Nutrition and Hydration for Ski Touring

Written by Jonathan
12th March 2018
Nutrition, Hydration, touring, Skiing, mountain, Rocket, Fuel, Body, Eat

As with any type of endurance activity, eating and hydrating yourself correctly for ski touring is key to getting the most fun from extended days out in the mountains. After reading a research paper published by Swiss scientists monitoring the nutritional behaviour of amateur ski-mountaineering athletes during the 4 days prior to the Patrouille des Glaciers competition it’s quite evident that, at least when compared with official recommendations from nutritionists, there’s quite a gap in relation to the actual efficiency of feeding regimes relative to ski tourers’ own beliefs in what they’re doing! In essence, the study showed that most ski tourers had a rather aggrandised view of the benefits of their nutrition and hydration strategies. In fact, tellingly, the researchers discerned that the nutritional habits before a long duration ski-mountaineering race left a lot to be desired. As a result it was recommended that, as with most things mountaineering, the adoption of an informed strategy goes a long way toward being better prepared. As such, this blog is aims to provide some insight to maximising the efficacy of your approach to nutrition and hydration, thereby aiding preparation for a successful ski tour!

Eating on the go while ski touring can prove a little challenging when it’s cold and you’ve got yourself moving with a good rhythm: it can be tempting to skip the refuelling process with the thought just to make it to the next objective on the route. It’s important however to stick with your plan and make sure you’re regularly taking onboard sufficient nutrients to keep your body moving. Keeping yourself adequately replenished also plays a vital role in curtailing fatigue and, more generally, optimising your enjoyment level while exercising: there’s nothing worse than having a great ski tour spoilt by the constant pangs of hunger!

It must be said that an important precursor to any on-mountain refuelling regime should be your main meals before you hit the slopes: make sure you enjoy a hearty dinner and breakfast before heading out, as these meals will furnish the long-lasting, slow burn supply of energy that you’ll require to keep your body moving throughout the day. Once on the mountain, a primary reason ski tourers often forego sustenance on an outing is the relative inconvenience of stopping, unloading a pack and removing gloves to dig amongst carefully arranged gear to unearth a nourishing treat… risking an awkward pause when in a group. Those that tend to have a major faff at every snacking opportunity quickly find themselves uninvited from future trips! For this reason small, pocket-sized treats that can be swiftly pulled from a jacket pocket are preferred. Snack on multiple treats when you feel the urge: carrying smaller pieces makes it easier to fit them in in without getting the awkward, discomforting bulges and pressure points that caused by wedging in larger snacks in clothing (and then wasting time repackaging anything that’s half-eaten so that it does disintegrate or weld itself to you pocket liner!).

What to eat?

On a ski tour your body will rely initially on glycogen as its primary source of fuel. Glycogen, derived from eating carbohydrates, is stored in both the liver and muscles and constitutes a readily accessible and efficient source of energy. Even if you’ve taken onboard carbs prior to your activity, your body can still burn through much of its glycogen store relatively quickly (it can be drained within just a few hours), so you will need to replenish your stores while on the move. Think to carry small snacks of chews, cereal bars or gels. Try choosing more natural, less highly-processed foods, if available. Better still, make your own: dieticians such as Matt Kadey have written great guidebooks on how to bake tasty, wholesome treats. I’d recommend in particular the award-winning ‘Rocket Fuel: Power-Packed Food for Sports and Adventure’. As a target figure, you need to take onboard 200-300 calories (800-1200 joules) of energy per hour. This is only a guide, however. The exact number will depend on several factors including the overall length of the activity, the intensity of your exercise, and your body type and fitness level. Bare in mind too that your body’s ability to process carbs is limited to around 60 grams per hour: consuming more than this amount, especially while exercising, can lead to an upset stomach.

Once you’ve been exercising for three to four hours your body will turn to slow-burning fat and protein stores for energy. Taking this into consideration, you’ll need to ensure you keep you energy stores steady by eating some protein and fat whilst skiing. A general rule of thumb you can adopt to achieve this is, while maintaining your hourly intake of between 200-300 calories, to substitute around a quarter of your carb energy intake with protein. The good news is that eating fat and protein doesn’t just provide your body with a long-lasting source of energy, it may also potentially provide a welcome break from the monotonous ingestion of gels and energy bars! Think to mix in appetising snacks that include wafers, nuts, cheese, eggs and other protein-rich sources.

Breaks: think ahead

A few words on when to stop: think ahead! Sound obvious? The top of a climb might seem the most obvious place for a break but, from experience, it pays to consider whether that’s likely to be the most opportune location for a pause. Summits are frequently very exposed and subject to piercing winds: often you’ll want to quickly have a scout around for the optimum spot from which to  take the obligatory group photo, then swiftly strip off skins and get moving again to stave off the cold. Snacking a little earlier, before you reach the top of your climb, will also ensure you’ve sufficient time to digest the food you’ve taken onboard — allowing then for the gradual release of energy while on your descent and adding to the pleasure!

Don’t forget to hydrate

Staying properly hydrated on your ski tour is just as important as being adequately nourished through your food intake. While it may not feel like you’re sweating much in colder weather, you shouldn’t cut your fluid intake too much: your body is still dehydrating even when can’t feel it. Put simply, drink whenever you feel thirsty: this is your body’s way of telling you to hydrate. As a rule, if you’re an active and outdoorsy person research indicates that you should aim to ensure that your main source of hydration is good old-fashioned water. Going easy on the sports drinks in the long run (particularly caffeinated ‘energy’ drinks - see the latest studies) will be better for your general health, help you maintain a sensible body weight, and protect your teeth! If you have a tendency to experience muscle cramps, aim to drink a little more than usual and add electrolytes by way of a hydration tablet such as those made by Nuun, SIS, or High5. Go easy on the concentration, though: ski touring, particularly at higher elevations, can involve heavy breathing — a mouth lined with a sickly sweet electrolytic concoction makes this a pretty disagreeable experience! It is also important to recognise that drinking too much can be as harmful as drinking too little: don’t go overboard! Over-hydration can cause uncomfortable bloating and hyponatraemia (below-normal levels of blood sodium), which is potentially a very grave problem. Symptoms can include nausea and vomiting, headaches, short-term memory loss, confusion, lethargy, fatigue, muscle weakness, spasms or cramps and seizures. In serious cases it can result in decreased consciousness and coma.

Listen to your body

Ensuring that everyone’s well-nourished and hydrated is a key factor in skiing safely and enjoying your time together in the mountains.  An important factor when skiing in a group is to consider that our own nutrition, hydration and pacing needs on a ski tour are very individual: there can be substantial differences from person to person. If you asked five ski mountaineers how they do it, you’d probably get five quite different answers! To really understand what works best for your body, you’ll simply have to get out and experiment to discover. Then, when you’ve worked out what your body tells you works best, stick to it, regardless of what anyone else says. When out with others, bare in mind that you’ll need to take account for the fact that we’re not all alike in our needs. Nobody enjoys being told they snack too much when it’s their body politely nudging them to take onboard more fuel!
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