An Honest Guide to Sports Gels
Outside staffers share their thoughts, feelings, and angry mid-workout musings on the endurance sports world's favorite fuel
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During a long trail run or intense ride, replenishing energy stores is key. But to do so during your effort requires products that can be opened, eaten, and processed swiftly and simply. That means traditional bars or fruit are off the table. Enter the sports gel, packets of quick-digesting sugars to provide a burst of energy as you fatigue during longer efforts. These aren’t just everyday snacks: Gels are specifically designed to be consumed 15 minutes prior to starting your race or every 30 to 45 minutes throughout. (And always wash them down with water.)
Because we’re constantly putting ourselves through hours-long runs, rides, hikes, and more, we know a good or bad gel when we taste one. Our staffers surveyed upwards of 15 flavors from four different brands, and, frankly, we can’t recommend many of them. We’ve sacrificed our taste buds, subjected ourselves to severe cases of dry mouth, and endured bizarrely textured mouthfuls of syrupy stuff all in the name of creating a foolproof roster of gels that are actually good. Don’t stray from this list and you’ll be rewarded with midrace fuel that tastes good and gets the job done. (Spoiler: If you see peanut butter or chocolate on the shelf, grab it.)
If you’re a peanut butter lover, try Hammer’s gluten-free peanut butter energy gel. Its taste and texture resemble a spoonful of the real thing straight from the jar.
“It was like eating a big glob of Skippy, which is fine by me. This, with some water after, is definitely my fave.” —Jenny Earnest, assistant social media editor
“Physically, I felt much more alert and energetic.” —Mitch Breton, video curator
Peanut Butter Chocolate
Add a little chocolate to the mix, and even our most gel-averse testers go for it.
“I am usually not a gel person, but this got me through a trail run without a sugar crash.” —Erin Berger, associate editor
“This is everything I want at mile 20.” —Carly Graf, assistant editor
The rich chocolate-hazelnut flavor tastes more like frosting than any sort of workout fuel, making for a welcome treat when you’re pushing hard.
“Before my workout, my legs were groaning for a tempo day, but I had this 15 minutes before starting, and not long thereafter I was ready to put some metal in my pedal. I definitely credit Hammer’s gel for the boost.” —Aleta Burchyski, copy editor
“It’s super thick, which is definitely great in some ways, but just be sure to have a full supply of water at the ready.” —C.G.
Clif Shot Energy Gel
The thin consistency makes it easy to get down quickly between strides and prevents the dry-mouth syndrome that can follow thicker gels.
“Equally fruity and delicious. I took it right before a three-mile hike. I usually feel lethargic and slow for the first mile or so; this time, I was immediately off at a good pace.” —M.B.
“I’m typically sort of turned off by fruity flavors, but this one tasted like raspberry candy.” —E.B.
Gooey with a distinct, not-too-sweet chocolate flavor, this gel made fans out of our testers.
“It’s super thick, which I like, almost like eating a spoonful of Nutella.” —Ben Fox, assistant editor
“After this experiment, I’ve come to realize that there is a difference between thick, icing-like sport goos, which are delicious in chocolatey flavors, and translucent gels.” —E.B.
Chocolate and coffee pair perfectly for taste and performance.
“Knocked three seconds off my typical stationary-bike mile pace, despite too little sleep and too much red wine the night before. The bonus 50 milligrams of caffeine was everything.” —A.B.
“Maybe it was just placebo, but I felt like I got a decent hit of energy from this one.” —C.G.
Honey Stinger Organic Energy Gels
The darkest chocolate of the bunch and naturally caffeinated with green tea extract for an even greater energy boost.
“The chocolate doesn’t overpower the flavor of the honey, so it’s more like the classic Honey Stinger with a hint of chocolate.” —B.F.
“I live for chocolate, and this one was the richest of the bunch.” —C.G.
Grab this packet if you want a gel that doesn’t flirt with classic dessert flavors as much as the chocolate and peanut butter varieties. Plus, this one has added electrolytes to prevent cramping and a blend of natural fruit flavors.
“I had it before a workout and assumed I was in for a regular Thursday lunch workout—until I looked at my stats and saw that I’d set a PR.” —A.B.
“If you’re really into sour-sweet candy as fuel, this one’s for you.”—E.B.
Hüma Chia Energy Gel
Huma Plus: Berries and Pomegranate
Only go for this one if you’re in the mood for über-sweet.
“I have a very high tolerance for the sweet stuff, so this didn’t overwhelm me, and it provided nice contrast to my typical icing-like flavors.” —C.G.
“I realized when heading to the gym at lunch that I forgot to eat breakfast, so I greatly appreciated this gel’s generous serving size.” —A.B.
A gluten-free, vegan option that tastes just like fruit puree.
“Just like salted strawberry puree, right down to the texture, which is much easier to get behind than the usual gluey gel consistency.” —A.B.
“I preferred this thicker texture to all the others I tried, and it tasted decently of raspberries, though a little sweet.” —E.B.