There's no need to sugarcoat it: Sports gels are gross. At least compared to real food. Who wouldn't rather eat an actual banana instead of banana-flavoured goo? But sports gels are convenient, portable packets that can help long-distance athletes log some serious mileage by providing easily digestible carbohydrates, the body's primary source of fuel during prolonged activity.
This oozy form of energy is best for anyone doing more than 90 minutes of continuous fitness at a high intensity. The primary ingredient in most gels is maltodextrin, a soluble carbohydrate derived from starch. Essentially, the gels are concentrated sports drinks, which means they must be consumed with plenty of water to speed the absorption. Most brands recommend half a packet every 30 to 35 minutes. (It's amazing how bottomless something seems when the taste and consistency is so unappealing.)
Not all gels work for everyone, however. For instance, registered dietician Jennifer Gibson, who works with the United States Olympic Committee at the training centre in Colorado, points out that caffeinated gels may not be ideal for non-coffee drinkers. "Some people are not habituated, so it might send their heart rates up and make them overstimulated," she says. "You don't want to be doing that during a race."
Steve Roest, president and owner of the Fitness Institute in Toronto, advises gel rookies to play around with quantities and brands to avoid any stomach upset. Ultimately, he believes most people don't exercise long enough to necessitate gels, which can add unnecessary calories if weight management is an issue.
In fact, a nagging injury prevented me from getting to a level of activity that would require a gel. But in the name of research, I bravely stomached six different sticky substances. Either they made me as hyper as a kid jacked up on candy or I became temporarily turbo-charged like a comic- book hero. Who wouldn't want to feel like that on race day? I've heard some people mix the gels into water or spread them on toast. Hey, whatever works.
HAMMER NUTRITION GEL
Flavour: Montana Huckleberry
Stats: 32.9 grams; 90 calories; 22 grams carbohydrate; 20 milligrams sodium, $2.10
Taste: Pleasantly tart, although indistinguishable from any other berry.
Effect: A few glugs of the goo offered a speedy recharge.
Worth noting: This gel comes closest to jelly and even contains real fruit pieces; no refined or artificial sweeteners; four amino acids.
Superpower scale: 7
CARB BOOM! ENERGY GEL
Flavour: Apple Cinnamon
Stats: 41 gm; 110 calories; 27 gm carbohydrate; 50 mg sodium, $1.99
Taste: Apply enough imagination and it approximates pie filling
Effect: Not Wham! Boom! Pow! explosiveness but a noticeable jolt followed by a continued release kick.
Worth noting: No artificial ingredients; the only one that recommends consuming post-activity.
Superpower scale: 6
CLIF SHOT ENERGY GEL
Stats: 34 gm; 110 calories; 22 gm carbohydrate; 60 mg sodium; $1.49
Taste: Surprisingly rich and chocolatey; would seem delicious … on a desert island
Effect: A caffeine-like rush that lasted well past workout, but without the jitters.
Worth noting: 90 per cent organic ingredients; "litter leash" design means tab top stays attached to pack, minimizing litter.
Superpower scale: 7
LOAD ENERGY GEL HEAT ENDURANCE FORMULA
Flavour: Mild tangerine
Stats: 38.6 gm; 110 calories; 27 gm carbohydrates; 60 mg sodium; $1.99
Taste: Tang with the texture of toothpaste
Effect: Fast-acting boost could not compensate for unappealing consistency.
Worth noting: Deliberately subtler flavour to minimize nausea; 4:1 ratio of sodium to potassium
Superpower scale: 5
Stats: 41 gm; 120 calories; 28 gm carbohydrates; 200 mg sodium; $1.79
Taste: Who sprinkled salt on my chocolate syrup?
Effect: More salt helps replenish electrolytes lost by sweating but increases thirst. Couldn't consume entire packet.
Worth noting: Highest sodium content; contains PowerBar's electrolyte blend
Superpower scale: 4
GU ROCTANE ULTRA ENDURANCE ENERGY GEL
Flavour: Blueberry pomegranate
Stats: 32 gm; 100 calories; 25 gm carbohydrate; 125 mg sodium; $3.99
Taste: Candy sweet and vaguely blueberry-ish.
Effect: Like edible rocket fuel – an immediate burst and sustained burn.
Worth noting: Gluten-free; contains special amino acid blend, vitamin E and 35 mg caffeine.
Superpower scale: 8