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  Last updated: 6/18/2011

Energy Supplements (Gels, Bars & Sport Drinks)

Energy bars, energy gels, and sports drinks all provide carbohydrate supplements for the active athlete or cyclist, but with differing water content. Which one you choose to use depends more on personal preferences than performance advantages.

Energy gels (also called carbo gels) are a thick carbohydrate syrup or paste designed as an alternative snack supplement to extend your muscle glycogen stores and provide additional Calories and energy for rides of more than 2 hours. They contain a combination of simple and complex carbohydrates (usually maltodextrin, rice syrup, or polysaccharides) packaged in a palm sized packet of plastic or foil with a tear off end to allow the contents to be "sucked" out rather than chewed, and provide between 70 and 100 Calories (17 - 25 grams of carbohydrate) per packet. An additional advantage is that they are completely fat free minimizing any delay in gastric emptying. To provide the 60 grams of carbohydrate per hour usually suggested to supplement exercising muscle glycogen supplies, you would need a gel packet every 30 to 45 minutes.

Being semi-liquid, they should empty more quickly from the stomach providing a more rapid energy boost than solid sports bars, but at this time studies comparing solid and gel carbohydrate supplements haven't been published. And in a previous study of solid vs liquid carbohydrate supplements, cycling performance was similar in the two groups of cyclists using equivalent amounts of water and carbohydrate consumed either as a sport drink or as a solid sport bar with a water chaser. This suggests that aside from taste and ease of use, energy gels are a relatively pricey snack with little to recommend them over bagels or fig newtons as an on the bike carbohydrate supplement.

Yet I will regularly receive anecdotes such as this:

"I have to disagree with your point about no proven help from gels. I am an ultra marathon cyclist- having completed numerous double centuries. I train long, hard miles and have had to be extremely targeted in my Calorie intake for training. After trying a variety of products, I found my solution. *** and Sustained Energy drink from ***. I agree- gels don't make you fast. However, Calories must be replaced when cycling, and replacing calories with pure sugar has been a disaster for me (and many people I know). ** and ** provide the proper Calories without the sugar. All the endurance riders I know here in Northern California use the products. We swear by them. They do work. The only time we drink Coke is near the end of a ride when we need a spike of energy (and caffeine) and aren't worried about the side effects of sugar."

Is there any scientific data to back up this observation? I was able to find two articles that might provide some factual evidence. The first looked specifically at absorption rates of sugars in the small intestine. It failed to substantiate any difference in absorption rates of simple glucose versus a complex carbohydrate - assuming a normal intestinal tract. The second looked one step further along the absorption process by studying blood sugar levels (all complex carbs are broken down in the small intestine BEFORE being absorbed) to see if perhaps a difference could be demonstrated. Again, blood glucose levels were the same (both in terms of blood sugar levels and timing) with simple glucose and complex carbohydrates.

So what is the answer?? Perception of improvement, whether placebo or unproven fact, should not be ignored. However, the scientific literature offers no credible rationale to differentiate the benefits of the glucose from Coke versus a complex carbohydrate in the commercial product sold by ***. I wonder (unproven speculation) if the riders are really taking in equal amounts of carbohydrates per 15 minute interval when they use cola drinks with simple glucose versus complex carbs? Gels are easier to use, and less sweet per Calorie consumed. These two facts alone may be a subtle bias towards a more proactive and complete replacement of Calories used with a commercial product. For now the use of gels remains a personal choice, but without any hard facts to back up the marketing hype often encountered.

Most gels will also list additional ingredients. Some of the more common additives are:

Do they add anything?? For comments see the author's editorial comments on gel/energy bar additives and the section on nutritional supplements. There is a nice comparison of commercial energy supplements at the University of Arizona website.

Or you can make your own energy gels.

Are energy gels worth it?? It is really a matter of personal preference. Some riders cannot chew and swallow a sports bar while pedaling. Others develop taste fatigue to sports drinks on long rides. For these individuals, gels provide another alternative. But aside from taste and texture, there are no PROVEN performance advantages no matter what the claims you've seen in their ads, and they are expensive if used on a regular basis on those long rides.

Questions on content or suggestions to improve this page are appreciated.

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