DIY Energy Gels

Nutrition and ultrarunning, it is a huge variable in the sport that can turn the best trained athlete's seemingly perfect day into a drudging sufferfest if things begin to fall apart. How many times have you heard elites and non elites alike talk about bonking midway through a race? Nutrition at aid stations is a huge part of ultrarunning and for good reason. The nutrition side of ultrarunning is one of the many things I love about the sport. I’ve never run a road race while eating bacon, but I have during an ultra and it was amazing. I love that such a huge range of degrees of planning out nutrition in the ultra community exists. Some runners are so regimented that they bring their own food to meet their diet. Others aren’t as specific about what they eat, but how much, having a nutrition plan outline that details the number of calories consumed for a certain period of time or distance. Then there are others on the opposite side of the spectrum who have no plan but just grab handfuls of peanut M&Ms or whatever else looks good at the time.

A plethora of books, articles, and websites are available with nearly every kind of nutritional advice you could possibly seek. Whether it is explaining or attempting to convince the reader of the benefits or drawbacks of one diet compared to another, if you search long enough you will most likely find information supporting your opinion on diet. That is not the purpose of this page. The purpose of this page is to solve a problem I found I was having as I was trying to figure out the nutritional side of ultrarunning. The problem wasn’t even truly a nutritional based problem, but a financial one, namely the cost of gels. I had never used energy gels until a race. I know, you’re not supposed to try anything new during a race that you haven’t experimented with during your long runs. Anyway, I did and I found that energy gels worked really well for me. Great discovery, right? Well, kinda. Energy gels are super convenient to carry in a vest, pack, or belt. They also fueled me for 50 miles and I never felt like I was even close to crashing nutritionally. Unfortunately, they are a little costly and I am usually pretty thrifty, not the best combination.

After doing a short online search, the best price for any energy gel I could find was on Amazon. Amazon offered a Berry Blast flavored 1x caffeine PowerBar Performance Energy Power Gels case of 24 (1.44 ounce) packets for $20.38. This comes out to just under $0.85 per packet or about $0.59 per ounce. Slightly more were Clif Shot Energy Gels for $22.79 per case of 24 (1.2 ounce) packets. GU Energy Gels ranged from just over $25 per case to around $30. Most of the prices I saw for Honey Stinger Energy Gels were on the higher end of gel prices with all of the listings I saw either almost $30 per case or slightly over.
So with these prices and my frugal nature, I have pretty much only used gels when they are offered at an aid station. At their most basic, energy gels are a portioned source of calories, carbs, sodium, potassium, a few vitamins, and sometimes caffeine. I figured I can get all of this, although maybe not as conveniently, from real food and liquids. A peanut butter and jelly sandwich, a banana, Gatorade, and a caffeinated beverage pretty much covered all the nutrition supplied by gels. Having these items and eating them in small portions at a designated cache on the loop where I do my long runs has worked for me, but I still wanted the option of carrying the necessary nutrition for other routes where it wasn’t convenient to return to a nutrition cache location as often. So I started experimenting with making my own energy gels. I tried several different ingredients in different combinations. I used honey, smashed bananas, chia seeds, molasses, peanut butter, maple syrup, instant coffee, coffee grounds. After experimenting, I did a little research and found some recipes online, all of which were similar to what I had already been using. I almost think that the experimenting phase was more productive than the recipe research phase. When experimenting, I developed the recipe by taste to my preference, which I would say is pretty important because I will be the one eating this stuff. I would recommend that you do the same. Start with a basic recipe (several linked to below with the Homebrew Power Goop being the simplest) and alter it as you see fit to make it perfect for you. If you want some advice from a pro on how to make your own energy gel, check out this video from Ginger Runner Live of Zach Miller talking about his recipe.

After you’ve made your energy goop, the next question is how to make it convenient to carry. Well, you have several options.

Infantino offers a product called the Squeeze Station designed for baby food to be conveniently stored in individual disposable pouches or a reusable pouch. It can be used just as easily for your homemade energy goo. This option probably produces a final product that is the most similar to any commercially purchased gels, however it is also the most expensive option for packaging your energy gel. Obviously, if your motivation for making homemade energy gels is to save money, this may not be the best option for you.

Hammer Nutrition Flask

Another option is a reusable flask like these offered by
GU and Hammer Nutrition. It may not be as convenient
as having each portion individually sealed, but it is more
affordable and also avoids the wasted packaging.

GU Nutrition Flask

An additional minimal waste and thrifty option is to rinse out and reuse either apple sauce or infant food squeeze pouches. This method is a little more time consuming due to the rinsing and refilling, but it does give you a final product very similar to the commercially purchased energy gels. Most of the gel recipes I’ve used are too thick to funnel into the pouches. I’ve found that one of the best ways to refill the pouches with your goo is by using infant medicine syringes. It is best done carefully, slowly, and with a fair amount of shaking (see YouTube video for demonstration).

Maybe the thriftiest and simplest option of all is to simply use zippered sandwich baggies. Just portion your homemade energy goop into the corner of sandwich baggies and seal. When you’re in need of fuel, bite off the corner of the baggie and squeeze out the energy goop directly into your mouth. It may not be the most elegant or top of the line option, but it works for an athlete on a budget.

Have fun with it and don’t be afraid to experiment with new ingredients. After all, what’s the worst that could happen? You may end up puking on the side of the trail or having to make an emergency bowel evacuation behind a bush, but it’s not like we haven’t all been there before. Am I right?!

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