The warm weather and long days of summer and fall months call us off our butts into the great outdoors to enjoy some hiking, biking, distance runs, or even nice long games of some into pick-up footy.
Without fueling properly before an endurance activity, however, we put our bodies at risk. In the best case, going snackless for too long results in a situation known as “hangry” and low energy. In the worst case, failing to fuel your mind and body could result in injury or even impaired judgement.
Picture this: with a heavy pack on your back, you lace up your new hiking boots and eagerly set out for a beautiful five-mile hike into the mountains. The first 10 minutes are a little tough as your body gets warmed up, but the next 50 minutes or so are pretty great and you get into a nice groove trudging upward.
Suddenly, your stomach lets out a few grumbles. After another 40 minutes, your brain starts to feel foggy, your feet maybe even stumble a little, and your pace slows significantly. Uh oh, that heavy pack includes everything but snacks!
Not that I’m speaking from experience…well actually I am. You don’t want to try to navigate the woods on low fuel because that five-mile hike could accidentally turn into 15 if you make a bad navigational decision!
Think ahead to maximize performance
During exercise, your brain and your muscles need fuel to function, specifically carbohydrates. The smartest and most successful athletes know how to stay ahead of their energy needs to maximize performance. Although you might not be doing a Tour de France or an ultramarathon anytime soon, here are a few tips to keep your endurance game strong so you can enjoy the great outdoors.
1. Baseline diet
Your body stores a certain amount of carbohydrates as glycogen in your muscles and liver. Super low-carb diets keep those stores to a minimum and won’t give you a good base for endurance. A recent study of over 15,000 people, published in the Lancet, recommended that the best range of carbohydrate intake is 50-55% of your overall calories. Although low-carb is trendy these days, be smart and keep your baseline fuel tank full.
The day of your hike or bike, you’ll want to eat a nice hearty meal about two hours or so beforehand. Depending on your body size, the meal should consist of 1-2 fist-size portions of carbohydrates, 1-2 fists of protein, 1-2 thumbs of fat, and 1-2 servings of fruits and/or veggies.
For example, try something like a bowl of oatmeal with nuts and berries plus a protein like eggs, yogurt, or sausage. If you’ve got a big long activity ahead of you, you can do another carbohydrate-rich snack right beforehand – for example, a banana. This is more of an individual decision that is determined by how sensitive your stomach is and how bouncy the activity is. Let’s avoid too much squatting in the woods so we can enjoy the trail.
3. During activity
This is where most people make some grave mistakes. Don’t go snackless. You can do about an hour of continuous activity without eating, but after an hour you gotta refuel or else things will go downhill (possibly literally). For the sake of simplicity, think about eating a banana or big slice of bread every hour and maybe some protein if you can stomach it. A banana is typically about 25-30 carbs and the recommendation is about 30 grams of carbs at a time.
The amount you need will go up depending on the intensity and duration of your activity. The longer your hike, the more you will need per hour. If you are able to stomach some protein (about 15 grams or 2 egg whites), that will help kickstart the rebuilding of your muscles.
No need to go crazy post-hike, but enjoy another nice hearty meal when you get off the trail and don’t wait more than an hour or two to eat. Follow the same portions as your pre-hike fuel: depending on your body size, that’s about 1-2 fists of carbohydrates, 1-2 fists of protein, 1-2 thumbs of fat, and 1-2 servings of fruits and/or veggies. This could look like a burrito with beans, chicken, and avocado.
The carbs will replenish your energy stores, the protein will help rebuild your muscles, and the fat will help absorb nutrients and also replenish energy stores. Since you’re in the business of burning calories during that time, go ahead and enjoy a nice cold beer, too!
Get your shopping list right
You are probably wondering what are the best foods to get the right carbs and proteins out on the trail. Although you can buy a dizzying variety of expensive bars, gels, drinks, and powders don’t be fooled by marketing. Unprocessed sources are always better, despite what flashy labels tell you. Plus, those things can really irritate your stomach in ways that you don’t want to discover in the middle of a long bike trip.
- Carbohydrates: Bananas, bread, English muffins, apples, pears, berries, melon, oats, rice, potatoes, grains, beans.
- Proteins: Eggs, nuts, nut butters, beef jerky, yogurt, beans, quinoa, tuna pouches, seeds, slices of chicken or turkey.
- Combos: Trail mix (fruit and nut), PB&J sandwich, English muffin with peanut butter or fried egg, burrito, sandwich, quesadilla, homemade protein balls (google it). I actually do think that a couple of bars are acceptable because they only have a few ingredients: RX Bars and Larabars. New on the market, they have pouches filled with oats, banana, apple puree, and spices that are pretty good (Munk Pack).
Of course, don’t forget to hydrate. Take a few generous sips of water every 15-20 minutes and make sure you are getting more if you are sweating profusely. It is possible to over hydrate, so make sure you are eating your bananas and matching the water intake to your sweat rate.
The above advice is designed to tackle the great outdoors but when you have some indoor work challenges to face, the same snack rules apply to keep your energy levels up and get your project completed on time.