A new study has concluded that cyclists taking a hydrogel drink mix reported no improvements in gastrointestinal comfort or performance - but hydrogel sports nutrition brand Maurten, who recently fuelled Eliud Kipchoge to the first sub-two hour marathon, claim the study didn't put subjects through a tough enough workout to bring on GI issues their product could help to alleviate.
Arguably the most renowned hydrogel nutrition brand with a star-studded list of sponsored athletes, Maurten (as reviewed by road.cc last year) claim the addition of pectin and sodium alginate to their very high carb drink mix allows the stomach's natural acid to minimise GI distress and maximise the amount of carbs you can absorb. Their most potent drink mix contains 80g of carbohydrate per serving, and also includes maltodextrin, fructose and salt.
The study, published in the European Journal of Applied Physiology, is simply titled 'Carbohydrate Hydrogel Beverage Provides No Additional Cycling Performance Benefit Versus Carbohydrate Alone'. Nine endurance-trained male cyclists were put through three experimental trials consisting of a 98 minute test with various intensities, followed by ten consecutive sprint intervals. They completed a test drinking a hydrogel beverage, one drinking an isocaloric maltodextrin-fructose mix, and another including isocaloric maltodextrin only, ingesting 78g of carbs per hour.
The researchers found no difference in sprint power between treatments, and there were 'no systematic differences in gastrointestinal discomfort symptoms observed between treatments'. Therefore, the study concluded that ingestion of a maltodextrin/fructose hydrogel beverage during high-intensity cycling didn't improve gastrointestinal comfort or performance compared to the two control beverages.
Another study has since been published in the Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition that analysed the effects of hydrogel drinks on cross-country skiers. Again it found that the specialised solution was 'well-tolerated', but didn't improve performance.
So, could it actually be possible that elite cyclists and marathoners are simply reaping the benefits of some serious placebo effects and nothing much else? road.cc put the findings of the first study to Maurten, and their Head of Communications Herman Reuterswärd responded by saying its findings were actually in line with what they would expect based on the study design. Reuterswärd said: "We really welcome all science and think that more money should be invested in this area. Looking at the study, the results are in line what we expect, based on the study design and how it's executed.
"We would not expect the study, with the present study design, to be able to discriminate between the three drinks tested in the sprint tests. To begin with, we would not expect the study to reveal differences between maltodextrin-fructose drinks with or without alginate-pectin. Further we would not expect to see differences between maltodextrin-fructose drinks and an isocaloric maltodextrin drink, although combinations of fructose and maltodextrin have been shown to allow for higher total carbohydrate (CHO) uptake rates. The intake rate, 78g per hour, is higher than reported as maximum exogenous CHO oxidation rate for glucose or maltodextrin. In the present study, this would mean that the uptake of maltodextrin was somewhat slower but still available during the sprint tests.
"As is stated in the report, trial conditions were not tough enough to evoke serious GI distress; especially not during the first 98 minute varied-intensity cycling bout when the drinks were ingested. Therefore, it's very hard to say anything about the Hydrogel Technology and it's role, which is aimed at trying to reduce GI distress when consuming carbohydrates."
No peer-reviewed, independent research is yet to surface that concludes Maurten actually does offer better nutrient absorption with reduced GI distress; although the company have been claiming that research is coming for at least two years, according to sports science journalist Alex Hutchinson.
Is Maurten the real deal? We'll be interested to see the results of further studies into hydrogel formulas over the coming months...
Arriving at road.cc in 2017 via 220 Triathlon Magazine, Jack dipped his toe in most jobs on the site and over at eBikeTips before being named the new editor of road.cc in 2020, much to his surprise. His cycling life began during his students days, when he cobbled together a few hundred quid off the back of a hard winter selling hats (long story) and bought his first road bike - a Trek 1.1 that was quickly relegated to winter steed, before it was sadly pinched a few years later. Creatively replacing it with a Trek 1.2, Jack mostly rides this bike around local cycle paths nowadays, but when he wants to get the racer out and be competitive his preferred events are time trials, sportives, triathlons and pogo sticking - the latter being another long story.