When I did my first ½ iron distance race in 1989 or 1990, race day nutrition was limited to bananas, Fig Newton cookies and electrolyte drinks. The night before the event, I ate as much pasta as I could stomach and then hoped that that fuel would sustain me to the finish line. Unfortunately, even the best athletes bonked back then, but now, running out of energy is avoidable thanks to mainstream sport nutrition companies and the energy gel. My gel of choice is PowerGel from the creators of the well known energy bar – PowerBar but there are many on the market.
Your muscles can only store a limited supply of glycogen, which is “food” for your working body and brain. Consequently, an athlete needs to keep carbohydrates coming into the body in order to sustain exercise. While chicken, rice and vegetables are a great fuel at rest, PowerGels are the easiest nutrition source when training and racing. Similar to pudding, their texture makes them easy to eat and their careful blend of ingredients makes them easy to digest. They are power-packed pouches of energy combining precious carbohydrates to replenish your glycogen stores quickly and sodium and potassium to replace these electrolytes lost in sweat. They are best taken with water for proper absorption but a desperate, depleted body will respond favorably even without water.
Suppose you were racing in a sprint triathlon –750 m swim, 20 km bike, 5 km run. It would be beneficial to take a PowerGel with some water toward the end of the bike to fuel the run portion since, depending on your speed and fitness level, you may have burned through 800-1000 calories already. Fuelling is even more important in an IRONMAN or IRONMAN 70.3 event. I suggest taking a PowerGel starting at 1 hour into an event and then every 30 minutes thereafter in order to maintain energy levels. For a marathon, I recommend starting gel consumption at about 45 minutes and then every 30 minutes thereafter. As the body gets more depleted in the latter stages of the event, you may need to increase gel consumption to every 20 minutes.
While the quick energy and digestibility of gelsis crucial on the run and in the later stages of a race when energy stores are depleted, I do suggest using a slower release energy product such as a PowerBar Performance Bar on the bike during longer events. A PowerBar packs a more sustained punch and provides more “hunger relief”. Moreover, gels are absolutely necessary on the run because of their near liquid form and instantaneous energy fix. And so you need to ensure that you start the run hungry for gels rather than hungry for a hamburger by controlling your gel intake on the bike.
In the course of an IRONMAN event, I would routinely eat about 5 PowerBars and 3-4 PowerGels on the bike (about 5 hours)and then 6-9 PowerGels on the marathon (every 20-30 minutes depending on energy expenditure, that is, harder course, harsher weather, etc). When asked if I “like”gels, my response is that at rest, I would never take a gel but when I am running and I am tired and suffering, nothing tastes better. Taking a gel can be the difference between finishing a race running and finishing it walking. Here’s to running through every finish line with an empty PowerGel packet in your hand.