A new fuel for athletes: energy gels


They puckered, they grimaced, they made every kind of face. But when a panel of volunteers, all of them runners or cyclists, taste-tested selected "energy gels" designed to boost athletic vigor, they gave a qualified thumbs up to at least some of them.

And a vehement "No way!" to others.

The tasters were sampling some of the gels that have been appearing in growing variety on the shelves of sports-supply stores under such brand names as Gu, Power Gel, Clif Shot, Carb-Boom, Cytomax Gulp N' Go, Crank Sports e-Gel and others, usually in single-serving foil packets.

The gels are intended to replenish carbohydrates during long-distance activities, boosting energy when an athlete is starting to flag, nutritionists said.

"Some people really swear by the goo [as the products are sometimes called generically]. They swear they get a boost," said Alysun Deckert. A registered dietitian with Seattle's University of Washington Medical Center, Deckert also is a long-distance runner who sometimes uses the gels.

Suzanne Nelson Steen, registered dietitian and nutritional adviser to about 700 athletes on 23 University of Washington sports teams - football, basketball, track and many others - also calls the gels "worthwhile."

"A lot of athletes like them, especially endurance athletes," such as cyclists and long-distance runners, she said.

In addition to carbohydrates, Steen said, the gels often contain some electrolytes (sodium, potassium, chloride). "They're essentially all the same nutritionally," she said, with the carb and electrolyte levels varying only slightly. Some have caffeine for an extra boost.

Deckert noted that you can also get carbs and electrolytes from sports drinks such as Gatorade, but some athletes find the gels more convenient for certain activities.

Her advice for any athlete using them: "Come up with a plan, such as use the gel at mile 14 and at mile 21 [as in a marathon]," or at any predictable point when you know you're going to hit the wall.

"Use it to prevent bonking [reaching exhaustion]," she said.

This advice is a little different from the information on some product packages. One, for instance, says to consume a packet of gel (32 grams) 15 minutes before activity and every 45 minutes during activity.

In the Seattle Times' unscientific, blind taste test, three brands were selected that are widely available in sports stores: Gu, Power Gel and Clif Shot. From each, two flavors were selected.

The tasters' favorite product among the six gels? Gu, in the Just Plain flavor, which basically tastes like unflavored, gooey sugar.

At the opposite end was Clif Shot's Sonic Strawberry flavor, which was called "horrible."

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