Are energy gels for cycling a good way to refuel?
Cycling is a demanding sport and a fantastic workout. Like with any other exercise, refueling your body after your ride is essential for best results. But what about longer rides and races? When your energy level starts to sag, is there anything you can eat or drink to give you a much needed boost?
Energy gels are heralded as a breakthrough for endurance athletes of all disciplines. Gels (or solid chews) provide a quick supply of dense energy in an accessible form, and they’re supposed to be packed with exactly what your body needs on a ride: electrolytes and simple carbohydrates.
These little packs come in a handy flat tube that you can tear open and consume, or paper packets you can rip open.
But do they work? Or perhaps a better question is: are they worth it?
This article seeks to answer that. We’ll look at what they’re made of. You might be surprised at what’s in the average cycling energy gel pack. And what’s not.
Next, we’ll list a few of the best energy gels or chews for bicycling I’ve found, and I’ll review each one briefly. That way if you want to give them a whirl, you’ll be trying one that’s halfway decent.
Are energy gels for cycling the answer to your sagging energy levels after a long race? Read on to find out.
Energy gels for cycling: what’s in them?
When I first heard of cycling energy gels, I was pretty impressed. For a guy accustomed to scarfing a peanut butter sandwich on a long ride, it made a lot of sense. It’s an efficient energy source that you can consume on the fly. No muss, no fuss.
Before I ditched the PB & J, I decided to look a bit closer into these gels and figure out what they have to offer.
I mean, if gels are such a perfect replacement for a mid-ride snack, why aren’t all our meals in goo form?
After having read a bunch of cycling energy gel reviews, I can tell you that some are definitely better than others. But in general, here’s what they have going on.
- Carbohydrates: This is what your body craves the most during a prolonged period of exertion. Carbohydrates keep your blood sugar level steady, and help to delay muscular fatigue. All energy gels for cycling contain a lot of carbohydrates.
- The carbs are mainly in the form of sugars and maltodextrins (easily digestible as glucose).
- The best energy gels for cycling also contain electrolytes. Electrolytes are important for regulating body hydration and maintaining muscle and nerve function. In this case, we’re usually looking at sodium and potassium. If your body lacks these nutrients, you may be prone to muscle fatigue and cramping, even if you’re well hydrated.
- Some cycle energy gel packs contain additional chemicals. Amino acids such as taurine are commonly used. Herbal additions like ginseng are popular (although perhaps overhyped), and caffeine is often found in these packs as well, which improves your mental alertness.
What do energy gels lack?
- Fats & Proteins: The idea is to give your body an energy source that can be rapidly digested, to give you an immediate energy boost. Fats and proteins take longer to digest, and are therefore less useful as a quick boost.
- Complex Carbs: These gels and chews don’t contain complex carbohydrates. If you’re looking for complex carbohydrate energy, which your body consumes over a longer stretch of time, dried fruit is a great alternative.
- Water: Because they’re so compact, gel packs for cycling & fitness don’t contain much water. You’ll need an auxiliary source of hydration to keep your energy up.
Taking a close look, do these ingredients remind you of anything? If the words ‘energy drink’ popped into your head, good work! Cycling energy gel packs actually have a lot in common with those sugary, fizzy beverages. And perhaps predictably, they share the same downfalls.
So are cycling energy gels and chews a good idea?
If you’re wondering if popping a few of these packs while on a long ride is a good practice, you’re not alone.
In a nutshell: yeah, they’re great, go for it!
In general, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with them. They definitely work, in the same way an energy drink does. If you can feel your reserves sagging, an energy chew can help a bike rider regain some get up and go.
But before you even hop on that bike, analyze your nutritional needs. You might not even require a boost!
If you’re planning on a short ride, I’d recommend you enjoy a small, carbohydrate rich snack about a half hour before you start pedalling. That should be enough.
For longer rides (one hour plus), a booster will definitely serve you well. For extremely long rides and races (2 hours plus), you’re actually much better served with a larger meal.
Think about it: these packs contain about 100 calories worth of simple carbs. Your body can’t survive on that alone, at least not without a huge headache and a serious case of the jitters.
But honestly, I do recommend keeping a few in your pack or panniers just in case. They can actually be a lifesaver out in the middle of nowhere. For the same reason, it’s a good idea to pack a few protein bars too.
Water, water everywhere
Planning to pop an energy gel pack on your cycling trip? Be sure to fill up that water bottle. You’re at risk of dehydration if you don’t.
Pop your gel pack or chew, and wash it down with water afterward. Or be prepared for headache city.
Soapbox Time: my major issue with energy gels
OK, so nutritionally they are a pretty decent product, and they’re pretty affordable to boot. Here’s my primary issue with energy gels for cycling: they create too much plastic waste!
The plastic film used to contain the gel is generally not recyclable or biodegradable. And frankly, I’m sick of seeing them littering cycling trails!
For that reason, I’m a much bigger fan of energy chews for cycling. They tend to have much less packaging.
I acknowledge that most of our food and snacks come wrapped in plastic film these days. But that doesn’t make it acceptable, and I think we can do a lot better.
So which are the best energy gels / chews for cycling?
That’s a good question! You’ll find a lot of cycling energy gel reviews out there, and they provide some great information on what to expect. As for me, here are a couple of options that seem to get it right.
Gatorade Chews: Compact Energy Source for Cyclists
Gatorade isn’t a name I need to preface. They’ve been in the sports drink business for years, and they’ve started offering energy chews for endurance sports like running and cycling.
The major advantage of chews is that you can measure out exactly the amount you want to take, unlike a cycling energy gel, which must be consumed all in one go.
Gatorade Prime energy chews contain 100 calories and 24 grams of carbs per serving (of 6 chews). They also contain niacin, vitamin B6, as well as 30mg of potassium and 90mg of sodium per serving, which are useful electrolytes.
On a bike, they’re really simple to pop in your mouth as you ride, and you can chew them slowly as you go. They taste pretty good but I’m not sure I could down six all in one go. I definitely prefer to pace it out over the course of my ride.
Clif Shot Bloks: One of the best tasting energy gel chews for cycling
You may have heard of Clif Bars before. This is the same company, but they’ve delved into the energy chew market, and I’m impressed with what they’ve got on offer.
Each ‘bar’ contains 3 ‘bloks’, which are about 33 calories each. That means that a bar contains approximately 100 calories in total. Each of these bars has 20mg of potassium and 70mg of sodium for electrolyte production.
Because they’re split into 3 segments, you can manage your calorie intake and chew away slowly throughout your ride. The package is easy to open, so you can enjoy it on the fly.
Each bar has 24 grams of carbohydrates, and you’ll be surprised by how good they taste; they’re a real treat. They’re made from primarily organic ingredients, and you have flavours like black cherry and margarita to enjoy.
Like any other chew or cycling energy gel, be sure to follow up with a swig of water.
What are a cyclist’s best alternatives to energy gels?
I do see the advantage that gels and chews bring to the table. They’re quick and convenient energy sources that you can enjoy on the fly. They don’t make you bloated like a fizzy energy drink would, and they aren’t messy or cumbersome to consume.
If you’re hoping for something else, I’d suggest fruit. It’s cheap and provides a fantastic boost on the fly. Bananas and apples are great foods that can be eaten quickly. They have complex carbohydrates, and a banana contains over 400mg of potassium.
If you find fresh fruit too bulky, dried is great too. I’m pretty fond of dried apricots and dates.
What do you eat before your rides? What’s your favourite chew or gel?
Thanks for reading!