Home made gel for endurance runners

As a runner you should think about your nutrition before, during and after your run. It is what you eat during your run what will help you over the line for runs lasting over 2 hours. For shorter runs you don’t have to worry much about your eating as your body, assuming your fit, has enough energy stored in your muscles to get you through.

It is for the longer runs that nutrition becomes an important aspect. The slower ultra runner has the benefit that his body is under much lesser stress than for instance the marathon runner, allowing him to eat real solid foods during his exercise. A luxury that the marathon runner most likely can’t cope with. Still, many ultra runners can’t stand solid foods after having been on the road for many hours, and just like the marathon runner, prefers to switch to the optimum carbohydrate solution – Gels! Now, we all now that our supermarket stocks all kinds and brands of gels, and we all know that they are not the cheapest food to get. Considering that you purchase a sachet of sugar, valid at a few cents, it is expensive indeed. I spend a little fortune on these packets, and as a result started studying the content, playing with the idea of making the gel myself. Turns out, it is very easy to make an effective and palatable home made gel.

So what do you get when you buy a gel?

The majority if gels contain maltodextrin (a complex carbohydrate). The good ones have fructose, followed by the wildest of additives, minerals, etc. The important components are the carbohydrates obviously, as we are attempting to fill our energy tank. According to latest studies, the way to absorb a maximum amount of carbohydrates is to ingest a mixture of complex carbohydrates (such as maltodextrins) and fructose in a 2:1 ratio. The reason behind this mixture is that the complex carbs are absorbed it another part of the gut than the fructoses, resulting in a maximum energy absorption when digested as a mix. Forget about all the expensive additives like vitamins and minerals. These are important, but should be part of your daily nutrition and have no effect for performance coming from your gel.

So we need two main ingredients:

- Maltodextrins
- Fructose

Maltodextrin as I found out, is used in many processed foods and is easy to get hold of. You could go to your health store, were you can expect to pay around A$25 for a kilo in an expensive looking container. Or better, you could visit your local home brew store (and there are many in Australia). I learned from my friends at Coopers Brewery that maltodextrins are used in beer and produce the all important foam on your beer! Who would have thought! At your local home brew store you can expect to pay around A$30 for a 5 kg supply. Now that is value. I checked out with a chemist on the differences in price between the health store and the home brew store, but trust me, it is all the same maltodextrin.

Fructose is also rather easy to get. I like to eat as ‘natural’ as I can, with a minimum amount of processed foods as possible, and found an excellent source of fructose in the nectar from the agave cactus. This natural juice can be obtained from the health store in 1 liter bottles, and expect to pay around $20. Go for the darkest color you can get. It will have the best full flavor. According to resources, the agave nectar is about 95% fructose.

Start cooking

The ‘cooking process’ is very simple, but requires a full day to complete. For starters calculate how many calories you require for your batch, or better create a large batch and store it in the fridge as it will hold for month without going off. For instance, measure 400 grams of maltodextrin and put it in a glass container. (400 grams is 1600 calories). This will fill a large container easily, as maltodextrin is a rather airy powder.

Next mix the maltodextrin powder with a very small quantity of warm water. Not hot, as this will change the chemical structure of the sugars, but hand warm. This will make the mixing of the powder and the water easier. You will need a very small quantity of water. For instance the container in the image above required about 8 to 10 table spoons of warm water. You could take more water if you wanted, but the mixture would be more diluted. I like a strong mixture, and mix it down with water when I actually use the gel. Once the powder is mixed with the water you will need to stir the mixture. This becomes increasingly difficult as the mixture sets. If you stir well you end up with a gel similar to a sticky, thick honey.

Don’t bother to stir and mix until all the lumps are gone. I don’t think you will ever manage to do so in the first place, unless you buy the maltodextrin from the health store. You will notice that your glass container is now pretty much empty again with a sticky white paste on the bottom. Congratulations, you have now a 100% maltodextrin mix. Yammy.. Well, not quite yet. If you close the container and put it in the fridge overnight, you are going to much happier in the morning where you will find a complete transparent, water like, gel in you glass. Much better. Give it a taste. You will find it is hardly sweet. In fact you will find that it taste like pretty much nothing!! This is good news, as in the later stages of your long run, you hardly can bare the taste of sugar any longer.

The final stage of the cooking process is the mixing with the algave nectar. Since we started with 400 grams of maltodextrin, we should mix it with a 2:1 ratio, meaning 200 grams of algave. Poor it in the glass container, and mix a little. Algave is really sweet. In fact, it is about the sweetest thing you can find. For that reason, you might want to mix it with less algave, if you can not stand the taste of sweetness. But bear in mind that the 2:1 ratio will provide you with the maximum amount of energy intake.

Although the mixture is now ready for usage with maximum potential, I find it too bland for my needs. I discovered that mixing it up with molasses does two things. It gives it an excellent taste (I love it), and adds a whole array of good minerals to the mix, including potassium, magnesium and sodium! Salt is always good for us runners. I full table spoon in the gel and a bit of mixing gives you a beautiful dark gel, ready to go.

Important things to know about gels

The first thing you need to know about gels is it should never be taken without water. Indeed, if you just gobble up a couple of packages of gel, they will pretty much be sitting in your stomach, until you have drunken enough water to dilute it sufficiently for your stomach to absorb. The best rate for a gel in water is about 15%. That is 15% gel with 85% water. No less. If you insist on eating simple sugars, like table sugar, the ratio of water goes up to about 6% sugar and 94% water. Another reason to stay away from simple sugars, or run the risk of hyponatremia.

Long chained sugar is not bad for your teeth, as simple sugars are. No cavities!! Another reason to stay away from simple sugars.

I used to carry the gel in a separate flask from my water. Mixing it by ‘having a gel’ and following that with plenty of water. However, I found that the mixing is hard to do correct, so these days I premix the gel with the water. Great no brainer. But be careful when you open the bottle. Maltodextrin makes an excellent foam!!

Enjoy your runs, and let me know how you’re cooking!

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