Seasoned marathoners are more than familiar with that feeling of tiredness and mental fatigue that comes along halfway into long-distance races. Replenishing your water supply alone doesn’t reverse this situation, which is caused largely due to loss of glycogen in your body from running too fast. In earlier days, athletes could at most count on sports drinks and colas at aid stations to re-fill their glucose levels, but thanks to advances in sports nutrition, solutions today come in small and easily digestible packets. We’re talking of energy gels that provide a quick and easy way for marathoners to recharge themselves and perform their best on race day.
While running, our bodies rely largely on carbohydrate stocks to generate energy and speed. One can typically store a limited supply of carbs in their muscles – and this gets exhausted even faster, depending on the pace of running. At marathon and half marathon speeds, supplies usually start depleting within 90 -120 minutes of the race. Meanwhile, even as the body tries to break down more carbs, it also diverts glycogen supplies from other organs – such as the brain – towards the muscles, often causing runners to feel nauseous, light-headed and unable to focus. For non-elite runners, this time frame can be even shorter.
What gels do
Energy gels are essentially designed to refill the carbohydrate stocks that get used up while running. However, they’re not a miraculous replacement for the glycogen in your muscles which affect performance. The sugars consumed from the gel are first taken up by the blood stream and have to be digested before they can reach the muscles. So, how exactly do they help?
Remember, there’s more than one kind of stimulation that gets you through a race. Among other things, energy gels in your bloodstream help replenish the glycogen levels in your brain. As a result, you start feeling more alert and focused on the race; if you’d been feeling dizzy at any point, energy gels will help you with that as well by adding some crucial calories and electrolytes to keep you going.
Time it right
Energy gels are a quick fix – they’re obviously no substitute for months of training and proper nutrition, but they’re useful (and convenient) boosters during races. They come in limited calories, so it’s easy to know how much you’re taking in each time. Because their action is limited, it’s crucial to take energy gels at tried-and-tested intervals to ensure an optimal performance.
Most runners prefer taking one (usually 100 calories) at about 45-60 minutes into their race or just before they feel their energy slipping greatly below their intended pace. Depending on the contents of the gel and how long it takes to kick in, a second dose shouldn’t be taken till at least another 45-60 minutes or there’ll be an excess of sugar in your blood. The earlier in the race you take in a gel, the easier it is for your body to process sugars without much trouble.
Naturally, every individual has their own digestive rates of processing carbs and ideally, you should practice your exact fueling strategy as often as possible in training. Make sure your body is used to the gel you’ll be taking on race day – there’s a plethora of them in the market today so get the trials and errors out of the way before your marathon.
Pro-tip: Remember to follow up your gels with water and not Gatorade. Water helps digest the gel faster and reach the blood stream, while combining it with a sports drink would just mean taking in far too much sugar than your body can efficiently break down at a point.