Keeping your body properly fuelled during a long workout can feel like a challenging task, but it doesn’t have to be. Isotonic gels make life easier and help you to improve performance and enjoyment while you’re on the road, in the pool or at the gym. This guide explains what these gels are, how they work and how they can help you.
What are isotonic gels?
Isotonic energy gels are small packets of gel you can either chew or drink, and they are designed to top up your system with simple carbohydrates. Your body can access these carbs quickly and efficiently to use them as an energy source, which can make a big difference to your results and enjoyment while exercising.
Isotonic is the key word here, and it is based on the Greek words “iso” and “tonos” meaning “equal” and “tone”.
When it comes energy gels, isotonic means a solution which is similar to blood in its concentration of salts and electrolytes. This makes it easy to digest, and it is why these gels are an absolute godsend for any long work-out.
You may also see exercises described as isotonic, but this just means an exercise in which a muscle works while doing a normal contraction, such as a biceps curl.
So, why are isotonic gels so great?
The game-changing feature of isotonic gels is that you do not need to take them with water, whereas you do need water with ordinary energy gels. This seemingly small difference brings two big advantages for anyone doing an endurance-type workout.
Firstly, you don’t have the problem of having to drink and take a gel at the same time, so the process is much simpler. This is a great advantage when you’re working hard over a long period, as fatigue can make co-ordination and decision-making more difficult. You can just grab the gel and use it with less fuss.
The gels don’t re-hydrate you, so you might still need water as well, but the key is that the gels don’t require water. You have one less thing to worry about.
The second advantage is that athletes using isotonic gels lose less blood volume during exercise than if they use just water. Minute changes in blood volume can have a major effect on your performance in any type of endurance exercise.
How do energy gels help during exercise?
Isotonic energy gels focus on achieving one major goal: delivering the simple carbohydrates you need for energy as exercise. These carbohydrates come in the form of sugars, which your body absorbs and converts into glycogen as an energy source.
If your body runs low on glycogen then your muscles function less efficiently and your performance will drop off rapidly. You may also start to feel woozy and “out of it”, because your brain also needs those carbs to function efficiently.
As well as the simple carbs, many isotonic energy gels have other substances designed to act quickly and help your performance. This includes caffeine to help rev up your system and improve your focus and concentration, and electrolytes, which are the essential salts and minerals your body needs and uses up while you exercise.
Should I use isotonic gels?
Before you try any supplements to improve your performance, make sure you have a healthy, nutritious diet, get enough sleep and have sensible goals. Supplements are great, but they won’t replace these essential parts of your lifestyle.
If you are ready to try an isotonic gel, the key factor in deciding how or even if to use them is understanding your how quickly your body is using glycogen during any given workout.
You will burn glycogen at a different rate from other people, depending on your physiology, general health and the demands of the run. Workouts of less than an hour are unlikely to exhaust your carbohydrate store, but the research is pretty compelling that topping up your carbs improves performance if you exercise for more than 60 minutes.
One guaranteed way to know when you are low on glycogen is if you get a metallic taste in your mouth or you smell a bit like cat wee. This happens when your body runs so low on glycogen that it begins burning protein instead. One by-product of this process is ammonia, which is normally broken down and passed out of the body in your urine. During exercise your body can’t process the ammonia quickly enough and must sweat it out instead.
How long does it take for isotonic gels to start working?
Everyone’s body is different, so you need to practise to work out how long a gel will take to get into your system and start having an effect. Some individuals report noticeable effects anywhere from three to 15 minutes after ingesting one, but your own experience might differ from this.
You also need to know when your glycogen levels are going to drop so you can use one at the right time. Don’t wait until you hit “the wall”, which is the catastrophic moment when your carb levels drop so low you that you can barely continue.
If you know your body will need a top-up, you can take a gel before you start and carry one with you but remember to be cautious about taking too much. A useful rule of thumb is the 1-1-1 rule: your body can absorb approximately 1g of carbohydrate per kilogram of body weight per hour. If you take more than this you may end up with undigested gel sloshing around in your stomach, which isn’t ideal.
Choosing the best isotonic energy gel
You should shop around and try different gels to find the one that suits you best from the huge range on the market. Remember to look for “isotonic” gels, as these are the ones you can take without water.
You might want or need to avoid gels which include caffeine, and every product will have its own variety of flavours and consistencies. Ask friends, check the reviews, and look for free samples so you can work out what works for you.
Remember to check how much carbohydrate is included in each packet and apply the 1-1-1 rule to make sure you get the right amount. Some gel packaging may be uncomfortable or awkward to carry depending what sort of kit you wear.
Overall, isotonic gels are a simple and effective way to maintain the right levels of glycogen in your body, especially when you’re exercising for more than an hour. If you haven’t tried them before, then you should definitely give them a go.