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Do Elite Runners Use Gels?

By Andrea Cespedes

Elite runners finish races in a fraction of the time it takes mere mortals to cover the same distance. To compete at such impressive levels, elites have precise race strategies that usually include regular fueling. You may not see them carrying gels or other race fuel on the course, but that doesn't mean they don't take them.

About Gels

Sports gels are quick sources of carbohydrates, usually taken during endurance races lasting 90 minutes or longer. Your body has stores of glycogen, or energy, in the muscles and liver that can power you through a 60- to 90-minute workout. If you go longer, you need added carbs to avoid the dreaded bonk, a drastic drop in energy and power. Most gels offer about 25 grams of carbohydrates from simple sugars, such as cane sugar, honey, brown rice syrup, fructose or maltodextrin. Gels usually have no fiber, fat or protein. Gels come in portable pouches that are easy to carry with you as you run or that can be shaken into a water bottle.

Short Distances

Elites runners competing in races of half marathon distance or shorter usually don't use gels during competition. For example, American runner Ryan Hall regularly completes a half marathon in just under an hour -- so he doesn't need extra electrolytes and fuel; his glycogen stores can power him through. Average runners may take as long as two hours to complete a half marathon and will consume gels during the race.

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Individual Choices

The fuel that elite runners take in during longer races is a matter of personal choice. Some use carbohydrate drinks only, while others -- such as Jason Hartmann, who had impressive finishes at the 2010 Chicago Marathon and 2012 Boston Marathon -- take a gel every 6 miles, or so. Former Olympian and renowned running coach Jeff Galloway, noting that he did not take any fuel during his first 70 marathons, said that after each race he felt spent and had trouble recovering. During his last 40 marathons, he consumed an energy bar during the race and had a far better experience, especially in the last few miles. Remember, however, that just because an elite runner has success with a particular fueling strategy doesn't mean it will work for you.

Considerations

Elite racers have support crews that help them execute their race strategies. You don't see them carrying gels because they don't. Their race fuel is stashed at specific aid stations along the way. Each racer has his own clearly labeled bottle filled with his drink or fuel of choice. You may occasionally find an elite runner who doesn't take in any fuel during a race, but it isn't recommended.

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