What do I need to know about performance foods and drinks?
Paying attention to what you eat and drink can really affect your ability to perform. Physically and mentally when active and save you carrying more than you require.
This article isn't to educate you about physiology, the Glycemic Index or the Atkins diet. Here we aim to point out how certain products specifically developed for sport and the outdoors can help in a practical and nutritional way, when heading to the hills, cragging, or up some monstrous face in the Alps.
There are three categories of consumables - liquids, gels and solids.
How much should you drink?
Liquids - Everyone knows you should drink before, during and after exercise. Climbers are generally bad at this. They drink too little water, whichever climbing activity they are involved in and often drink too much alcohol afterwards.
If climbing mountains, half a litre an hour is a reasonable expectation, preferably more. Even half a litre an hour is not particularly realistic, for a 12 hour day (which would be short day), you would need to carry 6 litres. Not many climbers would be prepared to carry this. Even if you were, or were really disciplined and stopped to collect/melt water to drink, you would still be bordering on dehydration. Therefore any way to maximise your liquid intake is a good idea.
How can I maximise what I get from my liquid intake?
Drink powders come in three types to help maximise your liquid intake. Energy drinks, rehydration drinks and recovery drinks. Energy and rehydration drinks in combination are great for climbing, adventure racing and cycling. Recovery drinks focus on the building muscles after training. Meant to be used in a narrow 'window' after exercise to get maximum benefit.
Best Way to Carry Energy Powders? The big containers of powdered drinks are more cost effective but slightly unwieldy. Sachets of drink (either Energy or Rehydration) that store in your pockets are lighter and can be added to melt water. Plus they are easier to measure out.
Climbers should be able to get much of what energy drinks have to offer from solid food. This is because climbing is a stop start activity, there are many opportunities to eat. Unlike other sports where calories are taken on the move, almost exclusively in a liquid form. (What you get through your liquid intake is very important when cycling or adventure racing)
Whilst this somewhat negates the use of specialist drinks for climbers, rehydration drinks are still a good idea. Rehydration salts, which have been saving lives for nearly 100 years are easily obtained from a pharmacy as medicinal rehydration salts or from companies like SIS in a more palatable format (Go Electrolyte). If you are climbing for long periods of time or at altitude then these types of drinks are extremely useful electrolyte replacement, giving you the chance to get back much of what you have lost.
Gels - Are they worth it?
In calorific terms yes; if used correctly they should keep you climbing, alert and happy. However, it's never that simple! Before we start to look at what is in the gels, it's worth mentioning some of the practical pros and cons.
Pros - They don’t freeze as easily as many mountain foods. They are incredibly easy to get into the body, don’t affect breathing and don’t require water to get them down. They are also very small and can be stored easily.
Cons - Unfortunately they look like hair gel and tastes only slightly better, after consumption you are often left with a gooey, sticky wrapper. You might still want to drink some water to get rid of the sickly sticky taste they leave. For prolonged day after day use, they don’t do your stomach any favours either.
What's the science?
Gels are just pure carbohydrate they're easier to digest than traditional sources of carbohydrate, due to their physical make up and their small portion/often taken principle. Different gels recommend different frequency of consumption (always bear in mind they want you to buy more).
Gels are made up of simple and complex carbohydrates in highly concentrated, lightweight form. The simple carbs give you a quick spike of sugar and the complex carbs give you the longer burn. Gels also contain the electrolytes (also found in rehydration drinks) chloride, magnesium and sodium potassium which are essential for metabolising carbs and rehydrating. Caffeine gels are also useful when you need an extra push, but they should not be used exclusively or for long periods.
Solid Food on the Move?
Fruit and nut mixes, chocolate coated raisins, peanuts or coffee beans and seeds are ideal for general crag/mountain food for the long and short term burn. Fatty foods like mini cheeses and Pepperami are worth having along in small quantities for any cold weather activity lasting more than a couple of days.
On top of all of these standard food there are the commercial Power/Energy Bars. They give you what the gels and conventional food offer in the form of complex carbs but in a more palatable form, they are lighter weight than conventional food. As with gels the broader range of carbs helps defeat the spike/crash cycle that you get from sugar. Go Bars from SIS and the Clif Bars are two of the best energy bars on the market - The Clif bars are especially tasty!
The Energy Bar Test - Firstly make sure that they taste OK (not of cardboard) and secondly ( only applicable for going winter climbing) put one in the freezer and see if you can still eat it when it comes out. If the bar is inedible for either of these reasons then it's not worth carrying.
Shot Bloks From the Clif Bar Company - Semi Solid Food On the Move?
Whilst it's possible to argue the nutritional toss of the Shot Bloks versus Gels there are specific practicalities that make the Shot Bloks a great bit of mountain food. Firstly they taste better than a Gel, less medicinal. Secondly they are easy to eat (with gloves on for example) and do not leave you with a horrible sticky wrapper, they require no water to flush down. Lastly they don’t freeze. This has made them increasingly popular amongst endurance athletes and alpinists.
Solid Bivvi Food - The Evening Meal?
Real food - It is possible to create a lightweight meal that gives you what you need and is easy to cook from scratch using ingredients from a supermarket. The only down side to it is that you have to split everything up in to parts, think about how you are going to mix it all and package it appropriately.
Dehydrated meals - Probably not as lightweight as the real food option and it needs a bit more water boiling to make it work, but it is simple and it requires little thought to create. Simply boil water and pour it in the packet, wait, stir and eat.
Boil in the Bag Meals - Better tasting than the dehydrated meals and probably on a par with the real food option. Simple to prepare by placing in a bowl of boiling water already sealed then open and eat. The negative aspect is their weight, the time they take to prepare and the amount of boiling water that you need to prepare them. Best for long but gentle walks in the hills, were speed is in no way a serious issue.