All you need to know about sports gels in cycling

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If you’re into endurance-based sport, there’s no doubt you’ve come across sport gels. I typically get a lot of questions from very health conscious athletes who want to know if sports gels are something they should be avoiding.

In nutrition there is no straightforward answer to most things, every food item has a purpose and it’s no different when it comes to supplements.

What are sports gels?

Sports gels are highly concentrated sources of sugar with a syrup-like consistency. They are designed to provide a significant amount of quick releasing carbohydrate taken in a small volume during exercise. Their purpose is to fuel the body for strenuous exercise. Typically triathletes, marathon runners and cyclists take them during training and on race day.

Most gels are made using a mixture of simple sugars; fructose and glucose, sodium and other ‘active ingredients’ like caffeine, beta-alanine and magnesium. They work by quickly absorbing into the blood and provide immediate energy to the athlete.

Are sports gels important for cyclists?

Carbohydrates are important to cyclists no matter where the carbohydrate is coming from. Sports gels contain simple carbohydrates so they are useful, but not the only thing a cyclist can choose to eat.

Other great carbohydrate sources for cyclists to eat whilst riding include a range of different foods for example vegemite sandwiches, bananas, dried fruit or crackers.

Cycling performance over long distances is impacted by the amount of carbohydrate an athlete consumes. The standard recommendation for a seasoned cyclist, riding for more than 1.5hrs is 60-90g of carbohydrate per hour. This amount has been is shown to improve speed and power.

If you’re competing in a race that extends this period of time and you do not refuel, you will slow down and eventually stop. At this stage, the body is relying on fat stores alone to fuel strenuous exercise, which is an energy system that can that only maintain low intensity movement.

Although you can eat other foods containing carbs, a lot of athletes just find eating gels easier. They’re portable, take up very little space, are light, easy to open and manipulate on the bike when you have only one free hand!

Are there any side effects from having gels while riding?

It’s usually recommended that athletes practice using gels or eating other types of food on the bike before big races. This is so you can practice eating with one hand on the handle bar and the other to feed yourself.

There’s also another more medical reason to practice too. When you are exercising your stomach empty’s out quickly because you are burning energy. You are also becoming more and more dehydrated as you continue to exercise. This can cause problems when you go to eat again. When you eat something really sugary in those conditions it can have an explosive effect in the bathroom.

Some people experience gut discomfort, nausea, bloating, loose stools and cramping. Your gut can be trained to tolerate gels and food over time with practice.

Can sports gels increase body fatness?

Eating more than what your body needs will increase body fatness. This is no different when using supplements. Gels are made of sugar, if you don’t burn off that sugar during exercise or during your day it will store as fat. This is a common problem I see in middle-aged male cyclist, the typical weekend warrior athlete.

Imagine a 6-foot man who is extremely fit and strong with a beer belly. Often the beer belly is not caused by drinking alcohol (although in some cases it is), its caused by smashing back 2-3 gels every 30minutes on an easy 2hr ride on the weekend, then following this up with a hot breakfast with the works.

It’s excessive to refuel carbohydrates at a higher end 90-80g per hour if you’re not in a race environment, training in the heat or a very muscular, tall person who has a fast metabolism.

This is just an example of overestimating how much you actually burn during a cycle session. Lets be clear, 2hours of easy riding doesn’t warrant any additional food during the ride. Gaining body fat will make you slower and reduce your power to mass ratio on the bike.

Unless you are cycling at race speeds and on the road for more than 2 hours, you do not need to be refuelling so frequently and in such large amounts. A snack before riding, followed by a normal lunch or evening meal at the usual time meal will suffice.

Sports gels are heavily overused and over consumed, and they could be potentially impacting body composition goals in a lot of athletes, especially if you are relying on them to get through training sessions. If you’re relying on them to fuel training sessions it means your daily diet is inadequate. Book into to see a sports dietitian to get the composition of your diet right.

Lets set the record straight; you do not need gels on every single ride or training session. There are benefits to periodising your training and eating. It is beneficial to do some training sessions in a fasted state or with low carbohydrate intake.

Training in a carb depleted state during some sessions will encourage the body to fat adapt and become more efficient at burning fat as fuel, rather than relying on sugar all the time. This is not only part of the exercise training process, but should also be the focus of nutrition plans during specific phases in your training schedule. Do low carb sessions in the off-season because you will not be able to reach higher intensities and obtain the desired training effect for performance.

Save your sports gels for race simulated training sessions and competitions. Fuel with a wider variety of foods for better over all health and performance.

Good luck!

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