I have never been a fan of sports recovery drinks or powders like Gatorade and don’t normally use them for 3 season backpacking because I feel that frequent all day snacking with unprocessed foods provides me with adequate calories and sodium.
However, I just finished a book called Extreme Alpinism: Climbing Light, Fast, and High by Mark Twight and James Mason, and recommended to me by Chris White who writes the blog Hiking and Climbing in Japan. This is an incredible book and I’ll dedicate a separate post to reviewing in more detail. In it, Twight and Mason provide some very technical insights into how to fuel your body for maximum performance during cold weather climbing. Solid food is not in the equation.
Granted; mountain climbers are fanatics, but I thought I’d give Twight and Mason’s nutritional recommendations a go. During the day of a climb, they recommend that you eat:
- GU Carbohydrate gel: one package every half hour, taken with a few ounces of plain water.
- Fluid replacement drink: half a liter per hour.
- As a last resort, when you hit the wall: halva, meat sticks or an energy bar.
Here’s their reasoning: It is impossible to stay hydrated while actually climbing, so pre-hydration, hydration after hard effort, and hydration at the end of the day are essential. When you become slightly dehydrated, your stomach and entire system become highly acidic, your muscles hold onto metabolic waste, and your glycogen reserves are used up. While you must hydrate, you should avoid acidic food and drink and ingest foods to buffer the acidity in your system.
Acidic foods, fatty foods, foods with fiber, or a lot of protein all impede gastric emptying, or in less technical terms, the time it takes to absorb food into your bloodstream. In fact, your body cannot absorb more than 400 calories an hour during exercise without inhibiting gastric emptying. This can be achieved optimally by consuming 100 calorie packs of GU carbohydrate gel and a buffering fluid replacement drink, like Cytomax. Eating any kind of solid food will compromise your performance by causing blood to leave your muscles in favor of the digestive system.
GU is an energy gel that supplies 25 grams of carbohydrate in the form of glucose polymers and fructose. When combined with a few mouthfuls of water, it forms a solution that is 4-8% carbohydrates and optimal for gastric emptying. The same holds for the sports drink called Cytomax, whose main ingredients are maltodextrin, a source of glucose polymers, and lactate with the acid removed, which improves gastric emptying. Gatorade and other commercial sports drinks contain simple glucose and sucrose which interfere with gastric emptying, but are often preferred because they are sweeter.
So that’s the science. Now, let’s review two experiments I ran this weekend, that test Twight and Mason’s nutritional enhancement recommendations.
On Saturday, I bought a tub of Cytomax at REI. I mixed a quart bottle of it and took it to my health club for a stationary bike workout. Before my workout I drank 16 oz, and after that I drank another 4 oz, every 15 minutes.
My stationary bike workouts are punishing. I typically warm up for 30 minutes at a moderately difficult level, and then do an hour of intervals, alternating every 5 minutes between very high resistance and lower reistance for another hour. I normally just consume water during my workouts and I am beat tired at the end of them.
However, last night, after consuming a quart of Cytomax drink I was amazingly alert and felt like I could have cycled for another full hour at the end workout. That feeling persisted throughout the evening and I had no soreness or post workout fatigue on Sunday morning.
On Sunday morning, I went for a 5.6 mile snowshoe on fresh powder carrying a full, 25 lb. pack. This was my first time carrying a full pack on this route and I completed my loop in just 3 hours, beating my previous best time by 15 minutes.
When I woke up this morning, I had two cups of coffee and a large bowl of granola. This is my normal breakfast before a snowshoeing workout. I then pre-hydrated with 32 oz. of water followed by a packet of GU, before driving 10 minutes to the trail head. I always pre-hydrate in winter.
After I put on my snowshoes and started my hike, I drank 4 oz. of Cytomax every 15 minutes (1L = 270 calories) and consumed a packet of GU every 30 minutes. Therefore in the course of the next 3 hours, I consumed 705 calories, while burning about 1800 calories, at a pace of approximately 600 calories/hour.
I am usually pretty tired after going snowshoeing on this trail and quickly journey to the land of Nod. Not tonight. I’m alert and feel normal, even revved up.
I’m amazed by the degree to which my performance has been enhanced this weekend and by the lack of post-workout fatigue I have experienced. I am going to continue to use Cytomax and GU to prolong my stationary bike workouts and on major winter expeditions.
Disclosure: The author owns this product and purchased it using their own funds.
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