Recently gel sales have risen sharply and the single serve portions have proven popular. But are they as good as electrolyte drinks, and what are the pitfalls?
Most modern sports drinks and gels contain multiple transportable carbohydrates so they are nutritionally more or less the same even if the ingredient lists look very different.Typically gels contain a combination of maltodextrin and fructose; this combination is chosen because it is the least sweet option. Electrolyte drinks don’t have the same problem with ultra concentrated sweetness so contain combinations of maltodextrin, sugar, glucose and fructose.
For more information about fueling, check out these two articles:
Multiple Transportable Carbohydrates
Conclusion: Round 1 is a draw
Hydration and Electrolytes
The law in NZ states that electrolyte drinks must contain at least 10 mmols of sodium, and typically only some of the big brand ready to drink products have levels nearly that low. Most sports drinks contain over 20mmol and some products in New Zealand have up to 39mmol.
When you dilute a gel down to the same carbohydrate concentration as an electrolyte drink, the electrolyte content becomes extremely low. We took a selection of gels and selected the one with the highest level of sodium, and this only worked out at about 5mmol of sodium, others were much less. The conclusion here is, most gels are virtually electrolyte free despite the marketing claims of some to the contrary. If they contained a substantial amount of electrolytes, then the concentration would make the product unpalatable and they wouldn’t sell.
Conclusion: Electrolyte drinks are the winner
Instructions for gels always say that you should use them with water – its actually written into NZ law that this type of statement must be written on the label. Its surprising how many gel users don’t actually know why this is, and end up with gastrointestinal problems on race day.
The stomach works like a holding tank with a valve at the bottom of it. When you drink just water, the valve opens up and your stomach empties quickly, but when you
add a lot of carbohydrates (like when taking a gel), this valve closes up and the stomach empties very slowly. Furthermore, to compensate for this high sugar content, the body might pump water into the intestines to dilute this sugar – leading to dehydration of your blood supply.
The difficulty with gels is that they are typically 45- 60% carbohydrate, and you should take them with enough water to dilute them to 5-10% carbohydrate. That can be quite a lot of water if you are doing it correctly. This can be very difficult to calculate and execute when you’re hitting your Redline.
Electrolyte drinks in New Zealand and Australia must be formulated between 5-10% carbohydrate*, so you don’t need to worry about calculations or large doses of water. It allows for smaller mouthfuls and more focus on what you are doing.
Conclusion: electrolyte drinks are the winner
Pre-made electrolyte drinks are very convenient for cyclists, but not always as convenient for runners. For a marathon, gels can be a convenient option if there are water stations available.
Conclusion: another draw
Sweetness and Flavour
Gels containing both glucose and fructose can be intensely sweet, but, if they are being used with water, then this sweetness can be washed away. Gels can offer some flavour variety. Electrolyte drinks have more flexibility with their formulation so there is a greater range of sweetness levels available out there.
Conclusion: another draw
Given that the electrolyte content of gels is always very low and there can be a lot of stomach complications associated with gels when they are not used correctly, the winner of this has to be electrolyte drinks. It does however come down to personal choice.
*It is against the law in New Zealand and Australia to sell a product labeled as an electrolyte drink that does not contain between 5%-10% carbohydrate.
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