Eating has gone hi-tech. (James J. Lee / Army Times)
For many endurance-sport athletes on the move for an hour or more, topping off the fuel tank means eating food a spaceman would love — energy gels.
Typically available in small pouches, these gels are packed with the carbs you need to avoid hitting the wall.
Most include electrolytes, usually both sodium and potassium, to replace what you lose in sweat. Some add protein or caffeine to the mix, depending on the brand and flavor.
Most experts recommend a shot of carbs every 45 minutes or so to avoid tapping out your store of glycogen, which your body uses as fuel. Most people need about 20 to 60 grams of carbs per hour of exercise, experts say.
Energy bars, sports drinks and fruit also work as on-the-move fuel sources, but many runners and cyclists prefer the convenience of a gel packet as a quick and easy (although sometimes messy) alternative. Keep in mind that, like energy bars, gels need to be washed down with water.
We tested five of the most popular gels during a summer marathon training cycle and found that all offered good flavor and a welcome midrun energy shot, with a few subtle differences. They typically sell for about $1.25 a packet. Here's a look at what to expect from each:
Like its sports-drink companion, Accelerade, this gel includes carbohydrates and protein, at a 4-to-1 ratio. The protein is meant to help mitigate muscle breakdown during exertion, speeding recovery afterward. We tried vanilla and strawberry kiwi and neither were overly sweet, with little noticeable aftertaste.
By the numbers: Calories, 100; sodium, 100 milligrams; potassium, 50mg; carbohydrates, 20g; protein, 5g
Flavors: Vanilla, chocolate, citrus orange, strawberry kiwi
This gel is offered in slim packets that are easy to fit into your mouth while on the move. Three flavors — vanilla bean, chocolate and tri berry — include 20mg of caffeine; espresso love contains 40mg of caffeine. (A cup of coffee contains about 100mg.) After trying strawberry banana and vanilla bean, we found this gel to be a little thicker — and thus less messy — than the competition.
By the numbers: Calories, 100; sodium, 40-55mg; potassium, 35-40mg; carbohydrates, 20-25g
Flavors: Vanilla bean, chocolate, tri berry, lemon sublime, strawberry banana, espresso love, orange burst
In addition to individual packets, two Carb-BOOM! flavors — apple cinnamon and vanilla orange — are available in 16.8-ounce bottles for those who prefer reusable gel flasks (saving you the trouble of carrying a sticky, used gel packet). Chocolate cherry and vanilla orange offer 50mg of caffeine. We tried strawberry kiwi and apple cinnamon and found both to be the sweetest gels of those we tested.
By the numbers: Calories, 110; sodium, 50mg; potassium, 50-75mg; carbohydrates, 26-27g
Flavors: Vanilla orange, chocolate cherry, vanilla, strawberry kiwi, banana peach, apple cinnamon
The coolest thing about the Clif Shot gels is the "litter leash," a strip of packaging attached to the tear-off top to keep you from ditching it on the roadside. On the caffeine front, double espresso packs 100mg, mocha has 50mg and strawberry includes 25mg. Strawberry and razz were our test cases and both offered good flavor, though strawberry gave us a mild case of heartburn.
By the numbers: Calories, 100; sodium, 40mg; potassium, 30mg; carbohydrates, 25g
Flavors: Apple pie, double espresso, mango, vanilla, razz, mocha, chocolate, strawberry
PowerBar goes heavy on the electrolytes, packing four times the sodium of other gels. A variety of flavors are available with caffeine. Green apple, chocolate and strawberry banana have 25mg, while double latte and tangerine double up with 50mg. A nonflavored version is available for those who can't stomach sweets during exercise. We tried strawberry banana and tangerine and found that both went down easy, with the right amount of flavor and little aftertaste.
By the numbers: Calories, 120; sodium, 200mg; potassium, 20-40mg; carbohydrates, 27-28g
Flavors: Caramel, chocolate, double latte, green apple, vanilla, plain energy, raspberry cream, strawberry banana, tangerine