Fueling for Performance for Hiking and Mountaineering

Published:  03/31/2018

Mountaineering WA State

Maria Faires, RD and son Jordan hiking to Camp Muir

For intense hiking training for mountaineering, you will benefit from having a well-planned fueling program that ensures adequate calorie and fluid intake. And for maximum fueling, choose "Real Foods" instead of processed like candy bars, protein or energy bars, granola bars, etc. See this post: Hiking Snack: Processed versus Real Food

Carbohydrate is the most important source of energy for the exerciser. Recommendations for carbohydrate intake range from 3-10g/kg body weight per day and may even be up to 12 g/kg for extreme and prolonged activities. See a registered dietitian for your specific needs.

During exercise an intake of 30-60 grams per hour fuels the muscles and maintains blood glucose concentrations. For athletic events over 2.5 hours, up to 90 grams per hour can help with performance. And interestingly, some studies have suggested that frequent contact of carbohydrate to the mouth can stimulate the brain to enhance perception of well-being and increase performance, so during an athletic activity you may choose to sip on a sports drink containing carbohydrate.

Carbohydrates deliver the energy that fuels muscles. Once eaten, carbohydrates breakdown into glucose, fructose and galactose that then get absorbed and used to fuel workouts. Any that isn't required immediately is stockpiled in the muscles and the liver in the form of glycogen. After these glycogen stores are filled up, any extra gets stored as fat. Glycogen is used during immediate and short intense bursts of exercise. During more long slower bouts, fat is used too. If glycogen isn't available protein is used.

Recommendations for daily protein intake range between 1.2 to 2 g/kg body weight. It is ideal to space intakes of high-quality protein throughout the day .25 to .3 grams/kg

Pre-Hike Fueling
Prior to your hike, you will want to eat wisely. The calories in your pre-event meal will last for about 60 to 90 minutes. About 1-2 hours prior, a small pre hike meal or snack should be consumed. It should consist mostly of carbohydrate and some protein and should be very low in fat, to allow the stomach to digest the food quickly. This will increase glucose levels in the circulation and "top-off" muscle glycogen stores. If you are training for an event, these pre-event meals should be experimented with so that you know they work for you. Experiment with the type, timing and amounts. Some examples of pre-exercise snacks:

  • Yogurt with whole grain crackers or fruit
  • Bowl of whole grain cereal with low-fat milk and blueberries or banana
  • Fig newtons and a glass of low-fat milk
  • 100% whole wheat bread with slice of low-fat cheese or nut butter
  • Fruit smoothie made with non-fat yogurt
  • Oatmeal made with fruit and low-fat milk
  • Banana and string cheese
  • Whole Wheat Bagel with peanut butter and a yogurt
  • Egg and 100% Whole Wheat Toast
  • For more ideas, see my blog here on healthy breakfasts, some of these make great snacks, lunches or dinners too

Fueling During your Hike
Experiment during training hikes to observe how your body responds and make adjustments before your big climb. If you are exercising less than an hour, there is no need to eat during exercise if you have eaten a meal before. Drink 6 to 12 oz. of water every 15 minutes during exercise.

For a long, hard hike that lasts beyond 1-1.5 hours, you should try to supplement at least one-third or more of the calories burned. Consult sports dietitian Maria Faires to help you estimate YOUR calorie needs and how many calories you burned per hour.

Here is an estimate of how to fuel during hiking: If you are hiking vigorously for 1-2½ hours then it's smart to consume a 120-240 calories (30-60 grams of carbs) per hour snack to keep your blood sugar and energy levels stable throughout your hike. Two of these homemade oat, peanut butter and chocolate energy balls contain 30 grams of carbohydrate and 8 grams of protein.

If you are hiking vigorously for over 2½ hours then it's smart to consume a 240-350 calories (60-90 grams of carbs) per hour snack to keep your blood sugar and energy levels stable throughout your hike.

If you are using an energy gel, use a gel that contains multiple sources of fuel (like glucose and fructose) as you'll be able to consume and absorb more fuel each hour and therefore keep your system energized. Be sure to begin taking gels relatively early in the hike. By taking the gels early, your body shouldn't be under great stress and you will be able to digest it. Always take energy gels with plenty of plain water, not a sports drink.

Refueling with whole foods is always a good choice. Go here for refueling with real foods during exercise. And see Healthy Hiking or Snowshoeing Lunches and Snacks for more ideas. 

Experiment with both salty and sweet foods to see what you like. Try to choose nutritious foods. If you are a heavy sweater, choose some foods that are higher in sodium. Keep your perishables chilled. Some hikers do well with a caffeine-boost. If you want to experiment with this, pack iced tea in one of your water bottles or a Clif Shot with Caffeine.

Stay fueled and energized on your next hiking trip with these healthy and nutrient-packed"real food" hiking snacks that will keep hiking all day.

Examples of Foods to Take Hiking
Dried fruit such as pineapple, raisins, cherries, blueberries, dates, mango, apricots

Fresh fruit such as banana, apple, orange slices, grapes, berries

2% fat or lower cottage cheese topped with frozen blueberries. (The frozen berries keep the cottage cheese chilled during your hike)

Fig Bar Cookies

Soy beans (shelled edamame) that you find in the frozen section of your grocery store

Hummus on Wheat Crackers

Triscuits, or whole grain bread, or whole grain roll with Peanut Butter

Whole Grain or Corn Tortilla Filled with Refried Beans, Salsa, and Cheese

String cheese

Gummy Bears (NOT sugarless as these can give you diarrhea)

Peanut butter and honey sandwich on 100% whole wheat bread

Jerky (not a carbohydrate source, but a good addition for some protein

Sports drink, gummies, gels, bars. Click here to see how to choose the best ones


Cereal nuggets like Kashi Go Lean Crunch or Cinnamon Harvest

Almonds, Walnuts, Peanuts, Pumpkin Seeds

On a mountain climb or other high altitude endeavor, appetite can be reduced. Take favorite foods that you think will appeal to you since calories, carbohydrates and fluid ingestion is the goal. See this blog for ideas.

Post Hike Fueling
Consume calories and fluids immediately following the hike in the form of a 100 to 400 calories. Eating a high-carbohydrate snack or meal with protein in the immediate post-exercise period has been shown to quickly encourage the replacement of glycogen that was used up during the exercise session and provide the amino acids necessary to build and repair muscle tissue and the protein will enhance glycogen storage. This aids recovery and will allow the hiker to start stocking up on stored carbohydrate for the next training session.

Vitamin supplements post hiking isn't necessary if the athletes are eating a variety of nutrient-dense foods. Supplementation may be wise if the athlete is unable to eat enough nutrient-dense foods. This is an area where a registered dietitian can assist. If a athlete is vegan or a vegetarian they may be at risk for low intake of creatine, carnosine, calories, protein, B12, iron and fat.

Dairy is a great post-exercise food or beverage because the leucine content helps with muscle growth.

Fluid and Hydration
You will have to drink enough water or sports drink to prevent dehydration. Fluid loss from sweat results in dehydration that can impair performance, make exercising seem more difficult and impair mental functioning and affect your ability to perform effectively.  Hikers should get in a habit of drinking fluid on a regular basis. To check your hydration status, check your urine. You should be voiding light-colored, pale yellow urine every 2 to 4 hours. And if you're thirsty, you are most likely a quart low. Choose beverages that you like so that you will be more likely to consume them.

  • Drink plenty of fluids with meals.
  • Drink 16 oz. 2 hours before activity.
  • Drink another 8 to 16 oz. 15 minutes before activity.
  • Drink 6 to 12 oz. every 15 minutes during exercise.
  • Drink 24 oz. for every pound of body weight lost after exercise.
  • In events lasting longer than ninety minutes, performance will likely be enhanced with the use of a sports drink containing carbohydrate.

Recommended sports beverages:

Gatorade Endurance, carbs

Fluid Performance Natural, carbs

Gatorade Thirst Quencher, carbs

GU Hydration Drink, carbs

Hammer HEED, carbs

Accelerade, carbs and whey protein

Powerbar Recovery, carbs and whey protein

Position of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, Dietitians of Canada, and the American College of Sports Medicine: Nutrition and Athletic Performance
VL  - 116 DO  - 10.1016/j.jand.2015.12.006 - Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics

Categories:   Fitness  Food  Hiking and Mountaineering 

Tags:   #sportsnutrition

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