Body fuel

Posted by Jo Farrington on 03/03/2002

It’s a basic fact of life that we need food and drink to survive. But that’s not all, taking a moment to think about your nutrition can make a big difference to your performance and experience on the hill or crag. And the closer to your personal limit you are, for example the longer and the harder the route, the more it will matter.

What you choose to eat and drink can help you maintain the pace for longer, stay alert and reduce the risk of mistakes. It can increase your enjoyment of the day, and will assist your body’s ability to recover – leaving you able to do it all again tomorrow.

But when you have to carry everything with you it‘s not always possible to obtain the perfect balanced diet, and your main priority should be to intake as much energy and fluid as you can. You can’t afford to let thirst and hunger be your guide. Altitude and exercise both squash your diet; you may not feel hungry even though you could easily be using twice the energy as in daily life. And by the time you feel thirsty you are already dehydrated, especially at altitude when you’ll need more fluid just standing still let alone once you have started to move.

It might feel impossible to eat and drink enough to meet the demands of long routes and mountain days, but there are a few tips, based on nutritional science and lessons learnt by experienced mountaineers and climbers, which will help you to fuel your body.

1. Plan food and drink into the day. It isn’t always practical to make these a specific time but, for example, you could decide which belays/stages to use - and stick to it. It is a fact that if you leave it up to your appetite and desire for food/fluid you will end up having less, perhaps a lot less on a demanding route which is where you need it even more. Negotiate this with your partner during the preparation, you may have very different ideas about the timing of food and drink and different needs too. It will avoid unnecessary tension on the route if you have discussed it beforehand.

2. A key principle of sports nutrition is that 60-70% of the energy you have should come from carbohydrate. And as a general rule of thumb, if you are doing two or more hours of exercise a day, you should have between 8-10grams of carbohydrate for every kilo you weigh. In general most climbers and other athletes underestimate the amount they need. But do remember that this doesn’t mean no fat, or that you have to avoid higher fat foods completely.

3. Try to have at least 20g of carbohydrate in every hour, in theory 60g is what you are aiming for.

4. Make sure it is easily accessible. If anticipating low temperatures, take something edible when very cold. You can use body heat from the previous pitch to warm it if necessary (e.g. put it in inside pocket of your fleece). Make a pocket if there isn’t one, ideally high up near the top of the zip for easy access.

5. Take food you really like, its no good having something nutritionally good if you can’t face eating it - this defeats the whole object.

6. Take a variety so that you don’t get tired of the same foods. You can get fed up of even your favourite food if it is all you are eating.

7. Fat adds palatability to food, a big bonus, as altitude and exercise both have an anorexic effect. But food with a higher fat content is more likely to cause stomach discomfort and cramps than high carbohydrate types. So don’t wait for the big route to find out what you can tolerate, try it during training.

8. Its better to snack as often as you can than to binge occasionally. Have a nibble at every belay or photo stop if possible.

9. Try out unfamiliar foods before you go. If it’s your partner who organises the provisions check it out all the same. You could have different tastes.

10. Try cooking the meals you are planning at home. Extra spices and herbs can work miracles. If you can’t stand the idea of eating it on an ordinary day, how’s it going to feel when you’re tired and maybe even feeling a bit sick? And if you don’t like the result it’s much better to find out before you go.

11. There can be a strong urge to binge after a period of food deprivation - resist it. To make up the deficit, eat small amounts more often, it could save you a lot of gut ache.

12. Getting into a routine of eating and drinking during training will stand you in good stead for the big routes and trips. You will be doing it as part of climbing, as much a part as gearing up and organising the belay instead of it being a special effort you have to make.

13. Another bonus of taking in energy and food during the route is to reduce the risk of indigestion later in the day when you do eat. Fear and anxiety increase acid production in the stomach and food helps protect the stomach lining. Chewy indigestion tablets can easily be taken without a drink at the same time.

14. Above all learn from your own experience and judgement about what works.

Jo Farrington is a Sports Dietitian accredited by the National Sports Medicine Institute and the British Dietetic Association.





 



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