We are excited to share the next post in our Marathon Series with Megan Marlow, co-creator of the Jillian Michael’s Fat Burning Nutrition Plan for Vegans! Megan’s goal is to make living a plant-based lifestyle a little easier for everyone by sharing what she has learned through her own journey enhancing her life through food, while ensuring it is still an enjoyable experience everyone. Today she is bringing us homemade energy gels to keep you from hitting “the wall”!
“The Wall” – it happens to even the best athletes. We’ve all seen videos online of runners nearing the end of a race, and suddenly their legs crumble beneath them, leaving them crawling towards the finish line. It’s a freakin’ tragedy! Someone can be undeniably fit, have trained incredibly well, and still find themselves in this position. The reason behind this problem is that our muscles (the tools that carry us to the finish line) don’t care how fit we are. Our muscles only care about one thing: how much glycogen (i.e. fuel) they have access to.
Glycogen is created from glucose and is the body’s main source of energy. We store this power source in two places: our muscles and our liver. As we endure intense training sessions, our bodies create energy by converting glycogen stored in the muscles to glucose. As workout intensity and length increases, so does the body’s need for fuel. In other words, our muscles become hungry. After we’ve depleted the glycogen stored in our muscles, our bodies then convert glycogen stored in the liver back into glucose to be utilized as a backup. As the glycogen stores in the liver rapidly deplete, our blood sugar falls and hypoglycemia sets in. This is the moment where knees buckle and crawling on the ground ensues.
To avoid hitting “The Wall” and depleting our glycogen stores, it’s important that we replenish them throughout a long training session or race. Our bodies can provide approximately 90 minutes to 2 hours worth of glycogen. After that our performance becomes compromised. A great way to keep your fuel levels steady is to incorporate energy gels into your training routine. If you are unfamiliar with energy gels or if you rely on store bought brands, try whipping up a batch of clean, homemade ones to have on hand.
Homemade energy gels are super easy to make and there are only a few things to note. First, when building homemade energy gels, the main component to focus on is sugar (i.e. glucose, which the body converts into glycogen). Aside from sugar, there are a few other ingredients to include for texture, taste, and electrolyte balance. They can be customized to fit your needs, are easy to make, less processed, and quite the money saver! Fuel yourself like the machine you are and sprint through the finish line.
Dried fruit, like dates, is a great staple item for making that smooth, gel-like consistency in energy gels. Deliciously sweet dried fruit is high in glucose, which is what we are aiming for to prevent hitting the wall! Although dried fruit is high in glucose, it can take a little bit longer to break down as compared to a completely simple sugar. Because of this difference in break down times, you’ll want to add a little bit of a raw sweetener (i.e. raw agave or pure maple syrup) to your energy gels. Adding a combination of sugars ensures that some of the sugar in the gels goes directly to the muscles, while other sugars spend a little time being broken down.
Electrolytes help our muscles contract properly. Adding ingredients like sea salt, citrus fruit juice, and coconut water will help to keep you in the game. Citrus is great for balancing out the sweetness in energy gels, as our palates tend to gravitate towards tart flavors when dehydrated.
Once you find yourself training for longer periods of time and understanding your body’s subtle cues for refueling needs, you can consider adding small amounts of fat into your energy gels. Fat will slow how quickly other nutrients are absorbed (and can cause digestive distress), but small amounts can be beneficial in creating sustained energy levels. Play around with the non-fat edition of energy gels first to find your refueling window so that you are able to refuel with enough time for a slower stream of glucose to enter your muscles. Chia seeds are a great option for added fat as they also help to keep the body hydrated. Coconut oil is another beneficial add-on as it acts more like a carbohydrate in the body than a fat so you get the best of both worlds. Remember small amounts are what we’re aiming for!
RECIPE: Homemade Grapefruit-Lemon Energy Gels
12 medjool dates, pitted
1/2 grapefruit, zested
1/2 C grapefruit juice (roughly one large grapefruit)
1 lemon, juiced
1 Tbsp maple syrup (or raw agave)
1 tsp chia seeds
2 pinches coarse ground sea salt
1/4 tsp baking soda (optional: for balancing body acidity and lactic acid buildup)
Place all ingredients into a food processor and blend until pureed. Scoop desired amount of gel into mini plastic bags like these or reusable travel squeeze tubes.