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Energy Gels, Chews, and Drinks - Worth It?

Written By Justin on Monday, June 25, 2012 | 12:03:00 PM

Goalkeepers have energy needs. We really do. Oh, outfield players may laugh at such a claim, but let them laugh. Goalkeepers may not burn energy from extended bouts of running, but we do consume a lot from simple nervous energy (pacing and stalking while the ball is in the other end) and short explosive bursts. Having a blood sugar crash during a game is disastrous. It's happened to me a few times, and is no fun whatsoever. Your legs turn to goo, all movement is sluggish, and you can't concentrate. Obviously, training sessions are more demanding than games for keepers, and all of this applies for training sessions as well, as they are roughly the same length as games.

A good, well-timed pregame meal should prevent such a blood sugar crash, but not always -- for example, playing on an excessively hot day and losing a lot of fluids will exacerbate the issue. Energy gels, chews, and drinks serve as a good insurance policy against the worst-case scenario of a total blood sugar crash. Will they turn you into a roaring, energized dynamo? Not really, no. But they do have their use.

Let's first understand what it is they are and what they can and cannot do. The source of 'energy' in energy gels is basically two things: sugar and caffeine. There are different kinds of sugar (cane, brown rice syrup, fructose) and you can choose caffeine-free products if (like me) excessive caffeine makes you a little jittery.

One thing it is very important to remember is that a lot of energy products are designed for the endurance-athlete market. Brown rice syrup, for example, is a complex carbohydrate, which means it burns slower and longer. We are playing roughly two hours, so are better served by simpler carbs and perhaps caffeine.

Simple carbs work in the short term. If you hit the gel 30 minutes before kickoff and again at halftime, you'll keep your blood sugar levels high without the worry of a crash. It's important to understand that you could get the exact same effect by swallowing a spoonful of grape jelly, but what you're paying for with gels is convenience. You can take the little foil packs with you everywhere.

It may sound counter-intuitive, but downing a can of Coca Cola (or Red Bull, Monster, or any other caffeinated beverage) can improve performance (read the full, technical story here). If caffeine doesn't bother you, and you sometimes feel an energy lull during games, it's worth a try. 

Sports drinks like Gatorade or Lucozade are primarily for hydration, and have lower concentrations of carbs. Gels offer the same amount of carbs without filling your stomach with liquid, but hydration is obviously important too, so in many cases, this will be enough. 

You can find a great deal of technical information about energy products with a simple google search. I've left out the likes of gastric emptying rate and VO2max from this article because I don't want to complicate the real-world focus of preventing crashes during games, but all that information is out there and you should educate yourself if you want it.

 I don't have any specific brand suggestions, because I have used several different gels. I usually change every so often as I get tired of the taste (you definitely don't get a great taste experience with most energy gels).

What tips or suggestions do you guys have for maintaining energy?


chris said...

I actually get a lot of exercise when I play keeper. Since I don't have ball boys tossing me a new ball every time one goes out of bounds, I spend a lot of time jogging to retrieve balls from missed shots behind the net. And as you know, it also takes a lot of energy to dive and leap back up to reposition for whatever comes next.

One thing that impacts me is how my stomach feels during a game. If I were to drink a soda soon before a game I'd get nauseous from diving on a fully carbonated stomach.

Unknown said...

I try to eat a small meal about 2 hours before kick off. I then usually have a gel pack when putting my kit on before a match with some water. That is about it besides chewing gum until the first pint after the match.

Justin said...

Chris - I think the athletes who actually do use Coke let it go flat first, or dilute it with water, to avoid that effect.

Brian - sensible. I try to do the same but with some games kicking off at 10pm, I can't wait that late to eat!

Thanks for reading as always, guys.

JOHN said...

I usually play games that kick off between 10 am and 4 pm, so I try to either have a light breakfast or a light, carb-rich meal some 2 hours before kickoff. I never had the need to eat anything until after the game, so I guess I´m just lucky that way.
Oh, and about your last question, I´m from Argentina, the land of your beloved River Plate.