Sunday, June 7, 2009

An anthropological look at energy gels for endurance athletes

An energy gel is semi-liquid or pudding-like, sweet and easily digestible source of 25-30 grams of complex carbohydrates that are sold usually in single-serving disposable sachets containing about 2 Tablespoons (36 grams) of gel. The purpose of energy gels is to supply energy to an endurance athlete. Endurance athletes ingest energy gels in order to replace depleted liver and muscle glycogen stores used up while racing or training.

Professional coaches, sports nutritionists and exercise physiologists for endurance athletes recommend carbohydrate replacement for continuous physical exertion that exceeds 60-90 minutes in duration. After that time, muscle glycogen stores become depleted and to maintain optimal performance, the energy must be replaced in a quickly metabolized and digestible form. (Muaghan) Ingesting about 25 grams of carbohydrates just before endurance athletic activity is also recommended to maintain an optimal level of blood glucose for athletic performance. (Ryan)

Most energy gels are made of a type of polymer for the gel-like substance with complex or long-chain carbohydrate energy from maltodextrin, grain dextrins and contain a preservative and flavorings such as vanilla, fruit puree, cocoa or sugar (fructose or sucrose).
Some energy gels include caffeine or ginseng that works as a muscle stimulant and relaxant. Some energy gels also include a blend of salts called electrolytes that are lost through perspiration. Electrolytes lost in perspiration include sodium chloride (table salt), sodium citrate and potassium chloride. Replacing electrolytes lost during sweating is important because the body needs electrolytes in order to process glucose energy and to maintain physical and mental bodily functions at an optimal level. (Ryan)

You can make your own energy gel with electrolytes with natural ingredients such as honey, blackstrap molasses and table salt. See the recipe "Homemade Power Goop" in Appendix A. (Nolek)

When and where energy gels are eaten:
Energy gels are usually eaten from small disposable sachets carried by the endurance athlete herself while training or racing. They are eaten while the athlete is moving—for example while he is running, cycling, climbing, skate-skiing or other endurance activity. The athlete either hand carries an energy gel, but more often wears special athletic clothing with small pockets to accommodate the sachets. Or, as with cyclists, mountain bikers and triathletes, the athlete tapes the gel sachets to their bike’s top tube or has a special food pouch strapped to the bike frame for rides.
Sports nutritionists recommend that athletes ingest about 25 grams of carbohydrate one hour before competition so energy gels are also ingested as a “snack” just before racing. However, a banana also works just as well. They often eat these foods alone or together with other athletes while they are exercising. They are running, sitting on a bike seat cycling, or in their car driving to a place to workout.. They are not mindfully enjoying their food for its taste but are using food as fuel to optimize their bodily performance—thinking of their body as a athletic machine.

Semiotics of energy gels:
The highest authority for sports nutrition and consuming energy gels seems to be science. To make an analogy with Mosaic dietary laws, where Hebrew kashrut dietary authority is written testimony in Hebrew Bible, and following these laws is both an identity and a practice for gaining spiritual perfection. (Soler) Following the scientific sports nutritionist prescriptions can be both an identity for an athlete and is also practice. (Maughan) However, instead of pursing spiritual perfection, it is for gaining optimal athletic performance and self-perfection. According to Jean Soler, the ancient Hebrews believed that the first food given to man was vegetarian and pure in the Garden of Eden at the beginning of time. During the Exodus, the Hebrews survived for 40 days in the desert solely on a sacred food from heaven called manna. Manna was believed to be the most pure food and tasted “like wafer made with honey”. (Soler) Using the scientific bio-medical or mechanistic epistemology of athletic performance, Western medicine, Olympic Training Center (OTC) certified coaches and exercise physiologists consider “food as fuel” and “food as chemistry” that the human body needs for normal function. (Maughan) Coincidentally, the energy gel manufacturers claim that their products offer the most pure and most effective form of complex carbohydrates in a gel form that has the consistency of honey, often looks like honey and can be made at home with honey. Endurance athlete manna. (Nolek)

Food packaging and its meaning:
Energy gel manufacturers foster the belief that their products are a superior science-based source of energy for endurance athletes with the words and image symbols present on their packaging. Below is a review of some carbohydrate-only energy gel packaging’s meaning laden-branding in words and images:
Hammer Gel: “Hammer” connotes a hard steel tool for pounding nail, “Rapid Energy Fuel” emphasizes the mechanistic bio-medical view of the human body with power and speed; packaging artwork is of a bike crank stylized to look light electricity (power) shooting from it. Using cyclist lingo, “to hammer on the bike” means to go very fast with extreme effort. The word chosen to describe the viscious syrupy food is “gel”(from the word “gelatin” that is made from beef) and not “honey” or “pudding” or “custard” which has less forceful connotations.
Cliff Shot: “Shot” connotes a fast bullet projectile shooting from a weapon; Cliff (the company founder’s dog’s name is similar to the word “cliff” which means a dangerous perapice and opportunity for a wall climb by an climber, the packagine also includes the words “90% organic entirely natural” to emphasize it’s purity.
PowerBar Gel: “Power” means energy obviously, but it also means "strength" and social dominance as in "political power" The word choice of “gel” sounds more athletic than “pudding’; however this company goes a step further towards emphasizing it’s science-based authority with “C2 Max higher octane carb blend.” “C2 Max” is a play on the term “VO2” max which is popular test that elite endurance athletes take to determine the upper limit of their performance. (Maughan)
Gu Roctane: “Gu” is similar to “gel” as a descriptor and doesn’t have the sweet leisurely connotations as “pudding” or “honey”. “Roctane” seems to be a made up word that connotes “rock”—a very hard and inert substance that doesn’t deteriorate with time. The package emphases this symbolism with the words “Race with the Roc”.

The science of sports nutrition is a both a belief system and a practice with that what an athlete ingests as important as when, where and in what form. (Maughan 140) Conceptualizing the body as a bio-machine, carbohydrates (CHO) are the fuel that the body can metabolize most quickly into energy or blood glucose. By replacing energy burned during exertion, the gels maintain a constant supply of energy available to the athlete thereby increasing the athlete’s endurance and optimum performance. (Ryan)

A very short history of sports nutrition for endurance athletes:
A company based in Berkeley, California called GU Energy in 1991 invented the first energy gels. (GU Energy) PowerBars were invented in 1986 and PowerGel came out in 1996. (PowerBar).
Before energy gels, bars and beverages became readily available in the 1990s, American endurance athletes used easy-to digest and relatively inexpensive natural foods and beverages to maintain their energy levels from word of mouth and trial-and-error.
Dave Scott, a five-time winner of the Hawaiian Ironman World Championships explains what he used to eat to maintain his energy while training for hours on the bike and while running. He said:

Nutritionally speaking, we didn't know a whole lot in the early 1980s. Each athlete would seemingly load their water bottles with a unique, home-brewed concoction. The drinks were usually extraordinarily sludge-like with a slight brownish tint. I had heard that these "loaded caloric bombs" often exceeded 1500 calories per water bottle.
The common recipe for optimal nutrition was a combination of ground or pureed candy bars, honey and dextrose tablets blended with the chef's favorite beverage. Its not that I was smarter, I just didn't like candy bars, and I thought honey and Coca-Cola didn't sound terribly appetizing.
I took a simplified track and drank water plus Exceed, one of the first fuel-replacement drinks tailored to endurance athletes. In the 1980 Kona Ironman, athletes were required to have an endurance support vehicle, which upon a simple hand gesture, provided whatever fuel or fluid you desired. I loaded up my team and station wagon with a few baked potatoes, several bunches of bananas and lots of water. Bars, gels, sodium intake, and protein—we didn't know a thing about those topics, nor were they available. (Scott)

A cross-cultural example of sports nutrition for endurance athletes:
Tarahumara Indians of northwestern Mexico are known for their corn-based diet, longevity and running culture. Tarahumara Indians are known to be the best ultra distance (over marathon length) runners in the world. It is not uncommon for an Indian to cover 100, 200 or even 300 miles over the course of 48 hours. They are known to hunt game like deer by running the animals to exhaustion. (Lutz) Their dietary staples are foods and beverages made from corn, a native grain that is a high carbohydrate starchy food. Because their lives revolve around running they eat mostly small easily digestible snacks of 80% carbohydrates from corn. (McDougal) They have learned that the most efficient way to fuel their bodies without deprecating their running performance is through snacking throughout the day on small portions of a high-carbohydrate food. The Tarahumara Indians moderate their calorie intake so as to not impact their running. Essentially they graze all day. Their traditional diet is similar to the high carbohydrate Pritikin Diet. (Lutz 31-32). Also, the composition of their mostly vegetarian and starch based diet is similar to modern-day elite and world-class ultra runners such as Scott Jurak eats a similar diet of 80% carbohydrates and is a vegan.

Appendix A (a recipe to make your own energy gel)

Homemade Power Goop
By Derek Nolek, Dirt Rag Magazine

7 and 1/3 tablespoons of honey
3/4 teaspoons of blackstrap molasses
1/10 teaspoons (just shy of 1/8 tsp) of table salt

Be sure to mix everything together well. It should make enough to fill a five-serving GU Energy flask. [A travel size container for shampoo or hand lotion thoroughly cleaned out would work, too. Multisport Mama]
This recipe works nicely. You may see some bubbles on the surface, but that is just a natural occurrence of the molasses. Neither honey nor molasses needs to be refrigerated, so you can keep it in your pocket all day and even use it the following week. I probably wouldn't go much past a week, but it should still be good.
The nutritional content approximates: 25g carbs, 45mg sodium, 35mg potassium--with plenty of vitamins and minerals that you wouldn't get with the store-bought stuff. Another nice thing about the honey recipe is that it is all natural. Honey comes from bees that get nectar from flowers. Molasses is refined from sugar cane. (Nolek)


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Lutz Dick (1989), The Running Indians: The Tarahumara of Mexico, Salem, OR: DIMI Press, pp. 25-32.

Maughan, Ronald J., and Louise M. Burke (2002), Sports Nutrition: Handbook of Sports
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Ryan, Monique, (2007), Sports Nutrition For Endurance Athletes, Boulder, CO: Velo Press, pp. 115-153

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  1. nice - this got me thinking again about my eating habits. I need to graze more and binge less. I've noticed that I need to drink a lot more water when I use energy gels during a run. this has turned me off to heavy use.


  2. Interesting!

    Thanks for sharing.


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