Make Your Own Running Gel

When the Clif Bar Company switched the carbs in its ClifShot gels from rice syrup to “organic evaporated cane juice,” I decided to try rolling my own.

I’m happy to report that my new formula is working brilliantly.

The rice syrup in ClifShot Classic gave me a nice, smooth “ride” without spikes or crashes. So rice syrup was the obvious choice for carbs in my homebrew formula.

What else should I include? Electrolytes, of course. But what kind, and how much?

Thinking about electrolytes reminded me of a day several years ago when I ran to the top of Black Mountain, the highest point in the Coastal Range on the San Francisco Peninsula, at 2800’.

Arriving at the summit, I realized that I was out of fuel. Rummaging in my pack, I found only sad-looking, frayed packet of Ultima.

I mixed it in a water botttle, chugged a little, and headed back down the trail, and before long I realized I was feeling great.

Ultima is controversial. It’s got a ton of electrolytes: calcium, phosphorus, magnesium, zinc, selenium, copper, manganese, chromium, molybdenum, chloride, sodium, and potassium.

But it has just 10 calories of carbs per packet – and that isn’t much. In fact, the Ultima folks aren’t much interested in carbs – they designed the product to speed electrolytes to the bodies of hospital patients.

From the FAQ on Ultima’s website:

Ultima’s formulators found that optimal hydration requires a good balance of the electrolytes and that electrolytes are most readily absorbed with a proper amount of carbohydrate. With no carbohydrates, the absorption of electrolytes is very low and with excessive carbohydrates, the absorption is slowed by a long and necessary digestion process. Ultima’s researchers found that by minimizing carbs, and using only complex carbs, rather than simple sugar, the absorption is quick and effective.

Well, a wee bit o’ carbs may help sick people get their ‘lytes quicker; but I wasn’t about to go carb-free on long runs; so I mixed 300 calories of rice syrup (4 tbsp) with a little water and tossed in two scoops of Ultima. I figured it would be a good test mix for a 2-hour run. If Ultima helped my body scarf up carbs faster, all the better.

I knew that the running body consumes a lot more than 150 calories per hour. But the free fueling guide on Hammer Nutrition’s website makes a convincing case that when it comes to taking carbs and electrolytes on long runs, replenishment is better than replacement. That’s because the body simply can’t replace as much as it consumes. We may burn 600-900 calories per hour when we run, but the body can only absorb 200-300 calories per hour. Trying to replace 600-900 calories usually just causes indigestion.

As I explained in Carbenflarb 2, I’m being careful these days to eat enough carbs between runs, because I find that it allows me to run longer comfortably and at a quicker pace, and recover faster than if I limit carbs when I’m not running and rely on gels to fuel my runs.

I carried the gel in a Hammer 5-serving gel flask ($1.95; mine came free with a Hammer order). I decided to take a quarter-flask (75 calories) every 30 minutes with plenty of water, starting at 30 minutes.

(The Hammer flask is excellent, by the way – it has a leak-free seal, and it’s not uncomfortable to carry in a pocket.)

The new fuel worked very well. I ran 2 hours, the last 90 minutes at 80% of MHR or bit above, and I felt fine throughout. I had no stomach problems, energy spikes, dips, or other woes. A week later, I did it again and felt fine.

Unfortunately, the homebrew mix costs more than ClifShot gels – about $1.45 for a 75-cal serving, versus about $1 per 100-cal ClifShot.

I could lower the cost by using commercial rice syrup instead of organic ($4.40 vs. $5.49), and a cheaper electrolyte formula. (Vitacost has good supplement prices online.) It tastes like the puppy had an accident in my GU flask. But I like how it’s working.

I wish the folks at Jalopnik would stop using the term “rice rocket” because it’s a perfect name for my gel formula. (If you follow the link, be sure to read the captions.)


Now then, those who aren’t interested in spiritual matters can stop reading.

I can’t resist sharing the back-story of my recent experiments with carbs. In my spiritual life, I realized recently that I needed to be spending more time serving in our spiritual community. Some of the work is physically demanding, and at 69 I wondered if I could keep up without backing off on my running. I prayed to my spiritual teacher, saying I was willing to do the work, even if it meant sacrificing my running completely; and that’s when the notion came to eat more complex carbs.

My energy increased dramatically, and I was able to handle the community work and running without problems. Of course, I eventually did run out of gas. On a 60-minute run by the Bay, my legs felt as if they had enough stored energy, but my body didn’t want to go faster than a moderate jog. I realized it’s one thing to fuel the working leg muscles, but that the body needs time to recover metabolically after hard exercise, and that you can’t rush the process.

I’m reminded of a story from my spiritual teacher’s youth. His teacher once asked him, “What is God?” My teacher said something about God being an infinite Spirit. And his teacher said, “Ah, a pantheist, eh? No – God is infinite energy and intelligence.” I find that infinite source is also personal. As my teacher put it, God is not only infinite, but infinitesimal, and acutely aware of the tiny details of our lives. When I need help with my running, I find that all I have to do is ask. I know some people scoff at the idea of a cold, impersonal universe giving solutions to Achilles tendinitis and side stitches. But, then, how can they comment knowledgeably, if they never give God the slightest time of day?

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