Fueling Feats of Feet
Fueling Feats of Feet
“Eight-thousand calories?!” the aporetic voice said on the other end of the line. “How am I supposed to get that much food in?!”. Feats on feet need to be powered by something. As nice as it’d be to toss something simple in the proverbial metabolism tank like gas in a car, it doesn’t quite work that way. There’s only one thing that’s going to propel the burn in the quads and pump in the arms through an endeavor like the ones adorning the pages of this quarters issue: food...and lots of it.
I wouldn’t argue with this chap that 8,000+ calories per day is a heck of a lot of food to try to convince your body to process over the next 3 days, 100 miles, and 20,000+ feet of total elevation change in the mountains of Central Idaho; nonetheless, it’s exactly what he and his caravan of suffering compadres were looking at. How DOES one go about fitting something like that in? It’s a lot like eating an elephant: one bite at a time.
Total Calorie Needs
Having a decent nutrition plan for big trips like this can quite literally mean the difference between seeing it through to completion and having to back out early as a result of simply not feeling like you have what it takes to make it to the rendezvous. The first place to start is with ensuring you have a good idea of what your calorie needs are.
There are endless algorithms you can use to find the calorie range needed for whatever physical endeavor you’ve got planned. I’ve found most leave people confused and frustrated. They can be incredibly accurate, but I found myself double and triple checking the numbers my calculator threw back at me when planning the menu for these guys’ backcountry adventure.
Here’s how to do it:
The most basic and simple calculation to use is 60kcal/kg/day. Converting your weight to kilograms is done quite easily by dividing your weight in pounds by 2.2. The example at the end of the article will give you a more detailed outline of how to pull this off and plan it out, but don’t be shocked if the number you get looks more like what you would need for a weekly calorie intake rather than a day. It will be quite high and should be dispersed in a range rather than a trekker to be married to a single digit.
For example, a 150lb male venturing on a 4-day trek and covering decent miles would need between 4,000-5,000kcal per day (150lb is 68kg. 68kg multiplied by 60kcal/kg of body weight yields a total intake of 4,090).
Composition of Calories
Once you have your calories estimated, it’s imperative that you divide them among carbohydrates, proteins, and fats (the three primary nutrients) in different ratios. Too much of one can yield sluggish performance and leave you feeling like there’s nothing in the tank to make it over the saddle in the distance. Alternatively, too much of another can leave you feeling unnecessarily sore with little motivation to make another big push on day two, three, and four. Let’s look at the different nutrients an how they play a role in your planning.
The author in the Idaho backcountry with his wife
Carbohydrates should make up the bulk of your calorie intake in any big athletic endeavor. It’s estimated that the human body metabolizes (or burns) about 60-90g of carbohydrate per hour depending on the intensity of the push you’re trying to make.
It’s recommended folks aiming for big endeavors in the mountains allocate 60% + of your estimated calorie needs on carbohydrate. This would mean nearly 2,400 to 3,000 calories of the 4,000-5,000 calories required by a 150lb male would come from carbohydrates. It’s tough to imagine how someone can consume this many calories when you take into account your average bagel only carries a 250-kcal price tag. Keep reading...
There seem to be fewer nutrients talked about more than protein. Every article written on the topic admonishes its readers to “focus more on protein”. While the suggestion isn’t so bad for normal day-to-day life, it’s not something that should be overly focused on in mountain nutrition.
The primary role of protein is to repair. While repair is important to continue to make big pushes day in and day out on the mountain, it’s not the driver of your activity. A recommended goal to aim for would be 1.2-1.8g/kg of body weight or about 20-25% of your estimated total calorie needs.
It’s also worth mentioning this can be one of the more difficult nutrients to fit in, in the mountains as most good protein sources require refrigeration to prevent early spoilage. Do your best to think outside the realm of meat and eggs for good sources of backcountry protein. Grains, beans, nuts, seeds, and edamame can be excellent ways to sneak protein in without lashing a tiny cooler onto the daisy-chain of your pack.
It’s been thought for years that fat has to be the best fuel in the backcountry. While it does yield the most calories per ounce (a factor that also makes it the lightest nutrient to carry in the backcountry), it is not a fuel source that is going to be the most readily available to you when you need it. Fat takes a tremendous amount of time to metabolize into a useable energy source during high output moments of activity. Because of this, we recommend using fat to fill in the “calorie gaps” after you’ve factored in your choices for protein and carbohydrates. This generally winds up being about 20-25% of your total calorie needs.
There can be as much as an entire day’s worth of salt in a liter of sweat. This, at the very least, means cruddy performance and at the very worst- complications that can be much more severe.
While many of the major electrolytes can be replaced by popping a simple electrolyte tablet, you may be missing the chance to kill two birds with one stone by using a simple carbohydrate/electrolyte powdered drink mix to your pack. By opting for this route over a simple tablet or chew, you’re able to fit more calories (from muscle-burning carbohydrate), electrolytes, and fluid in one small package without stuffing your stomach to the point of feeling sick.
Good and sustainable nutrition in the mountains not only comes from the right types of food but also fueling yourself at the right times. We’ve outlined above that a hard-working body can metabolize or break down carbohydrates at a rate of nearly 1-1.5g/minute of high endurance activity. As such, a thru-hiker could easily torch the carbs supplied by her previous meal in under two hours. Now, ideally it would be replaced as soon as possible to continue at a high level of performance; however, I also recognize the difference between ideal and realistic. It would be both ideal AND realistic if an athlete, hiker, climber, and the like aimed to eat every 2-3 hours to keep this constant source of energy flowing all day.
Planning a pursuit on foot of your own, but still unsure where to turn to assemble a nutrition plan? We would love to help. Shoot us an email at email@example.com to discuss all of the options available. You may also appreciate seeing a sample plan laid out. If that's the case, send me an email and I'd be happy to send one your way!