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March 13, 2018

A look into the dark world of energy gels

Every so often a story comes out that details the extreme diets of some of the world’s best endurance athletes. The general public loves this stuff because even with our big American belt lines we can’t really fathom what it would be like to HAVE TO eat 10,000 calories in a day just to sustain yourself. Runners, though, understand. They’ve gorged themselves at Olive Garden the night before big races; chugged chocolate milk by the half gallon; some people have even gone as far as making pancakes out of Muscle Milk. All of this in the name of proper fueling, and making sure they avoid the hallowed BONK.

Recently, though, I’ve gotten wind that nutrition has become more than just a before and after thing. Some people are going as far as eating during a race. Things like energy gels, beans, goops, drinks, elixirs etc., have become the norm. To me, however, this feels like a nutritional get rich quick scheme. Instead of using tried and true real food, like a steak or a potato the day before a race, people are downing fluorescent goop like clockwork during a race, hoping for great energy returns. I was skeptical.

But here’s the thing: I’m a huge idiot. I’ve never ran a marathon. I’ve never used a GU. I don’t even know what they are. So I reached out to Hayden James, a Tulsa, Okla. based Registered Dietitian Nutritionist, to see what these things are made of.

“Energy gels are easily digestible carbohydrates intended to replenish carbohydrate stores that are depleted when running. Energy gels are the equivalent to gas in a car,” she says.

“During exercise, carbohydrates are the predominant fuel source, and most of these carbs used are coming from the muscle and liver,” James added. “As exercise demands increase and the muscle glycogen (stored sugar) stores decrease, blood glucose (sugar) becomes an increasingly important carb source. When the liver can’t keep up with the muscle demands during prolonged exercise, blood sugar drops. It’s important to provide the muscle with carbohydrates via feeding to produce energy and keep up with the demands of exercise.”

Seems, um, pretty legit.

But words from a scientist weren’t enough. I decided to reach out to some people who have experience running fast and eating while doing so.

First, I called up Scott Olberding, owner of a 2:26 marathon PR from CIM 2016. It went straight to voicemail. He later sent me a text message refusing to comment for this story.

Next on my rolodex was a more hospitable Stephen Kersh. Stephen is a 64:30 half marathoner, who currently lives and trains in Flagstaff, Ariz. I wanted to know how often he uses energy gels, or as I like to call them, cop outs.

“I only look to the nutrition gods on longer, marathon-specific workouts, and fairly long runs,” he said. “If I’m doing a 10-14 mile steady tempo effort, I would consume probably two gels and then have a water bottle or two with some nutrition powder”

Is that it?

“For a long run of over 20 miles, I will take a bottle of that stuff every 4 miles and also crush 2-3 GUs. This course of action is heavily dependent on finding someone willing to drive/bike with me during the run. Which happens almost never.”

That’s a lot of gels. I had a hard time believing that these things actually worked. At a certain point if you’re using something this regularly during a run, how can you be positive that you actually need it? Perhaps it’s just a placebo?

Jeanne Mack, who recently ran 2:45 at the New York City Marathon, enlightened me.

“I specifically remember a few instances where I took a GU and felt a boost of energy,” Jeanne said, “It was like a hand had reached down from the heavens (or from within my intestines) and pushed me with a nice, hearty shove.”

Stephen added, “Nutrition is a critical component of success in these longer distance races. When your body starts eating its damn self, you’re pretty much up the creek without a paddle.”

But it can’t all be roses. Mostly because these things aren’t real food. There had to be negative side effects to choking down this semi-solid, lab food.

“I’ve never completely vomited, or other-ended in the immediate aftermath of downing a GU,” said Jeanne. “BUT, after having about two, or even sometimes after the initial gu-swallowing, or the latter GUs, I have had the effect of FOAM.”

Foam?

“This is what happens in my mouth after a certain point,” she said. “It might be the mix of Gu and water, or maybe the lack of water in my mouth, or could be that Gu is the slightest, tiniest bit toxic, but either way, I froth and foam at the mouth. Little tiny bubbles. I try to swallow them. Or spit them out. It’s pretty gross. But, doesn’t kill me!”

I turned to Stephen. “Yeah, there comes a point in the latter stages of a run where your stomach pretty much refuses to take anything,” he said. “And since GU is a terribly sticky, sweet, gross product, it can just linger in your mouth and as much as you try to swallow it, you just can’t. It’s like if you took a big spoonful of peanut butter but were also breathing through a tube.”

The described side effects of foaming or vomiting seem less than desired. I was now fairly convinced that eating during a long race was necessary, but I wondered what a more natural alternative to gels would look like. Perhaps some steak and potato bites would be a more wholesome, anti-foaming race day choice.

“Eh. That sounds rather disgusting to me. Sorry,” said Jeanne.

I posed the question to the nutritionist.

“Steak would not be an effective fueling option because it’s predominantly protein,” said Hayden. “Fueling with steak and potatoes during a run would be quite ineffective due to the slow digestion of protein.”

My ship was sunk. I had the answers to my questions, but not really the answers I was hoping for. In my dreams everyone would have been on board with my steak and potatoes nutritional bar, and I would have quit the Mag and started manufacturing meat bars to directly compete with GU. But all in all, people had generally nice things to say about the gels.

“Overall, even with the frothing, I do have a positive opinion of goos. They’re spooky,” said Jeanne. “They do cool stuff. Sometimes they make me foam, but in general, I’m all for anything that tastes vaguely sugary and yet is still apparently good for me.”

“I’m very bullish on their efficacy,” said Stephen.

With that, I concluded my research on gu. Was I hoping for a different answer? Of course. But I won’t let me own biases get in the way of RESEARCH and DATA. The doctor likes it. The runners like it. And I guess if it ain’t broke, don’t try to make people eat steak and potatoes in the middle of a marathon.

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