As endurance athletes, we have all learned to deal with the variety of challenges intrinsic to our sport. There is specialized gear available for every type of road or trail, unbelievably lightweight packs and vests to carry whatever we need, and clothing for every weather condition that we can bring along without having to deal with excessive bulk. One of the most critical challenges, though, is how to feed ourselves while we are on the move. To find something that is easily transported, tastes good enough that you will actually eat it, has the proper balance of nutrition that works for you, and won’t make you sick to your stomach takes some major trial and error.
The range of products out there right now to fuel our daily excursions can be downright intimidating in its breadth, from drink mixes specifically designed for before, during, or after exercise, to gels and chews, to energy bars, to the classic peanut butter and jelly sandwich and a banana. While I am a proponent of each of these types of sustenance in their own place, for purposes of keeping this review somewhat simple, I’m going to focus specifically on gels and chews. That’s right, the form of nutrition that it seems every endurance athlete has an extreme love-hate relationship with. I know you can remember the last time you or one of your training partners complained about the taste, texture, or mere existence of gels, while in the same breath acknowledging their necessity in the process of finishing a certain race or workout.
Well, good news! I’m here to tell you it doesn’t have to be that way. The variety of options has increased dramatically in just the last couple years, and continues to do so. If you haven’t found the right gels or energy chews for yourself yet, that’s an excellent reason to keep reading. Hopefully I can guide you in the right direction. I will divide this review into two categories (chews and gels) and discuss three of each.
First, the energy chews!
Clif Shot Bloks
These have been one of my go-to chews for years. They the softest of the chews that I have tried, which in my experience makes them relatively easy to chew and swallow (a feat that can be difficult during a long, particularly arduous outing) and I have found them to be a quick, reliable source of energy. They are available in 11 different flavors, with margarita (which everyone goes nuts for) and salted watermelon containing extra sodium1.
Gu Chews (formerly known as Chomps) have been around for a while and are pretty similar to the Clif version, with a couple notable differences. Specifically, a sleeve of Chews contains eight smaller-sized chews, as opposed to the six larger Shot Bloks per sleeve. Gu Chews are particularly high in potassium (because cramping sucks) and contain amino acids that, according to Gu, may help “reduce mental fatigue and decrease muscle damage”. I personally haven’t noticed a huge difference in my level of mental fatigue when using these chews, but you know, maybe it helps?
Skratch Labs Fruit Drops
If you have issues with the stickiness of most gummy chews and find them difficult to consume, it might behoove you to try out the Skratch Labs Fruit Drops. They are much firmer than most and have a sugary coating, making them generally easy for most people to get down, even in the throes of an endurance activity induced breakdown. Also, in my opinion, they have a very pleasantly fruity taste. At 160mg per pouch, they contain the most sodium of the three chews mentioned here, but they contain no potassium. They are also the only chews mentioned in this review that do not contain maltodextrin2 .
Okay, so maybe you’ve figured out which chews will be best tailored to your needs, or maybe there is more research to do. Regardless, for this review, it’s on to the proverbial meat and potatoes of rapid endurance fuel. That’s right, it’s time to talk gels.
Gu gels are, in many ways, what comes to mind when I think of energy gels. They have that classic gel consistency that can be almost liquid when it’s warm out and downright difficult to get out of the package when it’s cold. Maybe that texture is your thing. It’s not mine. That said, Gu’s redeeming factor (over other brands of traditional gels like Hammer or Clif) is the breadth and creativity of the flavor options. From Caramel Macchiato to Cucumber Mint to Tastefully Nude (code for unflavored), there is something for everyone. As a bonus, if you want to support public lands access (don’t we all?) try out the Campfire S’mores flavor, as 10% of those sales are donated to Conservation Alliance’s Public Lands Defense Fund. Also it’s delicious, so there’s that too.
If caffeine3 is your thing, Jet Blackberry and Espresso Love have 40mg per packet, with many other flavors also containing smaller amounts.
Honey Stinger gels are pretty much what you would think they would be: honey, with added vitamins and electrolytes. The notable addition that you get from Honey Stinger and not from the others is the presence of B vitamins, which play various roles including conversion of foods into energy, aiding in digestion, and boosting immune response. They also have very high potassium levels. Also of note, for those who prefer a 100% plant-based diet like myself, Honey Stinger makes one of the few gels that does not fit the bill. For this reason, it doesn’t make it into my standard line-up.
So you don’t like gels, you say. The texture is weird. They don’t taste good. They leave a funny sticky feeling in your mouth. Whatever your complaint, throw it out the window, because Huma has taken gels to the next level by doing the obvious: using real fruit and real sugars, mixing in the necessary electrolytes, using ground chia as a binder, and making a magical concoction that tastes like a smoothie and works like an energy gel. This was by far my favorite gel of everything I tested, in both taste and function. It contains far more sodium than any of the other gels (although this varies widely by flavor) and the berry pomegranate flavor (my favorite) contains extra sodium, potassium, magnesium, and calcium. It’s the most comprehensive electrolyte blend I have seen in any gel, and in my experience, it works.
In the wide, wide world of endurance nutrition products, it’s hard to sort out the differences sometimes. The products I’ve mentioned are a very small glimpse into some of the options out there, and a starting point for how to differentiate between them. I hope you have fun experimenting on your own and creating your personalized endurance fueling plan.
1 A note on extra sodium: for particularly long, particularly hot days that involve a lot of sweat, it is extremely important to make sure you are replenishing your electrolyte stores. Along with Potassium, Sodium is the most critical electrolyte to replenish because of its role in allowing the body to maintain fluid balance. Basically, you can drink all the water you want, but your body wants to maintain a certain level of salinity in its extracellular fluids. If you don’t have the sodium to maintain that balance with the water you are taking in, you won’t be able to make any use of that water. I have experienced this in races, and it is awful. It is worth figuring out what level of sodium balance in your nutrition works best for you, and fortunately, there are a whole lot of different products with different levels of the stuff.
2 Maltodextrin is contained in many nutrition products for athletes. It’s purpose is to simultaneously serve as a sweetener and a thickener. It is worth mentioning that for some athletes it can cause stomach irritation. Experiment with different products to see if you notice such a pattern for yourself.
3All three gels I have reviewed here, as well as nearly every other one in existence and many of the chews as well, have flavors available that contain caffeine. Determine for yourself if this is something that benefits you or not. Personally, I have experimented with it in shorter events from time to time and noticed little difference in performance, but if you are a caffeine fiend, by all means go for it.