Are energy gels for cycling a good way to refuel?

Cycling is a demanding sport. Like any other exercise, refueling your body after a ride is essential. But what about long 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 a breakthrough for endurance athletes of all disciplines. Gels (or chews) provide a quick supply of energy in an digestible form. They’re supposed to be packed with exactly what your body craves mid-ride: electrolytes and simple carbohydrates. You might be surprised at what’s in the average cycling energy gel pack. And what’s not.

These little packs come in a handy flat tube, or paper packets.

But do they work? And which ones are worth trying?

We’ll seek to answer that, an;d then briefly review a few of the best energy gels or chews for bicycling.

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 intrigued. For a guy accustomed to scarfing a peanut butter sandwich on a long ride, gels and chews make a lot of sense. It’s an efficient energy source that you can consume on the fly.

Before I ditched the PB & J, I decided to take a closer look and figure out what gels and chews 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?

Here’s what they have going on.

  • Carbohydrates: This is what your body craves the most during a ride. Carbs steady your blood sugar and delay muscular fatigue. All cycling energy gels 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 like sodium and potassium help regulate body hydration and maintaining muscle and nerve function. If your body lacks these nutrients, you may experience muscle fatigue and cramping, even if you’re well-hydrated.
  • Some cycle energy gel packs contain additional chemicals. Amino acids such as taurine, herbal additions like ginseng, and stimulants such as caffeine are often included.

What do energy gels lack?

  • Fats & Proteins: Gels give your body an energy boost that can be rapidly digested. Fats and proteins take longer to digest, and are therefore less useful mid-ride.
  • Complex Carbs: These gels and chews don’t contain complex carbohydrates. If you’re looking for complex carbs, which your body consumes more slowly, 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 to hydrate to keep energy up.

Do these ingredients remind you of anything? If the words ‘energy drink’ popped into your head, good work!

Cycling energy gel packs have a lot in common with those sugary, fizzy beverages. And they share the same pitfalls.

So which are the best energy gels / chews for cycling?

Here are a couple of cycling energy gels that review well and seem to get it right.

1) Gatorade Chews: Compact energy source for cyclists

Gatorade Chews

Gatorade isn’t a name I need to preface. 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.

2) Clif Shot Bloks: One of the best tasting energy gel chews for cycling

Clif Shot Bloks

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.

Are gels and chews a good idea?

Are they good practice? In a nutshell: yeah, they’re great, go for it!

There’s absolutely nothing wrong with them. They definitely work. If you can feel your reserves sagging, an energy chew can really help.

That said, you might not need them.

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.

These packs contain about 100 calories worth of simple carbs. Your body can’t survive on that alone. I do recommend keeping a few in your pack or panniers just in case.

Soapbox Time: my major issue with energy gels

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. 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.

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.

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!