In the dark ages of marathoning, it used to be that a runner’s energy supply came from what he/she had consumed (carbs) in the week leading up to the race, and was supplemented during the race by consuming some type of Gatorade-like sports drink. Many runners, me included, would carry pieces of hard candy in the pockets of our running shorts to suck on as the race wore on. Many runners, me included, would fall victim to bonking, more affectionately known as “Hitting the Wall.” Hitting the wall is that period in the race, usually in the latter miles, when your internal energy supply becomes exhausted, your legs feel like lead, and you are reduced to walking the rest of the run – if you can even walk at all.
Distance runners rely on two sources of energy: fat and glycogen. Fat is in abundant supply in our bodies and can provide you with more than enough energy to finish a marathon. Even the leanest of runners could complete back-to-back-to-back marathons with the amount of fat stored in their bodies. Unfortunately, glycogen is more of a finite resource and can be used up long before you cross the finish line of even one marathon. The use of these two fuel sources depends entirely on the energy you place on your body; For faster running, your body uses more glycogen than on slower runs where it would be utilizing more fat.
So, it would seem simple enough to just run slow and make it to the finish line without bonking. Alas, it is not that easy. And this is where sports gels come in. First of all, please don’t get the idea that consuming sport gels throughout your marathon will provide you with that “magic bullet” effect. Nothing short of solid training will do that. However, sport gels can help you maintain appropriate blood sugar levels and offer you that quick “hit” of energy if you ingest them routinely throughout the race. So what’s with the title of this article, you ask? Our brains are one of the biggest consumers of glycogen in our bodies. That glycogen is supplied to the brain through the bloodstream. When glycogen levels get low, our brains can put the brakes on our performance by sending out signals telling us how tired we are and that we should slow down to conserve energy. We have our physiological evolution and hunter-gatherer ancestors to thank for this process! The consumption of sports gels can provide the brain with enough energy to fully come back on-line and performance will improve.
The takeaway from this is to experiment using sport gels while on your training runs, preferably your longer ones. The main reason for this is to be sure your stomach can tolerate gels in the first place – better to learn this in training than in a race – and so that you understand what type of consumption schedule works best for you. Bon Appétit!