Do you ever take an energy gel either on the start line or just before you line up for a cyclo-cross race? If you answered yes, do you know why?

I was prompted to write this post after one of the riders I work with told me they forgot to take a gel just before a ‘cross race, and felt their start wasn’t as good as a result. That just isn’t true and it made me realise a lot of people may be using gels for the wrong reasons.

It can be worth taking a gel on the start line, but it’s not to give you some sort of magic boost at the start of the race, the reason it can be worth taking is actually as an insurance policy for the back end of the race.

Before you even worry about whether or not to take a gel before a race, you need to ensure you are lining up to race fully fuelled and hydrated, this is a much bigger priority. A ‘cross race is extremely intense, and depending on the category you race in, your race will be anywhere from approximately 30-60 minutes in length. During intense exercise over this sort of time frame your body will be burning predominantly carbohydrate, which has to be converted to glycogen before it can be used. Very little fat will be metabolised during a ‘cross race because the process takes too long. The process of converting carbohydrate, to glycogen, and then to energy, is much quicker than metabolising fat. When you eat during the hours leading up to a race your body will convert carbohydrate to glycogen and store it in your muscles and liver, ready to be used when you need it. If well fuelled and hydrated, your body will store enough energy to get you through 60-90 min of ‘cross race level intensity, beyond this point you are going to need to top those stores up. But at 60-90 min, you will likely have enough glycogen to get you through a full race. Only if you were starting a race under-fuelled would you find yourself running low.

Energy gels are full of glucose, a type of sugar which is a form of carbohydrate that can be rapidly metabolised into glycogen. If you were to take a gel before the start of a race it would buffer your energy stores, it is quickly absorbed in to the blood and transported to the muscles. The gel you take just before a race could be used to produce energy as quickly as 5 minutes in to the race, but it could take up to 15 minutes depending on your metabolism (which is largely determined genetically). During that 5-15 min window, energy is used from the gel you have taken, preserving the energy stored in the muscles and therefore prolonging that 60-90 minute ‘cross race energy window. The gel therefore prolongs the availability of stored energy, it does not give you a sudden boost.

With most people’s ‘cross races lasting 60 min or less, if well fuelled and hydrated you shouldn’t need an energy gel before a race. But depending on how well your body stores energy, how well you have fuelled in the 24 hours leading up to the race and just how hard you are working, it’s very possible that your energy supply limit could be closer to the 60-minute mark than the 90-minute mark. If that’s the case then your pre-race gel could give you the buffer you need to get you all the way through the race, but it won’t give you any sort of extra energy boost at the start. If you are finding that you regularly don’t have enough energy to get to the end of a ‘cross race then it may be time to look at what you are eating and drinking in the 24 hours before the race, as it may be that you are starting under-fuelled.

However, if your lap times are getting progressively slower, don’t assume that this is down to a lack of stored energy, it could be down to a whole number of things: Lack of ‘cross race fitness, starting too hard, course deterioration, diminishing mental focus etc. If you are starting at an effort level that is beyond your current fitness, then you’re going to blow up every time. Only when you’ve got your pacing sorted, appropriate to your level of fitness, can you start to look at energy levels.

So, for people racing ‘cross for approx. 60 min an energy gel on the start line could be a useful insurance policy. But for youth riders only racing 30 min, there’s no way they will need an energy gel, assuming they are properly fuelled on “proper food” leading up to the race. If a youth rider thinks a gel is directly giving them some sort of additional level of energy during a 30-min race then it is purely psychological.

The only time an energy gel would give you a sudden boost of energy is when you have already depleted your glycogen stores, for example during a longer road race or sportive, but if you’re eating and drinking properly that shouldn’t be an issue in a short race like a ‘cross race.

Some energy gels do contain caffeine, this can help some riders at the start of a race, through heightened alertness and a reduced sensitivity to pain, but this only works for some people, not all (caffeine response is largely dictated by your DNA). However, I strongly recommend youth riders avoid caffeine products anyway, not just because of the visible effects but because of the hidden side effects, such as the potential to reduce calcium absorption and therefore potential to reduce bone density.

I hope you found this useful, if you would like to read future posts, enter your email address in the “Connect with Us” box, at the bottom of the page.

Dan Small, Mountain Goat Coaching

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