Are 'bonking' and 'Gu' unfamiliar to you? If you run, bike or hike, it's time to tune in.
It’s sort of like baby food or fruit gummies. Easy to eat and packed full of nutrients a vulnerable human would need.
Except this type of mushy and gooey food, known in brands like Gu, Honey Stinger and Gatorade, is for athletes going the distance while carrying as little as possible. It’s another way to try to unlock a better performance, used by athletes who climb mountains, run ultramarathons or bike for miles.
If you’ve ever tried to go for a run on a less-than-ideally full stomach and felt like a cartoon character running through quicksand — trying super hard but not going as far as you’d like — congratulations! You’ve bonked. It sort of means exactly what it sounds like it means, in that it describes a wall you “bonk” against when you’re undernourished during a hard workout. It’s different from being merely tired, and you’ll know it when you’re feeling it.
“It's a condition where you kind of have the sudden loss of energy, and it's where your glycogen stores have completely been depleted,” said Frankie Ruiz, chief direction officer for Life Time and race director for the Sarasota First Watch Half Marathon.
Energy gels and goos can help with that or give you a boost when you haven’t eaten much and need a quick jolt to the system. When exercising, a lot of your blood is directed to your working muscles and not to your stomach or digestive system, according to Paul Kriegler, nutritional products development manager at Life Time Fitness.
So although a banana has what an endurance athlete would need, the fibers and effort to eat solid food and put it to work makes a soft goo or chew the more efficient fuel source.
“During intense activity, the primary source of energy is supplied by carbohydrates in the form of glucose (which is a simple sugar), and ‘simple’ carbs without fiber are also the most easily digested during exercise,” Kriegler wrote in an email.
Enter the adult baby food.
These energy goos and chews aren’t necessarily a special secret formula, though they are often made in a lab. They contain electrolytes, simple carbs and sugar — coming in flavors like chocolate outrage, lemon sublime or toasted marshmallow — and they are easy-to-eat and -digest “foods” for distance athletes to boost their bodies back up to peak performance by depositing calories and vital nutrients into the system when they’re running low.
These products are typically for those going the distance, like cyclists and runners, Ruiz said. On the other hand, weightlifting, CrossFit and other strength-based workouts focus on intermittent bursts of strength. Just eat healthy, and you shouldn’t need to suck down a Gu during your session.
Eat well before a long, sustained workout, and the possibility of bonking decreases significantly — and you might not even need to turn to energy gels, Kriegler wrote. Generally, a well-fed person has enough nutrients stored up for activities shorter than 90 minutes. To avoid troubles, Kriegler said to consume 10-30% of what you’re burning. Any more could cause gastrointestinal distress.
However, in a morning race, when you’re coming off a night’s sleep with no food, gels help along the course (in addition to a nutritious, familiar breakfast), Ruiz said.
“If you know the activity will last more than 90 minutes and neglect to consume something to delay the 'bonk,' you’ll end up feeling weak, fatigued and otherwise exhausted (and hungry) in the immediate timeframe,” Kriegler wrote. “Later on, you may feel sore or broken down longer during the recovery phase.”
If you’re concerned that the gooey stuff will mess with your stomach, just keep an eye out for ingredients you already know give you problems, like caffeine. The fewer ingredients in a gel, the better, Ruiz said.
And let’s not forget hydration. Energy gels should be followed by a swig of water and definitely not Gatorade or a sports drink, Ruiz said. This way, you’ll avoid bloating by capping the carbs you’re taking in at what the gel had to offer, and the water will help the gel dissolve and work into your system properly. Before the big workout, keep up your hydration with a half ounce per pound of body weight, plus 16-20 ounces per hour of activity, Kriegler wrote.
“Small amounts of fluid every 15-20 minutes during intense activities of any type can help delay fatigue or help with temperature regulation and nutrient circulation to the working muscles,” Kriegler wrote.
If you’re in an endurance race, such as a marathon or bike race, don’t wait until the aid station to try your first gel. Introducing anything new could mess with your stomach — and your time.