Expert advice: What you need to know about gels and long distance runs

In the coming weeks I’ll be upping my mileage, so I thought it was a good time to check out the things you need to do to stay hydrated throughout a longer run. In my quest, I consulted google (of course) but I also asked Kristen Harvey (registered dietician). Kristen has kindly agreed to answer any of my nutrition questions so that I can share with everyone (thanks Kristen!) And though google is pretty awesome, I figured it was more intelligent to consult with an expert. And besides the point, Kristen knows what she’s talking about – she’s done freaking marathons! So she’s not one of those peeps who tells you all the jibber jabber health book stuff without following through herself.

Question: Why should someone take gels during a race? Are some better than others?

During exercise we lose electrolytes and we use up our glycogen stores after we have burned off all the glucose in our blood. CHO help maintain mental fn and this is important because mental fatigue can lead to muscle fatigue. This takes more than an hour. The rule of thumb is usually, if you exercise for 90 mins or more then you will need to replace carbs. Many people run 5 km then chug back a chocolate milk because the milk companies tell you you need to replace carbs after exercise but for 5km you really don’t need that many carbs.

Most runners need 30-60g of CHO per hour of exercise when exercising longer than 90 mins and depending on intensity too. For most people gels or liquid forms of CHO are digested the best. It is important to experiment during training, I would never recommend someone try a gel for the first time during a race.

Finding a gel you like is really a personal choice. You can buy fancy ones, vegan ones, organic, etc. and then one of the best runners I know around here (a Dietitian) swears by a coke and chocolate bar the night before the race then jujubes during the race. You can also buy “sharkies” which are electrolyte gummies with sugar. Some people are fine just using Gatorade or a homemade version with OJ, salt and water. You can also use Pedialyte or Ensure, the possibilities are endless. Some people can eat bananas and I used to take granola bars sometimes, but my stomach is iron clad.

The most important thing with gels is that you experiment with what works for you and that you drink plenty of water. Consuming too many CHO per water ratio can lead to increased dehydration as water is drawn to the stomach for digestion. To be really scientific about it your CHO solution should be between 6 to 8% CHO at a volume of 0.6-1.2 liters per hour. PowerAde and Gatorade have made their drinks approx around 8%, or you can water down some OJ.

CHO loading and repleting can be so scientific so my recommendations to ppl other than professional athletes is to experiment, experiment, experiment. And then stick to the routine that worked the best for you during a run. Keep written record somewhere of how you felt during and after the run so you will remember after months of training. I have both overhydrated and under hydrated during a race before. I ran out of water during my marathon and my mom wasn’t at the spot she said she would be to refill me so I took some Gatorade and it made me feel like I was gonna throw up. Then I didn’t want to take anything else and got really dehydrated… lessons learned.

|Kristen is a registered dietitian currently on maternity leave awaiting her first child. She has one marathon and a bunch of half marathons under her belt. She looks forward to completing her second marathon a year from now.|

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