The first time I tried an energy gel, I fell in love. Certainly not with the taste: it was a lemon-lime PowerGel, which tasted like a key-lime pie that had been sitting in the sun too long. And certainly not with the texture, which is somewhere between gelatin and toothpaste.
I fell in love with what it did.
About ten minutes after sucking down a gel, you get a sudden, obvious, wonderfully useful boost of energy. If you’re climbing, you’re able to climb faster. If you’re on the flats, you’re able to put the hammer down. It’s 100 calories of pure energy, a guarantee that you are not going to bonk for the next twenty minutes.
I was hooked.
In the ten years or so that have elapsed, energy gels have been an integral part of my cycling life, mostly for good, sometimes for evil. And I have, without really trying, picked up an absurd amount of knowledge about them: how well they work, how to carry them, tricks for using them, things to watch out for.
And now I will share my precious wisdom with you.
Pros and Cons
The benefit of an energy gel is simple and obvious: it gets calories into your system faster than just about any other method, short of an IV. You suck the little packet dry, take a swig of water, and then a few minutes later, you have energy. You can suck one down without stopping or even slowing down. In an endurance race, they’re practically indispensable.
But that little packet of energy has a few "gotchas," too:
- Slippery Slope: Once you’ve started sucking down energy gels, you don’t get to stop using them until you either finish the ride or get something more substantial to eat. That little packet o’ power is going to drop you back on your butt just about twice as fast as it picked you up. Twenty (or thirty, tops) minutes after you use one energy gel, you’ve got to take another (and then another, and then another), or you’re going to notice your legs have stopped working.
- Does Not Play Well With Others: Since most energy gels are really nothing more than super-simple carbohydrates (ie, sugar), you wouldn’t think combining them with other foods or drinks would ever pose a problem. And you would be completely — and sometimes, painfully — wrong. The wrong gel, eaten at the same time as the wrong energy bar, washed down by the wrong energy drink, and then nicely shook up on a bike, is a recipe for … ummm… gastric distress. Which ones should you not combine? Everyone seems to react differently to different combinations, so I’m afraid you’ll have to experiment, preferably on a day on which you do not later have pressing social engagements.
- Tastes Horrible: The very best energy gel in the world would be one that somehow has no taste at all (or, perhaps, one that tastes like chicken). As is, though, no matter what flavor the gel packet advertises, the overwhelming sensation of every single gel is of extraordinary sweetness. And if, over the course of a long endurance ride, you suck down enough of these energy gels, you will stop noticing any flavor other than sweetness. Seriously, I recall riding on the Kokopelli Trail and sucking down a PowerGel, without looking at the wrapper. I then asked myself, "Was that lemon-lime or Strawberry Banana?" I had no idea. It was just sweet. So the next time I sucked one down, I made a point of not looking at it, and tried to tell which flavor it was. I couldn’t. Just sweet. Sickeningly sweet.
- Loss of Humanity: Once you start using energy gel, you have admitted that you are willing to eat something nasty, just for the calories. You’re no longer eating like a civilized human, you’re feeding a machine. The next step on this path is the consumption of Soylent Green (Assimilation into the Borg Collective is the step after that).
The whole point of using an energy gel is to get calories into you as quickly as possible. You don’t want to stop or slow down. So where do you keep them? Well, that depends on how many you need to carry. I put one under the elastic of each leg of my shorts, with just the tab showing. The gels stay put that way, and I can grab one with one hand, tear it open with my teeth, and suck it down in just a few seconds.
If I’m doing a big ol’ race — 100 miles or so — I’ll get around the whole problem of opening those individual packets ahead of the race by emptying them (you can also buy energy gels in multi-serving packets) into a water bottle. 20 servings — 2000 calories — only fills a water bottle about half full. I’ll then dilute the gel with water and shake, so I can easily squeeze it through the bottle’s valve.
The sad thing is, at about $1.00 / serving, that bottle’s now got $20 worth of "food" in it. For that much money, it ought to taste much, much better.
If you’re going to use single-serve packets (and most of the time, you are), you’ve got a problem right off the bat. What are you going to do with it once you’re done? Well, during a race it seems like most people’s answer is, “Discard it on the trail, as a gift to the locals who live nearby, and the volunteers who will clean up after my selfish piggishness.”
OK, that was harsh. I’m sorry. And actually, I did once see someone who was glad for those discarded gel packets, in what is easily the most disturbing biking anecdote I know. And I’m about to share it with you! Oh boy!
I was in the final 25 miles of the Leadville 100 — I can’t even remember which year. As a cruel practical joke, the organizers have a five mile climb in this section, which is so difficult that most people have to get off and walk big portions of it. It was during this hike-a-bike tour that I first noticed someone about 100 feet ahead of me, stooping down and picking something up. After another twenty feet, he stooped again, and picked something else up.
I was actually feeling pretty good, so was on my bike. Curious, I stepped up my pace. It didn’t take too long before I had nearly caught up with him, since he was pushing his bike. I was going to ask what he had been picking up, when he stopped again, and picked up an empty gel packet.
“What a great guy,” I thought. “He’s picking up other peoples’ litter, even during the race.”
And then I saw him put that gel packet to his lips, trying to squeeze something out of it. He wasn’t doing litter control. He was so far bonked he was scavenging discarded gel packets.
I looked away as I rode by. (Yes, yes, I would have given him one of my own, but I only had one left and that was for me.)
I will pause for a moment for you to let that sink in. Once your heebie-jeebies have subsided, I will continue.
You OK now? Good.
So, there’s a proper technique for putting an empty gel packet back in your jersey pocket (or under your bike shorts elastic, if you’re me): roll it up or fold it up, but start at the mouth of the packet. This keeps gel from dribbling into your jersey pocket, which is good, because since it’s sticky and gross-looking, and you don’t want it on whatever else you’ve got in that pocket.
I guess I should mention I learned this the hard way. Back when gel was new to me, I used it all the time — I’d suck one or two down even during two-hour rides. Once, mid-ride, I asked Dug to take an empty packet — my jersey didn’t have pockets. He took it, and of course by the end of the ride, his jersey was glued to his back.
Until then, I had never thought Dug had it in him to give a cross, schoolmarmish lecture on gel packet etiquette. Turns out, though, he does have it in him.
When Should You Use Gel?
When I first started using gel, I used it practically every ride. I relied on that little rush of energy to get me over the next hill, even during ordinary training rides.
At a buck a pop, that gets kind of expensive — I was spending $10 / week on that goop.
And also, after a while, I started to get really sick of gel, to the point that I’d get a minor gag reflex when I saw a packet.
So, here’s the reasonable course of gel action: don’t use it during your training rides, except when you’re training for a race or big riding event. In that case, you’ve got to find out what kinds of gels you can tolerate — both from taste and intestinal perspectives — and what kinds of food and drink work well with that kind of gel. You don’t want any nasty surprises during the race / event itself.
Oh, I’m Just Getting Started
You know what’s pathetic? I know more — a lot more — about energy gels. Monday, I’ll give a subjective, non-scientific, unfair, and totally non-comprehensive head-to-head retrospective review of gels I have tried.
It promises to be the gooiest blog entry ever.