As runners, we love to hate gels. But the gooey nutrition is a staple in fuel belts for marathoners and half marathoners everywhere. Why? Efforts over 60 minutes require you to start replenishing calories lost. But before you pick your poison, there are a few things you should know about gel nutrition.
Gels are designed to top off your glycogen stores that get depleted during long-distance running. Energy gels are made up of mostly simple sugar, which is your body’s preferred source of fuel during exercise. For quicker absorption, look for brands that have two different forms of carbohydrates, such as glucose and fructose.
Many gels also offer electrolytes, which become crucial on long runs, especially in warm weather. If you’re a salty sweater—your clothes are covered in white salt after a run or your skin feels gritty once the sweat dries—find a gel with at least 100 mg of sodium, says Pam Nisevich Bede, R.D., owner of Swim, Bike, Run, Eat.
Certain gels also provide caffeine, which can help make those later miles feel a little easier. But, Bede says, it might help your GI tract to alternate between caffeinated and non-caffeinated gels throughout activity.
In order to keep from bonking, you’ll want to consume about 100 calories and 25 grams of carbs (that’s generally one gel pack) every 30 to 45 minutes for runs 60 minutes or longer, Bede says. Of course, you want to try your fuel (and fueling plan) in training before you toe the line on race day. Here’s a rundown of some of our favorite energy gels according to what you’re looking for.
Related: Smash your goals with a Runner’s World Training Plan, designed for any speed and any distance.
If you’re looking for …
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A Wide Variety of Flavors:
When people think gel, there’s a good chance they’re thinking about the OG GU energy gels. GU has—sticky hands down—the best variety of flavors, no matter what you’re craving at mile 16 (Salted Watermelon, anyone?). The editors of Runner’s World went so far as to test and rank every single flavor available. Each packet provides 100 calories of energy, while different flavors provide different amounts of carbohydrates (20 to 23 grams), amino acids, sodium, and caffeine, all clearly marked on the packaging.
“I love what Gu is doing with fun flavors,” says Bede, who turns to Salted Watermelon during heat waves and S’mores while training in the cooler months.
RELATED VIDEO: What is the Best GU Flavor?
A Gel Inspired by a Chew:
CLIF Shot Blocks are one of the more popular energy chews—juicy gummy squares that come in (sometimes) questionable, yet delicious flavors, such as Ginger Ale and Margarita Flavor (salt is an electrolyte!). The CLIF Shot Energy Gels harness the same power and flavor of the chews but make it easier to go down, if chewing is not something you want (or are able) to do at mile 20. Each packet provides 100 to 110 calories and 22 to 24 grams of carbs, depending on the flavor.
If you don’t mind the texture of chia seeds or a little mid-run protein, 33Shake prides itself on all-natural ingredients (chia seeds, coconut palm sugar, organic Madagascan vanilla, Himalayan pink salt). The gels are handmade in the United Kingdom, so unlike the more lab-engineered products, these have a fairly short shelf life. Each packet provides 90 calories of energy and 13 grams of carbs with a mix of proteins, Omega-3s, and antioxidants.
All-Natural Ingredients Without Chia:
For a more traditional gel with just simple fruit ingredients, the PowerBar Simple Fruit Energy Food is like an applesauce snack on the go. Each gluten-free packet offers apple as the base with a mix of fruit flavors (think: apple and mixed berries or apple and citrus fruits) and provides 25 grams of carbohydrates plus 100 calories of energy.
Another chia-based gel, Huma PLUS gel has double the electrolytes (240 mg sodium, 50 to 75 mg potassium, 15 mg magnesium) compared to the brand’s regular version. And like 33Shake, Huma uses all-natural ingredients so your electrolytes are coming from coconut water and sea salt. There are caffeinated and non-caffeinated options, each providing 100 calories and 21 to 25 grams of carbs.
A Big Caffeine Boost:
There’s not much doubt that caffeine can help boost performance, largely because it can make hard efforts feel easier. Most caffeinated gels have 40 to 50 mg of caffeine—that’s about a half a cup of coffee. But Science in Sport Double Espresso has triple that, with 150 mg of caffeine, or about one and a half cups of coffee. Each packet contains about 87 calories with 22 grams of carbohydrates.
That said, more caffeine isn’t always better when you’re on the run. The recommended amount is 3 to 6 mg per kilogram of body weight during activity, and it’s most helpful for longer, more intense efforts. For a smaller runner, that’s just one Science in Sport Double Espresso gel. More than that could lead to jitters or GI distress. If you go this route, keep a few regular gels in your belt or pocket for calories without the caffeine.
A Little Less Caffeine:
This gel has slightly less caffeine (100 mg) than the Science in Sport option, making it a great option for lightweight runners who don’t need as much caffeine or anyone looking for a less intense hit. Our testers found this double espresso flavor to be slightly more palatable, too. Each packet also provides 100 calories and 24 grams of carbs. For the environmentally conscious, it features the brand’s patented Litter Leash design which keeps the torn-off top connected to the packet to prevent litter and make it easy for you to ingest half and roll up the rest for later.
Organic, Gluten-Free Ingredients:
The difference between “organic” and “natural” gels is that the “organic” label is highly regulated by the USDA (the food must contain at least 95 percent organic content) while “natural” isn’t. Foods that claim to be natural don’t have added color, artificial flavors, or synthetic substances (although high fructose corn syrup is considered natural.) This Honey Stinger option is a go-to for an effective, tasty gel that also checks off the organic and gluten-free boxes. It’s made with just seven ingredients you can pronounce (yes, organic honey is one of them) and provides 100 calories of energy.
A Thinner Consistency:
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Compared with a traditional gel, this less-goopy option from Gatorade is just slightly larger (36.8 grams vs. 32 grams) but has about 20 fewer calories (80) per pack so you may want to stash a few extra. That said, it goes down way easier than some thicker options.
A Water-Free Option:
Generally, to fuel with gels properly, you need to toss them back with water to dilute the higher concentration of sugar that can lead to GI troubles. But Science in Sport Isotonic Energy gels are designed to go down without extra fluid and absorbed about as quickly as water. That said, our testers agree that the taste was pretty tough to get down. But there are some situations in which you need to take in energy (86 calories and 22 grams of carbs in each packet) outside of a water stop or aid station so it’s good to have an option in case of emergencies.
This is basically Gu on steroids. Designed for the ultra endurance athlete, the Roctane line has more electrolytes (sodium) and additional branched-chain amino acids (leucine, valine, and isoleucine), which may help reduce mental fatigue and decrease muscle damage sustained over the long, long run. Roctane also has the amino acid taurine (famously found in Red Bull), which may help improve performance.
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