Fueling for Endurance in the Mountains
One of the most important things you can do to stay strong on long days on the mountain is to keep your body fueled so that you can perform well today and recover for another big day tomorrow! It turns out that coffee and doughnuts might not be the best way to start your day, although a lot of big climbs have been completed on coffee and doughnuts including the famous 1910 Sourdough Expedition on Denali! Since we aren’t as tough as those miners back at the turn of the century, we have to take advantage of anything we can to give us an edge.
You’ll be spending a lot of time training for your climb, practicing with your gear and clothing options, tweaking everything to get it all just right, but don’t forget to practice with your food and fuel as well! Climbing a big mountain involves long days at a low to moderate aerobic output, it’s not a short high intensity workout. You’ll often be on the move for 8 hours day after day, and summit day on a big mountain is often over 12 hours of work! How you fuel and hydrate on a day like that will make a huge difference in how you perform and how well you recover for the next day. If you are joining us on an expedition, we do our best to provide good healthy meals, but I’m going to focus this post on the drink mixes you can bring along to help fuel yourself during the day and to recover at the end of it.
Fat Adaption: No matter how lean you are, you’ve got enough calories stored as fat to keep you going for days in the mountains. Improving your fat burning capability while exercising is an important part of training for a long expedition and gives your body access to a huge energy source. There is a growing body of evidence that fat burning is beneficial to endurance athletes. You can improve your fat adaption with some basic changes to your diet and even by adding some fasted workouts to your routine to help your body learn to burn fat as fuel more efficiently. Anyone who has been on the sugar bonk roller coaster on a long day in the mountains, needing to stop for a gu or gummy bears every 45 minutes, understands what it is like to be totally dependent on simple sugars for fuel. Our body can only continue with glycogen as our primary fuel for a short time, and then we need to resupply, while fat supplies are nearly limitless. There is a great article about training to burn fat on the Uphill Athlete website, where I go for a lot of my training and nutrition information. I also use a lot of the Hammer Nutrition products and refer to some of their high quality articles about fueling and training for endurance, including this one on the Top 10 Mistakes Endurance Athletes Make.
Bill’s Favorite Drink Mixes:
I have two different drink mixes that I use on long days in the mountains, one provides more long lasting energy and promotes fat utilization, and the other provides really easily digestible complex carbohydrates and electrolytes. I’m a believer in these drink mixes, and use them regularly, but they might not be right for you. As with gear or anything else you use on an expedition, you should be trying these drink mixes on your training days and know that you like them!
The mix I rely on for any big day (over 3 hours) in the mountains is the Latte flavored Hammer Perpetuem drink mix. I fill a bottle with hot water and several scoops of Perpetuem on summit day and enjoy a warm drink at each stop! I mix this drink pretty strong and carry it in a 16oz Hydroflask bottle to keep it warm during the day. I don’t really count on this drink mix for getting a lot of hydration, meaning I don’t chug it when I’m thirsty, but it does provide some hydration with a lot of good fuel. The Perpetuem drink mix provides a combination of protein, fats, and carbohydrates and I really feel like it provides good stable energy and is easily digestible even at high altitude.
The other mix I use is another one from Hammer Nutrition called HEED. This one is a more of the easily digestible carbohydrate style drink mix, but doesn’t rely on simple sugars that can cause the rollercoaster. I feel like the HEED mix does a good job of providing steady energy through the day, and it tastes good, so it’s easy to keep drinking throughout the day. I mix the HEED drink mix in 2 one liter Platypus Bottles which I can keep in the inside pocket of my down suit or parka on a really cold morning.
You should find what works best for you, and use your training days to work on your fuel and nutrition strategy as well. I know that everyone is different and you might not be able to stand my favorite drink mix, but by the time you are climbing a big mountain, you should know what works best for you.
Recovery Drinks: On long expeditions we often need to climb 3-4 days in a row, putting out a lot of effort each day and needing to recover as much as possible each night. A good recovery drink right when you get to camp at the end of the day is a great way to make sure you are giving your body what it needs right away to begin the recovery process. Refueling with carbs and protein right away (within 30-45 minutes) is a great way to insure that your body is soaking up what it needs to rebuild and recover for another day. I like to use another Hammer product called Recoverite as soon as I can when I get to camp or finish a long day, and I think it has helped me to feel better day after day.
I’ve found what works for me through trial and error as well as research and talking with folks who know far more than I about these things. I really take it easy on the simple sugars and try not to use an expedition as an excuse to eat candy and junk food. I try to eat real food when I can including nuts and dried fruit when I’m in camp, less so on the trail, and training my body to burn fat more efficiently. I’ve seen the power of a packet of Gu to revive someone who is clearly just run out of steam, but try not to rely on that sort of energy to get me through a long day as I feel like I end up on the sugar rollercoaster. Keep in mind that at higher altitudes it can be hard to digest things like nuts, dried fruit, and meat, you need to get creative about eating so you don’t simply rely on sugar. Find what works for you, use the time you are training to also figure out what works best and what you enjoy enough to eat regularly. Train your body to burn fat as part of your training program and you’ll see the benefits when you aren’t “bonking” when you run out of glycogen stores.
I recommend several products in this post, not because I’m sponsored by Hammer, or get a kickback, but because I’ve found that these products work well for me and I want to help our climbers have every advantage on an expedition. I almost feel guilty on a trip when I have my “secret sauce” drink mixes and the climbers I’m with are wondering what I’m drinking. Find what works for you and think of your body as a machine that needs quality fuel and I’m confident you’ll feel the difference both while on the climb during the day and in improved recovery. It simply makes an expedition more enjoyable when you feel better and stronger!