Nutrition, energy gels & Huma gel review
I'd like to introduce our Guest Blogger this week.... Charlotte is a friend of Mark's and mine from our undergraduate course in Sports Science at Bangor University. Charlotte has gone on to become an exceptional academic, taking a particular interest in nutrition. Charlotte continued at Bangor Uni completing her MSc. Her research was into the effects of exercise on appetite hormones in previously sedentary women. She has now moved to Leicester where she is completing her PhD with her main research area being into the practicality and efficacy of high intensity interval training (HIT) in populations with and at risk of Type 2 Diabetes.
As a an incredibly active person with a keen interest in triathlon Charlotte is always my first port of call should I need any nutritional help. I am hugely grateful to her for taking the time to write this exceptional blog. It is a very insightful read and full of useful information for runners, cyclists, triathletes and anyone who cares what the consume and when.
As an exercise physiologist (geek) the first thing I did when Steve asked me to write a review about energy gels was to go to the science. I’ve always been pretty sceptical about gels as I tend not to trust advice from companies who can make money from what they are recommending. However, being the thorough scientist I am, I wanted to check that my cynicism was based on evidence and not simply unfounded hippy idealism. I also wanted to provide you, the reader with some of the sports science so that you could make an informed decision on how to take gels to best suit you. However, if you simply want to read the review, skip to - "What I think of Hüma gels" below.
So that you understand the perspective I take, a little about me and my training background. I am female, 25, do triathlon training and compete in the occasional sprint (~1:15-1:30) or Olympic distance (2:00-3:00) race. My motivations are two-fold; firstly I like being outside. Living in the UK, specifically Leicester, running and cycling allows me to do this as much as possible, as far away from cities as I can without getting cold. Secondly, I get bored easily and so having the option of three sports to choose from keeps me interested. When I run I’ll run anywhere from 3-10 miles (20min-2h) and when I cycle I’ll ride somewhere between 20 and 70 miles (1-4h).
Most athletes will know that maintaining an energy supply during exercise is essential if you are to continue exercise. Many will also be aware that to provide the body with energy, breaking down carbohydrate is quicker than breaking down fat . As a result, carbohydrate supplementation is hugely popular and for many, energy gels are considered an essential addition to any athlete’s kit bag. Most gels will come with recommendations for how many to eat and how often. However, as far as I can tell, these are rather arbitrary suggestions and mainly designed to increase sales. What I would like to do is to suggest, based on scientific evidence not market research, as well as my own experience, when is the best time to take gels and how they can help you improve your performance. To do this as simply as possible, I am going to separate training from racing, and short from long duration exercise.
First of all, I would like to undermine any assumption you may have that energy availability is the main limiting factor to exercise. It is not . While it is essential that you don’t run out of fuel during exercise (because if you do you will bonk), on the other hand, you can pump yourself full of as many calories as you like and eventually you will stop anyway. This point touches upon a widely controversial area of sports research, fatigue, which if you are particularly interested in I suggest you Google it! For everybody else what it means is that feeding will allow you to go on for as long and hard as you can. But as long and hard as you can is determined by how much you train, not how much you eat.
I’m basing this part on the assumption that most people when they train will either do a longer, moderate session (2-4h) or a short, hard session (0-1h).
As a general rule I do not take gels when I train. This is mainly because I rarely feel as though I need anything before I get back. There is actually a physiological reason for this. Below a certain exercise intensity, usually up to about 65% of your maximum, you are predominantly burning fat as your main source of energy . The fitter you get, the more efficient you become at burning fat and the longer and harder you can exercise whilst relying on fat as a fuel . This is beneficial because fat stores, no matter how skinny you are, are larger than your stores of carbohydrate and as long as you are chugging along, burning fat, you can pretty much carry on until you run out of calories, which when you get fit is unlikely to be before 2-3 hours have passed depending on the sport.
The reason that after a certain period of time, for me it’s about 2h running or 4h on the bike that you might feel as though you could do with a top up is because you are not exclusively burning fat, you are using some carbohydrate (see Figure 1) and when your carbohydrate stores start going down, your body tells you to go find food. It is at this point I would have something to eat.
Figure 1 Fat vs. carbohydrate (CHO) use as exercise intensity increases. Training moves the curves to the right, increasing the length of time one can metabolise fat fast enough to fuel exercise. Reproduced from .
The harder you are pushing, the sooner this point comes (see the figure), which is why if you’re doing harder training sessions they tend to be shorter.
When to eat - training and competition?
When to eat before exercise is another issue in itself, but most regular exercisers will have worked out how long before training they can eat without throwing up, and few will train knowing they haven’t topped up their energy supply beforehand. A regular exerciser will have big enough carbohydrate stores to last them an hour or so working above 80%. So again, you usually don’t need eat anything before you’re done.
It has taken me a considerable length of time to work out, when training, how late I can leave it before eating without starting to slow down. However, after a lot of trial and error, bonking and running around like a toddler on speed, if I listen to my body, I simply begin to crave something sweet, and that’s when it’s time to eat.
I prefer not to take on food before I need it because training your metabolism is a bit like training your muscles; specificity is key. If I want to become more efficient at burning fat as a fuel I shouldn’t pump it full of carbohydrates . Secondly, the evidence actually suggests that there is no improvement in performance with carbohydrate supplementation until your muscle stores start to get low . This makes sense when you think about meals; we don’t eat all our 2,500 kCals at breakfast, we spread it throughout the day and eat when we get hungry.
Racing is a slightly different ball game for a couple of reasons. First of all, you’re likely to be going harder for longer than you do in training, and secondly, the consequences of not eating enough are far greater. You don’t want to get it wrong! Few exercisers will have made it through their training career without experiencing the dreaded runner’s gut, what could be described as the opposite of bonking but just as debilitating. This happens when you take on more food than you can process and essentially it just has to go straight through because your body is too busy exercising to do anything else with it. Rule number one; don’t do anything on race day you wouldn’t do in training! The only difference in races is that the point you need to eat will come sooner than in training. Because of all the extra adrenaline going on, inexperienced racers will find it difficult to read the signs you get in training, but try your best to listen to what your body is telling you and eventually you’ll work out what’s best for you.
At some point you will get it wrong, and if you’re anything like me, one race you won’t eat enough and the next you’ll be stopping behind a bush at the side of the road. But with time you’ll figure it out.
There are a huge number of gels on the market, all selling something the same but different. As I mentioned at the beginning, I’m not a big user of gels; you are much more likely to see a banana in my pocket on a ride and I’m also fit enough to be able to run for an hour and a half at a moderate intensity without needing anything to eat or slowing down. However, I do carry something with me when I’m running or cycling because I’m the kind of person who can easily plan for a short workout, go exploring and end up being out for somewhat longer than I planned. I also do take gels with me when I race because fantastic as banana’s are, they are a bit of a faff. I have regularly reached into my jersey pocket for food only to discover a smoothie where my banana used to be.
It’s very technically difficult to develop something that is both practically functional and appealing (just look at fashion). Likewise, developing a fuel that can be consumed without the need for chewing, provides you with energy and tastes good is no mean feat. I’ve tried a few gels; High5, SiS, Lucozade etc. and have found that most of these companies have generally fallen down at the taste test. This is one reason I like the Hüma gels. Without being too sweet (probably because of the chia seeds), they are fruity and you can tell the flavour without needing to read what’s written on the packet. I personally think they taste a lot like a room-temperature smoothie – a taste I could get used to. Another thing I like about these gels is the texture. Perhaps because they resemble something recognisable as real food, my mouth and stomach seem much more accepting of taking them on than trying to ingest a synthetic gloop. They also left me with a pleasantly sweet and moist aftertaste which meant that I did not feel as though I immediately needed to drink after eating which I tend to get with other brands.
Another reason I try to avoid gels as much as possible is that they use processed carbohydrates, preservatives and acidity regulators whatever that means. Hüma gels use all natural ingredients. Their basis for doing so is a principle I agree with as not only is my body a temple (of course), but humans have been running far longer than processed foods have been around and there is no need to pump them full of things the earth cannot provide. Hüma claim that the recipe is inspired by the diet of arguably the best endurance runners on the planet; the Tarahumara Indians who are not just great athletes but also a very healthy people. Fruit and seeds provide a combination of nutrients that the body requires and somehow Hüma have found a way of mushing them up – much like the Tarahumara’s would – and stuffing it into a packet for our convenience. Often, the best solutions are the simplest, and as far as I’m concerned, Hüma has pretty much nailed it. I would be quite happy to swap my emergency banana for a Hüma gel and would certainly choose them in preference for another brand.
I tried one of these gels towards the end of a 2 ½h steady bike ride and another after a hard 45 interval training track session. For sure a few minutes later I felt that energy boost that would certainly give me an extra effort or pull me out of a hole if I needed. I don’t think there is much question that taking on sugar is effective. The issue of whether Hüma gels work is not really under contention – yes they work, they contain 100kCal of sugar and this energy will make its way into your system. The real issue is whether they are appropriate for what you need and if you like and tolerate them whilst exercising. For the latter, I found Hüma gels better than most others I have tried.
One major difference between and potential criticism of Hüma compared to other gels is that they contain no complex carbohydrates, they’re all simple sugars. For short duration exercise I would say it is in fact an advantage that Hüma gels contain only glucose and fructose. This is because this combination of sugars enters the system fastest  and you therefore won’t be waiting for your body to break them down, you’ll be able to use them almost immediately. For long duration exercise, e.g. ironman when you are going to need to replace a meal, I would recommend something that contains more complex carbohydrates for slow release energy (or preferably a café stop). This is because you are doing so much exercise that energy availability would become a limiting factor if you didn’t replace calories and for this duration of exercise I wouldn’t choose Hüma gels.
So, what do I think after all that?
First of all, never expect to go further than how far you have trained for.
Secondly, always start a training session with your muscles fully stocked with fuel.
Now you can start to think about gels. For normal training and sessions, throw a Hüma in your pocket just in case, then enjoy a proper meal when you get home. In races, pack a couple of extra but only take them when you feel you need them. Then enjoy a proper meal. My post-race favourite is chips and a beer, though this is certainly not based on scientific research.
For those of you doing ironman, ultra marathons, channel swims etc. take something with complex carbohydrates for meal replacement, but you might want to pack a couple of Hüma gels in should you need energy fast.
I hope this has made some sense and will help you understand sports nutrition a bit better. If, in actual fact it has made you want to ask more questions, please direct them to Steve! Good luck with your training and enjoy the fruity goodness provided by Hüma!