Carbohydrate energy drinks taken during endurance exercise are scientifically proven to delay the onset of fatigue, thus enhancing performance. But while carbohydrate drinks are popular among triathletes, there are some major drawbacks.
>>> What's in an energy gel?
For starters, water is heavy stuff; lugging enough carbohydrate drink to fuel a race is no fun if the feeding stations only offer water. Also, there’s only so much fluid you can drink for energy without craving something a bit more concentrated.
So long as there’s plain water available for fluid replacement, the smart alternative is to consume energy gels (that said, some of the gels here from CNP, SiS, PowerBar and OTE contain significantly more water per gram of carb than others and would fuel shorter races or training sessions in cooler conditions without needing extra water).
Like carbohydrate drinks, gels provide rapidly absorbed carbohydrate, often with electrolyte minerals included. But with far less water, the carbohydrate in gels is more concentrated and portable; two or three gel sachets weighing around 100g in total contain as much carbohydrate as 1kg of carbohydrate drink, which explains their popularity among triathletes wanting to carry them on the bike and run.
In terms of how many to use, when looking at standard gels – those containing maltodextrin only and not a 2:1 formulation – the maximum total amount of carbohydrate the average athlete can absorb is around 60g per hour. Work out how many sachets an hour provides this amount (e.g. 3 x 20g, 4 x 15g) and aim for this as a maximum amount, consuming them evenly across each hour.
If you consume all of your carbohydrate in gel form, top up with plain water rather than carbohydrate drink (which would supply surplus carbohydrate). Consume too much carbohydrate and it won’t be absorbed – indeed, it could even upset your stomach.
If you’re using 2:1 glucose-fructose gels and carbohydrate drinks, you can consume up to a maximum of 80g of carbohydrate per hour, as research shows glucose-fructose formulations are absorbed from the gut at a faster rate.
>>> Guide to using energy gels
SIS Go Gel
SiS’s Go gel is a maltodextrin (glucose)-only formulation. Unlike High5’s offering, however, each 60ml sachet of Go gel provides 38g of water but just 22g of carbohydrate (at 5.6p per gram), which helps produce a lighter, more refreshing consistency, and means that a water chaser isn’t always required.
The downside is a bulkier and heavier sachet, making it less portable and tougher to stash in the back of a tri-suit. Unusually, SiS’s gel also contains artificial sweetener in the form of Acesulfame K, which may be off-putting to some and has attracted criticism.
The sachets opened fairly easily, yielding a delicious pineapple flavour. These gels were also low in acidity, making them very easy on the stomach.
Verdict: Great taste and texture, but quite bulky and not additive-free, 83%
CNP Hydro Gel Max
Described as a ‘fruit juice gel’ with coconut water, the 60g Hydro Max gel from Team Sky-partnering CNP provides 22g of carbohydrate as a blend of maltodextrin and fructose, courtesy of added concentrated blackcurrant and lemon juice.
There’s also 50mg of caffeine from natural guarana extract, along with vitamins B3, B6 and B12, all of which are necessary for carbohydrate metabolism, with a small amount of sodium too.
As its name suggests, Hydro Max contains more water than standard gels, resulting in an easy-to-consume formulation. While opening wasn’t easy, the reward is a light, refreshing taste helped by an authentic blackcurrant flavour. 8.6p per gram of carbs is high, but it’s a quality product.
Verdict: Slightly pricey but a well-formulated, great-tasting caffeinated gel, 88%
OTE Energy Gel
Billed as ‘pH neutral’, OTE’s blackcurrant gel provides 20.4g of a 2:1 maltodextrin/fructose carbs formulation, designed to be light on the stomach. Each 56g sachet also supplies key electrolyte minerals, is formulated with real blackcurrant juice and is free from artificial sweeteners and colours.
It features two nifty easy-opening options – one tear line for sipping and one for gulping – which isn’t something on offer from other brands.
Although not the most compact sachet, it’s successful in use on the move, as were the contents; the consistency is light and refreshing while the flavour is very natural indeed, with a low acidity. A slight downside is the 7.1p per gram of carbs – up towards the top-end of those tested.
Verdict: Easy on the stomach with a great formulation, consistency and taste, 90%
Each 40g sachet of High5’s juicy natural Citrus Blast flavour EnergyGel provides 23g of carbohydrate (in the form of maltodextrin and glucose), along with lemon and lime juice, and sea salt, which is the source of the added sodium.
Although not a 2:1 glucose-fructose blend, High5’s philosophy is that, in practice, few athletes consume more than three gels per hour, making a glucose-only formulation perfectly acceptable.
The compact pouch size is easy to carry on the move and swift to open. The price of 4.3p per gram of carbohydrate is easy on the pocket as well. Even better, the consistency was light and easy to gulp, with a taste that’s very natural and not too sweet.
Verdict: A good value, nice-tasting gel that’s very easy to use on the move, 86%
PowerBar’s HydroMax + caffeine gel is another ‘watery gel’; each 67ml sachet provides 38g of water and 25.5g of carbohydrate (at 6.2p per gram) as a 2:1 blend. There’s also a hefty 100mg of caffeine, along with 300mg of sodium – significantly higher than most gels.
Although bulky, you’d only need one or two of these per session, so portability isn’t an issue. The sachets open easily and the ‘no-spill’ design is very welcome. The consistency is light and refreshing, while the cola flavour is decent enough.
Unfortunately the high sodium level is quite noticeable and made for a strange salty aftertaste. It’s not a major issue though, and this is still a recommended alternative to the fruit-based offerings here.
Verdict: Well-formulated, good value caffeinated gel that tastes a bit different, 82%
Continue reading our guide to the best energy gels of 2015 (2/2)