Energy Gels, an instant benefit?

It’s ironic that something so like jelly is designed to stop your legs from turning into just that when your energy levels drop. Yet wobbly legs are precisely what Chris Froome had when he found himself out of gas on Stage 18 of the 2013 Tour de France – and it cost him.

With 4km to go on the second ascent of Alpe d’Huez, Froome’s blood sugar levels had dropped so low he could barely stay on the bike.

Then teammate Richie Porte collected an energy gel for him from the team car and the Brit made it to the end of the stage, but incurred a 20-second time penalty because taking provisions from the team car is banned in the final 20km of a stage.

In the end, of course, it didn’t matter. Froome survived and won the Tour. But things could have panned out differently without that magic sachet.

So what precisely is an energy gel, besides being something that sticks to the wall if you throw it hard enough?

Greg Whyte the professor of applied sport and exercise science at Liverpool John Moores University says “Fundamentally it’s carbohydrate in a small pack, there are 100-150 calories in a mouthful that rapidly increase energy availability, raise blood sugar levels and help stop muscle damage and fatigue.” In essence, they contain a mix of carbs, with the most common ingredients being glucose and maltodextrin. Many gels also have fructose, which is absorbed via different routes in the gut so don’t compete [with the other carbs], meaning you can absorb more. Some will also have palatinose, a more complex carb that gives sustained energy. And others have brown rice syrup or apple juice – again basically just glucose, or glucose and fructose.

Some things you won’t find in gels are fat, fibre and, in most cases, protein, because these all take longer for the stomach to absorb – not much use when your legs feel like an octopus’s and you need energy now. But gels do have additives as well as the carbs.  Most contain electrolytes, which replace salt in the blood [that’s lost during sweating], they also make the gel more balanced to avoid gastric problems. Many also contain caffeine, a stimulant that can ward off fatigue and increase alertness. It’s not usually enough to give you a caffeine boost on its own, but it does speed up the process of absorption.

Instant benefits

If that all sounds very long-winded you’ll be pleased to know that the process happens within minutes. Just how quickly you feel the benefit and how long the effect lasts depends both on your physiological make-up and the intensity of your effort, but you should feel the effects within five minutes.

You can’t be precise because everyone is different but 20-30g of carbs will sustain a 70kg athlete at race pace for 20-30 minutes.