If you’re like me, you want to know as much about running now as you can, because you’ve reached a point where PR’s no longer mean beating your best time by a minute. Now it’s more like three seconds. And, for that matter, your PR’s are coming few and far between. Maybe you even confronted that existential moment when you considered why you keep running if you aren’t even getting consistently better any more. But then you decided that running wasn’t just about PR’s, but about the sense of satisfaction you get from completing a difficult run, or the camaraderie of sharing the running experience with old and/or newfound friends.
But you still feel like there’s room inside you for improvement. But how to achieve that improvement is the big question.
Yes, you’ve gone to those speed sessions at the track with the rest of the club on Tuesdays. And they’ve helped. Those weekend runs with the team have helped motivate you through the cold winter months, as well.
But what about all those, you know, scientific things? Maybe it’s time to consider that you can get more from your body if you actually buy shoes because of how they work biomechanically for you instead of the fact that they’re a kick-ass design and you’ve always loved the color orange. And maybe you shouldn’t do a long run without any water or nutritional supplement.
That’s where I want to go today.
Gels and chews and drinks are almost certainly unnecessary to most of you who are running no more than 5k’s, and you might not ever need them for a 10k, either. I’m no scientist (and truth be told, the only A I ever received for a science course in my life was a college Acoustics course), but from what I’ve researched, the body only starts depleting its stores of glycogen (that sugary-carbohydratey-type-substance that your muscles need as fuel) after about an hour of intense activity. So, somewhere along the way there, when your muscles deplete that, they’ll start to use up whatever else they can find as fuel, including consuming themselves. Any of you who have hit “The Wall” know what it’s like when your body has exhausted everything it can find as fuel.
That’s where these supplement things come in.
Now, I’d like to say I’ve tried them all, and have definitive evidence that one or the other is The Thing That Will Shave 10% Off Your PR and Make You Feel Invincible, but none of that is true. I have, however, tried many flavors of almost every brand, and can give you SOME insight. You’ll have to settle for that.
Category One: Bars
The most important thing you need to know about this, and anything you put into your body, for that matter, is you have to read the label for yourself! The problem for us newbies to Running Science is we don’t know what we’re looking for. In bars, gels and drinks, the one thing you must always seek is The Almighty Carbohydrate. Despite what the current dietetic trends say, as a runner, you must understand the following four-letter-word equation: CARB=GOOD. There’s more to it than that, but we’ll get to that later.
The second ingredient to check for in the nutritional allowance is protein. While protein is good for building muscle, in no way is any runner building muscle when he/she runs. Furthermore, protein takes a long time to digest and may cause gastro-intenstinal distress. I learned this firsthand when I tried using Snickers bars (yes, I’m serious) halfway through some long runs. Peanuts, I discovered, were kind of like gastroliths (any dinosaur fans out there?), tearing away at my stomach as I churned through the last six miles. When I switched to Milky Ways, I had no such problems.
The third item, and potentially most deadly is: Fiber. Unless you enjoy stopping at each and every port-a-potty on a course, I advise you to avoid eating anything that has fiber in it! As Forrest Gump used to say, “And that’s all I have to say about that.”
Recommendation: Milky Way bars, but only at the end of longer runs, and only if you can’t stomach gels and chews. The purportedly “nutritional” bars almost all have protein or fiber. That’s for weightlifters, not runners.
Category Two: Drinks
You know these. Gatorade, Vitamin Water, etc. Almost all of the choices available correctly identify carbohydrates as the necessary component. Some are sweeter than others, most have sodium to restore the salt that we will inevitably sweat out of us during our runs. I’m not going to tell you what flavor to use. That’s entirely a personal choice.
The pet peeve I do have is with these increasingly ubiquitous sweeteners that aren’t sugar. Unfortunately, the U.S. government has decided to classify sucralose as a natural sweetener, and foods with the stuff in them don’t even have to list it as such. In this case, you not only have to read the labels, but you have to interpret what it might mean. Sugars (whether sucrose, glucose or fructose) and corn syrup will likely be listed as such. If, however, you see the following wonderful phrase: “natural sweetener,” you are likely looking at sucralose (the ingredient in Splenda). Okay, aside from the fact that I’m a bit of a nutritional snob here (I like organic milk and eggs, wild fish and non-antibiotic meats), I personally hate the taste of sucralose, find that its aftertaste lingers more than sugars, and frankly, just because something is “natural” doesn’t mean it isn’t bad for you. I say stay away from the stuff.
Recommendation: anything that doesn’t have NutriSweet or sucralose. Sugar is not the enemy.
Category Three: Gels and Chews
Alright, so here’s when things get complicated…
I envy those of you who don’t need to augment your long runs with some kind of carbohydrate supplement. Of course, the most commonly imbibed form of these things is the dreaded “gel.” (I actually have to suppress my gag reflex to write that word.) Okay, and I know some of you can actually ingest those things without a problem. But I bet you’re also the type of people who have no problem with the taste of diet sodas and Twinkies, either, eh?
For the rest of us, gels are a necessary evil. Yes, we’ve tried running our half marathons without the aid of the “energy kick” of gels, and it just didn’t work. The wall hit, and it hit hard.
But did you know that all gels were not created equal? Now, I don’t claim to corner the market on gel technology, but I’m still paying off credit card bills for gel purchases from 2012, so I think I have done enough research, with my eyes, with my taste buds and with my wallet to feel like I can offer the rest of us middle-of-the-packers some insight. Maybe it’ll save you a few dollars.
First, we start with calories. Like carbohydrates, calories are also GOOD! The word calorie comes from Latin, and actually refers to heat, so when we athletes say we are “stoking the fire” with food, it’s a fairly literal statement. There is, of yet, no low-calorie energy supplement besides caffeine, and though caffeine is effective, it is an addictive drug. (Don’t believe me? Try going without for a day without your morning mugs of Starbucks and see how you enjoy your afternoon headache.) Besides, caffeine primarily aids in your brain’s perception of tiredness, without providing you with any of the actual calories that your muscles require to perform optimally. In other words, those five hours of energy are a way of depleting your body without your body recognizing it. When your hamstring pops or your Achilles aches for months on end, maybe you should wonder about the intelligence of depriving your body rather than fueling it. (Did I scare you? Good. Stop with the peppy-zippy stuff!)
Of course, I’m not one to say that all caffeine is bad. Okay, maybe it is. But I’d be a hypocrite to say it, because I’m a big morning coffee drinker, myself. As such, it’s actually important for me to not cut back on caffeine on race day. Half the gels or chews I choose have caffeine in them, and I’ve found that my body (or is it my mind?) responds a little better to the caffeine, especially in the second half of a half or full marathon. If you’re not a coffee drinker (tea doesn’t count, by the way, because caffeine is delivered in tea much gentler and more gradually), you shouldn’t be adding caffeine to your regimen unless you’ve tried it during long runs and have found it gives you the mental clarity and euphoria that is sometimes connected to caffeine use.
But let’s get back to the muscles, shall we? Your muscles, like nine-year-old boys, are particularly fond of sugars, because during activity they are regularly depleted of glycogen (think glucose).
And now we’re getting close to the topic of carbs. You see, most carbs are converted into sugars, but at different rates, and in different measures. Here’s where it gets scientific. If you examine the nutritional information on a pack of gel or chews, you are generally looking for as many calories as you can, and as many carbs as possible. Yes, really!
Most athletes seem to know that carbohydrates in general are what give you the energy kick for an event. What many don’t realize is that all carbohydrates are not created equal. What you really want are “the right kind” of carbs. If you look at the nutritional information on any supplement, carbohydrates are divided into two subcategories: sugars and dietary fiber. You’re left to do the math in your analysis of a gel. Dietary fiber is not the right kind. We’ve already mentioned the hazards of too much fiber before a run. Well, then, the only other item listed on your traditional nutrition label is “sugars.” Sugars are good for the muscles, make no mistake about that. They are processed quickly by the stomach, and are turned into glycogen by the muscles quickly, as well. However, just like they are processed quickly, they are used up quickly. Hence, there is the “crash” that is often associated with gels (and with Milky Way and Snickers bars, too, which is why I only use them at the end of my runs).
The same crash can occur with honey-based supplements. If you’re part bear like me, you love honey, especially exotic Italian honeys like Buckwheat honey and eucalyptus honey. Well, you need to go no further than Honey Stingers. I find them excessively sweet, but I find almost every gel excessively sweet. The danger in the Honey Stingers is that the recipe contains more sugars than other gel brands. What’s the problem with that? Well, here’s where it gets a little complicated.
Science Warning: the following paragraphs contain detailed scientific analysis. Let’s start with the dietary fiber.
Products like Honey Stingers, while natural tasting and really quite enjoyable experiences, are almost entirely sugars. Translate: big boost, big crash. Even if you replenish regularly and quickly, you are likely to experience very large fluctuations in your energy levels over the course of a long run, as your body accepts then exhausts these sugars.
Ultimately, it’s the “other” category of carbohydrates (the one that’s usually not listed) that is essential to sustaining energy levels from a gel. So, let’s take two products, say a GU Energy Gel, cherry flavor, and a PowerBar gel, cherry flavor.
Both give you 100 calories of fire for the furnace.
Both offer 25 grams of carbohydrates.
Where PowerBar gives you 20 of them in the form of “Sugars,” for a quick boost, GU only provides 5 grams of “Sugars.”
Now you have to do the math (Yes, really).
Okay, I’ll help you. I’ve got a calculator right next to me. For GU, we start with 25 grams of total carbs minus 5 grams of sugars. That means the fine folks at GU give us 20 grams of non-sugar carbs. Those carbs are processed somewhat slower than sugars, but also last longer before being depleted in the muscles. The PowerBar people have given us a quicker boost by making 20 of its 25 grams of carbs in sugar form, but your Pep graph would be much steeper, and you’d likely feel noticeably revitalized for three or four minutes before returning to exhaustion.
This is the essential science behind most runners’ preference for the GU brand. They do not seem to offer the same kick to runners that Honey Stingers or PowerBar, but also do not leave the runner with as much of a crash. The Hammer Brand, by the way, offers a similar carb profile to the GU. While slightly more “dietetic,” at 80 calories, it provides 21 grams of carbs, and only TWO grams of sugars. I’ve only used these a few times, but so far I’ve been pleased. All the other brands fall somewhere in the middle of the spectrum between GU and Hammer on one side and HoneyStingers and PowerBar on the other.
Chews seem to follow the same paths, with GU having less sugars than most, but it’s important to note that almost all chews have a higher sugar quotient than the equivalent gels. If you haven’t tried these delightful confections, you might want to experiment. I remember the first time I tried GU chomps. They were given out at the 2011 Superhero half marathon, and I figured, “What the heck. Why not try it out?” I was only running the race to keep my friend Alex Heredia company. Well, I opened the pack (which was a bit of a chore, I might add), and threw two in my mouth.
A half-mile later, I was still chewing.
At the next water stop, I was still chewing.
A mile and a half after putting the things in my mouth, they finally dissolved in my cheek. Whew.
Now, this might have been a blessing, or a curse. On the one hand, I was getting a bit annoyed by my inability to get these gelatinous chew-toys down my gullet. On the other hand, for the entire 1.5 miles, I was solely focused on my chewing, and ran my best splits of the morning.
You can decide for yourself if the experience is a worthwhile one for you. Truth be told, I’ve learned how to run and chew at the same time, and sometimes will take the gummy-bear-chew route when I just can’t stomach another gel.
Recommendations: GU and Hammer Gels. GU Chomps.
What? You wanted me to discuss flavors, too?! No way. Oh, yes, I’ve tried almost all of GU’s and Hammer’s and PowerBars and one or two other brands. I think most of the gels are fairly inedible and disgusting. But in talking with most of you good folks, I’ve found flavor is entirely preferencial. Chocolate lovers choose the chocolate and coffee flavors, though for me I’ve found they all leave a thick, chalky aftertaste in my mouth that I don’t enjoy. The very nature of gels, by the way, is cloying sweetness, so don’t expect anything less than a gulp of gooey paste. For my money, the tarter ones are the least unbearable, so lemon and lime and cranberry flavors go down less miserably than all the others. I did, however, find a rare, seasonal release from the good GU people, called Peppermint Stick. It only comes out around the holidays and tastes, well, pretty much like a melted candy cane. Just delightful. But good luck finding any in North Jersey, because I buy up all the ones I can find and use them throughout the year. Sorry.
For any of the above, it’s vitally important that you don’t try them out when you’re going to be far from home, a park, a bathroom… and NEVER use something for a race that you haven’t tried multiple times. It’s just like wearing new shoes to a race. You really don’t want to discover anything new about your body on race day.
Oh, and just in case your brain hasn’t exploded from all the science and math, there’s one more thing to add: you don’t want to combine gel/chomp use with sport drink use. You see, all those ratios go out the window when you add the sugars from sport drinks to the mix. It’s more likely to wreak havoc on your belly than your times, but the excess sugar could cause trouble there, too. I’d like to say there’s a simple formula for dealing with THAT quandary, but there isn’t. The way I approach it is this: while training, if I’m using a gel or a chew, I won’t use any sport drink, just water. In a race, I might take a sport drink (so long as it’s one that doesn’t have artificial sweeteners or sucralose), but never at a drink station before, during or after I’m imbibing in a gel. I wouldn’t want to spoil the lovely taste of concentrated carbohydrates!
Here’s how I’d rank the most popular gels, based upon personal efficacy, with a little bit of attention to general taste and composition:
GU Energy Gel
Now that’s only for pre- and during-running nutrition. After running is a whole different story, but we can save that one for another time. I think that was complicated enough for one month. But isn’t that what being a MoP-head is all about: making ourselves crazy trying to get an extra second out of our bodies?
You know you’re a MoP-head if:
• You understand what the word biomechanically means.
• If someone asked you to define the word biomechanically, you’d say, “Er, um, well, it has something to do with, um, the way your body works, but, um—oh, go ask Tom Allen. He can explain it!”
• You buy your shoes at a running shoe store.
• You actually know more than one running shoe store.
• You try on at least three pair of shoes every time you go to the running store.
• When you enter your favorite running store, you’re sure you hear the salesperson say, “Oh, damn, not him again.”
• You ran a race, or trained on any of the following days: Thanksgiving, Christmas Eve, Christmas Day, New Year’s Eve, New Year’s Day.
• You try really hard to understand science even though you were always a C student in science, because you really want to be a better runner.