Getting through a long run workout or a long race isn’t just about training the legs to be strong and resilient. You also have to teach yourself how to fuel properly over the course of an event.
As a general guideline, our bodies have enough fuel for roughly 90 minutes of high-level activity. Beyond that, you need to consume calories in order to maintain intensity. Have you ever been going strong in a race when your body suddenly hits a wall and you feel like you have no energy left? Yep… We’ve all been there!
The most convenient solution for runners is energy gels. These little packs are so useful that we reckon every runner should have a stash of them on hand. Whether it’s fueling for your goal marathon, or stowing a couple hundred extra calories for Sunday morning’s long run, gels are a game changer. It’s recommended to consume on gel every 45 or minutes or so to maintain performance.
These little carbohydrate-bombs could be the difference between finishing strong and flunking out halfway through a race or training run. And it’s not just the sugar. Most gels also contain electrolytes (replacing a sport drink), and many also contain caffeine, a gentle stimulant.
If you want to try one out, we recommend the GU Energy Original. It comes in a pretty huge variety of flavors, each of which contains 100 calories per gel, plus a mix of complex, easily-digestible carbohydrates, amino acids, and electrolytes.
Check out the others that made our list to find what you like! Trust us – you want one of these in your pocket next time you hit a slump.
Top 3 Best and Favorites
GU Energy Original
Top Organic and Gluten-Free
Top Organic and Gluten-Free
Honey Stinger Energy Gels
CLIF SHOT Energy Gel
1. GU Energy Original
These little gel packets are tops, and they come in a rather huge array of flavors (including some unusual novelty ones), so everyone should find something to suit them.
With 100 calories per gel, it’s the perfect pick-me-up when you need a boost. You won’t find anything dodgy on the ingredient list – it’s vegan, gluten-free, and kosher, so absolutely everybody can partake healthily.
Each gel is loaded with complex, easy-to-digest carbs, amino acids to aid in muscle recovery, and electrolytes to replenish what you lose on the road.
You’ll need to double-check the flavor you’re buying, as some are caffeinated and others aren’t. Caffeine in gels can cause stomach problems for some.
Customers have also scored this gel high for being easy to open and eat, but not so flimsy that it breaks or tears open while still in a pocket.
Be aware that some runners may not like the texture. This is generally true of gels – they take some getting used to. And, as with all supplements, some may have a less than desirable digestive reaction. We advise testing these before you hit the race, so you aren’t caught unaware!
- Multitude of flavors available
- 100 calories, 2 – 23 grams carbs per gel
- Contain complex carbs, electrolytes, and amino acids
- Some are caffeinated, some aren’t
- Some runners may not like the texture
Best for Marathon Training
2. GU Energy Roctane
As you can tell by the name, these gels are similar to our top choice. The difference is that these ones are created more with long distances and higher intensity in mind.
They’re also available in a large range of flavors, and come in caffeinated and non-caffeinated versions.
While they contain roughly the same amount of carbs as our top choice, they’re much denser in both amino acids and sodium. Each serving of these will give you a much-needed electrolyte kick!
For endurance athletes, these will help boost that stamina when you need it!
- 125 – 180 milligrams sodium per serving
- 1425 milligrams of amino acids each
- Available with or without caffeine
- Made for endurance races
- Some of the flavors are sickly sweet
Top Organic and Gluten-Free
3. Honey Stinger Energy Gels
If you’re careful about what you ingest and that extends to running nutrition, Honey Stinger Energy Gels are right up your alley. We’ve chosen them as our top organic, gluten-free gels.
They’re honey-based, which immediately makes them a healthy option with antibiotic properties. There’s no artificial flavoring in these gels – everything is 100% natural, and they’re certified gluten-free and USDA organic.
Honey is easy to digest, and is actually usually very easy on the stomach. Some may find it quite sweet, but no matter how you feel about the taste, it’s best chased by a couple of sips of water to aid in digestion.
We like that you can use these gels in a variety of ways when you’re not running. Mix them into hot water for a soothing tea, cold water for a sweet energy-boosting drink, or spread them on bread like regular honey!
Each packet contains 100 calories, and be aware that some contain caffeine and others don’t!
- Naturally flavored
- Certified gluten-free and USDA organic
- Honey-based for quick absorption and easy digestion
- Variety of ways to use it
- The packaging is thick, so can be a little difficult to open while running
Best Value Energy Gel
4. CLIF SHOT Energy Gel
Prices of gels can vary widely. An average gel is about $1.50, and high-end options approach $4 per gel! That gets expensive quickly, especially if you are training for a long event. So we’re always on the lookout for products that deliver high value for a wallet-friendly price, and this one wins that spot for gels.
They’re available in some delicious flavors, so pick your favorite dessert and try it out!
As with most brands, some contain caffeine, and others don’t. Check carefully, though, as the caffeinated ones come in varying strengths, and too much caffeine can unsettle your stomach while running.
They’re also packed with electrolytes, including the essential sodium, potassium, and magnesium.
As an added bonus, these gels are the most environmentally-friendly ones we’ve come across. The company makes every effort to only use renewable energy sources, sustainable organic ingredients, and pack their products in environmentally-friendly packaging. They even go so far as to transport their goods in non-polluting vehicles!
- Promotes sustainability
- Caffeinated and caffeine-free flavors
- Easy on the digestive system
- Some users report them being a little too sticky to take comfortably
Best Isotonic – Consumable Without Water
5. Science in Sport GO Isotonic Energy Gels
Most gels need to be consumed with water in order to kickstart the digestion process. If you’re looking for something that doesn’t need that extra water, then you’re in luck.
It’s also of a thinner consistency than most others, so it goes down easily. With 22 grams of carbs in each sachet, you’ll get a nice bit of energy after taking one.
Each of the many flavors are created to be light and subtle, so there should be no overpowering sickly sweetness.
These gels are certified to be free of prohibited substances and packed full of only good stuff by the Informed Sport Evolved Certification program.
One potential downside is that these gels seem to burst at the seams more easily than others. Be careful if you’re going to be carrying them in a tight space!
- No water necessary
- Thinner consistency than most
- 22 grams of carbohydrates
- Certified by the Informed Sport Evolved Certification program
- Multiple customers have reported that the packets burst easily at the seams in a bag or belt
6. Huma Plus Energy Gels
Not all gels are all-natural. Many contain artificial ingredients, although they’re mostly all designed to serve a helpful purpose.
Huma Plus gels, though, are all-natural and made with real food ingredients. There’s no artificial flavoring – just real fruit.
As well as healthy carbs, you’ll find a stack of electrolytes in each packet, to refresh you when you need them on the road.
They’re not only all-natural, but they’re also gluten-free and vegan. Some flavors have a dash of caffeine in them, also from natural sources.
- All-natural, vegan, and gluten-free
- Carbohydrates and electrolyte mix
- Some contain caffeine
- Flavored by real fruit
- Chia seeds may get stuck in teeth!
Best Vegan Energy Gels
7. PowerBar PowerGel Original
Thankfully, vegan products are becoming more and more common. PowerBar’s PowerGel Original is our choice for best vegan energy gels.
These gel sachets not only avoid any animal products, but they also have some unusual but effective ingredient blends.
Their C2MAZ Dual Carb Source mix provides a nice 25 grams of easy-to-digest carbs from healthy sources. Another thing we like is that these gels have a 2:1 glucose/fructose ratio, which helps the sugars get absorbed more readily, and adds an extra little spark to your energy and muscle recovery.
They’re formulated a little differently than others, which scores them extra points in both the innovative and effective categories.
- Easy-open packaging
- Multiple flavors to suit every person
- 25g C2MAX Dual Source Carb Mix
- 2:1 ratio of glucose and fructose
- The packaging may split too easily inside bags or pockets
Top Waste-Reducing Bulk Pouch
8. GU Original 15-Serving Pouch
For the environmentally-conscious runner, all those discarded gel packets can be an issue. It’s a lot of waste. GU addresses this concern with bulk-packaged options. You buy a big pouch, and fill reusable small pouches for your on-the-go fueling. With 15 servings in a single pouch, you greatly cut down on waste and avoid having to throw away single servings.
You can choose from an array of flavors, some with caffeine and some without. They all contain branched-chain amino acids, which are helpful for muscle recovery, as well as electrolytes like sodium and potassium.
If you’re using a caffeinated flavor, using the same flavor 4 or 5 times during one race may be overdoing it on the caffeine a little. The only way to counter this would be to carry more pouches, either a large one like this or a couple of smaller single servings.
- 15 servings in one package
- 125mg Sodium, 40mg Potassium per serving
- Contain BCAAs for better recovery
- Available with or without caffeine
- Can’t alternate between caffeinated/non-caffeinated
Best Glucose Gel
9. TRANSCEND 15g Glucose Gels
For runners struggling with low blood sugar, having a few of these in your pocket could be a lifesaver.
Packing a glucose punch of 15 grams, these quick-open, quick-eat pouches will do a good job of getting your blood sugar levels up in no time.
They’re small enough to carry a good few with you at any given time. They’re super for any situation, too – not just running!
Unfortunately, there seems to be only one flavor available, but when you need sugar now, you may not be fussy about how it tastes!
- Great for diabetics
- 15 grams of glucose
- Easy to open
- No flavor variety
Top Caffeine Energy Gel
10. Hammer Nutrition Hammer Gel Espresso
For some of us, a caffeine-packed gel is just a step closer to an upset stomach. But for others, a caffeine boost is like a mini turbo-charger and can have a significant impact on performance! It’s not just about waking up. Caffeine can enhance focus, and stimulates metabolism as well.
If your stomach handles caffeine like a champ, you may like these gels. Not all flavors contain caffeine, so runners of all preferences can use these.
Those that do contain the good stuff, though, contain a nice amount. Espresso flavor packs a punch of 50mg, while Tropical contains half that.
- All-natural ingredients
- Caffeine-free flavors available, too
- Complex carbohydrate blend
- Flavored and carbed-up by real fruit
- May not be enough flavor variation for caffeine fans
Are you unsure about whether energy gels could be helpful for you? Here are some of the most asked questions so you can learn more about them and decide if they’re right for you (They are!).
Why Do I Need Energy Gels?
Carbohydrates are the body’s main source of fuel. When you run, your body burns carbs to fuel you along your run! But your body can really only store enough energy for about 90 minutes of vigorous activity. After that, performance starts to decline. Call it bonking, call it cracking, call it hitting the wall. Whatever you call it, it’s a special kind of suffering when your body runs out of energy before the finish line.
90 minutes is not that much, and if you’ve already cracked, simply eating a gel won’t help that much. You need to stay topped up through your run. Once you’ve hit the halfway point on your half-marathon, or the quarter-point of a full marathon, you’re likely to be running quite low on glycogen!
Energy gels made from quick-absorbing form of carbohydrates, as well as more slowly-digested sugars, that refuel your body and give you a boost. Because they’re in a very concentrated form, they get to work very quickly and effectively. The more complex carbs then give you lasting energy.
What Is Usually In Energy Gels?
An energy gel will usually have around 25 grams of carbs in it. Sometimes, that’s all they need, but many of them include other useful ingredients to enhance your performance. Most contain a mix of sugars. Some sugars go right into the blood stream and provide an immediate boost. More complex sugars take longer to be digested, and supply lasting energy after the initial boost.
Most also include electrolytes to replenish you on the go. While energy is important for exercise, it’s electrolytes that provide the chemical machinery for your body to function, and you lose them as you sweat. Topping up electrolytes is just as important as topping up sugars. Many gels also contain caffeine to help with blood flow and oxygenation. Most use natural flavors, often fruit, which also add a dash of antioxidants.
How Long Will It Take to Absorb?
Gels can absorb in as little as 3 minutes, or they can take a little longer, up to 15 minutes.
It really depends on the type of gel you’re taking. Another factor that can make a difference is how depleted you are. In order for easy digestion and absorption to take place, there still needs to be blood going towards the stomach.
Most of your blood will be in your muscles when you’re late in a run, and won’t be expended on things like digestion in that moment. Therefore, it’s essential to take a gel before you hit a low point and feel like you can’t go anymore.
How Often Should I Take a Gel?
For the average 20 – 25 grams of carbs per gel, you should take one every 45 minutes to an hour. For example, if you’re running a 5-hour marathon, this means you’d need at least 5 gels in your pack for the race.
It’s a good idea to alternate between gels containing caffeine and those without caffeine. Too much caffeine can have a detrimental effect, on both your stomach and your running performance.
If you can, stick to this timing. Waiting until you feel the bonk coming on is too late!
What Else is Important to Know About Gels?
Pro tip! Don’t go into a marathon having never used gels before. “Nothing new on race day” is a common piece of running advice, and for good reason. Use them while training first so you can get an idea of how they affect you and how your body deals with them. Ask any runner. They will have stories about how a certain gel brand, or even a particular flavor, either did great things or very bad things indeed for their running.
Always take your gel with plain water. Don’t mix them with sports drinks – that could be an overload of sugar.