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Why I quit gels

Why I quit gels

Gels, GUs, energy packs….whatever you call them, if you’re a long distance athlete you’re no doubt all-too-familiar with them.They’re sweet and sticky, often thick and messy, and occasionaly, the cause of your undoing. The great news is that there is another way.

I’ve quit gels and you should consider it too. Here’s why:

1. Simple sugars. With the popularity of Good Calories, Bad Calories, Sweet Poison and I Quit Sugar, I don’t think we need to delve into the science again, but I will remind you of this: fructose makes you fat.

As athletes, there is a fine line between fuelling well and remaining lean and fat adapted. Excess fructose will mean that no matter how much training you do, you still have the potential to carry excess body fat, particularly around your mid-section. I’ve covered the steps to becoming fat adapted here and the same should apply to race day.

Tip: avoid all gels containing fructose.

It’s great to see some brands releasing fructose free gels, which certainly means they are a better choice, so please, if you have to purchase gels, at least read the ingredients first.

Note: before all you physiology experts start to argue with me, I’m well aware of GLUT-4 and GLUT-5 transporters and the research that shows enhanced uptake with a combination of sugars (my post-graduate thesis studied exactly this). The point is not to need so much fuel in the first place, and fat adaption will facilitate this. Secondly, too much fructose will cause problem gastrointestinal (GI) issues and become your potential undoing on race day. More on this to come.

2. Energy spikes. Simple sugars do exactly that, they spike your blood sugar. Take one gel and you’ll need another in 30 minutes, I guarantee. And if you don’t take another hit, be ready for a drop in speed, power, energy or an all-out bonk.

A large number of gels on the market these days contain maltodextrin, a complex carbohydrate with a far greater absorption rate (15-18%) than that of simple sugars, such as fructose (6-8%). Maltodextrin is rapidly absorbed as glucose, is easily digestible, and is far less likely to cause GI upset. This should be the first ingredient in the gel if you are selecting one.

Tip: if you have to use a gel, choose one containing predominately maltodextrin.
Note: Gut troubles during endurance events are not normal. There’s no point training to be quick if you spend precious minutes on excessive toilets stops. If your fuelling strategy is not working for you, it’s time to try something different.

3. Artificial ingredients. Anything that comes in a box, packet or wrapper stays in there for one reason and one reason only: preservatives. Even some of the better brands out there still contain way too many ingredients for my liking. Remember our golden rule: if it contains more than five ingredients, please put it back on the shelf.

One brand that does appear to be all natural is Vega Sport. The first ingredient, however, is dates and I’m not convinced that the fructose is necessary or suitable for long course athletes.

There are now a couple of additional brands on the market following the natural route, and even using coconut water as one of the carbohydrate sources, but they cost up to $120.00 for a 24 pack. That’s $5/gel. No thank you.

“But if I quit gels, what do I use?”, I hear you ask.

Here’s the solution: Freedom Fuel, my homemade energy gel.

Freedom Fuel

To avoid excess fructose, artificial ingredients and gut trouble in training and on race day, try this natural fuelling alternate. Freedom Fuel is gluten free, refined sugar free, all natural and tastes great!

Ingredients (Serves 1)

  • 2 teaspoons rice malt syrup
  • 1 teaspoon medium chain triglyceride (MCT) oil (available here)
  • ¼ cup raspberries
  • The juice from ¼ lemon
  • A pinch of Himalayan salt
  • A dash of hot water

Method

  1. Blend all ingredients until smooth.
  2. Pour through a strainer to remove pips. Transfer carefully into a gel flask and seal well.

Please note: this recipe has been updated, so please check you are using the most recent version.

One serve is ~20g of carbohydrates and 5g of fat, so please make multiple serves based on your exercise duration and fuelling requirements. This recipe can also be used like a commercial liquid fuel on the bike. To make a “multi-hour” bottle simply multiply the recipe by the number of serves you require and add enough water to reach your desired consistency and taste. Please trial this in training – remember, nothing new happens on race day.

The advantage on the bike, is that you have more options. I personally advise a combination of liquids and solids, particularly when you are starting out, and my No Bake Energy Bars are a great natural, homemade alternative to the expensive, well-marketed, store-bought sports nutrition.

Another great option on the bike is Generation UCAN‘s SuperStarch (available here). I personally use this on the bike (and Freedom Fuel on the run) in my long course triathlons and experience consistent energy and zero gut troubles. Some of you may be more familiar with Hammer Nutrition‘s Perpetuem, which I believe to be our third best option now I have had sufficient trial and error with both Freedom Fuel and SuperStarch.

Tip: Try Freedom Fuel in your next +90 minute training session.

Note: SuperStarch does have a chalky taste if made too concentrated. I believe the ideal consistency is 2 scoops per 750ml bottle. Add the juice of one lemon and a good pinch of sea salt and it becomes the perfect mixture of fuel and electrolytes. Please ensure you shake your bottle regularly to avoid the powder settling to the bottom.

In summary, there are far better options than relying on gels as your fuelling strategy. If you are not yet convinced, please at least follow the above guidelines when making your selection. The best option is to make your own and Freedom Fuel is a fantastic cheap and efficient recipe I hope you have great success with.

Ready to quit gels but still not sure about your sports nutrition plan? Book a consultation with me here. I’d love to help. Correct fuelling is the cornerstone of your success as an athlete. Go natural and your performance will speak for itself.



28 thoughts on “Why I quit gels

  1. This is a really great article and website, so glad I have come across this! Thank you. Can you tell me if Glucose Syrup (i.e. the brand Queen) would be a good substitute for Rice Malt syrup in this recipe? or at all? Thanks in advance, Kirk.

  2. Hi Steph this information is so helpful as I am doing The Bloody Long Walk in Melb in Nov with a friend. Can I make this gel alternative ahead of time and keep it in the fridge for a couple of days for training walks and the actual event? Thank-you, B

    1. Hi B, yes a couple of days is fine. Be mindful that the raspberries won’t last too long though, so the fresher, the better.

  3. Hi Steph, what other oils can you substitute for the Freedom Fuel recipe – coconut oil potentially? Thank you, fantastic article.

    1. Hi Jess, coconut oil will work but in cooler weather it will solidify and when change the consistency of your gel. MCT stays liquid all year, which is also important to be able to to get the liquid out of the portable flask or bottle.

  4. Hi Steph. Looking at your recipe for Freedom Fuel, it looks like the gel is mostly made up of raspberries (roughly 70% if my conversion of 1/4 cup to teaspoons is correct). Doesnt that make it a high fructose alternative – and therefore contrary to your tip in the article? (Tip: avoid all gels containing fructose.)

  5. Hi, I have read that brown rice syrup or malt syrup actually has a GI of 98. This would classify it in the same category as maltodextrin wouldnt it?

  6. In week two of a 20-week marathon training program and on my fifth day of following IQS guidelines. Just made my first batch of Freedom Fuel to use on tomorrow’s run since it’ll be a little over an hour with some intervals (been running on an empty stomach for under one hour runs without any issues). I’ve read that endurance athletes should watch their fiber intake to help avoid GI issues and the FF has almost 6g per serving. Just curious your thoughts on this….

  7. Hi Steph,
    Thanks for the recipe. I am fructose intollerant and running GOR marathon in a couple of months. Just wondering where I can get gel flasks from? Thanks

  8. Hi Steph,
    In a previous response you said the raspberries can’t keep too long. What are the consequences of not putting the raspberries in? Is there more than flavoring involved? Two reasons I ask:
    1/ If you leave the raspberries out, would the mix keep longer than a couple of days?
    2/ Raspberries can be hard to find in winter (or too expensive), would the gel be just as good without the raspberries (in terms of fueling, I understand taste will be different!)?

    1. It will work and keep longer but a) it will be far sweeter as the tartness of the raspberries really offsets the RMS; and b) you will need slightly more due to the carbohydrates that raspberries contribute. I hope that helps.

  9. Wow, what a fantastic article and website. As an endurance athlete this is just what I have been looking for. Keep up the great work Steph, your contribution to the improved health of others is inspiring.

  10. this is exactly what I need, just about to start training for my first Ironman. Would the FF be ok to make and leave in special needs bag for the run as it may be out in the elements for most of the day?

    1. Hello Karen, congratulations on undertaking your first ironman. FF will be fine if it’s out in the elements for just one day. Our Freedom Chews are another great option, you can find the recipe here. We do offer a complimentary skype session if you’d like to chat further about your fuelling for your ironman. All the very best for your journey.

      1. Hello Karen, just to clarify further, if it is a warm day you may find that the raspberries start to ferment. You can make our FF without the raspberries but may need to add additional lemon, to taste. Alternatively for the later part of the race you could use VFuel.

  11. I am very grateful for this site and the emails I have begun receiving. I am a sugar addict. I am trying to lose about 30kgs on weight watchers with cycling 5 days a week. Ww gives no points to fruit so you can eat as much as you want. This seems to be contradicted by your statements about fructose and the fat adaption “approach”: who/what is right?

  12. Thanks for this recipe, it looks amazing! Question though, would you have a recipe for a powdered version that can be simply added to a drink bottle on the go?
    I was thinking something like Dextrose, Maltodextrin, Sea Salt, Potassium Chloride may achieve a similar powdered equivalent?

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