How to use gels & sports Drinks

In nutrition, there are common problems people face all the time. Amongst athletes the use of gels and sports drinks are one of them. Let me shed some light on how to use gels and sports drinks for better performance, whilst still maintaining health and body composition goals.

What are gels & sports drinks?

Gels are highly concentrated sources of carbohydrates with a gluey consistency designed for use in endurance-based events. Typically sold in 30-50ml satchels that are easy to carry. Whereas, sports drinks are essentially made with similar contents of a gel, with the addition of extra fluid and sodium for rehydration as well as fuelling. 
Gels and sports drinks are mixture of simple carbohydrates; both fructose and glucose. The are designed to contain quick releasing sugars for quick digestion and refuelling. These types of sports supplements are quickly absorbed into the bloodstream and provide immediate energy for exercise. As a sports dietitian I typically only recommend the use of sports drinks and gels for exercise that is performed under competition circumstances or practice before competition. Mainly for endurance sports lasting greater than 1.5hours, for example marathon running, triathlon, long distance swimming or cycling. 

Do I need to drink sports drink at the gym?

A normal gym workout lasting between 30-90min would not require refuelling, even if you were working at high intensities. It’s important to remember that gels and sports drinks have a specific context in which they are recommended and should be used.  It would not be in the right context to use gels in a weight loss program, where the purpose is to burn fat and lose weight.

Sports supplements & endurance sports 

In endurance sports, we know performance is enhanced when at least 20g of carbohydrate is taken 30minutes before a racing event for long and short distances. A gel or sports drink, may be more tolerable to take than food with those with a weak stomach for an event.  See a study link here. 
Performance is also enhanced if carbohydrate is ingested throughout the event in 30-45min intervals especially for long distance events like marathons or long course triathlon.  In large events lasting more than 2 hours, you will run out of glycogen stores. If this happens forget about racing, because you’ll crawling- literally.
Research has found that gels containing a little bit of protein are actually a better choice as they extend performance for longer. I have blogged about using leucine in endurance based events here. When using these products make sure you wash it down with water to prevent dehydration.
Sports drinks are a mixture of glucose and fructose sugar in a 6% carbohydrate solution. In studies this combination has shown the maximum uptake of carbohydrates possible producing the best results in sprint cycling trials and also other endurance based events.
In addition to this, because of the water volume in the sports drink it helps with rehydration. It is difficult to get the concentration right with a home recipe, but some have tried mixing together a cocktail of maltodextrin with fruit juice. Basically for long distance sports you need fast releasing carbohydrate, which typically some form of sugar is used.  

Don’t be afraid of the sugar in gels and sports drinks

A lot of athletes are scared of carbohydrates and sugary products and rightly so. With all the public health messages and media bashing about obesity and sugar hating, the message about what constitutes “healthy eating” has become very confusing. Sure, you can go to the trouble of making “organic energy bars” or your own “iced tea” instead of using gels and sports drinks, but for most athletes it’s unnecessary. Ultimately, if you are participating in a sport that requires re-fuelling you will burn up the sugar within the race. It will not harm your health. In addition, just because you add sugar or carbohydrates in a home made bar compared to a commercially made bar you are still eating carbohydrates. The body doesn’t know the difference. 
The truth is you shouldn’t be using gels and sports drinks all the time, only when you need them in big training sessions preparing for competition or actually on competition day. This isn’t going to compromise your health in the long term. The rest of your diet should consist of whole foods and lots of vegetables. 
The only time I would really suggest an athlete make their own bars, instead of using gels, is if you get bowel upset using fructose based gels. A lot of athletes who suffer from IBS need to take this alternative because fructose containing drinks and gels make them feel sick. 
Athletes who don’t have IBS will show no benefits swapping  fructose for anther type of sugar for its perceived health halo, because sugar is sugar and essentially it’s all the same. To do endurance based sports you need carbohydrate in the system regularly if you want to perform well.

Should I use gels and sports drinks or eat real food?

This depends on the individual athlete. Some athletes prefer to mix up their carbohydrates during long rides and runs for flavour variation. Whereas others find it more convenient to stick to gels and sports drinks because they can carry them easily. The most important thing you should consider is are you getting enough carbohydrates, sodium and water for your body. This can come from food, a combination of food and gels or just sports supplements. Thats up to you.

Do I choose gels with or without caffeine?

Caffeine has long history of use and is a well known ergogenic aid in sports. Having caffeine at regular intervals whilst consuming fast releasing sugars will be beneficial during a long distance event. You do have to consider if you are caffeine sensitive or not. If you experience any side effects like a racing heart rate or anxiety from consuming caffeine, its best to use caffeine free gels. If you don’t have these side effects, go for it.

Are vitamin waters the same as sports drinks?

No vitamin waters are not designed the same as sports drinks. As mentioned earlier sports drinks contain a certain amount of sugar both fructose, glucose, and of course sodium for hydration. It is designed this way for optimal absorption and rehydration. Vitamin water doesn’t have near enough carbohydrates to be effective for sports refuelling, nor does it contain sodium. Vitamin waters are designed to be marketed at the wellness market, its just water with sugar flavouring not good for sports or wellness.
However, drinking sports drinks when you don’t play sport or are merely working out at the gym to lose weight, well then it would not be a great choice and I wouldn’t recommend it. Keep in mind that sports drinks were designed and marketed for sports, use them appropriately and in the right context.


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