What’s the Best Decaf Energy Gel?

Photos of Clif Shot vanilla, SiS vanilla, GU birthday cake, Honey Stinger Gold, and Hammer vanilla sports gels on white background

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This post is what you get when you put a running coach/physician assistant and a dietitian in a gastroenterology office together and let them talk all things endurance fueling.

A common conversation topic was how best to fuel each run and what are the best gels to use.  It seems like each brand touts their specific sports gel as best because of x, y, and z, but are they really the best?

One day, Nicole had the brilliant idea of doing a taste test of a variety of gels to determine which one really is the BEST.  Kathy may or may not have squealed with excitement at the idea.

Methods and Procedures

As scientists, there was no question we had to come up with standard procedures and evaluation criteria to which we could both adhere in hopes of yielding the most accurate results.  Details are as follows:

  1. Each gel would be rated on a scale of 1-10 for each of the following criteria:
    • Perceived energy gain
    • Consistency
    • Flavor
    • Intestinal satisfaction
    • Overall performance
  2. We would select 5 gels, all of which would be vanilla flavored* with no caffeine.  The types of gels and their flavors are as follows:

* Note: it’s harder than we expected to find 5 different vanilla gels with no caffeine and no non-traditional ingredients (e.g., chia seeds).  As such, for the Honey Stinger and GU gels, we chose non-caffeinated flavors that were most like vanilla.

  1. We would both test the gels for running workouts (tempo or speed, not easy runs) of 45-60 minutes.
  2. We would each choose our pre-workout fuel and have the same thing before each of the trial workouts.
  3. We would consume the gel while stretching after completing our warm-up, a few minutes before beginning the workout.

Results

Clif Shot Vanilla

**

Kathy’s Response and Ratings:

First impression: this is pretty tasty.  Second impression: so thick I have to chew it.  Third impression: holy moly that’s sweet…it actually made my eye do a tiny little twitch.  Overall, good vanilla flavor, a little on the sweet side, with a thick texture.  Since I do not have the skill to chew while running, I probably won’t be using these for mid-race fuel, but otherwise not a bad option when you’re in the mood for something sweet.

  1. Perceived energy gain – 7/10
  2. Consistency – 5/10
  3. Flavor – 8/10
  4. Intestinal satisfaction – 10/10
  5. Overall performance – 8/10

Nicole’s Response and Ratings:

To start, this is the gel I use at mile five in the marathon, so I knew what was coming when I took this gel.  The CHEWING.  That makes this gel tough.  If I wanted some jerky during the marathon, I would just bring that with me.  Fortunately, this experiment was in the Arizona heat, but a word of caution: on really cold days, the Clif Shot is difficult to get out of the packaging because it is even thicker. Otherwise, the delightful taste of pure vanilla sugar and happiness always keeps me coming back to this gel. 

  1. Perceived energy gain – 5/10
  2. Consistency – 2/10
  3. Flavor – 10/10
  4. Intestinal satisfaction – 10/10
  5. Overall performance – 6/10

Honey Stinger Gold

**

Kathy’s Response and Ratings:

If you like the taste of pure honey, you will love the flavor of this gel.  The texture is also very much like it came straight out of the honey bear bottle.  It was running down the side of the packet, all over my fingers, and on my chin.  Hot mess.  Personally, I prefer my honey mixed with something else as the sweetness is just a little overwhelming for me.  I also prefer a thicker texture for my gels, so this one won’t be my go-to.  I will say, though, the sweet honey flavor with added electrolytes is a perfect addition to your post-workout smoothie (yes, I have tested it).  I’d also like to add that the other flavors of Honey Stinger gels have a different texture and I have used and liked them in the past, so don’t let this review discourage you from trying Honey Stinger gels in general. 

  1. Perceived energy gain – 9/10
  2. Consistency – 4/10
  3. Flavor – 4/10
  4. Intestinal satisfaction – 10/10
  5. Overall performance – 5/10

Nicole’s Response and Ratings:

The flavor of this gel is my biggest qualm – it is pure honey.  Unlike Winnie the Pooh, I don’t walk around with my hand oscillating from the honey jar to my mouth.  That is the reason I didn’t like this gel.  If you like honey, this very well may be the gel for you.  I will say that I loved the smooth consistency.  It was easy to get down and didn’t require chewing.  Maybe if you don’t squeeze it like a five-year-old drinking a Capri Sun, you’ll have more success than Kathy. 

  1. Perceived energy gain – 5/10
  2. Consistency – 8/10
  3. Flavor 3/10
  4. Intestinal satisfaction – 10/10
  5. Overall performance – 6/10

GU Birthday Cake

**

Kathy’s Response and Ratings:

Full disclosure, GU has been my go-to gel off and on for many years.  I like the texture.  It’s not runny, but not quite as thick as the Clif Shot.  This particular flavor enticed me with the packaging before I ever opened it up.  I mean, who doesn’t love white cake with colorful sprinkles?  I was a little afraid it couldn’t live up to my expectations.  I liked the flavor, though.  It was a bit sweet, maybe just slightly less so than the Clif Shot, and had a bit of an artificial flavor, but not bad.  I would definitely use it again.

  1. Perceived energy gain – 6/10
  2. Consistency – 8/10
  3. Flavor – 8/10
  4. Intestinal satisfaction – 10/10
  5. Overall performance – 8/10

Nicole’s Response and Ratings:

Wow!  I was impressed with this gel.  I never thought I would find a flavor that rivaled Clif Shot’s vanilla, but GU’s birthday cake is utter perfection in the flavor department.  As an athlete, one of the hardest things to do is convince myself to take gels mid race so flavor is a make-or-break for me.  In addition, I took this on a frigid day in North Carolina, so it got put to the test for consistency and came up short; it was still a chore to get it out of the packaging.  However, I did feel that this gel helped to get me through a tough set of hills and gave more energy than Clif Shot and Honey Stinger.   Therefore, GU’s gel takes home the cake for me! 

  1. Perceived energy gain – 8/10
  2. Consistency – 5/10
  3. Flavor – 10/10
  4. Intestinal satisfaction – 10/10
  5. Overall performance – 9/10

SiS Vanilla

**

Kathy’s Response and Ratings:

Given that this gel is isotonic (i.e., the water is included), it was almost like I was drinking it.  At first, the flavor was a bit off-putting.  It tasted watered-down, like someone had put a spoonful of Betty Crocker vanilla icing in a glass of water and let it dissolve.  As I continued to drink it, though, I was somewhat grateful it didn’t have a stronger flavor since there’s quite a bit more volume to get down vs the other gels.  I imagine the fruity flavors are more like juice. I also think I might have consumed it a little too quickly because it didn’t sit so well on my stomach.  I was burping a lot for my entire run but, again, that could have been user error or totally unrelated.  I do have random GI issues from time-to-time. It’s also important to note that, unlike most gels, the primary source of carbs in SiS gels is maltodextrin (a starch) instead of sugar.

  1. Perceived energy gain – 7/10
  2. Consistency – 2/10
  3. Flavor – 5/10
  4. Intestinal satisfaction – 4/10
  5. Overall performance – 5/10

Nicole’s Response and Ratings:

I wanted this to be my favorite gel.  I loved the packaging as it was black, silver and bright yellow with brightly colored tops to identify the specific flavor.  However, it’s flavor score makes this gel incredibly tough for me to love.  The vanilla tasted artificial with a chemical aftertaste.  On the other hand, the consistency and perceived energy gain made this gel rate much higher.  I appreciated the isotonic nature of this gel because it was easy to get down.  While I did not love the vanilla flavor, I am eager to try others from SIS to see if there is a flavor that I like more.  One more note, because the water is mixed in, the gels are a little larger in size (2 fluid ounces) than the other ones in this review (e.g., Clif Shot is 1.2 fluid ounces).

  1. Perceived energy gain – 9/10
  2. Consistency 10/10
  3. Flavor – 1/10
  4. Intestinal Satisfaction – 10/10
  5. Overall performance – 7/10

Hammer Gel Vanilla

Kathy’s Response and Ratings:

I think this was my favorite.  It has a nice vanilla flavor that doesn’t smack you in the face.  Not overly sweet in my opinion.  The texture was similar to GU…not too thick and not too runny.  Ding ding ding, we have a winner (at least for me)!

  1. Perceived energy gain – 7/10
  2. Consistency – 8/10
  3. Flavor – 9/10
  4. Intestinal satisfaction – 10/10
  5. Overall performance – 9/10

Nicole’s Response and Ratings:

Hammer’s vanilla gel seemed very comparable to SIS for me.  The flavor was bitter and reminded me of a protein bar.  However, it went down easily and seemed to give me an energy boost for my workout.  Overall, I think this is a good option if you don’t like the sweet gels.

  1. Perceived energy gain – 9/10
  2. Consistency – 8/10
  3. Flavor – 2/10
  4. Intestinal satisfaction – 10/10
  5. Overall performance – 7/10

Conclusion – Best Decaf Energy Gel

When it comes to the world of endurance sports, fueling is one thing that absolutely can’t be overlooked. Generally, it’s recommended that you consume about 60 grams of carbs per hour during endurance events and gels are a convenient and easily digestible option.

In this experiment, birthday cake GU was the winner for Nicole, and vanilla Hammer Gel was the winner for Kathy.  Based on these results, there’s no obvious winner.  But there are some key points to take home:

  • This experimental design can easily be replicated.  If you’re struggling to find the fuel that is right for you, buy some gels, use them on your long days or workout days, and consistently rate them.  You may not find one winner, but at the very least, you should find a brand that you like.  Then you can see if you can identify a flavor or consistency that suits you.
  • Nicole and Kathy both clearly put a lot of weight on consistency and flavor, as these were the criteria that seemed to come to the forefront in each of our critiques.  Remember that every athlete is different.  For these two, finding something tasty that they could look forward to mid-marathon and that wasn’t a chore to consume and/or wasn’t spilling all over the place seemed to be more valued.  You may find value in different criteria.

So, to say that one of these gels is superior to the others just isn’t possible.  It all comes down to personal preference.  Looking ahead, just know that proper fueling is necessary.  We encourage you to try out nutrition that you haven’t before.  Oh, and don’t forget to consider caffeine!  It just may be a race-changer.

Stay tuned for our next experiment: Which caffeinated gel is best?

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About guest contributor and co-conspirator for this experiment:

Nicole Hamilton

Nicole Hamilton is a co-founder and coach with HAMRunning. Since 2016, she has been coaching athletes in distances ranging from 5Ks all the way up to marathons. Currently, she works alongside her sister to create running plans for all athletes. She is also an assistant coach for a local Arizona high school cross country team.

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