You are here

Alternative Energy: Do Energy Gels and Supplements Really Work?

1 of 2

A Growing Demand for Sports Nutrition and Energy Supplements

Thirty-year-old Patricia Murphy stumbles bleary-eyed into her kitchen at 5:30 in the morning. The Boston attorney groggily opens a cabinet and reaches for an arsenal of supplements lining the bottom shelf: four large canisters of protein powder, a small tub of green granules, individual packets of recovery drink concentrate, and a large pill bottle holding wafer snacks that regulate blood sugar. Reaching past the fruit basket — empty of produce but brimming with Hammer Gels, Clif Shot Bloks, Sport Beans, and PowerBars — Patricia grabs her Isagenix protein additive and mixes herself a shake, which she drinks on her way to the Sports Club/LA, where she'll work out for the next hour.

"I always thought you could get your nutrition from food," Patty says, sipping from her bottle. That changed a couple of years back when she joined a recreational triathlon group. The training was fun — and physically taxing. To keep her energy up, one of the coaches suggested she try sports nutrition supplements. It started with electrolyte and recovery drinks for long, hot bike rides. "I was reluctant at first — I didn't trust anything made out of powder from a can," she says. "I'd rather go home and cook a meal." But like many women pressed for time, Patty quickly saw the appeal. Plus, her training buddies raved about these products as being essential to their workouts, and soon having her own stash of sports nutrition snacks felt as important as wearing high-performance fitness gear.

Since sampling her teammates' GU Energy Gels and Hammer recovery drinks two years ago, Patty has become a convert. "I can definitely tell the difference," she says. "I feel better the next day; I'm less sore, less achy, and I have more energy." Still, she doesn't really understand the science behind the supplements. "But I trust my coach and my teammates," she says.

Word of mouth is a powerful tool, and it's been vital in growing the interest among everyday exercisers, especially women, who go to their local health stores looking for a performance edge. In the past few years the mainstreaming of sports nutrition products has transformed a once-niche market into a $25 billion industry — one that's grown more than 10 percent since 2006, according to experts at the Nutrition Business Journal.

But just how well do these sports nutrition supplements work? Critics say their popularity is due to whizbang marketing and, in some cases, empty-promise hype. Loosely regulated by the FDA, they leave much of the nutritional navigating up to the consumer. "A company can put a garbage product out on the shelves without a drop of science behind it, but use the most buzzwords — doctor recommended, clinically proven, 30 pounds in 30 days — and that's often the one that sells the most," says Will Brink, author of Fat Loss Revealed, who has been reporting on the supplement industry for two decades. "It's problematic because it overshadows those companies that do actually pay for sound research."

And some businesses are doing just that, trying to distinguish themselves in a crowded marketplace by publishing study findings in reputable medical journals and removing any stigma that consumers, women in particular, might associate with an industry once considered the realm of bodybuilders. At the same time, marketers are shifting the language from big and buff to strong and healthy.

The message is working for companies such as General Nutrition Centers (GNC), whose 2009 second-quarter consolidated earnings of $432.4 million represented more than a 2 percent increase from the same quarter the previous year, even in the down economy. Part of this growth can be attributed to GNC's effort to make its products more female-friendly. Realizing that women are an increasingly big part of its customer base these days, the mall stalwart has launched a new line of products, GNC Wellbeing, which includes everything from protein powder to vitamin-infused water mix, specifically for female exercisers. "Women are more interested in nutritional supplements than ever before. They're much more aware of their potential benefits," explains Beth Kaplan, the president and chief merchandising and marketing officer of GNC. "Still, what we were hearing was, 'I really don't know where to start; I need a one-source solution for my nutritional needs.' So we developed supplements for women that are easy to understand." Whether you're exercising to shed pounds or training for your first 5K, GNC's new line can give you an edge, Kaplan says. Women such as Patty's triathlon coach, Ali Winslow, see a real benefit from this trend. Winslow, who has an MS in nutritional anthropology from the University of Pennsylvania, believes there isn't enough data about women who are endurance athletes.

"I started out doing diet and supplement research at MIT, which included examining different nutritional bars and shakes that were mainly marketed to male athletes. At the time I thought, 'Oh I don't need those things,'" says Winslow, owner and head coach of Boston Performance Coaching. "But as I ramped up my own training as an athlete, and as a coach, I found there was no easy way for me to get the correct nutrition pre- and postworkout, especially in the right order and right amounts, and I wasn't able to perform and recover at my best."

And so, just as skintight, featherweight performance fabrics have given old-fashioned suits the shrug-off among swimmers looking to set a personal record in the pool, so too has lab-engineered foodstuff given bananas and granola bars the boot. Even weekend warriors want in — there has been such an increase in interest in sports nutrition these days that coaches like Winslow are hiring full-time dietitians to advise their recreational teams. "It can be confusing," Winslow admits. "There are so many products and companies out there to choose from, it can be a full-time job deciphering which is best."

The Real Deal on Energy Supplements

Despite the allure of science-created supplements, most experts suggest trying to meet nutritional requirements the old-fashioned way first: a healthy diet and a daily multivitamin. Another safe bet? Getting plenty of omega-3 fatty acids, either through food (eating fish like salmon twice a week) or a supplement (1,000 to 2,000 milligrams daily). "Omega-3 fatty acids are beneficial whether you're an elite athlete or a casual exerciser," says Jose Antonio, PhD, a sports nutritionist and chief executive officer of the International Society of Sports Nutrition. In addition to their heart-health benefits, research suggests omega-3s may improve exercise performance by reducing inflammation and easing muscle soreness, he says.

But many women want more than good health. They're looking for the proverbial shot in the arm to get them through lengthy workouts or training for physically demanding events.

Enter energy gels, some of the most popular and legitimate products on the market for recreational endurance athletes. These gels, usually packaged in single-serving tab-top pouches you can use on the go, offer quick, easy-to-digest energy in the form of simple sugars. "It's like predigested pasta," says sports nutritionist Nancy Clark, RD, a fellow of the American College of Sports Medicine. "It sends energy in the form of glycogen to your muscles to keep them working." Many gels can also be a significant source of caffeine — good because studies show that caffeine improves endurance performance and focus, not so good if you wash those gels down with certain sports beverages, a number of which also contain large doses of the substance. Too much can lead to an elevated heart rate, jitters, and headaches, so aim to keep your daily caffeine consumption to around 300 milligrams, the equivalent of three to four cups of coffee, and watch for any side effects.

If energy gels are essentially glorified simple carbs, what's wrong with downing a handful of raisins instead? Not a thing, says Clark, who is a strong proponent of exercisers getting their nutrition from food that is as close to nature as possible. "Energy gels and bars don't have magic ingredients; you'll get similar results from a Nature Valley granola bar or a couple of Fig Newtons," she says. "Many energy bars are just glorified cookies, but they're marketed in a way that makes people think they need this stuff." There's no denying the convenience factor, however. Sticking a PowerBar in your shorts pocket, Clark allows, is an efficient way to carry necessary calories on a long bike ride. On the other hand, those out for a 50-minute jog likely don't need supplements during their workout. (A good rule of thumb is that any activity that takes less than 60 to 90 minutes probably doesn't require a boost, because your body's glycogen stores won't be depleted.) "People need to be better-informed consumers," Clark says. "There's a place for sports supplements, but often you simply don't need the extra calories." Similarly, someone out for a long run under the hot sun will probably lose a significant amount of potassium and sodium that needs to be replenished with electrolyte drinks, but the average jogger won't. "For most women, a healthy diet and rehydrating with water is enough," Clark says. "It takes a lot of strenuous activity to deplete electrolytes."

Shake It Up: Protein Shakes and Postexercise Supplements

Along with energy bars and gels, recovery shakes are an increasingly popular postexercise supplement; they contain protein powders, that, blended with water or milk, help repair and rebuild muscles after a strenuous workout. Proponents of the powders say there is no better way to get protein and carbs into your body quickly, especially because science suggests that it's crucial to replace lost nutrients within 30 minutes to one hour of exercise for maximum muscle recovery and repair. Translation: You feel less sore the day after. The current thinking among many sports doctors and nutritionists is that consuming a 3- or 4-to-1 ratio of carbohydrates to protein is ideal. Conveniently, most recovery drinks fit the bill perfectly. "Your body is primed to take in nutrients after you work out," Antonio says. "It's one of the easier ways to recover after your workout: You exercise; you drink a protein shake. Most people can do that."

How much protein does your body need to support an active lifestyle? Some mixes contain 40 or 50 grams. "That's too much for one serving," says coach Winslow, who recommends 20 to 30 grams for her female triathletes, depending on age and weight. "A lot of women overdo the protein shakes, and their bodies don't utilize the extra calories they're taking in, so they end up as extra pounds."

Some experts question whether recreational athletes need to be consuming these protein shakes at all. "It's a huge business," Clark says. "I have yet to meet an exerciser who is protein-deficient, unless she is eating a poorly balanced vegetarian diet." An active woman can get the .5 to .75 grams of protein per pound of body weight she requires daily by eating a healthful diet, Clark says, and studies show milk — in particular, chocolate milk — is a perfect postworkout drink. "It offers the protein you need, along with some calcium and vitamin D for your bones," Clark says. That hasn't stopped health-conscious consumers from stocking their kitchen with tubs of protein powder — it's now one of GNC's most popular products, leading the company to launch Be-Buff, a line of whey-protein powder exclusively for female exercisers. Following her twice-weekly strength-training sessions at a local gym outside Boston, 34-year-old Candice Kilfoyle dutifully mixes her chocolate whey protein with milk, bananas, peanut butter, oatmeal, strawberries, and ice. A recent convert to sports supplements, Candice started taking the brown powder about 10 months ago when she intensified her fitness routine. "I talked with the woman who owns my fitness studio, and when I told her my goals — more lean muscle — she said I should increase my protein," she says. After hearing a few of the other women in her class chatting about how much stronger they felt and faster they bounced back after a hard workout with the help of their protein shakes, she went to the local health food store and bought a canister of whey-protein powder. The benefits are obvious, Candice believes. "My upper body has more definition and strength, and my lower body is leaner. Overall, I just feel healthier and stronger," she says.

But is whey the real reason for Candice's improvement? Rebecca Costello, PhD, a researcher at the National Institutes of Health's Office of Dietary Supplements, is not so sure. "There's no magic bullet here," Costello says. "We don't have good research for many supplements that supports claims of significant improvements in performance. And there's a huge placebo effect. We want to get fitter or run faster, and so we try these supplements. If our performance improves at all, we think they're working." Whey protein is trendy and popular right now, Costello says, "but the majority of women can get the protein they need from drinking milk and eating dairy products such as yogurt or cheese, and eggs, meat, nuts, and beans." Sports nutritionist Antonio concurs that these are all good sources of protein for women, but emphasizes that studies show whey-protein powder is absorbed into your system more quickly than other forms of protein, making it especially useful in muscle recovery.

In the end, many experts say, sports supplements work best for women doing intense endurance training for events like triathlons or marathons. "It comes down to your goal and how you're using the product," says sports nutritionist Susan Kleiner, PhD, RD, author of Power Eating. "Women who exercise at moderate levels for 60 minutes or less probably don't need these sports supplements." For recreational exercisers, Kleiner says, it's often a matter of weighing a supplement's caloric content against the energy expended during a workout: "If you're walking on a treadmill, water is fine. If you're out for a long strenuous run, you need to refuel as well as rehydrate." For Patricia Murphy, the benefits of sucking down GUs during her three-hour bike rides are clear: "It's easy, instant energy," she says. "It keeps me going strong."

Anatomy of an Energy Gel: What's Really in It?

GU, the world's first energy gel, is one of the most popular sports supplements for endurance athletes. But what's really in it? Here, a decoder to some of the ingredients.


Fruit sugar that gives you an energy kick


Carbs that provide quickly digestible energy to muscles

Potassium Citrate, Sodium Citrate, and Citric Acid

Citrates that neutralize performance-sapping acid buildup in muscles and help turn carbs into energy


Amino acid that works alongside citrates; acts as a buffer against lactic acid buildup


A natural stomach soother


Stimulant shown to increase endurance performance

Leucine, Valine, and Isoleucine

Branched-chain amino acids (BCAAs) that provide fuel and lessen fatigue by limiting the central nervous system's production of serotonin

Vitamins C and E

Antioxidants that help protect muscles from free radicals


Natural anti-inflammatory

Calcium Carbonate

Mineral that helps promote healthy, strong bones

Find energy drinks and supplements to boost your workout!