I started off with the title of “nutrition” for this blog post, but decided to change it.
Nutrition for sports and indeed health in general has become an absolute minefield in recent years. Conflicting information abounds on what we should be putting into our bodies to elicit peak performance. While massive amounts of time, energy and money have been spent on identifying the best approach to nutrition a consensus has yet to be reached except in the broadest terms. Coupled with the fact that diet is one of the major factors that impact body image, nutrition is an emotive topic with few concrete answers.
But lucky for me, we can ignore most of that when I am talking about what to pack for outdoors food. Because rather than macro-nutrients, micro-nutrients and meal plans, we are simply concerned about fuel for the body. So rather than weighing up the relative merits of plant-based, paleo, and low-carb diets, we are interested in just a few simple factors:
-Calorie content – lots of accessible calories
-Size/transportability – small, light, robust
-Convenience – no preparation/clean up
Yeah, but why should I care?
As I covered before, in exercise taking place over a period of hours, athletes produce energy via two mechanisms: fat metabolism (the aerobic system) and glycosis (the anaerobic system). Fat metabolism uses fat as a fuel. Body fat is plentiful and calorifically dense, which makes it an excellent fuel source. However, fat metabolism only powers “low intensity” exercise, so the faster/harder you are going, the more energy your anaerobic system will have provide. The anaerobic system uses glycogen as a fuel. Compared to fat, which is effectively limitless in supply in this context, the body can only store a limited supply of glycogen. A run, cycle, cross-country ski or similar session of several hours will easily deplete this store.
When your supply of glycogen is gone, you experience you experience something called “the bonk” and have two options: slow right down to an intensity that your aerobic system can cover 100% or consume accessible carbohydrates.
“The Bonk” aka “Hitting the Wall”
Lots of people call it “hitting the wall”, but I prefer “the bonk” or “bonking,” because it makes me snigger like a teenager. It is quite an experience. Coming on fast, your brain and body feel like shutting down and you have almost no energy to continue moving. Motivation plummets. Muscle power drops by about 20% and coordination suffers. In my case, I tend to start swearing under my breath, but your method of enjoying the experience may differ. In short, it is quite unpleasant, seriously hampers performance, and is definitely something to be avoided.
The simplest way to prevent The Bonk is through consumption of simple carbohydrates – or sugars. Yup, even though sugar has recently come to be viewed with the same level of distrust reserved for hard drugs, it still has its place as a fuel for endurance athletes.
You can get your sugars from sports drinks, candies, fruits, or whatever you choose. But it’s important to consider just how many calories you need. Running, for example, expends 100 to 250 calories an hour. Depending how hard you are pushing it the majority of this will probably come from glycogen rather than body fat. In terms of fresh fruit alone, 250 calories equates to 2-5 apples or about 1-3 bananas, which means sourcing your calories from fruit would not be practical for a long run. Unless you happen to be running through an orchard. But even then, you have to consider what volume of food your stomach can handle during intense exercise. Accordingly, serious endurance athletes generally use a reconstituted sports drink (such as tailwind), or energy gels.
To tell the truth, energy gels are fairly nasty and I dislike them. But they work. Essentially, they are a sugar syrup mixed with a few other choice nutrients. They are designed to absorb quickly into the blood stream and raise blood sugars. Some also contain caffeine for an extra performance kick. The most popular brand by far is GU, but Clif also make them and there are many other smaller brands out there, each with its own angle on the concept of accessible calorie intake on the go.
One caveat though, some people find these gels can cause GI issues, so as with anything you take on your outdoors adventures, be sure to test them first before relying on them.
Yeah, but I’m not an endurance athlete; seriously, why should I care?
If you are hiking or taking it slow, then you can pack a picnic and enjoy a much more wholesome method of fueling your body. But even so, it is still good practice to carry a gel or other source of simple carbohydrate. Think of it as a piece of your emergency kit. If something happens and you are out much longer than expected, an energy boost could make a big difference. Really, you don’t want to be worrying about running out of energy if you are already in a difficult situation. Also, if you ever come across a diabetic suffering from hypoglycemia, administration of some simple carbohydrates will resolve the situation almost instantaneously.
Pack some simple carbs with you when you go. This can just be some candies, but sports gels offer a more complete – but less delicious – solution.
So do you use energy gels/chews, sports drinks or other form of sports nutrition? What is your go-to brand and why? Do you find some particularly more palatable than others? Let me know in the comments below!
5 Essential Items for Outdoor Sports
Enter your name and email to receive the kit list.