By Katie Rhodes
There are many things we can do to prepare ourselves for a rigorous outing in the backcountry. Chances are you’ve reviewed the map, created an itinerary, dropped more cash than you care to consider on the proper gear, and conditioned your body for the occasion. Perhaps you even force down a nutritious breakfast prior to starting out and stash a bag of Skittles in your hip pocket to hold you over until dinner. Despite your best efforts, it happens like clockwork; halfway through your well prepared itinerary – the dreaded BONK – exhaustion overtakes you and it’s all you can do to grind out the final mileage in misery. If this scenario sounds familiar, don’t despair. Inadequate and inappropriate fueling is more common than you would think and can easily sabotage even the most fit adventurer.
The Low Down on Macros
Fatigue and diminished enjoyment are not the only issues caused by lack of proper nutrition in the woods; joint inflammation, muscle cramps and reduced recovery times can also become concerns. In order to avoid these issues and set ourselves up for success, we must understand the three macronutrients: carbohydrates, fats and protein; and how to consume them for optimal energy and nourishment.
I had the opportunity to speak with Certified Holistic Nutritionist Barb Biagioli, who provides nutrition consultation from her Saratoga Springs, NY based business. Barb indicated a relative ratio of 60% carbohydrate, 20% fat, and 15% protein would allow for optimal longevity and prolonged stamina when undertaking outings such as sustained hikes. However, this is just a general guideline, she goes on to stress the importance of not getting lost in counting macros – instead, focus on packing high quality, whole foods. This is particularly true in cold temperatures, she says, when proper fueling becomes even more challenging.
Carbs & Sugars: Quick, Sustained Energy
Carbohydrates, including pasta, bread and candy, are well known for their ability to provide the body with easily accessible energy stores. Carbs accomplish this by processing into glucose, which is stored for immediate use in the blood. Once your blood reaches its glucose capacity, the excess is converted into glycogen and stored in the liver and muscles until needed. When your muscles run out of glycogen stores, expect to hit “the wall” until these stores can be regenerated. Since you’re constantly burning glucose while in the backcountry, it’s critical that these glycogen stores be created during times of rest – including before and after you trip.
Many athletes turn to refined simple sugars (think candy) to serve as their primary glucose source. Not only is candy calorie dense, but also delicious and it can be enjoyed without the normal pang of guilt in this setting. However, while it’s true that these selections supply your body with quick energy, they’re a poor choice for your primary source of energy. Now don’t reach for the torch and pitchfork just yet, I certainly indulge in the occasional Snickers or Sour Patch Kid on trail – but this is the exception not the rule. The problem with refined sugar treats is that they’re so accessible as glucose to your body, that energy is processed and used in short order leaving you with a roller coaster of blood sugar levels. If you choose to fuel yourself in this way despite this knowledge (again, not recommended but who am I to get between you and your Skittles), know that it is necessary to consume these simple sugars constantly in order to avoid the aforementioned sugar crash – plan on snacking about every 10 minutes, or risk becoming fatigued and hangry. Instead, I prefer to use simple sugars selectively – for example popping a handful of M&Ms in my mouth just before I start a summit push. This provides the energy boost I need, when I need it while not relying on this ‘quick fix’ as my primary fuel source.
Fat: The Energy Safety Net
While the muscles will turn to glucose first, fat can act as a reliable safety net of energy if your stores start to become depleted, especially during times of low to moderate exertion and high mileage days . A trip into the backcountry is no time to try to maintain a diet as you will be burning calories as fast as you consume them, so be sure to allow yourself this nutrient dense food group in reasonable quantities. Since fat is more cumbersome for the digestive system to process, set yourself up for success (and fewer cat hole breaks) by consuming these calories in moderation during times of lower intensity – before reaching the trailhead or higher altitude, and during sections of low grade trail.
Protein: Recovering Efficiently
Playing a slightly different role in fueling you up that mountain, protein provides the body with amino acids, which can also be turned into energy. However, unlike carbs and fats, the body is unable to tap into protein stores more aggressively when energy demand increases, such as during a challenging hike or trail run. Despite this, a number of studies have shown that protein steps up to support the body when we need it most – as we’re closing in on the finish line. Research indicates that when the body is pushed to exhaustion via a sustained effort such as hiking or climbing, athletes who consume small amounts of protein with their carbohydrates consistently have an edge over those that consume carbs alone [2, 3]. The key is moderation, too much protein just before and during active exertion can quickly lead to unpleasant scenarios such as gastrointestinal issues.
In addition, protein consumption during and immediately following a rigorous outing has been shown to reduce muscle breakdown during exercise, resulting in shorter recovery times and improved long-term performance [4, 5]. That’s right, limping around for three days following each high peak traverse doesn’t have to be a hazard of the occupation. As a bonus, protein also has the ability to slow down how quickly glucose gets into your blood stream. So, if you do decide to indulge in simple, refined sugars frequently be sure to pair them with protein (think chocolate & nut combos such as Snickers) to maintain a steadier blood sugar level.
Water & Salt: Liquid Fuel
Not only is water an essential component of all living things, it also acts as a digestion aid, allowing the body to efficiently process food and distribute nutrients throughout the body. Dehydration disrupts production of stomach acid and pancreatic enzymes, forcing the body to work in overdrive and burning through precious energy stores unnecessarily. It would be a shame to work so hard to carry and consume the correct macronutrients in the correct way only to stifle your body’s ability to process them – so be sure to stay hydrated both on and off the trail. Most sources agree an average rate of approximately ½ liter per hour is sufficient but this can vary by person, terrain, exertion, temperature, etc.
Sodium and potassium levels in the blood can also have a significant impact on energy levels and overall well-being. While some folks opt to use salt tablets or electrolyte replacement drinks, eating sufficient calories will often provide all of the electrolytes necessary to maintain healthy levels in the body. However, these supplemental sources of electrolytes can assist if food becomes scarce (ultralight enthusiasts I’m looking at you), reserves become tapped faster than expected or stomach distress prevents proper food intake.
Digestion of whole foods takes precious energy that may be better served to fuel your legs. That’s one reason I am a huge fan of liquid calories on bigger efforts. In instances when heat or nausea are preventing food consumption as needed, these drinks can really save the day as well. My go-to product for this purpose is Tailwind, an endurance fuel drink mix providing electrolytes and 200 calories per serving. There are several drink mix options filling this niche now but I have found Tailwind brand to be the easiest on my notoriously sensitive stomach.
Turning Macronutrients into Miles
In order for our bodies to become as efficient as possible during sustained exertion and become stronger during future outings, it’s crucial that we (1) supply ourselves with immediate fuel, and (2) build up energy reserves and replace them as appropriate. Remember, your body is a machine. You wouldn’t expect your car to get you to your destination with a gas tank on E so why would you expect your body to? Not only does lack of calories create an immediate energy impact but it also forces the body to begin breaking down precious muscles to complete the task at hand, impairing your future success. Let’s take a look at how we can utilize our new knowledge of macronutrients.
Stocking Your Pack Pantry
Nutritionist Barb Biagioli reminds us, “More important than the formulaic macronutrient content and even calorie content, is food quality and source. It is crucial to prepare high quality, nutrient dense snacks and meals for your hike that are made with complex carbohydrates to maintain energy and avoid blood sugar drops, high quality fats from nuts and seeds for prolonged calorie burn, and plant based proteins that will endure your trek.”
Specific recommendations from Barb include:
• Nut butters – studies indicate nuts in butter form allow the body to process a larger percentage of the available calories and nutrients than whole nuts. Try slathering it on whole grain bread and wraps or stashing single serving packets in an easy to reach place.
• Quinoa and beans – a lesser known but fantastic hiker meal option, particularly for backpacking. Lightweight and chock full of complex carbs, fiber and protein (8 grams per cup!) quinoa is a fantastic option to replace some of your monotonous pasta dinners or oatmeal breakfasts. Paired with beans, this “buddha bowl” style dish sets up the body for efficient muscle recovery.
• Homemade granola bars – take one peek at the refined sugar content of a standard manufactured granola bar and you will see why Barb specifically recommends homemade. In particular, oat-based, naturally sweetened bars provide a generous amount of complex carbs. If you don’t see yourself getting around to making your own, you might consider grabbing TogaNola Bars or Protein Bombs (toganolasnackcompany.com), handmade by my husband and I in the Southern foothills of the Adirondacks.
• Dried fruits – lightweight, energy dense and packed full of glucose. Dried fruits are a great option on trail but be aware of the refined sugar content and opt for unsweetened versions when possible.
• Whole grain wraps with lentils and avocado – an optimal ratio of complex carbs and protein, these wraps can be prepared ahead of time for easy snacking. Bonus: no more flattened pack sandwiches!
Taking it to the Trail
So what does all of this look like in a real world application? Let’s take a look at my ‘pack pantry’ and consumption timing from a recent 18 mile day hike in the High Peaks of the Adirondack Mountains for one example:
Night Before: Homemade whole wheat veggie pizza and chicken caesar salad.
Morning of: Hardboiled eggs and overnight oats with fresh fruit.
At the Trailhead: Whole wheat hummus and quinoa wrap and banana.
Mile 2-8 (every ~60 mins): TogaNola Bars, dried papaya, trail mix, whole wheat pretzels, and ginger snaps.
At the Summit: Dark chocolate peanut butter cups, bone/ veggie broth
Miles 10-16 (every ~60 mins): TogaNola Protein Bombs, dark chocolate covered raisins, whole wheat turkey avocado wraps, and peanut butter packets.
Final miles: Yup, I’m still eating! Cubed chicken and cheese, roasted & seasoned chickpeas.
Immediately After: Black bean burger on whole wheat toast, hummus & veggie platter.
This is just one example, play around to find the foods that work for you and your body. You will notice that little time goes between snacking in the above breakdown. The use of a ‘drip method’ intake of food – eating small quantities frequently – supplies consistent energy supplies without the threat of sluggishness from digesting a large meal. Make access to food convenient by keeping snacks in hip belt or coat pockets so there’s no need to stop to eat.
The above breakdown does not speak to quantities, as this will vary significantly from person to person. This doesn’t have to be overly objective if you’re on a casual outing – my rule of thumb is to eat frequently and slowly until comfortably full, if your stomach is growling you’re already too late. On the other hand, if I’m racing or going after an aggressive itinerary I tend to be more calculated in my calorie consumption. After years of trials, I’ve learned that a system of 200 calories/ hour on trail works best for me. Prior to my most aggressive or multi-day efforts I will pre-portion calories to assure I’m consuming what I need when I need it even when my brain goes dead 20 hours into the hike. On multi-day efforts, I’ll go as far as portioning out each day in individual bags and anything left I eat just before bed – no calorie left behind!
Wrapping It Up
That’s a lot of information to digest and start implementing! Here are some bite-sized bits to remember and get you started. Yes, those puns are intended and I’m not sorry…
- Carbs = glucose = quick energy, excess carbs = glycogen = energy reserves
- Complex carbs > simple sugars for sustained energy. Simple sugars > complex carbs for quick energy prior to a big push.
- Fat is necessary for sustained effort but harder to digest, build reserves before your trip and during times of lower exertion.
- Protein is essential for recovery, build reserves before and especially after your trip as well as in small quantities with your carbs on trail.
- Stay hydrated by consuming around ½ liter per hour, even if you’re not thirsty, it makes everything easier for your body.
- Pre-portion your calories before big efforts so you don’t have to think about what and when to eat.
- Plan for around 200-300 calories/ hour exerting depending on body size, exertion level, terrain, etc.
- Minimize digestion energy expenditure by drinking your calories when you can, particularly on hot days or when nausea is setting in.
- Always pack more food than you think you will need!
Good luck and happy adventuring!
Big thanks to Barb Biagioli, Certified Holistic Nutritionist for her expert addition to this article. Barb is a board certified holistic health coach and nutrition consultant. She offers one-on-one counseling programs to athletes and outdoor enthusiasts to improve and optimize their nutrition for trainings, triathlons, ironman competitions, marathons, and other outdoor activities including running, backpacking and hiking. She also works with women and families to improve their health and specializes in supporting women through fertility, conception, pregnancy and postpartum.
Find out more about Barb and how she can assist you with your nutrition needs by checking out her website at https://www.barbbiagioli.com/ or follow her on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/barbbiagioli/
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