As a part-time spin instructor and full-time dirtbag bike racer, I'm often asked: how do you cut back on the expensive costs associated with racing? While I still consider myself a relative newcomer to racing, I've amassed a few such tricks, some of which are too shameful to blog about, but some of which I want to share with our readers. By following my un-copyrighted advice, you too can save a few dollars by simply investing an inordinate amount of time pursuing cheaper alternatives. Here goes!
Energy gel is a well-known form of sports nutrition, especially among endurance athletes, and there are several companies that make gel products. Let's look at some stats on a few of them, and see why they're so popular.
Macronutrients: Each of the products above derives 100% of its energy from carbohydrate. Aside from Clif Shots, the above gel products use maltodextrin as their primary ingredient. Maltodextrin has unique characteristics. It has a low glycemic index, meaning that it prompts both relatively low insulin release and blood sugar spike. It is also one of the most efficiently and quickly absorbed complex carbohydrates, meaning that your body doesn't have to divert much energy to digestion.
All the gels use some sugar, constituting between 8% and 27% of total energy. While secondary to maltodextrin, sugars provide an early burst of energy, as well as providing flavor.
Micronutrients: Aside from carbohydrate, the gels above use different mixes of electrolytes (sodium, potassium), antioxidants (Vitamins C and E), caffeine, and amino acids. With doses of all of these in a single 1-oz serving, gel is an efficient way of packing in several nutrients at once. You could drink a cup of coffee, have a sports drink with electrolytes, and take an amino acid supplement, but gel's all-in-one appeal is part of why they are so popular.
Each of these ingredients can have legitimate benefits, but for the purposes of this post (creating a cheap and customizable substitute), they are not the primary motive for using gel nutrition. It is easy enough to make sure that your off-the-bike diet contains enough protein and amino acids so that you can ride or race your bike without becoming protein deficient, and personally, I wouldn't give up coffee even if I took 200mg in caffeine through gels on a race day. The core benefit of gels is the carbohydrate maltodextrin, so let's get to making your own.
I've experimented with adding in various micronutrients, but we'll start with a simple recipe: fruit juice and maltodextrin. For the fruit juice, I'm fond of POM juice. For the maltodextrin, you can find several corn-derived brands at shops like Super Supplements and GNC, or online for even cheaper:
First is setting your ratio of powder to liquid. A good starting point is 3:1. This will make a gel that isn't too viscous, but that still packs a good deal of energy. Using 1c POM juice and 3c NOW maltodextrin yields a little over 16oz of gel totaling 1300 kcal, including 300g maltodextrin and 34g sugar. The cooking process is very simple. Heat the juice in a pot to just below simmering, and add the powder.
Anyone who has used corn starch before knows that it takes a bit of time to dissolve into water. The same goes for maltodextrin, as it is also corn-derived. After a minute in the juice, the powder will settle into insulated clumps:
With occasional stirring and time, these clumps will open up, releasing the powder into the juice.
If you think that the gel doesn't look as thick as you'd like it to be, remember that, heated, it will be thinner than it is at room temperature. Once the powder clumps have dissolved, turn off the heat, let the gel cool a bit, and place it in a container.
At this point, the gel is best refrigerated, as it doesn't contain the preservatives found in most gels.
Now you have ride-ready nutrition! Just load some up in a Hammer Flask, or mix some into a water bottle and you're ready to go. I like to prep my gel on a Thursday or Friday before a weekend of racing so that I have enough to last. For a stage race with two 3-hour road races, a 20-minute TT and an hour-long crit, I'll make 800kcal for each road race, and 200kcal to take shortly before both the TT and the crit.
As I said at the beginning of this post, making your own gel to save money can be a case of false economy, with the amount of time and energy you spend making it outweighing the money saved. But if you're a tinkering type, or are interested in tweaking your ride nutrition with changes in sugar ratios, additions of vitamins, caffeine, amino acids, and other micronutrients, then homemade gel can be a fun project.