Energy gel carbohydrate supplements are becoming increasingly popular and widespread in sporting circles, though there are still a lot of myths and misconceptions as to their correct usage and potential benefits. In today's blog article we'll be looking at how useful energy gels may be to the average squash player, and also their possible advantages/disadvantages to recreational athletes in general.
Energy gels are a type of viscous sugary sweet goo that are marketed as 'performance enhancing' to athletes. You will occasionally see professional players sucking at an energy gel sachet between games, though their use isn't especially prevalent in squash - gels tend to be more widely used in tennis, long distance running, triathlon, and also pretty extensively in cycling.
This has much to do with the duration of these events, as compared to the average game of squash - research suggests you don't really need to consume additional supplementary carbohydrate unless your sport/training session is of a high intensity and lasts for a duration of greater than 60mins. You could obviously make the same argument of most sports drinks, but slick marketing and highly visible advertising has unfortunately long made these a staple part of the plan of even the most recreational of exercisers!
The main benefit of gels are their portability + convenience of consumption (of particular relevance to endurance athletes that have to refuel on the go), and their more highly concentrated volume of carbohydrate - most gels contain around 20-25g carbs, as compared to say a bottle of Lucozade which contains 32g carbs (a lot of gels also have a similar electrolyte content to sports drinks). Obviously taking in a gel or two is a lot quicker and easier than drinking an entire bottle of sports drink however, and the various blends of carbs/sugars (usually maltodextrin and fructose based) that are used in gels is also meant to enhance their absorption and digestibility.
That said, if gels aren't consumed along with sufficient water they have been known to cause significant gastrointestinal distress in users. The taste of them can also be an issue as they're usually very thick and sickly sweet (due to the high sugar concentration), which can be off-putting to many.
As regards my own personal experiences with energy gels, I have used them on occasion both for myself and with athletes I work with during long training sessions, though I'm not a particularly massive fan of them (mainly due to the aforementioned palatability issues). The supplement company CNP do a cola one I find good though, and High5 do a version called 'IsoGel' that is of a much thinner consistency and thus a little smoother and easier to consume. 'Powerbar' are also one of the more popular and widely used brands, though I've not tried any of their products myself recently.
I'm not sure exactly which brands different PSA/WSA players use, though I would assume their choices are based more on sponsorship commitments and personal taste grounds than anything else. There are tons of different blends, formulas, and ratios, so it is very hard to say which is 'best' - different companies obviously make different claims. Some supplement companies also recommend using certain versions of their gels pre-session as well, though research has suggested something as simple as a handful of raisins may be just as effective here.
The best advice I would give is to try a few out, and see how you get on with them. Obviously if your games/training are always of a relatively shorter duration then they won't be of any real benefit, though some companies do also manufacture specific 'recovery' gels now, that may be of some use after particularly heavy sessions. Do check the packaging of any gels for additional ingredients though - many contain caffeine for example, which some people like to monitor their intake of.
Do be aware that gels are not really aimed at the more recreational trainer - they're obviously high in sugar, and contain a not insignificant amount of calories, so unless your sporting goals are performance based then they're not really going to be ideal. As with any sports supplement, remember also that gels should always be used only on the firm foundations of a solid healthy diet, and not as a stop gap or substitute for good basic nutritional principles.
Gary Nisbet - B.Sc.(Hons), CSCS, NSCA-CPT, Dip. FTST
Squashskills Fitness & Performance Director
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