GU Energy says they’re the original brand of endurance gel, having created the first one in the mid-90s. And if I remember correctly, they’re the first brand I ever used, though that was much more recently. It was about 2011, in a 12-hour MTB race. At that time, no nutrition could have saved me – let’s just say I barely finished.

But now, I see GU almost everywhere, so thought it would be a good time to do a review of it. Here are the products I’m looking at:

  1. GU Energy Gel
  2. GU Liquid Energy Gel
  3. GU Energy Chews
  4. GU Roctane Energy Drink Mix
  5. GU Roctane Protein Recovery
  6. GU Energy Stroopwafel
  7. GU Hydration Drink Tabs

As I understand it, the first four products are essentially the same thing, but in different forms. The only difference is you’d have to substitute the Roctane variant of gels to match the Roctane Energy Drink Mix.

On track to get gooey

GU says it best themselves:

If you already use ROCTANE Energy Gels, you can substitute two-and-a-half ROCTANE Energy Gels for one serving of ROCTANE Energy Drink Mix.

It appears that the makeup of the products are all mainly maltodextrin and fructose, like many gels. They have something interesting about their carbs – I’m not sure how much of this is just marketing but it sounds good. Here’s what they say on their site:

Carbohydrates are efficient energy, and we use a blend of carbs to deliver more energy into the bloodstream as efficiently as possible. Our system of dual-source carbohydrates provides an “express lane” for each carb to deliver energy to your body much quicker than a single source of carbs, which helps you avoid “the bonk” during training and racing.

Two more products that GU have that I am not reviewing are the GU Roctane Energy Gels (as opposed to original) and the Roctane capsules.

Roctane is their sub-brand of products that are meant for more serious athletes and workouts.

There are four types of capsules: branched-chain amino acids (BCAA), magnesium, electrolytes, and probiotics.

Roctane gels have triple the sodium and triple the amino acids than the original gels. Also, they have two additional amino acids. From the GU website:

ROCTANE Energy Gels also have extra amino acids: Taurine can help maintain heart contractility and improve cardiac output during long exercise sessions and beta-alanine can help promote formation of the intramuscular buffer carnosine, which can help delay the onset of fatigue during high-intensity efforts.

The catch with Roctane is, of course, is that it’s a lot more expensive. For example, you can buy 24 original GU gels for $36 ($1.50 each) on their website, while the Roctanes are $60 for two dozen ($2.50 each).

Desaru beach
Checking out the beach the day before the ride

I was headed to Desaru, Malaysia for the weekend to check out the bike course for the upcoming Desaru 70.3. It’s the first year they’re having it there so it was a bit of an unknown to me. My coach had set me up for 105km, just perfect for a nutrition test.

The plan was to bring the gels and chews along for the ride with two packs of grape GU Roctane Energy Drink Mix in a bottle. I’d take the Protein Recovery, Stroopwafel, and drink tabs after the ride, aware that I’d be missing the hotel buffet that morning, and I’d need at least something to fall back on.

I used the Ironmanhacks Nutrition Calculator to sum up what I was going to be taking, and I downloaded the results. Here’s what it spit out. Clearly I was way low on my sodium supply and a bit high on the carbs:

Nutrition breakdown
These are hourly figures. One worry was that my sodium was way low, but this was only a ride with no run at the end!

The ride: 105km, 3.5 hours

The road was nice rolling hills with nothing very steep to cause any uphill discomfort, but steep enough to be able to easily hit 60 or so downhill. My kind of course.

The big questions in my mind were:

  • Would I be OK with such a low sodium intake? I lose 1,425mg of sodium per litre of sweat, which will be about that amount per hour on the bike. I only entered 800mg per hour in the calculator, as I know I don’t need my usual whopping figure with no run at the end.
  • How would this mix of carbs work for me and would I ever get lightheaded or close to bonking? Would it be a problem that I was taking too many? I doubted I could bonk with so many, but this is a new product for me and this is all one big experiment!
  • How would it taste and how would it all go down?
Triathlon bike on bridge in Desaru, Malaysia
Outside the tiny town of Sedili Kechil

I thought I’d get started with the Energy Chews. Candy, basically. These things fit really nicely in my jersey pocket and due to their shape were easy to grab quickly.

But opening the damn thing took me so long that by the time I was done eating four of them, my 5-min recovery was almost over, and I was back to another 10-min interval.

Triathlete holding GU energy chews
Next time I’m going to score the package to make it easier to open. Safer, too.

One pack is 8 cubes; one serving is 4. That will give you 80 calories, 20g of carbs, and 40mg of sodium. Not huge numbers, but I do like the variety of having something to chew for a change.

GU says these have the benefits of their original energy gels, just in a different form. One other difference is that they take a bit longer to have an effect than a gel, but that may not be an issue if you’re consuming fuel regularly.

Two aachets of GU Energy Drink Mix
250 calories, 320mg sodium, 60 carbs x 2. But will it be too grapey?

Soon after I took a sip from the bottle – I had mixed two sachets of the grape drink mix into a single container. The taste was great – pretty mild – not overpoweringly sweet. Just enough to be pleasant. I could have easily handled four of these in one bottle if I had wanted.

This comes in three other flavours: Lemon Berry, Summit Tea, and Tropical Fruit.

And at 250 calories each, remembering my nutritional breakdown was easy. Add that to the fact that the gels are an even 100 calories, and it’s clear that GU did this deliberately.

I also noticed that there are 320mg of sodium in each Energy Drink Mix pack which is the same as in each of the hydration tablets.

About 30 more minutes in, I decided to go for the GU Liquid Energy Gel. They’re keeping things simple, here, too: The same nutritional info as the original gels, but just more liquidy (lower viscosity).

GU Gel and GU Liquid Gel
The Liquid variant is a lot more bulky – same nutrition but of course watered down for easier consumption

This liquid form was probably a bit thicker than a High-5, if you’re familiar with those. It was easier to consume than a conventional gel, but the thing I didn’t like about it was that it took up too much space in my bike’s bento box.

At about double the size of a normal gel, I simply can’t pack in as many as I’d like. Normally I try to carry back-up gels in case I lose a bottle, and this probably wouldn’t be an option with the liquid variant. So personally, the drinkablity of the liquid gels is probably a luxury I would rather not take.

A sign to watch out for exotic wildlife

As the ride progressed and my mileage increased, so did the temperature. It started at a truly-cool 22 degrees Celsius, but ended at a roasting 31. So I wasn’t sure how I’d hold up in the sun and whether my sodium, water, and nutrition would be sufficient.

And I started getting worried as I only had my bike’s 700ml reservoir and a single 850ml bottle. There wasn’t a town in sight. No shops, no civilizations, nowhere to refill, until about 50km in.

I pulled in to what appeared to be the only shop in town with people in front of it, where a woman was cooking something really greasy for 5-6 locals. I heard them say in Malay, “Look at this guy, he doesn’t even speak Malay, I wonder what he wants.”

Everybody was staring at me and I didn’t blame them: I’m on this funny bike, dressed in full Lycra, sweating like crazy, and clearly not from these parts.

I asked her, in Malay, “Do you sell water?”

She replied politely, and told me she didn’t, but a shop down the road did.

Then the woman who said I didn’t speak Malay had a nice recovery, “Just down here, on your right,” she clarified, in perfect English.

I bought 1.5 litres for RM2 which is about USD 50 cents. It was from the fridge, but still warm, but I didn’t care. I was just happy to have water.

Bike in front of shop in Desaru, Malaysia
There’s my warm water, on the wall behind the bike

I refilled the bike’s bottle and poured the rest in the rear bottle. Normally I don’t dilute my nutrition – I don’t like to change my rate of consumption too much – but in this case I needed to pack out all 1.5 litres either on my bike or in my body.

Soon I went for the normal gels (not liquid). I had brought only three flavours: Salted Caramel, Chocolate Outrage, and Tri-Berry (I bought this one just for the name). Each had 20mg of caffeine, but I couldn’t perceive any of that.

Huge range of GU energy gels
GU has a massive range of flavours. I challenge you to try all of them. Credit: GU

While I did look forward to the gels, I do think they are quite a bit sweeter than necessary. That said, GU has a tremendous range of flavours, and their site even categorizes them accordingly: Sweet, Chocolatey, Fruity, Salty, Bitter, and No Caffeine.

Presumably to celebrate 25 years of GU? Credit: GU

I would really love to try some of the bitter flavours like hops, Chai Latte, or Cold Brew Coffee. On the topic of flavours – GU has to be one of the most innovative brands out there. Here are some of their crazy variations:

  • Hoppy Trails
  • French Toast
  • Birthday Cake
  • Campfire S’mores
  • Toasted Marshallow

Post-Ride

After the ride, I mixed up a Chocolate Smoothie Roctane Ultra Endurance Protein Recovery Drink Mix and downed that followed by the Stroopwafel, Salted Chocolate flavour.

GU Roctane Protein
This stuff tasted great. Credit: GU

The protein tasted great, even without ice or milk. It’s 230 calories, 20g of protein, 230mg of sodium, 30g of carbs, 100mg of calcium, 200mg of potassium, and 40mg of magnesium. So that’s quite substantial and none of those extra electrolytes will hurt.

The Stroopwafel tasted OK, but wasn’t really as good as what I’d had in Amsterdam. Maybe GU is getting too creative with the flavours and so my expectations were different. Still, that was 140 much-needed calories along with 450mg of amino acids and 150mg of sodium.

I topped it all off with a GU hydration tablet (320mg of sodium) and a lot more water.

Immediately after this ride I wasn’t as wrecked as I have been most times. And despite not eating lunch (only the aforementioned recovery supplements) I was able to play in the blazing sun for 2 hours with my kids – smashing into waves at the beach – without feeling like I was atrophying into a useless sack of skin and bones.

What I likedWhat I didn’t like
The calorie figures are round numbersThe gel is way too sweet for me
A crazy array of gel flavoursThe Chews are really hard to open
The Energy Drink Mix is not too sweetRoctane is a bit expensive
Multiple forms of the same thingThere’s no sodium-heavy product I can use on the run

Would I buy it and use it as my default endurance fuel?

Yes, I would, and may do so. The range of flavours and forms (gels, chews, mixes, waffles) make it such that you’re probably never going to get bored with them. I’ll steer clear of the Liquid Gels simply due to their bulk.

However, I’d have to continue using sodium capsules on the run to keep up with my heavy sodium needs (in excess of 1,400+mg per litre of sweat).

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