Running gels can be a great source of carbs and energy come race day. But it’s important to understand not only how much you need to take, but also why you need to.
If you’re running anything upwards of 90 minutes, it’s important to have something for a mid-run energy boost. That’s where energy gels excel!
They pack in calories, carbs, and even electrolytes into a small package to fuel you up quickly and efficiently. They can be easy to carry in your running belt, and some may also be suitable for sensitive stomachs (definitely check out the ones I’ve suggested down below!).
You have a ton of variety to choose from, from options that include caffeine to delicious flavors that’ll be the perfect mid-run treat.
Interested in finding out which is the best running gel? In this article, I’ll share with you not only that, but I’ve also specified it into different categories, so it’ll be easier for you to find the perfect one for you.
All the energy gels and chews mentioned in this article come from personal experience as a running coach. I’ve also mentioned how much you need to consume and what to look out for when choosing an energy gel.
What are Energy Gels?
Energy gels are carbohydrate-rich gels that provide energy for exercise for endurance athletes such as runners, swimmers, and cyclists.
When we talk about energy gels, that includes engineered products like gels, chews, and even sports drinks. They’re formulated for fast, efficient, carbohydrate absorption to provide easy ways to receive carbohydrates while exercising.
Energy gels are largely made of simple sugar, which is your body’s preferred source of fuel while exercising.
Look for brands with two types of carbohydrates, such as glucose and fructose, for faster absorption. Several gels also contain electrolytes, which are especially important for long runs in hot weather.
Running energy gels became a thing in the United Kingdom in 1986 as a “convenient, prewrapped, portable” way to deliver carbohydrates during races.
Why Do We Need Running Gels?
Running for a couple of hours or longer demands a lot of energy, and the major source of muscular fuel throughout is carbs, which your body stores as glycogen.
If you stock up on pre-race carbs, your body can store around 90 minutes’ worth of glycogen, but after that, you risk running out. For this reason, you’ll need to take on some extra fuel during the race.
There are numerous approaches that can be taken. Sports drinks, energy bars, and dried fruit are all alternatives, but many people find that energy gels are the best way to refuel.
These typically contain 20-30mg of carbs, are small enough to put into a running belt, and can be taken quickly without interrupting your stride.
Benefits of Energy Gels
Energy gels offer several benefits that make them an ideal choice for endurance athletes, especially runners. Here’s why you should consider having energy gels on your next long-distance run or race:
- Easily digested
- Quick source of energy
- Smaller volume than whole foods for the same carb count
- Compact packaging that’s easy to stash away during a race or run
- Specific ratios of different carbohydrate types for better carb utilization during exercise
- Reduces your risk of hypoglycemia which can lead to hitting the wall or bonking
We learned the body absorbs glucose and fructose differently through many years of testing. Changing the ratio allows us to not only take in more but to better utilize, and many gels are designed with this in mind.
Previously it was believed that the body could not utilize more than 60 grams of carbs per hour. However, new products using ‘multiple transportable carbohydrates’, increase that to 90 grams of carbs per hour.
The main role of carbohydrates during long runs and races is to provide energy, specifically energy for our muscles.
But that’s not the only reason they matter.
Your BRAIN runs on glucose and when those levels start to drop, your mood drops, you start feeling fatigued even if your muscles are doing well, and welcome to the dreaded wall.
“The brain uses up to 20% of our body’s energy – as mental strain increases so does our brain’s demand for glucose. We give our brain glucose and improve our concentration, mental acuity, and mood. Carbohydrates allow our brain to make more serotonin or a mood-elevating chemical,” explains Registered Dietitian Meghann Featherstone.
What Kind of Gels are There?
All energy gels have the same purpose: to fuel your run. They come in a variety of shapes and sizes, but there are two major types: isotonic gels and energy gels.
Isotonic gels are pre-mixed with water, so they’re not only more fluid and simpler to take on the go, but you also don’t have to worry about carrying water or eating the gels near a water stop during a race. The disadvantage is that they are slightly larger. (see SiS and Spring below)
Energy gels, on the other hand, are primarily composed of carbohydrates. This variety may be stickier, and some may be difficult to get down without water, but you can load more into a small running belt, reducing the weight of what you have to carry.
The trade-off is that they must be timed around water stations in races or carried with you on extended training runs.
Both of these types of gels also feature caffeine alternatives for a little extra mental boost, which can be quite helpful in the last parts of a marathon.
Apart from these two types, the energy gels category also includes chews and even sports drinks. In this article, you’ll find the best options for all of these.
Feeling overwhelmed with all the details? In conjunction with Serena Marie R.D., I created a full runner nutrition course to help you figure it all out!Plus, we’re answering questions around running for weight loss, macros, and more. Get all the runner nutrition course details here!
Use code runnernutrition to get $10 off.
How Often Should I Take a Gel?
It’s not only important to pick which gel you want to take with you on a run, but also to know how often you’ll have to take it. In general, for races over 80 minutes, we need 30 – 90 gm of carbs per hour.
“Start fueling early,” says Meghann Featherstone, Registered Dietitian. “We tolerate fuel better when our heart rate is lower; if we wait to fuel when our heart rate is higher, we may have GI issues”, she explains.
It’s also a good idea to take fuel with fluids.
Here’s what R.D. Featherstone had to say: “Take fuel with fluids. Most fuel needs water or sports drink to dilute the sugars in order for us to tolerate the fuel. Dumping a concentrated gel into an empty stomach can cause a plethora of GI issues, so add some fluid to dilute it.”
Train Your Gut
We need to train ourselves to take enough fuel during the marathon.
She further explains how to consume them to build up your tolerance, “Start smaller. Take ½ a gel at a time – or ½ serving of chews – to start to build up your tolerance and comfort level.”
Struggling to figure out your running nutrition? When to fuel, what to take, how many calories you need?
I love these tips from Marathon Nutritionist to help you get used to taking in more fuel.
Should You Use a Variety of Gels?
It can be really beneficial to use a few different things during the race. This is due to the different digestion and way they are absorbed, which can potentially avoid stomach issues.
Energy gels can include a variety of sugars: fructose, glucose, maltodextrin, and other fast-digesting carbs for quick absorption.
Meanwhile, many of the newer gels designed to be for sensitive stomachs or with more real food might be absorbed more slowly as they include: rice, fruit purée, maple syrup, and honey.
It could be that mixing the different options gives you that steady flow of energy with less stomach discomfort.
Best Running Gels in 2023 (By Category for All Types of Runners)
You’ll notice there is not a best-tasting winner and that’s because I’ve found it to be really subjective. I will give you my thoughts having tried so many of these over the last two decades of running and I’ll share reviews from fellow runners to help you decide.
Overall Best Running Gels (Top All-Round Winners)
Spring Energy gels are great all-around running gels that you won’t regret getting. First of all, they’re made from real ingredients and are maltodextrin-free too!
They’ve been designed specifically with running in mind and are absolutely perfect for all types of runners! Each gel contains a balanced composition of carbs without any added, artificial sugars.
These gels combine rice, chia seeds, honey, and molasses with fruit, sea salt, and even peanut butter to make a variety of all-natural fuel options.
The combination of simple and complex carbs provides more energy rather than the big spike and crash that’s often experienced with other gels that just include simple carbs.
The real food ingredients are a big factor for why most runners experience little to no gastrointestinal issues with these. So you can rest assured that they’ll work great for you come race day!
They also have medium-chain triglycerides (MCT) that help diversify energy sources and ensure that you don’t oversaturate one metabolic pathway.
Like most other gels, Spring Energy gels don’t contain much sodium so if you tend to sweat a lot during a race or you’re planning on running during hot weather, consider grabbing an electrolyte drink with it.
Carbs: Each 45g rip-top tube contains 15 to 20g carbs.
Flavors: You’ll find interesting flavor options such as Canaberry, Power Rush, and Hill Aid.
Cost: $68 for 20 gels find them here >>
(cost is higher because it’s real food)
Honey Stinger gels and waffles are a great, delicious option that’s also organic! It’s one of the most reliable gels for people with diabetes and soy or nut allergies.
When Honey Stinger introduced these gels, they changed the game. This was thanks in large part to the use of healthier ingredients like organic tapioca syrup and organic honey, which offer two easily digested sources of sugar.
You won’t find any artificial flavorings in these and they’re 100% natural.
I personally love taking a waffle at the start of the race. It’s delicious and doubles as a great snack! The waffles top off the fuel and, thanks to its natural ingredients, it doesn’t bother the stomach either.
They’re also certified gluten-free and has added electrolytes which makes it an excellent option.
With just the right amount of sweetness, these gels excel when many others on the market tend to sometimes be excessively sweet. It also makes it a great option when you have to consume multiple servings during longer runs and races.
Carbs: 24 grams of carbs in 1 gel
Flavors: fruit smoothie, acai pomegranate, chocolate, strawberry kiwi, mango orange, and vanilla
Cheapest Energy Gels
Looking for the cheapest energy gels? Then homemade options might be your best bet. If you have the time to grab a few ingredients and follow some simple instructions, you can totally make some yourself at home.
Option 1: Homemade
Check out these 5 delicious homemade energy gel recipes by Road Biker Rider for some great ideas you can try making.
Option 2: Earn Points
You can also buy from places like Road Runner Sports, REI or a store where you earn points to find better deals and cut down on costs. Drinks may also be a cheaper option to try out instead of the gels.
Unfortunately, gels just aren’t super cheap.
Best Running Gels For Sensitive Stomachs
I’ll start by recommending you look into hydration-based nutrition, such as Tailwind, UCAN, or Gnarly. I’m a big fan of Tailwind and Gnarly from my Chicago marathon summer training days. But there are gels that also work!
Spring Energy Gel (yes again!)
Spring Energy gels have been my pick of one of the best all-around gels, but they also happen to be one of the best if you have a sensitive stomach.
Thanks to the real food ingredients used to make them, most runners experience little to no gastrointestinal issues with these.
The UCAN energy gels feature a slow-burning formula that delivers consistent energy to the muscles and brains without any GI distress. Their proprietary ingredient called LIVSTEADY is where all the magic happens.
It contains no sugar or fast carbs so it won’t give you a sudden spike and crash like many other energy gels on the market. What’s great is that they truly don’t spike your blood sugar and provide long-lasting energy which is perfect for race day. These are a good option for those with blood sugar issues.
Read my full UCAN review!
One thing to watch out for when it comes to the gels is that they tend to have a bit of a chalky aftertaste. Their powdered drinks called Energy Powders are also a great option. They’re gluten-free, keto-friendly, and also vegan.
Carbs: 19 grams in 1 gel, 0 sugars
Flavors: orange and strawberry banana
Cost: $34 for 12 gels here >>
Tailwind’s Drink Mixes mix with water to easily meet your calorie, hydration, and electrolyte needs. It’s easy on the stomach too as it allows you to drink small, steady doses of fuel which then passes right through the stomach.
Tailwind’s fuel composition matches what the gut is designed to absorb, so Tailwind enters your system rapidly without stressing the digestive tract or producing stomach troubles.
Tailwind is made entirely of natural and organic ingredients. It’s also non-GMO, gluten-free, and contains no soy or dairy, making it a great option for those with allergies.
You also won’t find any artificial colors, flavors, or preservatives, which work to make it, even more, easier for the stomach.
Carbs: 25 grams of carbs per serving, 25 grams of sugar
Flavor: Orange, Berry, Lemon, Unflavored
If you frequently experience stomach pain or poor digestion, choose Huma’s Gel’s special Stomach-Friendly formula. All Huma Gels are gluten-free, dairy-free, and vegan, and are made with real food.
The company takes great pride in its product’s simple list of ingredients, which includes strawberry purée, evaporated cane juice, water, brown rice syrup, chia seeds, strawberry concentrate, sea salt, and citric acid, among other things.
To put it simply, it’s real food that won’t cause any unnecessary GI issues for you on race. Personally the chia seed texture it didn’t sit well with me while running, more of mental than stomach issue. Texture is another thing to TEST with your fuel.
Another popular option is the Huma Plus, which contains double the electrolytes and is really great for hot runs.
Carbs: 23 grams in 1 gel, 14 sugars
Flavors: strawberry, apple and cinnamon, blueberries, café mocha, chocolate, lemonade, mangoes, and raspberries
Cost: $29 for 12 gels here >>
Looking for a quick energy boost while on the go? In recent years, there has been an increase in the number of products in the market that are made with natural ingredients. However, most are still made with processed formulations and even maltodextrin.
Untapped’s Pure Maple Gel, on the other hand, is as natural and clean as an energy gel can get; it’s simply 100% pure, certified organic Vermont maple syrup.
That might sound like a weird thing to have while running but trust me it tastes delicious! It has a nice fluid viscosity that doesn’t leave an overly sticky residue. They are delicious, fast-acting, easy on the stomach, and ultra-convenient.
And again the waffle is my jam!
Each packet contains 100 calories, 26g of carbohydrates, 5mg of sodium, and 80mg of potassium, as well as trace levels of manganese, riboflavin, calcium, magnesium, and zinc.
Carbs: 26 grams per gel, 25 grams of sugar
Flavor: Natural, Coffee, Salted Raspberry
Cost: $36 for a box of 20 here >>
Highest Carb Running Gels
All right, when you are ready to load up because we need more carbs on race day or it’s a hard workout and you want to fuel less… time to go for the higher carb counts! Again make sure your gut can handle it.
If you’re looking for the best fruit-flavored option on the market, then these Skratch Labs Energy Chews might be the one for you! You can, basically, describe them as candy gumdrops made of sugar and pectin.
They’re an incredible energy supplement when you’re looking for something tasty that won’t mess with your stomach. Since they’re chews, they’re easier on the stomach than most other gels. As they’re digested, they provide fast energy.
These chews don’t contain any coloring agents, artificial flavors that get passed on as natural, or ingredients such as carnauba wax. Instead, they’re made from real fruit and lightly dusted granulated sugar and sour powder. Definitely an excellent choice if you’re looking for fruit-flavored ones.
Carbs: 18 grams in 5 chews
Flavor: Orange, Raspberry, Green Tea and Lemon
Cost: $23 for a pack of 10 here >> (that’s considered 20 servings)
Checkout my other best running energy chews if this works best for you!
Maurten’s gels stand out in the sports gel market because they are unflavored. This is ideal for runners who want the convenience of a small energy packet but find flavored gels to be excessively sugary or artificial tasting.
They have a distinctly different consistency which may appeal to some as a more pleasant texture that is simpler to swallow. These gels are made from a mix of fructose and glucose combined with water and electrolytes, which Maurten refers to as ‘hydrogel’.
This hydrogel is highly absorbent and does not dissolve in water. It is less taxing on the stomach and is better tolerated by those who suffer from GI issues.
The hydrogel allows the carbohydrates to go smoothly from the stomach to the intestine, where they are absorbed along with the water, salt, and carbs.
For this reason, Maurten delivers give more carbs every hour without causing GI issues. It’s well worth trying, especially if you’re looking for the highest carb gel but avoid using them due to previous gastrointestinal problems.
Carbs: Drink mix 39 grams of carbs and 13 grams sugar
Flavor: No specific flavor, but it is a slightly sweet drink
Cost: $42 for a box of 18
Gnarly’s Fuel2O Drink Mix has been created with fueling, replenishment, and recovery in mind. One 12-ounce serving of it provides 100 calories.
These calories in it come from sucrose and dextrose, which are easily digestible carbs that provide fast energy without causing stomach issues. Additionally, this increased carbohydrate absorption results in higher fluid delivery and even hydration.
What’s best is that Gnarly drink mixes also include electrolytes that supply 250mg of sodium per serving and other electrolytes such as chloride, potassium, magnesium, and calcium.
Carbs: 50 grams mixed in 24oz of water
Flavor: Cherry Cola, Limade, Tropical
Cost: $34 for a bag of 25 servings <<– you can get a discount by signing up for their newsletter
Best Higher Fat Energy Gels
I personally love the energy gels with more fat and protein with the low heart rate training method. I mean, it’s like eating nut butter, what’s not to like?
But I don’t recommend these for half or full marathon races where you need more quick energy. They can, however, be a good option for ultramarathon runners.
Muir’s Energy gels contain only a few ingredients per gel. They’re organic, vegan, gluten-free, and paleo-friendly.
There are two different types of energy gels from Muir that you can choose from, namely fast-burning and slow-burning. The fast-burning gels combine dehydrated fruits and vegetables with electrolytes for faster energy release.
The slow-burning ones, on the other hand, gels combine seed and nut butters with fats and proteins that metabolize more slowly. Basically the slow burn is like a packet of nut butter and I LOVE it on my long runs!
Carbs: 12 grams in the slow burn
Flavor: Cacao Almond, Cashew Lemon, Cashew Vanilla
Cost: $68 for 24 gels >>
- Spring Energy also makes a high fat gel with 19 grams of fat and still 19 grams of carbs, called SpeedNut.
- Or you can try something like Picky Bars
- Or more of the real food running fuel options I’ve shared
Best Chocolate Energy Gels
If you’re looking for the best chocolate flavored ones instead then GU energy gels have some great options!
Their most popular chocolate flavored gel is called Chocolate Outrage, which also happens to be one of the four original flavors they came out with back in 1993.
It’s a runner’s favorite for a reason! It’s made using organic dark chocolate, with a flavor that’ll satisfy any of your cocoa cravings. The chocolate flavor is rich, sweet, and almost fudge-like. It’s full of flavor without tasting overwhelming.
And if Chocolate Outrage isn’t the one for you then you can pick from the variety of different chocolate options GU has to offer. There is plenty to choose from, including flavors like Salted Caramel, Chocolate Peanut Butter, Mint Chocolate, and even Sea Salt Chocolate.
Carbs: 21 grams in 1 packet
Cost: $32 for 24 gels here >>
Best Caffeinated Energy Gels
The Clif Shot Bloks are a great option if you’re looking to find something in a chews form instead of gels. They’re easier to digest and don’t upset your stomach, the flavors are delicious and they’re also easy to carry around.
They have quite a few options to choose from when it comes to the caffeinated varieties, and they come with 50mg of caffeine. Each small block provides 100 calories worth of energy-dense nutrients to give your body the fuel it needs.
They are made in bite-size 33-calorie cubes with three cubes per package for a total of 100 calories on the go. The downside to these is that you need a lot more of them each chunk includes only 8g of carbs.
But they’re so convenient to have! Just stash them in your running belt and have them whenever you need a little caffeine pick me up. You can also eat them without water, although they are quite chewy.
Carbs: 24 carbs for 3 pieces
Flavor: Black cherry, orange, tropical punch
Cost: $30 for 18 packs here >> (that’s 36 servings)
The SiS Go Energy + Caffeine gels are a great option if you’re looking for caffeinated gels. Each gel contains 75mg of caffeine and 22 grams of carbs all in one.
These build upon the established science of the GO Isotonic Energy gel and combine it with the perfect amount of caffeine per gel. Each gel has caffeine the equivalent of approximately a cup of coffee or one can of energy drink.
They’re formulated with quick energy delivery in mind and are easy to digest too. You have a few flavors to pick from, including citrus, double espresso, and berry.
Carbs: 22 grams of carbs, less than 1 gram of sugar
Cost: $39 for a pack of 30 here>>
What to Look for in Energy Gels
Liking the options, but not sure what to look for when picking the best energy gel for you? Here are some things to consider:
Pick an energy gel that comes in a flavor you actually like. Unless you like what it tastes like, you’re probably not going to have it as often during a run or race which defeats the purpose.
Ease of Use
You should choose an energy gel that is convenient for you. It should be as simple as pulling an energy gel from your pocket, opening it, and having it.
Consider the ingredients that have gone into making the energy gel you pick. It’s important when it comes to how well it’ll digest, and also if you have any specific dietary restrictions or a sensitive stomach. Look for real ingredients to reduce the risk of GI distress.
The Right Combo of Carbs, Electrolytes, and Calories
At the end of the day, as tasty as they may be, energy gels are there to serve a purpose. So be sure to read the labels to know exactly how many calories you’ll get from each, including the carbs and electrolytes breakdown.
You may or may not want caffeine in your energy gel. Pay attention to how it affects your gut when making this decision.
Tips for Having Running Gels
The best running gels can deliver a handy surge of energy when you need it the most. But, as you’ve probably gathered from this article, there are definitely some tips to make sure they work best for you. Here are some important tips to keep in mind for how and when to take running gels:
Know yourself: Knowing how your body reacts in different situations is key to ensuring you get the most out of your running gels. Pay attention to how you feel after having them and adjust accordingly.
Test it out before race day: Try having one or two gels during practice runs to see how they affect your performance and the digestion process.
Always take gels with water or fluids: It’s incredibly important to take your running gels with some water or other fluids to make sure it digests fast. Energy gels will take longer to absorb into the bloodstream without water.
Avoid taking it with sugary sports drinks: If you combine an energy gel with an overly sugary sports drink, you risk consuming too much simple sugar at once.
Go slow: Don’t rush when having an energy gel, take your time to chew it properly and ensure that you don’t choke on it while running.
Experiment with timing. The timing of when you consume your energy gels is key – too early or too late can affect you negatively. We all have different stomachs, energy demands, and even biochemistries. So find the perfect timing for when you need it most by experimenting with it before race day.
Choose wisely: Consider your needs and choose the gel that best fits with your running goals and dietary requirements. If you have any allergies or special dietary needs, be sure to read through all of the ingredients listed on the package.
Don’t rely solely on energy gels: Energy gels should be used as part of a balanced diet and training plan. Don’t rely solely on energy gels for nutrition during long runs or races. Make sure to consume a balanced diet leading up to the event and consider incorporating other sources of carbohydrates.
When to Consider Running Gel Alternatives
When running long distances, you may find yourself needing some extra fuel. While energy gels may be an easy and convenient option, they may not always be the best choice for your body, especially if you have a sensitive stomach.
In that case, you should consider some running gel alternatives! I have a complete guide that shares 27 of the best energy gel alternatives that you can try. Trust me, you definitely want to check out that article, especially if you’re an ultrarunner.
Wheewwww that was an insane amount of information about the best running gels. I hope you’ve now been able to make a decision.
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