Part of moving quickly in the mountains is maintaining energy levels. Forget to eat and you won't be going anywhere too fast for too long. In a race, this can be devastating but it can also suck on any long tour. Now, if you're the kind of skier that brings along some tasty turkey sandwiches, a big bag of trail mix and a couple of your favorite chocolate bars, well, you might as well stop reading right here. But if you've been experimenting with modern endurance fuels, carbohydrate gels and blocks, and you like what they do for you then read on.
There is a big difference between nutrition and fueling. For those involved in endurance sports, it's important to know the difference. Nutrition encompasses everything we eat while NOT participating in our athletic pursuits. That's a huge topic to be discussed at a different time. Fueling, on the other hand, is a simpler task involving easier choices.
Without getting too detailed here, when an athlete goes out ski touring, running, cycling, etc., the two primary fuel sources used by the body are fat and carbohydrate. These two fuels are burned in different proportions depending upon level of exertion. Go slow and we burn fat. Breathe hard and you're using mostly carbohydrate in the form of stored muscle and liver glycogen.
Most of us have enough fat stores to go almost indefinitely. But we're not setting any records here. Alternatively, pick up the pace and we'll tap into a limited supply of stored glycogen. Most text books will tell you we have about 800 calories worth of glycogen in our muscle cells and liver. That's not going to get you far. The key to extending the effort is to manage your intensity level and eat carbohydrate during the event.
One of the goals of training is getting our bodies to burn fat at higher intensity levels. This is a tricky process and not all physiologists agree on how and why this takes place. There is a genetic component for sure and some athletes just do it better than others. It probably accounts for some of the success of the great ultra-endurance stars. Regardless, we all need fuel coming in and carbs are the best choice. Eating fat seems like the thing to do because of it's energy density but it is far too slow to digest to be an effective performance fuel.
Now, that buffet-in-a-pack I mentioned before certainly has some carbs in it and will suffice for keeping energy levels up for the duration of the day. But fat and protein takes time to digest and slows the ultimate availability of the fuel for use. Digesting these meals also requires blood flow to the gut which can compromise your performance goals. Go slow and it's not much of a problem but pick up the pace and you just might jettison your lunch onto the skin track.
Ideally and for most efforts in the 2-10 hour range, simple carbohydrates will do the job nicely. The high fructose corn syrup debate notwithstanding, some fructose in the mix will help restore liver glycogen while on the move. Other carb sources like sucrose, glucose and maltodextrin all fill the bill. Some sports nutrition companies offer propaganda regarding the use of "sugar" or "simple sugar" in their products (or lack thereof) but it's probably a moot point. Just marketing bullshit. If it's sweet, you're gonna burn it. Find out what agrees with you and stick to it.
The truth is and recent research on the topic bares this out, using different carbohydrate sources (maltodextrin and fructose) allows our bodies to use different protein transporters (we're talking molecular biology here) to get the stuff where it needs to go. 'Nuff said on that.
I've been using endurance energy products since the first Powerbar came out around 1987. These bars were a big hit but ultimately impossible to eat while racing or going hard. I can still remember Ironman competitors cutting those horrible bars into little strips and sticking them to the top tube of their bikes during races. Yum. Although the original bars attempted to simplify fueling, they were an imperfect solution.
Drink mixes also gained popularity during this era and were a nice adjunct. Concentration of the mix was key in getting them into the system. Unfortunately, to avoid too much stomach upset, they had to be dilute and, as such, fell short in meeting fuel demands.
Enter the carbohydrate gel packet. Gu Energy came onto the scene in 1991 and changed endurance fueling forever. Gels and their solid form, chews, are the standard now. There are dozens of companies making similar products that get the job done. I've tried most of them. Taste and performance always brings me back to Gu.
I no longer worry about what to eat or how to quantify my intake. It's very straight forward if I know how long I'm going to be out. I shoot for somewhere between 200 and 400 calories an hour. We really can't digest much more than that.
Getting carbohydrate down your pie hole early in an event is key to preserving our carbohydrate stores. This, in turn, allows us more hot-burning nitro fuel when we need it at the end of an event. Mete out your effort right and keep the carbs coming in on schedule and your day will go well. Blow it and you'll be limping in fantasizing about cheese burgers and Oreos.
Although gel packets are pretty damn convenient, they can be a little messy and, when cold, hard to extract all the goodness from. I prefer Gu Flasks for longer days. They allow me to dispense with the packets making keeping track of my intake easier.
To make things even better in cold weather, I can dilute the Gu with water and the product flows even better. My formula is 3 packets of Gu in a 5 packet gel flask and top off the rest with water. In this way, I can get all the gel out of each packet beforehand and the thinner solution goes down easier when I'm going hard. I plan on one flask/hour and I'm set for the day. Simple fueling elegance.
Although the turkey sandwich and GORP crowd will roll their eyes or make that "eeeww" face at these suggestions, I spend more time skiing and less time sitting around freezing and chewing. I also rarely have a testy tummy and never return to the car dreaming of my next meal. This stuff simply works.