Nutrition timing on long alpine days

Our bodies are a complicated machine with different systems firing at different times serving different functions.

The timing of nutrition during long periods of exercise (Anywhere from 2 to 15+ hours) has been a topic that I’ve been meaning to learn and write about for a long time.  The theories of “X carbs 1 hour before you work out”, “every 45 minutes do Y” & “4:1 ratio directly after you finish” all seemed superfluous and difficult to relate to. If I’m completely honest, at the start I had no concept of the actual nutritional content of most foods. I didn’t understand that calories come from the proteins, carbs, and fats you eat in a day. I didn’t understand what the calorie make-up of my meals were. My philosophy has been that of Michael Pollan “Eat food, not to much, mostly plants”. Simple right?

Reading Training for the New Alpinism I began to understand the concept of how looking into my eating habits, especially when compounded with the volume of work that we do, could be of benefit. I quickly found out that I was not eating nearly enough calories, specifically protein, and was becoming as my girlfriend described “gaunt”. This was due to sheer ignorance more than any other one thing and the realization quickly changed my tune. “Eat good food, lots of it, timing is crucial.” – Me

We are roughly 6 months into the program (now with a serious long alpine day under our belts) and we’ve had time to experiment with what works and what doesn’t. I’ve since found a noticeable difference in my performance, mood, and recovery depending on my level of nutritional focus.

Before I go on I should say that I am no expert at fooding. This is my current understanding of how to perform, output, and not gas out over long periods of time. I welcome criticism to help me get it right and encourage you to read the nutrition chapter of Training for the New Alpinism for a clear description of the garbled jibberish below.

NOTE: This is not meant for a day of cragging – I use this routine on long cardio sessions (>2 hours) and full days of climbing one long objective with very little stopping.

High-level points to base this on: Eat a big meal early, eat often throughout the day mostly carbohydrate snacks, have a balance of macros in all meals (50/30/20), as soon as you finish eat drink lots of fluids and eat carbs, shortly after this get protein into you for recovery. There is a ton of information on how much to eat of what and when, written by far more qualified people than us but on a long day out here is my routine.

1-2 hours prior to training / climbing: 160g carbs + 20g protein + equal portion mono/polyunsaturated fats

20 min prior to start: 30g carbs in liquid form

During climbing / training: Sports gel or bar w 20g carb + 400mg potassium + Vitamin C (every 45-60 min) and electrolyte powder mixed into 1/2 of water [Try to time this intake with as soon as you reach the belay as activity hinders digestion]

Immediately upon stopping for the day: 20g carb + 5 g protein + 750mg glucosamine + 400mg potassium in liquid form

30-60 minutes after stopping: 80g carb + 25g protein + 5g glutamine in liquid form + Big ass meal.

I personally look to supplements to meet a lot of these requirements. Vega has a system in place that covers endurance sports which translates to alpinism as laid out in the training guide quite well. [We are not sponsored by Vega, although are more than willing to sell ourselves for any and all product endorsement opportunities]

One thing we have been struggling with is water. Anecdotal reports from friends put people somewhere around 0.5L for a day of climbing which would leave us both shriveled and spasming. Through experimentation, 2.5L is around what I need to perform at a consistently high level and not be weighed down.

Again to note: this does not represent our day-to-day diets. Matt talked about his ambition to meet somewhere in the middle of the two extremes he’s tried, while I need to continually make sure I’m eating enough in the right proportions (For a long time I was way under protein-ed/calorie-ed until I brought meal replacement between meals on board).

Is nutritional timing something you’ve focused on for long alpine days? How does this line up with your plan? Is reducing water consumption something you have been able to train?


One thought on “Nutrition timing on long alpine days

  1. You should get an honorary Ph.D. in nutrition science. Because I suffer from a fear of not having enough food, I almost always pack twice as much food as I need. Last weekend, though, I was out for two days and managed to get my food just about right. I went with lots of almonds and Clif Bars, and despite temperatures of almost 38 C / 100 F, I actually felt all right food-wise.

    I am definitely glad though that I had a ton of water in my pack, especially on such hot days. My rule of thumb, which I developed when I used to hike out in the West Texas desert, is to carry four liters per person per day; if you have a reliable water source that you can filter or treat, then adjust accordingly. Like you, I’ve heard of people getting by on half a liter of water for a day of climbing, and I simply cannot understand it unless you are in an emergency or your stove is broken and you can’t melt snow. Even on a moderate day, I need lots of water if I’m on the move, to say nothing of strenuous activity. And everything I’ve ever read about exercise says to hydrate before, during and after activity. I can go without water if I have to, but I definitely feel cognitively and physiologically impaired.

    I suppose you could do some experiments with your water consumption (try not drinking any before working out, reduce consumption during exercise, try one of your big hill carry workouts with just half a liter, etc.) and see what happens. And of course do this in a place where you can quickly get water if you need to. Or you could start tracking your water consumption in your training log, just to see how much water you’re actually drinking.

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