A couple of weeks ago I received a note from an X3 athlete asking me to recommend a gel. My flippant answer was that I could not. My less-flippant answer by way of a set of six criteria is below.
- Palatability. This is far and away the number one priority and covers both flavour and how well they stay down when you’re working hard. Because if you do not want to eat ‘em or you cannot keep ‘em down, then nothing else really matters. This is very much down to personal preferences and requires some experimentation – a lot of experimentation! Start now.
- Carbohydrate content and source. Generally more carbohydrate is better. Most gels are around 25g, so there actually isn’t much differentiation here. Carbohydrate source MAY play a role. Typically a combination of two carbohydrate sources will deliver a greater rate of total carbohydrate absorption. You want that as you work towards the theoretical human absorptive upper limit of approximately 90g per hour. There are also some individuals with a fructose sensitivity that may want to steer clear of products containing fructose as a primary sugar source.
- Sodium content. More CAN be better, but it does depend on other sources of the electrolyte that you consume during your training or racing. Remember that you’re targeting a specific total hourly value that can come from a variety of sources: liquid, gel, or capsules.
- Other ingredients. On my opinion, less is better! Nothing other than carbs and sodium has been proven to make a lick of difference (other than caffeine of course), so why replace carbs and sodium with something that does nothing for you? Other ingredients also tend to drive up the price of your gels.
- Race course availability. Gels and similar products are often available at race course aid stations. If you’re planning on using aid station gels, it is important that you try them in training because … see point 1.
- Cost. Less is better. This is a trivial observation. Still, if you’re racing long course, and gels form the primary source of calories, your nutrition costs can add up very quickly: $2-$3/gel x up to 20 gels (for a six or seven hour training session) = $40 – $60!!
So find something that is tasty, won’t upset your belly, has sufficient sodium, and is on the race course. Oh and try not to break the bank!