I’ve been eating whatever the sport of cycling has offered up as the latest superfood for the last 30 years, since the discovery of the electrolyte during the 1986 Tour de France. It hasn’t always been pretty (he says, remembering the time a shot block fused itself in a jersey pocket, permanently). And more importantly, it hasn’t always resembled food, but in most biking situations you get your nutrition as conveniently as you can.
But cycling is flooded with people thinking creatively, from hip water-resistant clothing to Team Sky’s legendary marginal gains. So it makes sense that food would eventually become an experience that was more like food again. Enter Science in Sport.
Item: GO Isotonic Energy Gels
Maker: Science in Sport (SIS), London
Description: Maltodextrin carb shots diluted for ideal performance and health
Price: 6 for $10; 30 for $50 (variable)
Order? You can buy them at the SIS site but they are in stores everywhere too.
Strengths: Smart balance of hydration with nutrition, easy on the body, great taste.
Weaknesses: Bulkier than some alternatives.
Headquartered in the U.K., SIS have effectively (and rather deliciously) reinvented the gel experience with its isotonic products. The idea is that your body is more quickly and comfortably able to digest food which is less concentrated. Highly concentrated nutrition shots, like the filling-cracking power bars of yore, can’t be properly absorbed by the body unless you drink water — anywhere from 7 to 21 ounces required for typical products. Highly diluted products, by contrast, go down nice and easy, but don’t pack much in the way of energy boost. Both of them fail to match the body’s own concentration of dissolved particles (tonicity) in our natural fluid.
SIS’s GO Isotonic Energy Gels are made to strike the perfect balance by offering a shot of 22g of carbohydrate in a solution that’s diluted to match the body’s tonicity, so that you get the most energy boost possible without needing to drink water to digest it. They are more convenient than the dense blocks of whatever that we’ve all grown up with, just pop it in and keep going. They are less likely than any other effective high-performance nutrition product to upset your stomach and ruin your day.
And... they kind of taste like actual food. They have the consistency of jam, and come in a wide variety of flavors, some of which taste like a nice jam as well. Conceptually, it makes sense that something your body recognizes internally might resemble what we consciously think of as actual food.
I’ve been using them since late summer. The only way they aren’t as good or better than my old products, is that they are larger by volume than the old concentrated shots, and are a bit more obtrusive to stuff in your pocket. If you were headed out on a five hour ride, it’d be a bit much to bring ten of these along. But grab three or four, interspersed with other food, and they are great long-lasting boosts of energy. Another key element is that I’ve never had stomach trouble with them, something I can’t say about my past patterns of relying heavily on the more concentrated substances. If you have room for these in your pocket, there is no reason not to choose the SIS Go gel.
And, in the process I have discovered their highest and best use: cyclocross races. At least the mediocre old guy version that I can describe first hand. I race in the fall, at a low enough level that I’m probably on the bike for no more than 45 minutes (hopefully). It’s a hard enough effort, early in the morning, that I can’t really have breakfast beforehand unless I want to suffer cramps. I have just enough room in me for a gel shot and a couple sips of water.
So my routine now is to do my warmup, then pop an SIS GO Isotonic gel, then head toward the start. The effects take maybe 20 minutes to kick in, though the package says to allow 30 minutes, so worst case scenario is that the nutritional benefits kick in on lap 2 and last to the finish. Under race-level duress, you can’t afford something that your body can’t quickly and comfortably digest, nor can you wash stuff down with water in a cycling discipline that mocks anyone foolish enough to have a bottle cage. An energy gel with its own water, measured to the exact amount your body requires, is exactly what the situation calls for. No more, no less. Marginal gains.
SIS also have a line of GO Isotonic Energy Gels with caffeine added, 75mg per packet. That’s a bit more than a single shot of espresso, and I’m more of a double shot guy, but for a race it’s plenty. And for a more social ride, we were going to stop for coffee anyway. I haven’t noticed a big difference in performance compared to the non-caffeinated version, but it’s every bit as fine a boost and as pleasant an experience, and I’m sure the extra caffeine can’t hurt.
Back on the road, the SIS Go Isotonic gels are also known as the exclusive nutrition used by Team Sky for the last two years. I can’t tell you how much of their success comes down to the right gel, but I can tell you that their organizational approach is hell-bent on the marginal gains you could get from a gel shot that is designed to not require chugging water to get it down. SIS are also quick to point out that in order to meet Team Sky’s standards, they triple-test ingredients for banned substances to guard against false positives. Probably not your biggest concern, but then again, it’s nice to know that they have that sort of stringent quality control built into their products.
SIS also make drink powders and bars. Haven’t tried em but I’m guessing they are as carefully designed for best performance and best health as the GO Isotonic Energy Gels are.