Nutrition for Hillwalkers

Nutrition on the Hills

What to eat or not to eat, that is the question!

This article deals with the importance of nutrition and hydration planning for hillwalking.

Fuelling for the Hills

The meals and water consumed days prior to, and the morning of a hike supplies the body with the fuel reserves required for an exertion. Food planning should be taken as seriously as health, safety and route planning. A nutrition plan should reflect the grade and length of the walk. For this article, lets presume the walk is a high endurance activity in excess of 4 hours. To fuel adequately for days on the hills consider the following three factors:

  1. Hydration:  Aim to drink at least 2- 3 litres of water a day leading up to the hike. Hydration is especially important in the period 1 to 2 hours before starting a hill walk. For adequate hydration drink 500ml of water with a pinch of salt on the morning of the hike to allow time for excretions of excess ingested water.
  2. Carbohydrates and fats are the bodies preferred sources of energy and fuel. Try to consume 8-10g of complex carbohydrates per kg of bodyweight for each day in the period 2 – 3 days prior to the hill walk. Increasing complex carbohydrates will improve glycogen levels which will aid endurance.  Complex carbohydrates are foods like whole wheat pasta, brown rice and jacket potato (provided the skin is consumed) along with lean protein and vegetables of choice. Dietary fat is needed to provide important fatty acids and fat soluble vitamins for essential functions related to exercise, including controlling inflammation, maintaining a healthy immune system and bone health. Dietary fat are foods like avocado, fatty fish, nuts, seeds, butter and olive oil.
  3. Breakfast: Breakfast should be finished not later than 1 – 1.5 hours before the  beginning of the walk to allow digestion. Keep fibre to a minimum to avoid unplanned toilet breaks. Breakfast should include 1g of carbohydrates per kg of bodyweight and 20 – 25g of protein. Foods such as oats, rye, multigrain or wholemeal bread, avocado, eggs (poached, boiled or scrambled), natural Greek yoghurt, granola, berries and bananas are great breakfast options. They are also good sources of carbohydrates, fats and protein. With the exception of bananas, the above foods are low GI (Glycemic Index) which provide a sustained release of energy.

Eating large amounts of food before a hike is not recommended.  A full Irish Breakfast for example would be hard to digest forcing the body to work harder than necessary.

Fuel for the Hills 01 | Nourish Me | Eavan Fitzsimons

Fuelling on the Hills

The intensity of the exercise will dictate what fuel (carbohydrates and/or fats) the body burns. Carbohydrates are the main fuel source for the body during high intensity exercise.

Hiking involves a mixture of high intensity and low intensity exertion as the terrain changes and also requires a mixture of foods to help balance sugar levels and in particular to avoid sugar spikes and crashes. When choosing foods to take walking aim for a good weight to energy ratio. Foods that are high in carbohydrates and have a low GI have a good weight to energy ratio.

  1. Whole food bars high in protein, carbohydrates and fats for a hit of long lasting energy. Check nutritional information on energy bars as some contain excessively high amounts of sugar. Nakd bars, 9 Bar, Bounce Ball and Homemade Flapjacks are better choices.
  2. Trail mix  A mixture of nuts, seeds, dark chocolate and dried fruit are ideal. Avoid dried fruit like mango or pineapple which contain high amounts of sugar.  
  3. Sandwiches  are a good choice and a source of carbohydrates. Avoid white bread. Fillings such as cheese, butter, eggs, cold meats, tuna, nut butters, and pickle are good sources of protein and fats. 
  4. Olives Are a good source of mono-saturated fats. 
  5. Sugary snacks and processed foods  such as sweets, jellies, chocolate and biscuits are high GI foods that will achieve a quick release of energy for a very short period of time.  A common mistake in nutrition planning is consuming too much sugar and processed foods which causes energy spikes and crashes. Packing a sugary snack of choice, however, is recommended as part of emergency rations. 

RULE OF THUMB TO HELP BALANCE SUGAR LEVELS – Eat a savoury food with a sweet food. (e.g., sliced apple with peanut butter/nut butter, grapes and cheese, peanut butter and jam sandwich, banana and wholemeal bread, oatcakes with cheese or hummus).

  1. Wateris essential in nutrition planning. Avoid fizzy drinks. Drink 250ml per hour on the hills and add in an electrolyte for longer and hotter days.
  2. Tea or Coffee A flask of warm tea or coffee is a good choice in small amounts. Be mindful as both are diuretics.
  3. Soup is also easy to digest and is a slow release food.

N.B. – Always have enough food and water in case of emergency delays such as accidents, injuries and getting lost.

Fuel for the Hills 04 | Nourish Me | Eavan Fitzsimons

Refuelling after the Hills

There are 5 main goals particularly after intense exercise:

  1. Rehydrate  Drink 2 litres of water in the 2 hour period after completion of the hike. (the water content in alcohol is somewhere between 40% and 60% and unfortunately is not suitable for hydration!). Sipping fluids will maximise fluid retention. On hot days add an electrolyte or a pinch of salt to avoid cramping.
  2. Replace Glycogen Stores  Eat 1g of carbohydrates per kg of bodyweight within 30 minutes of completion of the hike to maximise recovery and replace glycogen stores. 
  3. Rebuild Muscle Eat within the first 2 hours of completion of the hike.  Try to consume 20 – 25g (female) 25g – 30g (male) of protein to help replace and rebuild muscle. Eggs, fish, meat, broccoli and dark green leafy vegetables, (Kale, Collard Greens, Spinach, cooked Cabbage, Watercress, Romaine Lettuce, Swiss Chard Rocket Salad, Peas), etc. are all good sources of protein. Magnesium is key for muscle protein syntheses and should be provided in the overall diet. Whole wheat, spinach, quinoa, almonds, cashew and avocado are all great sources.
  4. Reduce inflammation Anti-inflammatory foods such as Omega 3’s (fish oils), cherries, pineapples, green veg, turmeric, garlic and cinnamon may help reduce inflammation.
  5. Sleep A minimum of 8 – 9 hours’ sleep is recommended to aid recovery and guarantee pleasant dreams of “the hills are alive with the sound of music!” 

Photograph by Lens Alive Photography.

Fuel for the Hills 03 | Nourish Me | Eavan Fitzsimons

Food for Fuel and Food for Fun

Nutrition is completely individual. One plan does not suit all. What works  for one may not work for another. Tips to create strategies for fun fuel adventures and a healthy balanced diet are:

  1. Consume a plant centric diet with or without meat and fish with plenty of variety with wholegrains, unprocessed foods and 2 – 3 litres of water a day.
  2. If a big day of hill walking is planned eat slightly more in the 2 – 3 days leading up to the event.
  3. Start the day by:
  1.   Eating a mixture of carbohydrates, fats and protein,
  2.   Drinking water and staying hydrated,
  3.   Keeping fibre to a minimum.
  1. If enjoying easy nonstrenuous days out a small snack will be sufficient.
  2. Refuel when your walk has finished with real food snacks to help control hunger.

Finally, and most importantly eat the good foods you like and enjoy!