Eatting Your Way to the Top

By Chris Case

TT_Fall2009 Eatting

The saying goes, “You are what you eat.”

But, perhaps it should be, “You should eat for what you are.” Are you a hiker? Are you a track sprinter? Especially when it comes to athletics—including hiking up that fourteener on the weekend, or hiking the Colorado Trail all week—your performance, enjoyment, and safety all depend on how well you fuel your body. Your meals should match your actions.

Though elite endurance athletes—cyclists, runners and the like—might often be seen using gels, bars, or drinks made for performance, that isn’t all that they eat. The basis for great performance is real food—whole, quality food in its purest form. But it’s hard to eat a savory chicken breast, a robust salad, even a turkey sandwich when you’re on a bike for five hours. Then, the calorie-rich composition of a PowerBar or a bottle of Cytomax may be essential.

The same may be true for you, the hiker. If you know what bonking is, you probably have some idea of how food relates to function—and, in turn, happiness—out in the field. Just like that 5-hour ride, a 10-hour hike demands something of our bodies and our stomachs. But there are some crucial differences, too. When it comes to good nutrition—whether on the bike or on the slopes of Longs Peak—it’s all about a Boy Scout essential.

“It’s like building a good fire,” says Kathleen Farrell, registered dietician at the Boulder Center for Sports Medicine. And there are different types of fire for different settings: sometimes you need a bonfire, but more often you’ll want a slow-burning campfire. “You can think of the kindling as your simple carbohydrates—good sources for burning fast. Your complex carbohydrates have fiber and they burn a bit longer. Think of your logs as your proteins and fats. They help maintain healthy blood glucose levels and sustain energy.”

As intensity increases, the ratio of kindling to logs will change. A cyclist on a 2- or 4-hour ride will want more simple carbohydrates. When the activity is low intensity, like hiking, there can be more of the complex carbohydrates, fats, and proteins. “Training logs,” or just writing down what you do on a hike or trip, “will allow you to find out what you’re taking in and how your performances go,” says Farrell. If it works, stick to it. If it doesn’t, you’ll need to change things up. You’ll need to learn what your gastrointestinal tract can handle, to see how your body is responding to different foods.

“Watch out for foods high in fats because you’re putting a large log into the fire and it’s hard to digest. Fiber is just as bad because it’s hard to digest,” says Farrell.

With all that blood necessary for digestion, you could be seeing stars well before nightfall. Coupled with the effects of altitude, dizziness can become downright hazardous. Like performance-based athletes who need easily digested foods rich in calories, gels, bars, and sports drinks are a great option. And, because of their caloric density, they are ultimately less bulky to carry. But, there is a right way to use them.

“Always dilute them with 4 to 8 ounces of water,” says Farrell. “Don’t mix them with sports drinks; otherwise you are getting too much of a load. The combination of gels and sports drinks is hydroscopic—it has the tendency to pull water out of the system. Sports drinks by themselves are great if you can tolerate them because they contain sodium, which actually leads to more drinking which is useful during activity. Of course, hydration every fifteen minutes is crucial and is essential for enjoying the hike.”

For those who don’t like gels and bars, the alternative is simple: real foods like peanut butter and honey; fruit, of course; dehydrated foods like raisins are lighter and denser in calories.

“Real foods always supply what we need,” says Farrell. “But, it’s nice to have a drink that takes care of 400 calories just like that, especially if you’re trying to consume 4,000 or 5,000 calories a day. Still, supplements can lead to you going overboard: if two is good, three is better. That’s not a good mindset. It’s all about knowing what your body can handle during activity.”

And knowing how to build the right fire.

This article originally appeared in the Fall 2009 Issue (1004) of Trail & Timberline

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