Energy gels can deliver a boost of easily digestible carbs and electrolytes when your body needs them most. However, finding the perfect timing for fueling during your runs can make all the difference. 

For example, taking energy gel too late during a long run can result in ‘hitting the wall’ due to depleted glycogen stores. Conversely, consuming it too frequently from the start of your run can cause blood sugar spikes and subsequent crashes, along with potential gastrointestinal discomfort.

So, you must learn exactly when to use energy gels depending on the duration and intensity of your runs. In this article, we provide practical guidance on the optimal timing and usage of energy gels across different run durations.

What are Energy Gels?

Energy gels are a compact and efficient nutritional option designed for athletes, especially those engaged in endurance sports like running and cycling. The primary ingredient in these gels is carbohydrates, often in the form of quick-digesting sugars such as glucose, fructose, and maltodextrin. 

During prolonged exercise, the body’s carbohydrate stores get depleted, leading to fatigue and reduced performance. The high carb content in energy gels rapidly replenishes the glycogen stores in muscles and the liver, which are the primary energy sources during prolonged physical activities. One packet generally provides between 20-35 grams of carbohydrates.

In addition, energy gels often contain electrolytes like sodium, potassium, and magnesium. They maintain fluid balance, nerve function, and muscle contraction, all of which can be compromised during intense exercise due to sweat loss.

Some energy gels also include additional elements such as caffeine for an extra energy boost, B vitamins for energy metabolism, and amino acids to support muscle function. 

What makes them more efficient is their portability and quick absorption. Ultimately, they provide a fast and convenient way to maintain energy levels and electrolyte balance, thereby delaying fatigue and enhancing overall athletic performance.

When to Use Energy Gels for Running

OC Marathon

The ideal timing and quantity of energy gels for running usage depends largely on the duration and intensity of your run. Here are general guidelines across common running distances:

1. Short Runs (Less than 60 Minutes)

For short runs that last less than an hour, the body typically has sufficient glycogen stores to fuel the activity, making additional energy supplementation unnecessary for most runners. 

However, there are exceptions. If you’re engaging in a particularly intense short run, like a high-speed interval workout, or if you feel an unexpected dip in energy, taking a single gel 15 minutes before starting can provide a quick boost. 

This is especially useful for runners who might be training on an empty stomach or who have higher energy needs. In these cases, an energy gel can help maintain optimal performance and prevent fatigue.

Moreover, consume gels with caution on short runs though— taking one too early when blood sugar is still high can sometimes cause minor GI distress. Pay attention to your energy levels and only fuel if you feel you need it.

2. Medium Runs (1-2 Hours)

Once you extend your running duration to between one and two hours, fueling becomes more critical. During these medium-length runs, your body begins to deplete its glycogen stores, and energy gels can play a vital role in maintaining consistent energy levels. 

We recommend taking an energy gel around the halfway mark of your run which is one hour. This timing helps replenish the carbohydrates that have been used up and sustains your energy level for the remainder of the run. Many runners find taking 30-60 grams of total carbs per hour works well. 

However, splitting your gel consumption into a couple of 20-25 gram doses spaced 15-30 minutes apart can allow for steady energy release versus one concentrated dose. Again, adjust based on your personal fueling needs.

3. Long Runs (2+ Hours)

During any run lasting over 2 hours, consistent fuel intake is vital for maintaining pace and avoiding bonking, and glycogen depletion resulting in sudden fatigue. 

Most runners need 30-90 grams of carbs per hour when running this long. So, we recommend consuming energy gels approximately every 45 minutes to an hour. 

This frequency ensures a steady supply of carbohydrates, helping to maintain stable blood sugar levels and continuous energy output. 

Ultimately, it helps prevent the energy dips that are common in long-duration activities. Moreso, you can adjust the timing based on your individual needs and responses to the gels.

Hydration and Energy Gel Use

runner drinking water

Staying properly hydrated goes hand-in-hand with energy gel consumption during races. Water helps deliver carbohydrates and electrolytes throughout your system. Dehydration blunts the effectiveness of supplemental fuel. 

Here are some tips on combining water intake with gel consumption:

Potential Side Effects and Precautions

While energy gels are beneficial for sustaining performance during runs, they can also have potential side effects, especially if not used correctly. Being aware of these and taking appropriate precautions can help in minimizing any adverse effects.

Here are some of the potential side effects that come with using energy gels:

Here are some precautions and recommendations for energy gel consumption during races:

Final Thoughts

While not always necessary, energy gels can provide a valuable mid-run boost for you. They help replenish the glycogen stores and provide energy sources during long runs. 

However, you must follow the perfect timing of using them. Although we have provided a general recommendation that works for most runners above, the right refueling regimen may take some individual experimentation. 

Overall, listen to your body, test products in training, stay hydrated, and fuel as needed. With the proper integration of energy gel products, you can last longer and clock faster times without bonking. Fuel smart so you can push your performance to the next level!