You've heard of the energy bar? Meet energy gel.
It's the same concept as a power bar condensed into a liquid gel form. Easier to digest than a solid bar, the grab-and-go gel promises to deliver a jolt of energy to its users, mainly serious athletes looking for a boost midway through workouts and races.
When an athlete's body runs or cycles or climbs intensely or for long periods, it loses valuable nutrients that cause the body to slow down and work less efficiently. The idea behind the gel is to deliver complex carbohydrates, glucose, amino acids and electrolytes for a quick, convenient fuel injection.
"If you let your body go too long without refueling, you're going to hit the wall or bonk,' as we say," said Sean "Skip" Durgin, president of the 450-member York Area Mountain Bike Association.
Gels for the recreational athlete?
While gels aren't new to the competitive athlete, the growing number of companies involved in the energy-food market hope to turn recreational athletes into customers, too. As companies perfect the product and the taste they've come out with packaging that promotes ease and convenience, and introduced several new flavors.
"The mass market hasn't accepted it yet," said Will Garratt, director of marketing for GU Sports in Berkley, Calif. "Will they? We hope so. Like the (power) bars, it should happen."
GU Sports recently introduced "Espresso Love," a new flavor with the tagline "world-class taste, double the caffeine."
Adds Steve Boehmke, also of GU Sports: "A lot of Joe Blows eat the power bars on the way to work. The gels are perhaps the next frontier. That will be coming in due time. I'd love for you to get your coffee and you take a Starbucks GU with you for your 10:15 a.m. snack. Until that time, though, the numerous companies that produce gels will continue to jockey for the lucrative, high-end sports-snack market."
Do they work?
Energy gels carry names such as PowerGel, Carb-BOOM!, Hammer Gel, Honey Stinger, GU (pronounced goo), Clif Shots and more. Do sports gels deliver the promised punch?
"You have to be careful with some of the gels," Durgin said. "A lot of them are made of simple sugars."
He's been an avid mountain-bike rider since 1994. "When you get into simple sugars, it's like eating a candy bar; it gives you a quick boost, but then it drops off quickly." After sampling other products a few years ago, Durgin discovered Hammer Gel, a product he favors because of the amount of complex carbohydrates it delivers to the body during a training session or competition. Durgin, who took up endurance riding a while back, said he finds the all-natural, noncaffeinated product superior to others he's used.
"To me, that is a big deal having a product made from all-natural products," he said. Like all food products, it pays to read the label. Or, as Durgin puts it: "You have to do your homework."
The operating instructions are simple: Tear off the top, slurp down the syrupy contents, gulp down some water and wait for an energy boost. Well, it's not quite that simple. First off, for best results, use the gel before a workout, so the surge will come when you need it about 30 to 45 minutes after use. Secondly, each pack sells for $1 to $1.29 in most bicycle/fitness/outdoor stores. For an athlete who gobbles a couple during a two-hour workout, the cost can add up. Last but not least, there's the taste. Some users love it; others don't.
Palate-pleasing flavors abound: there's strawberry-banana, vanilla bean, espresso, orange, tri-berry, chocolate and so on. Click around on the Internet, and it's easy to find multiple sites and opinions. Some contain stimulants such as caffeine. Others deliver a natural kick-start.
It's a personal choice
"The use of energy gels is more a personal choice than it is a science," said Jamie Noble, a registered dietician at Hanover Hospital who responded via e-mail. "Some athletes opt for the gels over liquids and food because gels provide a concentrated dose of carbohydrates in a very dense form that is easy to digest and light to carry. Most importantly, gels do not provide fluid replacement, so as one is taking gels, one must drink enough water to prevent dehydration."
She said energy gels usually contain 25 grams of maltodextrin per squeeze pack. Endurance athletes should consume 30 to 60 grams of carbohydrate per hour of exercise, so this translates to taking one to two packs per hour.
"Athletes are in a field of their own, and if they have tried something, and they feel it really helped and enhanced their performance, then great."
She recommends that athletes looking to use sports foods first try them in their training sessions to make sure the products are tolerated before competitions.
John Linden of Adventure Cycling and Fitness in York, which sells energy gels, said experienced riders tend to use them most, although it isn't a product that's caught on with most customers. He's used them on occasion and said, "I think they give you a little bit of a boost."
Energy gels, like these made by PowerBar, are becoming popular among athletes who want an extra energy boost during workouts.
See also: Making sense of performance gels