Endurance athletes are known for their strict training, restrictive diets, and supreme command over their bodies, and while many of us aren’t up to the kind of commitment it takes to be a triathlete or competitive cyclist, everyone can take a page from their training books when it comes to mid-effort nutrition. All endurance athletes know that when they’re in the middle of a lengthy race or training session, they’re burning tons of calories along with the stores of glycogen in their muscles. For this reason, they often turn to carbohydrate- and fructose-based energy gels to help them replenish needed calories and keep them from hitting the proverbial wall.
Even if you aren’t out training like a future Ironman, a long day of hiking or mountain biking will do the same thing to your body. And once you deplete your body of all of your available calories and its glycogen storage, you’ve bonked and you’re done. You’ll feel fatigued, totally out-of-your-head tired, and likely sort of shaky. We’ve been there—three hours into a 3-mile, 3,000-foot-elevation hike and things can start looking pretty bleak.
Take a tip from the endurance crowd and pack one of these pocket-sized energy boosters on your next outdoor adventure. Specially formulated for easy absorption, they’ll keep you moving without weighing you—or your pack—down. Here are some of our favorites.
Gu Energy Gel
These tear-off-top shiny metallic packages pack 32 grams of gel with 100 calories of nutrition that your body can tap in just minutes thanks to a special mix of 70 to 80 percent complex carbohydrates (maltodextrin), 20 to 30 percent fructose, and a special amino acid blend. Available in both non-caffeinated and caffeinated options for a total of 12 flavors, nearly everyone can find a Gu Energy Gel with a taste they like. Our favorites include Salted Caramel, with 20 milligrams of caffeine and extra electrolytes for especially hot days; Espresso Love, with 40 milligrams of caffeine when you really need an extra kick; and the non-caffeinated Strawberry Banana when all we need is fuel. We did recently get to test out a new super-secret Salted Watermelon flavor, however, and if that thing makes it to the shelves we’ll be buying it by the box too. They typically cost about $1.30 apiece ($31.50 for a box of 24) and can be purchased direct online from Gu, at an outdoor store like REI, or from a local running or bike shop.
Vega Sport Endurance Gel
Utilizing an all-natural plant-based blend of dates, grape juice, rice, and coconut oils, Vega Sport Endurance Gel is one of the few on the market that is safe for the vegan crowd. At 46 grams, the Vega Sport gel is slightly larger than those offered by Gu, but they still pack 100 calories of fast-acting carbs. A word of warning: the Orange Zest flavor has texture from bits of real zest, which can be a surprise if you’re used to simply squeezing and swallowing other gels. They run $1.99 for a single gel ($21.99 for a box of 12) online at Vega and can often be found at your local Whole Foods or natural-foods store.
Hammer Nutrition Gel
If you’re looking for a gluten-free option, Hammer Gel is one of the best on the market. Made with real fruit and no simple sugars, Hammer Gel is easily digested on the road, trail, or while on the run. It includes only a trace of sugar and has a more syrup-like consistency than some of the other gels on the market, so for this reason if you’d like to dilute it down and place it in a hydration pack, it’s a great option. It’s available in 11 different flavor options, two of which are caffeinated. We like Tropical for the extra caffeine punch and Montana Huckleberry when we don’t. At $1.44 for a single-serving 33 gram pack, they’re priced and packaged competitively; however, if you prefer diluting it in a water bottle or running-style fuel belt, you can also buy Hammer Gel in a 26-serving bottle for $19.95.
Clif Shot Energy Gel
Clif Bar is known for its multitude of energy bar options, but with the Clif Shot line they’ve heavily invested in the performance-based-nutrition side of the business as well. The Clif Shot energy gel is a favorite of ours thanks not only to its great taste, but also because of its unique spin on the pocket-sized foil-package typical of gels. Clif Shot utilizes a patented Litter Leash on the top of tab of the gel so when athletes use their teeth to tear off the top of the package mid-race, the top stays attached to the main gel body and doesn’t end up on the side of the trail. It’s a little thing, but this smart and eco-friendly design is a huge reason we lean toward these. Add on eight great-tasting caffeinated or non-caffeinated flavors—including Mocha, with 50 milligrams of green-tea-based caffeine—and 90 percent organic ingredients and it’s easy to see why Clif Shot makes our recommended list. They are priced at $29.99 for a box of 24 on the Cliff Shot website or can likely be found in your local outdoor, bike, or running shops.
Honey has been used for centuries as a sweetener and pick-me-up. Honey Stinger’s Energy Gels take that foundation and build on it. The 1.2-ounce foil packs are 80 percent honey, but also include essential vitamins and electrolytes. Spread it on your sandwich at the top of a long hike or tear off the top and squeeze it into your mouth when you’re feeling weak. It comes in five flavors, including our favorite, Acai & Pomegranate Organic, and Ginsting Classic with 32 milligrams of caffeine from kola nuts. They run from $32.40 for a box of 24 online at Honey Stinger but can also likely be found in single servings at any store that caters to endurance athletes.
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