The Lowdown On Sports Gels 

By Steph Lowe, BSpExSc GDipHumNutr NSA 

Gels, GUs, energy packs… whatever you call them, if you’re a runner you’re no doubt all-too-familiar with them.They’re sweet and sticky, often thick and messy, and occasionally, the cause of your undoing. Before you reach for your next sports gel, here are a few things to consider:

1. Fructose and gastrointestinal (GI) distress 

Unlike glucose, fructose is not absorbed from the intestine but must be transported to the liver where it is converted to glucose. Fructose is absorbed by the intestines more slowly and attracts water to itself via osmosis. In some athletes this may lead to cramping and diarrhoea, as the excess water makes stools softer and easier to pass. In the case of an athlete with fructose malabsorption, the effects can be race destroying. Gut troubles during events are not normal. There’s no point training to be quick if you spend precious minutes on excessive toilets stops.

Tip: avoid all gels containing fructose.

2. Fructose and weight management 

As we discussed, fructose can only be processed by the liver. This increases the workload on the liver and as a result, burdens your natural detoxification mechanisms. We store excess fructose as fat and longer term this can lead to fatty liver and insulin resistance. Essentially, fructose makes you fat.

For some athletes, there is a fine line between fuelling well and remaining lean. Excess fructose will mean that no matter how much training you do, you still have the potential to carry excess body fat, particularly around your mid-section.

Tip: avoid all gels containing fructose.

3. Simple sugars and energy spikes 

Simple sugars such as fructose spike your blood sugar, and the result of a spike is a crash. Take one gel and you’ll need another in 30 minutes. If you don’t take another hit, be ready for a drop in speed, power, energy or an all-out nutritional bonk.

A large number of gels on the market these days contain maltodextrin, a complex carbohydrate with a far greater absorption rate (15-18%) than simple sugars, such as fructose (6-8%). Maltodextrin is rapidly absorbed as glucose, is easily digestible, and is far less likely to cause GI upset. This should be the first ingredient in the gel if you are selecting one.

Tip: if you have to use a gel, choose one containing predominately maltodextrin.

4. Simple sugars and energy spikes are indicative of a sugar burning profile 

Simply put, a sugar burning profile is one which can trigger the inflammatory cascade and cause a nutritional bonk. A more efficient metabolism is one where fat is the preferential fuel. Here’s why:

  • At any given time, most trained runners are carrying about 1500 – 2000 calories of carbohydrates versus an excess of 60,000 calories of fat. It’s quite simple which fuel is more efficient to use in training and racing.
  • When an athlete is ‘fat adapted’ they become much less reliant on consuming mass amounts of carbohydrates during training and racing, which decreases the likelihood of GI distress.
  • Fat adapted athletes recover better due to removing the inflammatory influence of fructose consumption.
  • Fat adapted athletes become ‘bonk proof’ – you will never ‘hit the wall’ in training or racing again when you can access your fat calories for energy.

Tip: add in fasted training, that is run before breakfast to teach your body to preferentially burn fat.

5. Commercial gels and artificial ingredients 

Anything that comes in a box, packet or wrapper stays in there for one reason and one reason only: preservatives. There’s a golden rule in nutrition: if it contains more than five ingredients, please put it back on the shelf.

Tip: Homemade is best.

Here’s the solution: Freedom Fuel, your homemade energy gel.

Recipe for Freedom Fuel, by Steph Lowe (The Natural Nutritionist)

Freedom Fuel is gluten free, refined sugar free, all natural and tastes great. To avoid excess fructose, artificial ingredients and gut trouble in training and on race day, try this natural fuelling alternate.

Ingredients (Serves 1)

  • 2 teaspoons rice malt syrup
  • 1 teaspoon medium chain triglyceride (MCT) oil*
  • ¼ cup raspberries
  • The juice from ¼ lemon
  • A pinch of Himalayan salt
  • A dash of hot water


  1. Blend all ingredients until smooth.
  2. Pour through a strainer to remove pips. Transfer carefully into a gel flask and seal well.

Nutritional Information (per serve):

  • Calories: 126 calories
  • Protein: 0.0g
  • Fat: 5.0g
  • Carbohydrate: 20.0g
  • Sugars: 11.0g
  • Sodium: 150.0mg


  1. *Coconut oil is fine in warmer weather but it will solidify and clog the pop-top of your flask/bottle in cooler weather, so MCT oil is preferable here.
  2. For MCT oil, a brand such as Melrose is available from your local health food store.
  3. Blueberries or strawberries can be used in place of raspberries.
  4. Once made, it will only last for two days but freezes well.
  5. If you are training/racing in warmer weather please consider freezing your Freedom Fuel.
  6. One serve is ~20g of carbohydrates, so please start to experiment with 20-30g/hour or 1.0-1.5 serves/hour. For a two hour run, for example, train fasted for the first hour, then sip your 1.5 serves over the course of the second hour. Make notes of energy, digestion, performance and recovery to continue to develop your fuelling strategy.
  1. Longer events and liquid nutrition may not be enough
    The advantage of consuming solids is that the increased digestion time of these fuels allows your body to be continually drip fed with energy to sustain your running. Liquids are great for more immediate energy, but longer events may also require solid fuel to prevent hunger. A general rule is that when you are running over a time you would have normally eaten a meal, include solid sports nutrition.

Tip: Consume a combination of liquid and solid sports nutrition in events that extend over a meal time.


Steph Lowe

Steph Lowe is the Natural Nutritionist. She is a leading Australian Sports Nutritionist who specialises in metabolic efficiency, real food based sports nutrition, high performance fat loss, and teaching you how easy real food living and performance can be. For more information visit or to learn more from Steph check out


Scroll to Top