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The Best Energy Gels, According to Trainers and Nutritionists

The human body mid-marathon is basically a car dashboard littered with warning lights. If it isn’t an achy knee or hip joint, it’s the growing threat of dehydration, a smoldering side cramp, or gnawing hunger. 

Many runners opt for carb-filled adult Jell-O, otherwise known as energy gels, to quell mid-race emptiness, only to find it doesn’t relieve the hours of abject, voluntary pain. However, the right one can replenish energy stores quickly so the next few miles become more bearable. (Plus, they’re easier to down than a slate of tacos.) 

However, it takes trial and error to identify the ones that satiate from the ones that can cause a runner’s gut to go from bad to uncontrollable, and it’s always worth talking to people who know more about them — especially health professionals — before adding a new supplement to a fueling regimen. 

What the Experts Say

Trista Best, a registered dietitian and adjunct nutrition professor with Balance One, a supplement brand, explained to us what energy gels are, and why they work. She said that the combination of carbs and electrolytes fuels the body with only what it needs during a race or intense exercise, leaving heavier or harder-to-digest nutrients, like fiber, for afterward. 

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“Carbs are the primary source of fuel for the muscles and provide a quick burst of energy,” she said. “Electrolytes, such as sodium and potassium, help regulate fluid balance in the body, which is crucial during exercise to prevent dehydration and maintain proper muscle and nerve function.”

So what’s with the gooey texture? “Energy gels are in a jelly-like form because they are easier to consume during exercise, particularly during long-distance running or endurance events,” she explained “The gel texture allows for a quick and convenient way to consume carbs and electrolytes without having to stop and chew solid foods.”

Jack Craig, a personal trainer who works with Inside Bodybuilding, explained that many athletes underestimate the importance of mid-race nutrition, and emphasized that a lot of people can benefit from an energy top-up even during shorter races. 

It’s not just the physical benefit, either. Races take acute mental focus, not just to avoid tripping over fatigued legs but to keep oneself from quitting. “The boost of sugar can help you stay mentally alert, so you don’t get distracted or lose focus,” Craig said.

The Best Energy Gels: At a Glance

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Probably the densest gel on the list, Maurten makes some serious carb-crushers. The actual mix is a unique blend of fructose and glucose, which builds you up to 100 grams of carbs per hour, hence the name. With 25 grams of carbohydrates in one serving with six natural ingredients (and zero added colors or preservatives), this is the ultimate gel for those seeking only the basic nutrients. 

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GU’s well-known Energy Gels are made with quality ingredients and wild flavors like salted watermelon and Coca-Cola. They’re also made of simple and complex carbs and have 100 calories per serving, which is the optimal amount of calories for a quick burst of energy during an endurance workout. 

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CLIF is known for their energy bars, but the brand has also made an outstanding energy gel loaded with electrolytes, sodium, and potassium. Caffeine and carbs vary with each flavor, so check out specifics before choosing one. 

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Chia seeds are worth the hype, and these energy gels make them easy to consume mid-race. They’re mixed with brown rice syrup and fruit puree for carbs and sugar, and Huma also makes them vegan, too. The only downside for some people is that Huma doesn’t make its gels with caffeine, so it doesn’t always have that immediate energy boost some people look for.

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Honey Stinger’s waffles are an incredibly tasty post-run snack for restoring one’s will to live, and this gel basically distills them into an even easier-to-eat form. They come in a wide range of flavors powered by sweet honey to give runners a natural boost.

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Science in Sport’s energy gels are formulated to need less water during consumption than other options, minimizing the need for mid-race bathroom breaks. Each gel contains 22 grams of carbs and 90 calories, a little bit less of each than other products, but they’re also more affordable. They also don’t have caffeine, a plus for those looking to avoid stimulants. 

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Gatorade’s electrolyte empire also extends into energy gels. Each serving provides 20 grams of carbohydrates for slow-burn energy, 30 milligrams of caffeine for a quick boost of energy, 100 milligrams of sodium to help muscle function, and only 80 calories. 

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If slurping a gel sounds unpleasant, try a chew. Not only do these taste good, but they also feature 20g of carbohydrates per chew and 70 calories. The lack of caffeine makes them ideal for those who want to avoid it, and they’re also both gluten-free and vegan. 

The Argument for Energy Gels

Sugar is the misunderstood nutrient of the fitness world. In the middle of a grueling race, one of the best energy supplies for the muscles is sugar — not protein or fiber. It’s pretty counterintuitive to what many consider to be “healthy” food consumed by athletes, but it’s the truth. Also, don’t be afraid to consume. 

SPY is going to leave you with one final thought from Craig. “Don’t be afraid to over-fuel,” he said “Under-fueling will make you bonk or lose focus. Again, since many people are afraid of gaining weight while working out, they’re more likely to under-fuel than overdo it. Over-fueling will give you the energy you need to put on speed in the last stint of a race, or outlift a competitor, so it’s important to remember to support your performance the best you can.” 

Before You Check Out…

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