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What to Eat During Intense Mountain Activity

energy bars, gels, proteins...a whole world.
Foto: 226ers
Foto: 226ers

This article refers exclusively to energy food for occasional use during intense activity and in no case do these products replace a balanced diet or nutrition outside of exercise.

Medical or scientific topics are not covered, but it aims to give general information to users on how products such as energy bars and gels work, and when and how to use them.

In the past and even now, nourishment for mountain activities consisted of taking real food in your pack.

Some specific products were available at the time, but they were only used for activities such as cycling, which required very fast and efficient energy sources that would take up very little space.

All this changed with the arrival of mountain running. The limitation of space and the need for lightweight gear opened the doors to this type of nourishment both in the world of competition, and for training.

Energy food has two main features:

  • High energy power
  • Minimum weight and space

For activities, such as hiking or trekking, most people will prefer a normal snack to an energy bar. But energy bars can also be used as a supplement, for those activities when only short stops are possible and they can be combined with real food for the long stop. The gel is excellent to have on hand in the event that your strength fails and you need instant energy.

Competition is not the only time energy food is used. More and more runners, fast mountaineers, cross-country skiers, climbers and canyoners entrust a large part of their energy during activity to bars and gels, because of their high efficiency that allows them to lighten their carry load and free up the little space they have.

Efficiency

One of the main features of bars, gels, and this type of food, in general, is its enormous efficiency.

  • It provides exactly what the body needs
  • Without "waste". It only incorporates what we need, nothing more in its composition
  • It acts very quickly. This is essential for preventing exhaustion, cramping, hitting the wall or bonking, etc

Composition

The composition changes according to the flavour and the brand, but in the case of the 226ers and Powerbar, the main brands we work with at Barrabes, their products are only made with natural ingredients (Dried fruits, Almonds, Carbohydrates of organic origin, Sodium, Potassium, Minerals, Egg and dairy proteins, essential amino acids, caffeine, vitamins, etc.).

How do these specific energy fuels work

Energy food can be used before, during and after exercise, depending on the type.

  • When taken before or during a meal, it mainly provides sugars that are rapidly absorbed.
  • When taken after exercise, it mainly provides protein.

But before we get into types and form of use, let's look at how the organism works.

How does the body use energy?

  • First it looks for sugars stored in the body as glycogen
  • Subsequently, it looks for lipids, which are the body's fat reserves
  • And finally, if it finds neither sugars nor fats, it consumes protein (muscle)

It is important that our eating habits do not allow the body to reach the third phase (protein consumption), which is when the body runs out of energy, at which point it begins to consume itself.

And the body does not instantly stop consuming energy after intense activity, but continues while at rest, until it is able to regulate itself.

Therefore, just as it is recommended to load your reserves before exercise, once they have been depleted, after long workouts, it is recommended to consume protein.

Isotonic drinks are essential because they replenish mineral salts lost during intense exertion, but provide little energy due to their low caloric content.


Types of Products and How to Use Them

In view of how the organism works, we can choose between products that have slow absorption, rapid absorption, or are for recovery.

Slow Absorption

Before intense activity, and during aerobic activity (long duration and medium intensity, such as an ultra), the body will need slower aborption sugars, (carbohydrates, energy bars, etc.)

This energy is not instantaneous, because the body first has to transform it into glycogen, and it provides us with energy at a medium level and for a longer period of time.

Activity-specific nutrition is usually made as bars and labelled by brands as "Endurance", "Performance", or similar.

226ers Endurance Bar

Fast Absorption

For very intense, shorter activity (e.g. 2-4 hour high intensity mountain racing), or when suffering from exhaustion during any activity (the dreaded "bonk"), the body will need instantaneous energy.

To obtain this, gels or tubes are usually used for fast assimilation. Brands tend to label this type of product as "Energy", "Boost", or similar.

These products give a strong boost, but only provide energy for approximately 45 minutes to 1 hour.

Many of these products include caffeine. These are widely used by those participating in ultras, which can be well over 24-36 hours in continuous intense movement.

Energy gel for fast absorption
Energy gel for fast absorption

Recovery

To compensate for muscle loss, proteins are ingested after activity.

Proteins are usually sold in the form of 1kg, 5kg, etc. pots, since they are not transported during activity, but protein bars (and protein drinks) are also available, which are good for after activity, during the first phase of recovery.

226ers Neo Bar 50% Protein. Para recuperar tras el esfuerzo

Different Uses

The way this type of energy food is consumed varies greatly: some people only consume bars, gels, etc. during activity, while others use them as a complement, regardless of the activity performed. For example:

  • It is good to always carry some gels in your pack, even for more traditional hiking or mountaineering, in case at some point you hit the proverbial “wall” or “bonk”.

    It is good to always carry some gels in your pack, in case you “hit the wall.”
    It is good to always carry some gels in your pack, in case you “hit the wall.”

  • Although we usually carry real snacks in our backpack, it’s a good idea to carry some energy bars to eat between meals, while on the move or for short stops. If they are quality energy bars, they are not only more effective, but made with natural ingredients, and are healthier than pastries, industrial chocolate, sweets, etc.

The decision is up to the individual. Basing mountain nutrition on these products, outside of competition or very intense aerobic activity, is too radical for some, while others value their high efficiency and minimal weight. But for everyone they are a good complement, especially in mountain terrain, where unforeseen events can occur, and where weight and space are a handicap.

Until not so long ago, taste was a problem. When suffering from exhaustion, it is difficult to introduce food to the body, especially if it is not appetizing and has a gelatinous texture. Nowadays, a wide variety of flavours are available, so that we can choose the one we like best, and the textures are much improved.

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