When do runners need a good sugar hit?

sugar hit for runnersEver feel like you just can’t eat enough to get your energy back after a long run?
You know how it goes. You get your run over and done with nice and early so you can spend the rest of the day with family and friends, but all you want to do is put your feet up and take a nanna nap.

What you need is a well placed sugar hit or two.

Distance running places heavy energy demands on your body. For best performance it’s important to have a good overall nutrition plan, with a suitable amount of macro nutrients (carbs, proteins and fats) and micro nutrients (vitamins and minerals). Just as crucial to good recovery and performance is taking nutrition on board during and after long training runs and races.

Nutrition on the go is commonly taken in via gels, chews or in liquid form. Which you choose will largely depend on how well your body tolerates each form. Here are some  nutrition basics to ensure you’ve got enough fuel in the tank to last the distance.


What to look for in an energy gel/chew/drink

Carbohydrate – a combination of glucose and fructose is better for delivering energy to your system, than either one of those carbs alone

Electrolytespotassium and sodium are needed to replace losses due to sweat. These are important for cellular osmolality – remember your osmosis experiments back in school where things travel through a semi-permeable membrane from an area of high concentration to an area of low concentration? Works the same in your body.

Without getting technical, you need the right amount of electrolytes to keep your cells hydrated. Osmotic pressure keeps water and essential nutrients in balance inside cells. You’ll hear people referring to sports drinks as being “isotonic”. This means they have the same osmolality as the body – which, by the way is a good thing.

Magnesium would also be a bonus, as it is important in muscle relaxation and will help to prevent cramps, and is also essential for energy metabolism. It is also lost to your body through sweat.

Most of your standard every day sports drinks, gels and chews have all of the above, but if you really want to get the best out of yourself, go for solutions with that little bit extra.

Amino Acids
The branch chain amino acids Leucine, Isoleucine, and Valine can help to reduce muscle damage and delay fatigue, and Histidine can act as a buffer against the accumulation of lactic acid, delaying onset of fatigue. Taking amino acids during the event will help with your recovery afterwards.

Some people find it difficult to stomach caffeinated gels, but I love them. Caffeine will aid the mobilisation of carbohydrates into the bloodstream where it can then be taken up by the working muscles, and it will stimulate the central nervous system and reduce your perception of pain. All of which will lead to you being able to go harder for longer. How good is that?

Research has shown that athletes who took caffeinated sugared drinks were able to use 26% more of the ingested sugar than those who took the same drink without caffeine. And if you’re event is in the summer time, you’re in luck. Caffeinated drinks help improve endurance even more in hot weather (International Journal of Sport Nutrition and Exercise Metabolism, February 2011).

You can further enhance the hit you get from a caffeine-laced gel by cutting caffeine out of your diet about a month before your event. You’ll get a much bigger lift from the caffeine if your body isn’t used to it.

Which Brand is Best?

My preferences, based on research and personal experience.

1. Energy gel that contains caffeine and amino acids. Gu Roctane is my gel of choice. Yes, it is more expensive than the straight Gu or other brands, but for me, it’s worth it. I figure I spend a lot of time training, so an extra $30 or so (including gels for training and racing) is fine. Some flavours of the standard Gu Energy Gels contain caffeine, some don’t. Check labels.

2. Chews that contain caffeine and amino acids. Some of the Gu Chomps contain caffeine, some don’t so check the label before you buy. The reason I prefer gels over chews is that gels pass into your bloodstream more quickly than chews. Four chomps are equal to one serving, so they are not quite as convenient to carry as gels.

3. Gel that contains no caffeine, but has carbs and amino acids. Some flavours of the standard Gu Energy Gels contain caffeine, some don’t. Check labels.

4. Gu Chomps with no caffeine. Some flavours are caffeine free. Again, check labels.

5. Energy drink that contains carbs, electrolytes, amino acids and caffeine. Whilst the liquid form will speed the transit time of nutrients into your blood stream, it’s down lower on the list because of the difficulty I have with  carrying it. You may be quite comfortable wearing a drink belt, I happen not to be. I also figure that if I time my intake correctly, it won’t matter that my gels take a little longer to get into my system.

Remember that liquid has weight, and every extra kg you are carrying (including the kg’s you carry round as body fat) can slow your time down by 1-4 seconds per km. Let’s take 2 secs per km/kg extra weight,  and say you carry 500mls of water, or ½ kg. That equates to 1 sec per km, which is 21 secs over a half marathon, or 42 over a full marathon. Could be the difference between you hitting your goal time or not!

6. Flat Coke
Not a fan of it myself, but heaps of ultra distance athletes swear by flat coke to get them through the last part of their event. Heaps of other people swear by coke as a toilet cleaner too. You’ll have to decide on that one for yourself.

Try it in training first

Don’t do anything for the first time on race day. You need to play around with nutrition in training so that you can figure out what’s best for you.

The main problem with gels is that people just find them hard to get down, and the main problem with caffeine is the effect it can have on your gut-vomiting and diarrhoea- so not a good look! Be sure to experiment in training, not on race day.

If you’re using gels for the first time, be prepared.

  • They are not that easy to swallow.  Imagine you’ve just taken a  good sized dollop of hair gel and put it in your mouth That’s about the consistency you’ll be trying to cope with.
  • Wash gels and chews down with water within about 15 after taking. This will  help to avoid gut problems. Give your mouth a bit of a rinse at the same time,      which will help to prevent all that sugary stuff hanging around your teeth for too long.
  • Run on a course which is 2-3 laps, so that if you do have to pull up due to gut problems, you’re won’t have so far to walk back to your finish point. It’s hard going pulling up at 15km on an out and back course and having to walk back the last 5k.
  • Have a full sachet of gel. It might take you a couple of minutes to get through it. In training take it after you’ve gone up a hill or pick your intensity up for a minute or so before you take it. Your racing pace will be faster than your training pace. You want to try to simulate race conditions as closely as possible. The more intense your effort, the harder it is to take in nutrition on the go.
  • If you’re using chews, you could experiment with having 1 chew frequently, or go for a big burst of energy at one time and take the whole serve at once. Again, only you will know what’s right for you.

If you do experience problems getting gels down, or keeping them down, try a couple of different flavours. It could make all the difference.

If you haven’t used nutrition in a race much before, then start using them in training on runs of about 1 hr 20+. You probably don’t really need them for that length of run, but you’ll need to do a few gel fuelled runs to see what suits you best.

When to take a gel/chomp

Try to be aware of when you feel the gel “kicking in”-ie how long after you’ve taken it. You won’t suddenly feel like you’re a toy with new batteries, rather you’ll just feel like things aren’t hurting as much as you might have expected them to do.

For me, they kick in about 13 mins after I’ve taken them (will depend a bit on what else is in your stomach at the time) and they last about 25-30 mins before I start to feel like I’d like another boost. So if I think something’s going to take 2 hrs and I don’t want to run out of steam, I work backwards through the following steps.

  • 2hr run
  • gel lasts for 25 mins, and takes 13 mins to kick in. 25+13=38
  • need to take gel 38 mins before the two hour mark, ie, 1 hour 22 mins
  • I’ll need my first energy boost to kick in 25 mins before the 2nd one does, so that means I need to take my first gel 38 mins prior to when  my 2nd gel is going to kick in.
  • My 2nd gel will kick in at 1 hr 35 mins, so my first gel needs to kick in at 1 hr and 10 mins
  • I therefore need to take my first gel at about 55 mins and my second at 1 hr 22 mins.

Use this as a rough guide the first time you use gels or chomps (keeping in mind you need to add a few minutes to the time it takes a chomp to kick in – so in my scenario, I might want to take the chomps 15 mins before I want it to take effect)

And if this all sounds a bit complicated, yes, I guess it is when you first start. If you like, you can just follow the guidelines on the pack, and take a gel every 45 mins,  but you’ve been pounding the pavement like crazy for the last few months, so why wouldn’t you do everything you can to ensure you perform at your best on the day. Once you’ve figured out what’s best for you, you’ll really see the benefit.


Post run nutrition

Recovery drinks are extremely important after training runs and races. The quicker you recover from your training, the more you’ll be able to get out of your next training session.

There are lots of recovery drinks around. The best contain a 4:1 or at a pinch 3:1 carbohydrate to protein ratio, and some electrolytes to replace those you’ve sweated out.

You should have it available immediately after you finish running, so if you drive somewhere before you start running, take it with you. Sip on it whilst you’re cooling down and stretching after a run. I would generally take ½ the recommended dose after a run of 50mins, if it was a very hot day, but generally I use recovery drinks for runs of about 1 hr 10+.

I use Endorxo R4, which I can’t recommend highly enough. Everyone I’ve put on it raves about it. It’s a bit hard to come by in Australia, but you should be able to see a list of retailers here. http://www.advantage1.com.au/retailers/

Make sure you call before you go there. I’ve also notice some for sale on ebay.

You can see research on Endurox R4 here http://www.pacifichealthlabs.com/recover/endurox-r4-muscle-recovery-drink.html

Gu make a recovery drink which has protein and carbs called Recovery Brew. I’ve not used this in my training, but plan to compare it to Endurox R4 soon. For more information on Recovery Brew go to https://guenergy.com/products/products-recovery-brew/learn-more-recovery-brew/

Everyone’s needs are different. We’d love you to share below the nutrition that you’ve found useful in training and racing.



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