Visions Of Junk Food Dancing In Your Head?

How many times have you found yourself at the tail end of a long, arduous effort in the mountains or on the trail, hallucinating with dancing visions of hamburgers, milkshakes and Snickers bars in front our your wobbling eyes? If you’re picking up what I’m putting down, you’ve fallen victim to The Bonk. But fear not, for this energy-sucking monster can be held at bay with a few smart preparations and attentiveness during your next adventure.

What is bonking really about? Essentially, when you make a significant energy demand on your body, like an endurance effort climbing a mountain, it will use a combination of fats and glycogen (stored sugars) to fuel you. As the effort goes up, this ratio shifts in favor of glycogen, which is more readily available and burns more quickly to respond to the increasing demand. This is fine, as long as you can maintain intake to match the demand, AND process the by-products that come from glycogen metabolism. But unfortunately no one can do that indefinitely, and eventually your body cannot keep up the high effort because your glycogen stores get depleted. At that point, the brain sends a signal to the muscles to slow down, and also starts powering down some of your peripheral systems in order to preserve the core components of your physiology, like your brain function and circulation. What you feel in this moment is a sweating, hazy fog of disorientation: The Bonk.

How do you prevent this from happening? There are two things you need to keep your body moving efficiently and for longer on a mountain: fitness and proper nutrition. Fitness comes from advanced preparation; read more about it in our other article on Training for the Mountains. Nutrition, however, is a simple matter of planning and diligence during your trip.

Believe it or not, during a day-long alpine adventure, you will likely burn between 3,000 and 5,000 calories per day. This number is dependent upon your body mass, your fitness, and the type and intensity of the activity, but it can serve as a good general rule. In addition to the total number, the other factor many folks overlook is WHEN you eat. Throw out your old notions about three squares a day—when you’re on the mountain, you should always be thinking about food and when you’ll next fuel your body.

Breakfast, as they say, is the most important meal of the day, and this remains true for mountain sports. Waking up from a long sleep, especially at altitude, your body has basically been fasting and craves nutrition. Providing a balanced meal of carbohydrates, fats and proteins will ensure that you get the system off and running well.

During the day, regular snacking is key. Think about foods you can bring that are easily accessible, offer little mess and provide a ratio of carbs and fats with a little protein thrown in. You want the fats involved because that will help steer your metabolism to burn fats, which are a much more efficient fuel at low and moderate intensity than carbs, and will help prevent you from a sugar bonk.

Lunch is often a brief affair on mountain trips, as in the middle of the day your guides—or you—will want to prioritize movement and getting to the destination. I will make my lunch basically a larger version of what I’ve been snacking on, like a whole-grain sandwich with lots of meat and cheese, washed down with 20 to 30 ounces of water. Water during meals and throughout the day helps in many ways: It helps transport fuels such as carbohydrates into the muscles; it transports waste products away from the muscles; it provides crucial plasma for your blood to move oxygen; and it accumulates in the body’s skin cells, moving to the surface to help cool you on warm days or intense excursions.

I find that once the afternoon rolls around, I’m craving more sugary snacks as my body starts to tire. Combining things like honey, peanut butter, berry jams and dried fruit can curb these cravings without making me turn to overly sweet gels and candy. That’s not to say the latter don’t have a place—they’re conveniently packaged and easy to digest. But in general I subscribe to the idea that whole foods are better than processed, as they take longer to move through your body and thus are less likely to give you a spike of energy followed by a drop. But hey, sometimes circumstances just call for a Snickers.

Dinner is another chance to find balance. You’ll likely be craving big carb loads at the end of the day, but make sure to get fats and proteins in no small measure. The fat is longer burning and thus will continue to fuel and recover your body into the night while you sleep, and the protein is the essential building block for repairing muscle tissue damaged during your day’s efforts.

Below is a sample menu for a day of travel in the mountains. The best advice I can offer is to experiment with different foods and quantities during smaller trips to find what works for you, so by the time you get to your goal trip, you’ll have dialed in a food plan and will be ready to crush the vertical.

Fueling Recommendations for a 1-day Mountain Adventure
(adjust portions based on caloric needs)

  • Breakfast: Steel-cut oats (whole-grain carbs) with almond butter (fat, protein) and bananas (carbs, potassium), whole-milk yogurt (fat, protein) with fresh berries (delicious)
  • Snack: Whole grain tortilla (carbs) wrap with turkey (protein), cheese (fat, protein) and avocado (fat). Slice into 1-2 inch rounds and store in a baggie, then portion out as needed.
  • Lunch: Whole grain bread (carbs) with salami (fat, protein), and cheese (fat, protein); handful of dried fruit/nuts (carbs, fat)
  • Afternoon snack: Whole grain tortilla (carbs) wrap with Nutella or almond butter (fat, protein, carbs), honey (carbs), and sliced banana (carbs). Other options include homemade energy balls made with dates, nut butter, and whole seeds/nuts (see recipes online). Or a Snickers bar, if called for.
  • Dinner: Brown rice (carbs), pan-fried tofu (protein), steamed broccoli and stir-fried peppers (carbs, fiber) covered with Thai peanut sauce (fat, protein). And ice cream.

All else aside, I will leave you with a metaphor which might help you understand fueling during activity. Consider your body’s energy needs as a metabolic “campfire.” The larger the fire (i.e. the workload), the more fuel the campfire needs to maintain itself. In the same way, you must match your body’s efforts with commensurate fueling. Taken one step further, quality fuels will burn longer and brighter than cheap tinders. Fuel your body often and with quality, and your fire will burn long and bright through your mountain adventure. Flame on!


Photos by Dan Patitucci and Joey Shusler.