Mountain Biking Nutrition
In our experience, as a community mountain bikers don’t tend to get along so well with energy gels on the whole, preferring bars and energy drinks as a rule. This might be to distance ourselves from road cyclists somewhat or may be for other reasons – such as their notoriously bad taste. In this article we attempt to give a concise but informative guide to gels, from a more relaxed MTB-orientated perspective. We will begin by comparing them to the more frequently consumed energy drinks and snack bars.
Energy Gels vs Energy Drinks vs Energy Bars
People often conflate energy drinks with energy gels, this is not the case. Gels often don’t contain caffeine at all (with the exception of a few brands) and provide you with ions and carbohydrates instead of sugary water. Gels tend to be far more performance orientated, whereas energy drinks focus on giving you a short lived, reasonably tasty kick (hence the addition of carbon dioxide and other chemicals that would have an adverse effect on performance).
Energy bars are the more solid version of energy gels and a much more popular choice on the trails, the only general differences between them and their gel equivalent seems to be that they give more longer chain carbs (slower release energy), take longer to be digested and focus much less on ions. Before going any further we’d like to assert that having tried a good number of both energy gels and energy bars – it isn’t completely clear cut which is more disgusting, we certainly prefer a few of the energy gels below to the energy bars we’ve tried.
Another side point to note – energy bars can be a pretty sketchy choice if you have allergies, especially to nuts.
Gee Atherton on Mountain Biking Nutrition
Image by Moonhead Media
Do you have a specific nutrition plan in preparing for a race?
Yeah definitely the body needs the right fuel, but it’s no good just eating well on race day a healthy varied diet needs to be an integral part of your lifestyle – I always try to ensure that there is protein in every meal, that the food on my plate is as colourful as possible so it’ll be nutrient dense and that I’m eating fresh food, organic where possible.
Mountain bikers tend to take a pretty relaxed approach to nutrition on the whole, is this something you would change?
I don’t really get involved in what other people are putting into their bodies, I just know what works for me – when you train this hard you need to replace a lot of burnt calories. I do give myself a break from time to time – a bar of chocolate might not be brilliant for the body but it can be good for the soul!
How do you use Red Bull as a pre-race drink?
Before every race I’ll smash a Red Bull on the gondola on the way up for my run, it’s a vital part of all our race routines, without it I feel like Id be missing that “edge” In fact 40 minutes before any big work out I’ll do the same
Does your training and nutrition remain constant all year round?
We always take a month off training in November – I’ll try and get to some sun but I’ll still ride my bike with friends and nutrition will pretty much stay the same – it’s a way of life.
Energy Gels in Mountain Biking
How do Energy Gels help?
There’s been a lot of research done in this area. To understand this research and whether or not you should start using energy/carbohydrate gels, you should understand what they are made for. They are designed to be an efficient way to consume rapidly-absorbed carbohydrates and ions. These are needed as a result of the rapid loss of these essential carbohydrates and ions that occurs during exercise. In short the further from the optimal level of ions and carbohydrates you go, the harder it will become to perform at your maximum capacity.
Not many people realise, but the way in which you consume sugars and carbohydrates can have a significant effect. If you, as an elite athlete operating at peak performance, consume a standard energy drink, you’re likely to quickly get stomach cramps and pains. This is because your body has a tonne of excess liquid, minerals and chemicals to get rid of such as taurine, vitamin B2 etc…
We tested the most popular gels on the internet and documented our preferred gels and why, the results of which along with our expert survey can be seen below.
|Gel / Gel Pack||Caffeine||Volume Per Gel||Taste|
|Stealth Advanced Isotonic Gel||No||60ml||7/10|
|NamedSport 4 Fuel Combination||Yes||20-50ml||8/10|
|GU Energy Original||Yes||32ml||9/10|
|Sis Go Isotonic Energy||No||22ml||7/10|
|High 5 IsoGel Plus Caffeine||Yes||60ml||7/10|
|OTE Isotonic Gel||No||56ml||9/10|
Considerations when buying Energy Gels for Cycling
- Not all flavours give the same amount of nutrition.
- Different stages of and different types of exercise will be best supported by different nutrients (different gels).
- All gels should help somewhat.
- Caffeine usage is good, caffeine reliance is bad.
Here are some of the terms you are likely to see written on energy gels and what they mean.
Potassium – Supports proper muscle function, works against cramps.
Magnesium – Fights fatigue and tiredness.
Creatine – During high-intensity exercise, stored creatine allows your muscles to produce more energy.
D-Ribose – A sugar-like molecule that your body uses to make ATP. ATP is the body’s most basic form of energy and the fuel burned by the cells in all active organs, most notably including the heart.
Fructose – Quick release energy in the same form you get it from sugar.
Maltodextrin – Additive used to improve texture and flavour.
B-Alanine – Helps to reduce the acidity in your muscles during high-intensity exercise.
Palatinose – A compound synthesized from glucose and fructose – like sugar, but slower release.
Taurine – An amino acid that is the second most prominent in muscle tissue.
There are more, but since we’re keeping this concise we’ve kept it to the ones most commonly seen.
Recommendation for cyclists (mountain bikers and road) –
Of those that we tested, the NamedSport 4 Fuel combo pack was by far the best – the idea of having gels for before, during and after exercise works really well and has been executed perfectly. These gels should allow you to train harder with the additional bonus of a lessened impact on your day post – training.
The pack breaks down into 7 gels, each with a different set of nutrients for each stage in the workout. The gels in the pack include: Amino Gel, Strong Gel, 3x Sport Gel, Total Energy Carbo Gel and Total Energy Hydra Gel.
In terms of flavours, the gels use quite a wide range, including – lemon, cola-lime, argrumix, lemon and peach, lemon ice tea, and orange. Our favourites from which were lemon, orange and cola-lime.
Another point we’d like to raise would be the addition of a small straw to the top of some of the gels, this makes them not only much easier to consume, but allows them to remain much more self contained (so they don’t get stickyness everywhere) after consumption. It also makes it feel more like sipping a flavoured drink (the texture is very light and watery), as opposed to forcing some sticky chemical rice down your throat in yoghurt form.
On top of our own testing, we also performed a survey of experts and other cyclists (both road and MTB) documenting their responses below.
The Best Biking and Mountain Biking Energy Gels – Expert Survey
Fitness Expert Justin Jefferson (www.jayfitlife.com)
When it comes to an endurance sport like cycling (or mountain biking), the ability to quickly replenish energy is vital. As the body utilizes fuel, it pulls from two primary sources. Glycogen (Stored Carbohydrates) and stored Fat. While fat is typically available for the body to use at a given moment, it can take a bit longer to be converted into usable energy as opposed to glucose (carbohydrates in usable form) which are readily available to be used. Consuming a quick shot of a carbohydrate supplement during a race/ride can be very beneficial to a cyclist.
Due to the non-stop, demanding nature of cycling, I would highly recommend keeping energy gel tabs in reach during the ride. As the long ride begins to take its toll and you feel you’re energy is depleting, replenishing your glucose levels is vital. Having Gel Tabs handy makes it quick and easy way to get a boost of energy without completely disrupting your stride.
It’s is important to keep in mind that not all Energy Gel tabs are created equally. They can vary from calorie count, sodium levels and taste. The calorie count is important because it directly affects how long the energy shot can last. A tab with at least 20g of carbs should provide a noticeable boost.
The electrolyte, Sodium gets depleted through sweat during a long bout of physical activity. Consuming gel tabs with at least 100mg of sodium can be very beneficial to replenishment.
For an activity like cycling, a personal favourite of mine is the SIS (science in sport) Go Energy + Electrolyte Gel.
It packs a good dose of carbs and sodium along with be available in multiple flavours. Flavour matters because, let’s be honest who wants to consume something that doesn’t taste pleasant.
Dr. Rob Bell – Mental Toughness Coach (drrobbell.com)
My gut could never hack typical energy gels. Way too much sugar for long rides and simply not healthy. So, I was on a quest to find the best. My favorite is 33shake chia energy gels. It has long-lasting energy and it’s easy to consume and digest. You use your own liquid as well to make it, so
flavour can change if needed. Best ever!
Rob Jackson – Ironman UK and 2 x L’Etape Du Tour finisher (www.minimalfit.co.uk)
Having spent a lot of time riding my road bike for 6+ hours at a time, I have used many different types of gels. My personal preference would be the Zipvit ZV7 gel. Why?
- It is very tasty and comes in a range of flavours from kiwi to blackcurrant so you don’t get bored.
- It’s larger than other gels due to it having more water so it’s not so sticky in the mouth and does not require water to wash it down. There’s nothing worse than a heavy, sticky gel when your mouth is already dry when pushing hard.
- It contains 51g of carbs per gel which is almost enough for 1 hour of riding (I need around 60g per hour).
- It contains some electrolytes which helps if you sweat out a lot of salt. I have more electrolytes, just in tablet form.
As far as energy gels go this has some of the cleanest ingredients that you can find without going for real food which is inconvenient and requires a lot of preparation.
Bethany Rutledge – Owner of Energy Lab and Author of Courage to TrI Website (http://bethanyrutledge.com)
As a triathlon coach and many-time IRONMAN finisher, my favorite gel-type produce is vanilla EFS liquishot. It comes in a handy 400 cal flask and has everything you need to go long except for water. During an IRONMAN, I typically carry a single water bottle for nutrition filled with EFS sufficient to fuel a 112 mile bike ride.
Health Expert Nick Pace (www.nooksnkindles.com)
Cycle energy gels are generally a gel or liquid-like formula that is easy to store (i.e. you are cycling and have very little storage on your cycle or attire), easy to consume while riding, and provide quick energy that is easily and efficiently absorbed into your body. Some even have the aid of caffeine which can act as a mild stimulant, and help promote energy uptake, nutrient absorption, increase alertness, combat fatigue, and give the cyclist an overall boost. Gels marketed as “Cycle Gels” of course are made for cyclists but any sport where an athlete would want fast burning carbohydrates and energy can benefit from these gels! In the past when I did Crossfit competitions, I would like to “carb up” before an event and these gels would have been a great choice!
When it comes to any product I prefer organic or at the very least, natural. Anything with artificial colouring or sweeteners I try to avoid. In my opinion, if you are going to take the healthy step to partake in athletic endeavour, shouldn’t you pick the best quality fuel? Besides from having “clean ingredients” Organic companies often have such a positive, “do the right thing” corporate culture. It’s not all about profit and greed, but oftentimes about the best quality, customer experience, lessening a carbon footprint, preserving the ecosystem, etc. One “cycle gel” that captures my attention is the Honey Stinger Organic Energy Gel, they come in 6 flavors and the athlete even has a choice of buying a variety pack to try them all. Some also contain a small dose of caffeine for that overall boost I was mentioning earlier!