As trail and ultra trail runners we’ve all used energy gels at one time or another to help fuel our runs. In fact energy gels are the cornerstone for most trail runner’s long training runs and race day nutrition. But if you don’t use them correctly energy gels can cause dehydration and eventually gastric stasis. The result is sloshing fluids in the stomach, nausea and vomiting. If left uncorrected it can get worse than that too.
To Better Understand This
During a recent telephone conversation with Mike Mathewson, President of Crank Sports, Inc. and maker of e-Gel energy gel and e-Fuel Sports Drink, Mike talked extensively about the need for drinking water in conjunction with using energy gels. Fortunately the information Mike shared with me is also on the www.CrankSports.com website so instead of trusting my notes from the conversation Mike has given me permission to reprint the information here for our Trail Running Club readers.
The key to optimum performance with energy gels
Before building an energy gel into your training and racing program, it is critical to understand the importance of proper hydration.
Water – Don’t Gel Without It. Water is the key to proper gel usage, whether you are using e-Gel or one of our competitor’s products. Gels are absorbed in your small intestine, and water is the transport vehicle that allows this to occur. If you fall behind on your water intake during longer workouts, you run the risk of dehydration, delayed benefits from the gel and possible stomach irritation.
When ever you consume energy gel you should follow it with enough water to properly flush it down (usually a few swallows is sufficient). However, it is important to understand that each pack of e-Gel will take approximately 14 ounces of water along with it when it enters your cellular system. If you are properly “pre-hydrated” before your workout you will have 20 to 30 ounces of available water in your stomach and intestinal tract that can be used to assimilate the gel. If you fail to replace this water over time then you will become dehydrated and your performance will suffer as a result.
Translated, in workouts where you are using multiple packs of e-Gel, we strongly recommend that you drink 14 ounces of water before you rip open your second pack (and so on). For example, if you down your gel with 4 ounces of water, you should consume an additional 10 ounces over the course of the next 30 to 60 minutes before moving on to your next gel pack. (* Authors Note: this recommendation applies to all energy gels, not just e-Gel by Crank Sports.)
If that seems like a lot of water, you’re not alone. The majority of endurance athletes fail to drink sufficient amounts of fluids during competition to remain properly hydrated. Nutritionists typically recommend drinking 16 to 32 ounces of water per hour during endurance events. Studies have shown that even moderate dehydration can negatively impact your performance – therefore, it is recommended that you learn to drink during long training sessions and competition – whether or not you are using an energy gel.
What about Sports Drinks? Most leading sports drinks (including e-Fuel) are designed to provide hydration, energy and electrolyte replacement. While these products can work great alone, they can cause problems when used in conjunction with energy gels. When a gel is mixed with a typical sports drink, the combined solution is more concentrated than your body fluids (hypertonic) which can result in delayed gel absorption and potential dehydration and stomach irritation. If you want to use a sports drink and energy gels during the same workout, we strongly recommend that you also consume plain water to adequately dilute your gel. One alternative is to use gels and water during one stage of the workout and then a sports drink later in the workout.
Fluid Concentration (Osmolality). Osmolality is the measure of concentration of a fluid. Depending on the concentration, an ingested fluid can be either hypertonic (more concentrated than your body fluids), isotonic (equal in concentration to your body fluids) or hypotonic (less concentrated than your body fluids).
- Hypotonic – a solution that is less concentrated than your body fluids. Hypotonic solutions such as water do a good job of hydrating your body. Unfortunately they bring very little, if any, energy and electrolyte replacement benefits into the cellular system.
- Isotonic – a solution that is approximately equal in concentration to your body fluids. Isotonic solutions can also provide rapid hydration, and they have the potential advantage of bringing significant energy and electrolyte replacement benefits into the cellular system.
- Hypertonic – a solution that is more concentrated than your body fluids (sports drinks with too much simple carbohydrates and other high calorie drinks). Hypertonic solutions can have several times more energy than isotonic solutions depending on their concentration level. All energy gels, including e-Gel, are extremely hypertonic. Hypertonic solutions need to be diluted down at least to an isotonic concentration before they can be absorbed. If you do not ingest water (or another hypotonic solution) to dilute the gel, then your body will dilute it for you by drawing upon available water in your stomach and intestinal tract if available, and from your cellular system if necessary. The result is potential dehydration, delayed benefits from the gel and possible stomach irritation.
Isotonic and hypertonic sports drinks can not by themselves dilute an energy gel down to the required isotonic state – the combined solution will remain hypertonic. Therefore, to ensure optimum performance with energy gels, proper water consumption is critical.
During my conversation with Mike Mathewson I felt like I’d been given the secret combination to my struggles with dehydration in ultra trail races. All the dehydration symptoms and problems I’ve ever had were summed up in this one conversation and Mike didn’t even know it. In the past my preferred way to get my calories has always been to put my energy gel into my high calorie electrolyte drink and take them together. Drinking straight water would rarely happen until late in a race when I couldn’t stomach anything else, then eventually, after drinking nothing but water for several miles I would feel better and wonder why.
So am I alone? Hardly. While working the 44 mile aid station at Zane Grey 50 last weekend I saw over and over runners come in wanting nothing but high calorie electrolyte drinks, that’s what they had been drinking all day. The same runners were complaining of stomach issues, some forcing down more energy gels while others saying they’d been taking energy gels all day and couldn’t force any more down. I had more than one runner vomit five feet from the aid station table. Not a perfect scientific study but based on seeing and experiencing this same pattern of activity over and over, at my next ultra trail run I’m ready to make some hydration changes where energy gels are concerned.
- In order to be rapidly absorbed into our body energy gel must be made isotonic
- Regardless of what energy gel you prefer, it will take approximately 14 ounces of water to dilute it to be isotonic (the same concentration as your body fluid)
- If you don’t dilute an energy gel with 14 ounces of straight water your body will pull what it needs in the way of hydration from your stomach and intestinal tract if available, and from your cellular system if necessary. Take enough energy gels without proper hydration with water will lead to dehydration.
- The next time you reach for an energy gel on a long run…make sure you reach for straight water too.