Mandatory Reading: The Psychology of Gel Use

I recently awarded myself an honorary doctoral degree in psychology after reading a series of books that cumulated with Daniel Kahnemen’s Thinking, Fast and Slow. Naturally I appointed myself to the iRunFar Psychology Chair to reach out to my fellow ultrarunners. I recommend reading this essay at least twice.

Based on the halo effect people tend to place higher levels of trust in information from people they like or admire regardless in the quality of information presented. So if the girl handing out free cases of sunflower-seed butter at the post-race party casually mentions that Scott Jurek eats organic beet gel you are far more likely to try this yourself than if your cranky boss asked you to work the weekend and then recommended the same gel. The likelihood remains the same even if your boss also gave you a trove of peer-reviewed scientific reports on the amazing power of beet gel.

People tend to trust anecdotal evidence even if it flies in the face of well established base rates. Suppose you were best friends with Karl Meltzer. Suppose you and Karl had just finished up a session of partner yoga. Right before he speeds away in his shiny new Bentley he looks you in the eye and tells you he ate four gels an hour at the Run Rabbit Run 100. Since you also heard this from another friend yesterday, the availability heuristic suggests you are more likely to try this yourself even though it flies in the face of conventional knowledge (everyone knows you should eat at least seven gels an hour at altitude).

Now suppose while running the Hardrock 100 counterclockwise a feeling of certain death overcomes you as you climb into the nest of Virginius Pass. Why are you likely to follow Julien Chorier’s lead and hit three gels at once and then keep rolling? The sunk cost fallacy says that people would rather suffer than accept a loss. As I am sure you already guessed, it’s not failing to finish that is the greatest potential loss here, the true burning potential loss is not getting your proper share of gels at the remaining aid stations. After all, you paid for them.

Imagine for a moment that you love the Western States 100 more than life itself. Also imagine that people refer to you in catchy, three-letter form and your second love is repeating that you have finished top 10 at this race a Guinness-certified world record of seven times. You are making the grueling climb to Green Gate where miles of buttery, fast singletrack awaits you. If the aid station attendant said to you “do you want more or less than seven gels?” the studies indicate you would leave Green Gate with less pocket space than if asked “do you want more or less than two gels?” This simple phenomenon is referred to as anchoring by my peers.

Luckily you’ve been following both Jurek’s and Meltzer’s methods by eating four beet gels an hour. However you encounter a serious dilemma. The Brighton Lodge at mile 75 of the Wasatch Front 100 has grape gels containing organic aspartame. Faced with overwhelming temptation, you end up eating nine gels the next hour while cresting Sunset Pass. Fortunately for you regression of the mean indicates that the next hour you will likely eat less than nine gels and thus restore alignment with your normal point.

Now the endowment effect creates a fascinating challenge for your crew at the Fish Hatchery towards the end of your spectacular Leadville 100 debut. In this scenario, we’ll assume that you actually do not have a borderline unhealthy obsession with the Canadian band Rush. Upon arrival your Rush tank top is mired in filth and gel drippings. Hoping to avoid holding their breath around you at May Queen an attempt is made to decontaminate you. If they try to give you a clean Van Halen tank you are likely to resist more here at the hatchery than you would have protested if they tried this cruel stunt the day before while trying on the tank prior to purchase.

Living the fantasy life of most Americans you have listened to Justin Bieber all day while consuming 67 gels at the Vermont 100. When you arrive at Sergeant’s aid station on this particularly hot and humid July day the friendly attendant asks “would you like three tasty gels to power you home?” Compare that to if your tired and annoyed crew asks “do you really want to load up on three more gels if you are just going to projectile vomit again in 400 yards?” The subtle trick the attendant used is referred to by my colleagues as framing.

Finally this brings us to our grand conclusion. Study after study has shown that people actually choose longer durations of unpleasant conditions if the high point and end point are positive. We in academia refer to this as the peak-end theory, which explains why you continue to run ultras even if they hurt so badly for hours on end. The high associated with gel consumption throughout the day, particularly the hot banana gel you administer at mile 98 later creates a powerful pleasant illusion of the race by the remembering self overriding the actual miserable experiencing self.

I open the floor to questions. In the highly unlikely situation that any readers have read Kahneman, have an authentic advanced degree in psychology, or have watched every episode of the hit TV show Friends, I would ask that you email me your congratulatory remarks instead of filling precious space intended for pressing questions on this hot issue.

Call for Comments (from Meghan)

  • Where else have you seen some of the, shall we say, psychological phenomena described by Evan at play during trail runs or races?
  • When have you found yourself bound up in some strange or slightly irrational behavior all for the sake of our beloved sport?
  • A more serious thought: ultrarunning, like life, is an experiment of one. Have you ever found yourself trying new things not because you’ve been informed by your own experience and/or intuition but because of outside influence? Has this ever led you to trouble?
Evan Honeyfield

, a former and hopefully future ultrarunner lives in the high desert of Idaho and recently had LASIK. He carries his gel in UltrAspire gear, his sole sponsor. He learned about compassion and empathy in 2012 and is hoping to see the world clearer in 2013.

There are 46 comments

  1. Luke Garten

    I did try the half liter of beet juice for the 6 days leading to a 50k. Found on benifit except an upset stomach and very blood colored #1 and #2. Never tried it again and never will.

  2. Bernie Sopky

    Luke-man! I'm glad we're still on speaking terms after that one-a pretty high gnarly factor for sure. Beet, carrot, lemon juice rocks though!

  3. mylesmyles

    Although not exactly nutrition – I Listerine during 100 milers that have dusty trails to get the dust/ gu residue out of my mouth. Does wonders 60 or so miles into a race.

  4. Charlie M.

    The fundamental attribution error describes the tendency to overestimate the effect of disposition or personality and underestimate the effect of the situation in explaining social behavior.

    In other words, I've done things in 100 milers I wouldn't do during the rest of the week :)

  5. Chris Cawley

    I have proven susceptible to one of the riskier ultra running psychological traps, known as the "stood next to a guy from Colorado who's raced in Europe" heuristic, in which one observes that a guy from Colorado who's raced in Europe does not have any water or food with him at the start of a race, and becomes convinced that not carrying anything is the key to success.

  6. Jim

    I have been wondering ever since Transvulcania if Cameron Clayton stuck to his plan of 3-4 gels every 30 minutes for the first half of the race like he said in interview. I am getting nauseous thinking about it but still curious. Then what flavors? That's a stomach of steel. The man of steel probably couldn't do that.

  7. Anonymous

    Is it possible that an overwhelming desire to run an "ultra distance" every weekend, often at the expense, even detriment, to your so-called "real life," could have anything to do with addiction theory?


    JV in SD

      1. Charlie M.

        The self-discrepancy theory states that people compare themselves to internalized standards…

        Wishful thinking is the formation of beliefs and making decisions according to what might be pleasing to imagine instead of by appealing to reality.

        Studies have consistently shown that holding all else equal, subjects will predict positive outcomes to be more likely than negative outcomes (see valence effect).

        Some believe that positive thinking is able to positively influence behavior and so bring about better results. They call it "Pygmalion Effect".

        Essentially, fantasy follows rules of its own making, allowing magic to be used and still be internally cohesive.

        1. Anonymous

          This is all fascinating stuff, and perhaps even explains a few things I've been brooding on for a while now, and for some reason I'm suddenly mindful of an old line from Fight Club (it's in the book, if not the movie, but we're having a high-brow discussion here, right?), as in: "This was better than real life!"

          And it is, it is!


      2. Charlie M.

        Speaking of Fantasy, now is the time for iRunFar to start a Fantasy Ultra Running League. Just think, last week one could have scored big points for having Killian on one's team, or gotten a goose egg for Anton's DNS. I know you've got the WS prediction contest, but it's time to step it up into true Fantasy Land…

  8. KenZ

    Meghan asks: "Where else have you seen some of the, shall we say, psychological phenomena described by Evan at play during trail runs or races?"

    I answer: Every single race at the start, where people, even experienced runners, shoot off for the first 20+ miles at a clearly unsustainable, unproductive, and likely self-demolishing pace simply because everyone else is doing it. I believe this is most likely the "availability heuristic" as described above, with a bit of "anchoring" to the masses around you thrown in for good measure.

    I was, however, thrown off in the beginning of the article. I thought as soon as you brought up the Speed Goat himself, that you were going to shift from talk of gels to talk of Hokas!

  9. Andy

    Being a PhD psychologist gives me no rights to comment here, but as an ultrarunner a few additional well-established psycho-phenomena do seem apt to gel consumption:

    1. Misattribution theory causes us to ascribe our nausea and dry heaves to an excessive number of gels, rather than simply the gastrointestinal reality of trying to eat and run for 24 hours. This gives us a greater sense (read "illusion") of control over our misery.

    2. Placebo effect would certainly account for the Lazarus-like effect (the one from Bethany, not the famous psychologist) of eating one gel at mile 38 of last year's TNF Bear Mtn 50. The re-birth came before the thing was even fully inhaled. "Yes, gels do make me faster!"

    3. Cognitive dissonance theory allows us to believe a host of things of marginal validity in the interest of staying sane during an ultra. "Eating a gel every 15 minutes is good. Mmmm, yeah, a PB Gu will go down perfect right now. If I place all the gels just right, the jiggling pockets really don't bother me at all."

    Ultrarunning, gels, and all that goes with them are just like Yogi said — 90% is mental and the other half is physical.

  10. Heather Pola

    Great write up Evan! My name is Heather and I'm proud to say I've been GEL-FREE my entire life! But this is coming from someone who puts coconut water in the bladder of her pack and sings to the flowers she runs by for miles on end. I did the Coyote Backbone and couldn't tell you if there were gels at the aid stations. I DIDN'T CARE! What would the world do if a wizard swooped down and made all the gels in the universe vanish for the rest of time as we know it?

    1. Bryon Powell

      What would the world do if a wizard swooped down and made all the gels in the universe vanish for the rest of time as we know it?

      Bonk horrifically … and then softly sob in the fetal position on the side of the trail.

      … or maybe that's just me. ;-)

      1. Flandria

        There's a more detailed study on beet juice regarding timing and amount needed for the body . The reason I asked is because I know a few pro cyclists that take beet juice before a race. It helps buffer lactic in the muscles and helps lower blood pressure on high intensity races. I was interested on how it would benefit longer endurance races such as a marathon or ultra because I am training for ultra races.

        In longer races such that is mostly below threshold, I am interested in knowing what the benefit would be. High mileage running during training would train the body to buffer lactic efficiently so when race day comes it should not be a big deal. So, not sure if beet juice would be of benefit to take daily. However, it will benefit to take before a speed or interval workout in training to help make the training much more bearable.

        I've been experimenting on combinations of timing and amount in my ultra training…

        Thank you for the reference link :-) Appreciate the response.

  11. MikeC AK

    Another classic GU mistake…ingesting 5-6 of them on long weeknight training runs, then wondering why you can't sleep….then you read '40mg of caffeine' on the label, oops.

  12. E. Honeyfield

    Your remembering self may have enjoyed the concerts, but it seems highly implausible that your experiencing self received any pleasure.

  13. Matt

    AJW, just boil down your favorite IPA to a reduction, then use it to slightly "water" down your complimenting choice of gel, stick it in your flask, and voila! The question is, what flavor? I would stay away from banana IPA – the Rogue Voodoo Chocolate, Peanut Butter, and Banana Ale is downright vomitous…dare I say sacriligious.

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