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Q&A: What to Look for in an Energy Gel

I’ve seen amino acids listed in energy gel ingredients. What do these do for my run?

Amino acids are the building blocks of protein. Most of us hear the word protein and think muscle, but proteins are far more ubiquitous in the human body—they account for approximately 16% of our weight. They are found in our hair, our skin, our nails, and our eyes. You know those cholesterol letters HDL and LDL? They’re proteins, too: low density lipoprotein and high density lipoprotein.

There are 20 different amino acids—some we can make on our own; others we must get from our diet. When it comes to sports performance, we tend to focus on the three branched-chain amino acids (BCAAs): leucine, isoleucine, and valine. BCAAs, particularly leucine, are potent signals for promoting muscle protein synthesis, especially in the presence of a training stimulus. Because of this, we often associate BCAAs with strength- and power-based athletes and sports.

However, research suggests there may be some benefits for endurance athletes as well. BCAAs may:

  • Prevent muscle loss during long bouts of exercise
  • Spare glycogen (glycogen is our stored carbs; when we run out,  we’re more likely to bonk, unless we’re consuming carbs along the way)
  • Decrease mental fatigue
  • Decrease muscle damage
  • Help with immune response

Now, when you’re not on the road logging miles, know that BCAAs are found in food you likely eat on a daily basis. Animal-based proteins, such as chicken, fish, and eggs are rich in BCAAs, while plant-based proteins, such as lentils and peanut butter, provide moderate amounts.

Here’s the take-away: If you like the gel you’ve been using and it happens to have BCAAs, great. If not, I wouldn’t panic. No matter what your fueling strategy is during a workout, be sure to include protein both before and after you hit the road on those longer runs.


Tiffany Chag

Tiffany Chag is a performance coach and registered dietitian. A fitness professional with more than 10 years of experience in this field, she has worked with a diverse population of clients ranging from youth and collegiate athletes to those managing chronic disease and recovering from serious injuries.
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