energy gels.
How long do energy gels last?
One gel provides energy for about 30-45 minutes of running.
When should I take an energy gel?
When running a marathon, you should take an energy gel at the start line and then take them about every 20-30 minutes with water throughout the duration of the race.
Drink sports drinks in between your energy gels.
Studies show that runners who take energy gels in the marathon early often have better times.
To avoid stomach upset from energy gels, you need to practice taking them on your long runs. Get more tips on fueling and training your gut here.
How long does it take for running gels to kick in?
It takes anywhere from three to fifteen minutes for energy gels to start working. This is because every runner absorbs energy gels at a different rate.
Also, health economist Cameron Cook, who is working on an equation to take the guesswork out of marathon fueling, explains that once your glycogen stores have run out, your metabolism slows, decreasing your energy gel absorption rate. This means you run the risk of the gels just sitting in your stomach.
So, if your stomach is upset later in the race, it’s probably best to forgo the energy gels.
Why do runners need energy gels?
Runners need energy gels for fuel to complete a marathon distance or longer.
Your body taps into two sources of energy for fuel for your running: glycogen (carbohydrates) which is stored in liver and muscles and is easily accessible and fat which isn’t as easily accessible and fuels slower running.
Your glycogen stores last for about 2 hours of running (though the faster you run, the quicker you burn through your stores). Taking energy gels helps you supplement these stores so you can run farther and faster.
If you run out of glycogen stores, your body switches to burning fat which requires you to run much slower or maybe even stop running altogether.
Bottom line: runners need energy gels to complete their marathons or other long-distance races.
Related: 10 Best Supplements for Runners
How do I pick the best energy gel for my marathon?
Ask a dozen marathon runners what the energy gel is for them, and chances are you’ll get a dozen different answers.
We all have different stomachs, different biochemistries, different energy demands, and different preferences.
For this reason, it can be hard to pick the best energy gel for your marathon racing strategy. But I am here to help with energy gel selection tips.
Here is your step-by-step guide to selecting the best energy gel for you.
- What’s your taste: Ask yourself do you like fruit flavors, chocolate, or vanilla? Do you have texture issues? Do you tolerate slimy foods? Sticky? Thick? Syrupy?
- Try a selection: Go to your local running store and buy a selection of energy gels to try. Take little sips in your home to narrow down to the ones you like the best.
- Give it a go: Next, buy a few of the energy gel brands you like and try them on your next long runs over an hour or workouts. Take with water. Note if they make you feel energized during? Did they sit well in your stomach on the run and after? Were they easy to open and take?
- Keep practicing: Once you find the ones you like, keep practicing with them. You may realize you love an energy gel but the package is hard to open when running at race pace. Or maybe your stomach doesn’t tolerate it on race day.
Remember, your stomach is a muscle and needs to be trained to digest energy gels while on the move. Aim to get in the groove of taking them every 20-30 minutes on your long runs.
What are the best energy gels for runners?
I surveyed runners, read reviews and culled all the energy gel brands down to the most popular 6 best energy gels for runners: UCAN, Maurten, Huma, Honey Stinger, SIS, and Spring. Get the full review here.
(Full disclosure, I have fallen in love with the stamina and quick recovery I get from UCAN. Save 15% when you buy from this link and use code WHITNEY15).
Here are 10 Tips for Taking Energy Gels
- Practice with on all your long runs
- Make sure you can easily open the package when running race pace.
- Ensure you can easily chew and swallow on the run. Use ittle sips if you must.
- Ingest with water not electrolyte drinks.
- Take them early and often, before you think you need them! (At least every 30 minutes!)
- Don’t take two energy gels at a time or else you’ll wreck your stomach.
- Never take it without water unless directed by the brand (like Maurten is a hydrogel that doesn’t need water).
- Take one at the start line of your marathon to top off glycogen stores!
- Mix up the brands to get different energy sources to be easier on the stomach and more effective.
- Bring a wet wipe if you hate sticky hands!
If you want guidance with your running or marathon goals, check out my run coaching services. Also, be sure to check out my free training plans:
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