Gels and the long distance swimmer

February 16th, 2016 / by / in: Uncategorised / No responses

Guest blogger Alex Cook BSc P.g.Dip RD Is lead performance nutritionist for Henley Swim nutrition partners DUPL, She helps beginners to advanced athletes achieve positive change in their day-to-day lives and excel in their sports including running, swimming & cycling. You can get 1:1 nutrition advice from Alex at

Like Marmite, some love them, some hate them, but how do gels compare to real food as a fuel source for long distance swimmers?

Energy gels are a useful way to replenish your muscles when carbohydrate stores start to become depleted after over an hour of swimming. Gels usually contain 20-30g carbs concentrated in a small, light package, often glucose or the more neutral-tasting maltodextrin which deliver energy the quickest at 1g/min. Depending on bodyweight and exercise intensity the guidelines are to consume 30-60g carbs each hour, so that’s 1-3 gels. If you are swimming for longer than 2.5 hours, your body can even absorb 90g carbs per hour if taken as a 2:1 gel blend of maltodextrin:fructose. Most gels also contain electrolytes to aid hydration when taken with 150ml water, like sodium, potassium, magnesium and calcium. Sodium is the only really essential electrolyte needed, but requirements are individual and vary with sweat rate and environment. Some gels contain caffeine, vitamins and even natural products such as chia seeds or ginseng. However, gels are expensive and some people find them hard to stomach, so why not use everyday food instead?

As a swimmer, taking fuel onboard whilst in the water can be tricky. Olympic silver medalist and open water swimmer Keri-Anne Payne says she puts a gel in her costume and has it as she swims but this, she says, is much harder to do when you wear a wet suit as there is no where to put it! This then leaves most of you with the option of refueling at the check-points out of the water. Compared to real food, gels provide a really practical, handy packet of concentrated energy in small, light packaging and can be digested without chewing. Sadly, due to concentrated carb levels, they can cause upset stomachs, especially if you don’t drink enough water (aim for about 150ml per gel) as the absorption rate will slow and you may find yourself looking for the nearest bush. To avoid this, train your gut before racing: try one gel first and then increase the number slowly over subsequent swim sessions until you can manage your 30-60g carbs per hour.

Despite the science, gels versus food is a still very much a personal preference and you need to practice to find out which one or what food or drink fuels your body most efficiently, a lot of athletes find a happy middle ground of combining the two. Love them or hate them, the overall truth is that, if used under the right conditions, gels provide swimmers with a easy source of high concentration fuel to ensure you don’t hit that dreaded wall. If taken correctly, gels can power you over those extra kms. Here are six of the best, tested for taste and content, try them all out and see which one ‘gels’ with you.

SIS Go Isotonic Energy Pink Grapefruit (60ml) £1.29
87kcals, carbs 22g, sodium 25mg
This is a palatable, mild tasting gel that doesn’t require water. The sachet is easy to open, though larger in size so the packet is not as easy to fit into a pocket after consumption. Sugars used are maltodextrins.
Verdict Isotonic gel, so no water needed and top marks for ease of use.

High 5 Isogel Orange (60ml) 99p
94kcals, carbs 23g, sodium 27mg
This is more of a drink than a gel, no extra water needed. Mild tasting and made with real fruit juice. It’s easy to swallow but due to watery consistency, it did get messy on opening. Sugars used are glucose and maltodextrin. Good for individuals that can’t tolerate gel consistency and no need to swallow with water.
Verdict Can get messy due to liquid consistency (though will wash off once back in the water!), slightly sweeter due to glucose content.

Torq Gel Apple Crumble (45g) £1.25
114kcals, carbs 28.8g, sodium 50mg
A very sweet, strong flavoured gel. Medium consistency and can be taken without water.. The 2:1 (maltodextrin:glucose) carbs combination can allow for higher carb absorption rates. Good for swimmers as it’s very compact making it easy to store in swim suit if need be.
Verdict Small packet with higher carb absorption rates possible if 3 gels/hour are taken.

Clif Shot Gel Citrus + Caffeine (34g) £1.35
96kcals, carbs 24g, sodium 90g
A thick non-spilling gel needing plenty of water, sweet tasting with a pleasant citrus flavour. Useful litter leash attaching tab to sachet so easier to dispose. Sugar is maltodextrin and contains fatigue-delaying caffeine but only 25mg – you need minimum 3mg/kg of bodyweight for an effect so that’s 210mg for a 70kg (11 stone) person and therefore this is of little effect.
Verdict Great for litter dilemma with tab leash and very compact, and mess-free thick consistency but requires water with it.

Huma Chia Energy Gel Blueberries (46g) £1.99
99kcal, carbs 22g, sodium 90mg
An all natural gel, sweet taste but the lumpy texture due to chia seeds takes some getting used to. Water needed especially as it’s not a smooth consistency. Sugars used are cane juice and rice syrup (the equivalent of glucose and fructose). Good for individuals that don’t like synthetic nature of regular gels.
Verdict Perfect for those that want a natural product and don’t mind a lumpy gel.

Sponser Liquid Energy Long Salty (40g) £1.25
94kcals, carbs 23g, sodium 180mg
Claimed as Britain’s first savoury gel but as well as the salt taste it is still relatively sweet and may be an acquired taste for some. Water is needed with consumption. Sugars used are glucose and isomaltulose, however the latter is slower to digest and some studies show a higher use of muscle glycogen stores as a result. This gel has the highest sodium content
Verdict Taste may take getting used to but great for those who hate sweet gels

DIY energy gel
The most important ingredients in a gel are carbohydrate and electrolytes, mainly sodium. You won’t get an exact gel made at home, but it’s perfectly straightforward to achieve a similar balance. This simple recipe provides the basic equivalent of one energy gel, 92kcals with 23g carbs, 26mg sodium:
21g (1 tbsp) honey
12g (1/2 tbsp) black strap molasses

Add a little warm water to help these ingredients mix together in a small, strong plastic bag or scale up for use in a gel bottle. The gel is tasty and sweet as it is, or you can add flavour with vanilla or peppermint essence, or crushed fruit like raspberries. However, the fibre content in fruit might not agree with some, and adding fruit will add more sugar (ie energy) to your DIY gel.

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