It’s often said that if you do enough exercise, you can eat virtually anything you like. And after a couple of hours of hard walking or cycling, it’s very hard (in Britain, especially) not to pass up the opportunity of having a piece of cake or a cream tea of scones and jam in a local café... it can be all too easy in fact, to eat too much!
Therefore, it’s important to make sure you have a balanced and slowly continuous food intake, where possible; little and often being the key. You don’t need to eat a whole energy bar in one go for example, have a little bit and often. Endurance athletes know the problem, the best of them have a highly trained musculature that takes a long time to suffer from the glycogen exhaustion that a lot of beginners are effected with when blood and muscle glycogen levels fall. It is said that, at least for running, you only have enough glycogen storage for a 90 minute sustained effort, walking perhaps 3 or 4 hours, so you need to be replenishing long before you anticipate an energy crash coming.
With this in mind, we have put together some simple nutrition tips for the best things to eat and drink to provide you with sustained energy whilst staying active and training for a big walking or cycling trip.
STARTING THE DAY
The first, and one of the most important things, is starting the day right. A cooked breakfast might seem like the way to go, but with a very high concentration of fats, protein and salts it can leave you feeling sluggish in the morning as you set out, whilst your body tries to digest everything. A better, and just as filling alternative, would be a nice bowl of porridge, perhaps with banana and honey or yoghurt stirred in. If you’re extra hungry, some toast with marmalade on the side wouldn’t go amiss. This will set you up with slow release carbohydrates as well as a good supply of initial sugars to get you going.
A very popular breakfast hailing from Switzerland is Bircher muesli, a creation of Maximilian Bircher-Benner, a Swiss doctor and nutritionist. He developed it for patients at his Zurich sanatorium in the late 1800s with the aim of making his patients eat more raw fruit. The rolled oat based muesli is often soaked overnight in Swiss yoghurt making it easily digestible and then lots of mixed fresh and dried fruits are added. Within this you will get a mixture of complex carbohydrates, fruits, salts, sugars and fats. Fruits are an excellent source of elements, such as potassium in banana and vitamin c in berries and citrus fruits. It is also thought that vitamins help with energy processing, as well as promoting general wellbeing.
DURING THE DAY
Once you are out and about what should you take with you? Of course there are an array of different sports bars, sports drinks and energy gels, which can be confusing. These vary in quality, some are nutritionally balanced and some are little more than sugar. Either way, they are not always necessarily the best option, and there are good alternatives that can be found in most supermarkets, usually in multiple packs.
If you want to keep things more affordable, go for items such as Snickers bars or peanut M&Ms which have a good slow and fast energy release ingredients – glucose and protein. Nuts are more expensive, but if you add a few to some some dried fruit (such as raisins) and M&Ms, you have a reasonable trail mix that you can graze on throughout the day. Also, it’s always recommended to have a packet of Jelly Babies to hand as they are pure glucose, which gives us a hit of energy and are much more palatable than energy gels. A couple of apples are also handy. However, too much fruit and vitamin c can lead to RBM (rapid bowel movement), so don’t overdo it!
If you’d rather have a convenient bar to suit all needs, energy bars which have a mix of carbohydrate, protein and fat, such as the Clif Bar are great. They generally aren’t chocolate covered so won’t melt easily, but can crumble. Anything labelled as a 'nutrition bar' is intended as a meal replacement, providing vitamins and minerals and often having more calories and protein.
Rehydration is also very important, as you need to get a balance of liquid and salts without flushing the salts out of your system (hypernatremia). The easiest way to do this is to buy a tub of rehydration powders to fill your water bottles with in the morning and then take a trusted brand of soluble rehydration tablet to put in your bottle for further refills during the day.
ENDING THE DAY
When it comes to any strenuous exercise, the way you end your day is just as vital as the way you start. So once you’ve finished a long days walk or cycle, a lot of people feel either too tired to physically consume anything, or eat far too much without thinking about it. In Britain, it also seems to be customary to end your walk at a pub with a cold beer. This is definitely not to be sniffed at, as beer drinking is sociable, contains over 300 calories a pint (plus vitamins) and is easily consumed. The thing to remember is not to drink too much and remain hydrated, so a couple of pints is fine. Alongside your drink of choice, you should ideally eat something easily consumed straight after the exercise and then a little later have some protein to help with muscle repair.
Don't forget, it was only a couple of generations ago, that good hikers were completing extraordinary walks relying on jam sandwiches, homemade cake and a thermos of sweet tea (and some still do!) Food to is meant to be enjoyable and walking sociable, so the key is to listen to your body and perhaps don’t turn up that chance for a cream tea!