I’ll be fine. I don’t need to eat at the moment. I’ll eat in a bit. It’s ok. Then.. it is suddenly not. I crash. I start to slow down first, then my concentration starts to waiver, then I just fall into a crabby and irritable mood. If only I had had eaten when I needed to!

Getting hangry and hitting the wall

Time and time again, I experience the same thing while I’m out in the mountains. Whether it is skiing, climbing, running, or whatever; I keep going as I’m sure I will be fine and then I go too far.

People call it bonking, hitting the wall, or just running out of steam, whatever the name, it is the same thing and I know that a huge part of avoiding it is feeding myself properly. No one likes to get hangry – hungry + angry – and even less so being around someone who gets that way so here is what I’m doing to better manage my appetite and nutrition while out in the mountains.

Hitting the wall

Working hard at altitude

Working hard at altitude

We have all been there; we’re motoring along and feeling like we have it all in hand and then it suddenly isn’t. Like a fog descending your legs get heavy, you slip or stumble, and you start looking for any and all excuses to stop. This is the wall.
Our muscles need glycogen for fuel, this is stored in our muscles and comes from the food that we eat. Once it is burnt off though, you have no more to fuel your activity. Sadly we can’t grab glycogen from other muscles (like our fresh arms, for example) and so our body seeks it out from elsewhere. The only other place glycogen is stored and accessible is in our liver.

The glycogen in the liver, however, has a very special purpose; it feeds the brain. Once our legs have run out of glycogen we start tapping into our liver. This is not ideal though as once we start tapping into that supply we start to starve our brain. Once that process kicks in we hit the wall. Our brain, lacking the fuel it needs, starts to fall to bits just as your legs are.

Once you hit this, it is very hard to recover. Really you need to stop for several hours and eat proper food to get back to normal but, with some grit and determination, we can sometimes make it through to the end of our objective.

The night before

Zen moments

Zen moments

The most important fact is that it takes time for your body to process food and to extract the valuable nutrients from whatever it is that our bodies require. It takes up to 8 hours to reap the full benefits so the most important meal for a morning run is in fact dinner the night before.

When training high volume, especially endurance sports like running and cycling, people love to talk about carb-loading. In short, filling your body full of carbohydrates that, in turn, fill your muscles with energy producing glycogen – fuel for your muscles, to you and me. With a long run planned, you see people stuffing themselves with pasta, believing this is going to best prepare them for the next day.

In my experience, this is terribly misguided. What happens instead is that people eat too much and end up going to sleep bloated then sleeping badly as your body is fighting hard to best process this mass of stodge as quickly as possible. You then wake up after a poor night’s sleep far worse for wear for the run ahead.

On the contrary, though your body will benefit from an increased carbohydrate intake, it doesn’t need to be that much higher than you are probably already consuming. A regular bowl of pasta and sauce or, for me, a lean chicken breast with steamed new potatoes and green vegetables will provide ample carbohydrates for most races the next day.

Just as importantly as eating right the night before, though, is drinking right. Dehydration is a huge performance inhibitor and starting a race without sufficient water in your body is just asking for a horrible and difficult day. I like to drink upwards of two litres of water over the course of the evening before to fully hydrate my internal organs, body, and soul. This also helps in not over-drinking on the morning and risk needing a pee on the start line!

The morning of..

Pre-run BCAAs

Pre-run BCAAs

Your alarm goes off and you start making your excuses for not getting up, for turning over, and for doing your run later. Well, at least I do. However, I kick myself in the butt and get out of bed. With wanting to run at 7am, eating just isn’t feasible. It takes the best part of 2.5 hours to let food go down properly and there is no way I’m getting up at 4.30am to eat.

Instead, I wake up and go for something light and easy to digest. Bananas are perfect here as they are good quality carbohydrates and easy to absorb. I am also experimenting with using BCAAs for fasted training and am finding the results really promising – they are enabling me to keep the work intensity high while not having eaten. They are also a good way to get more water in your body.

Once that is all done, it’s time to get out on the trails!

During your adventure

Keeping on our toes

Keeping on our toes

This is where I am learning most and experimenting most and what I am consuming is dictated by the pace and intensity of the adventure. When it is a high intensity session, or at least a session with high intensity sections, then I have been experimenting with gels. These have long been used in marathons, long bike rides, and triathlons but they are new to me.

I have been testing out the Lucozade Sport Elite gels for my runs and am starting to see the light. I most definitely have a sweet tooth but the texture of gels was initially a little hard to manage. After a few runs, however, I am starting to rely on them more and more. The prescribed amounts can be a little extreme – one every 30 minutes – for me but, having witnessed elite trail runners consuming them at this rate, I can see why. I am generally not racing at such a level and so don’t mind operating in a bit of a deficit. I do pay for that later though.

While running, gels are easy to consume and are very little faff. After a few hours, though, I do get hungry and have a need for something solid. This is when I start on my trusty Bounce Balls. I am very fortunate to be supported by Bounce and my mum can now stop shipping them out to me by post! I think they are simply great but require a bit of a slower pace to eat and process. Chamonix has awesome views so stopping to eat a ball while enjoying the view is never too much of a chore!

I have also experimented with chopping them up nice and small so that I can eat them more on the go which works great while hiking and climbing. This little tactic seems to be what others are doing too as Bounce have taken it on board launching Bounce Bites soon.

Recovery nutrition

Rest stop and solid food stop!

Rest stop and solid food stop!

So, you looked after your nutrition the night before, you consumed gels, water, energy bars and whatever else your body requires during the adventure, then what? This is where what you eat becomes incredibly important.

Burgers, pizza, ice cream, and every food whim comes into my mind. Well, I have earned it after that massive session, no? Hmm. I am the worst at convincing myself of this. Fine, we have just burned off a tonne of calories but filling up this will likely just slow down the recovery process.

After a long session your body has two requirements; to replenish the glycogen spent from your muscles and to start rebuilding and repairing the damage that they have incurred. Glycogen supplies need to be replaced by carbohydrates and the only thing that repairs our muscles is protein.

With those two requirements in mind, maybe a burger and fries is perfect; it’s got protein in the beef (or chicken, if you’re me..), we have carbohydrates in the bun and fries, and washed down with a beer we start refilling our dehydration. Well, as I’m sure you are thinking, that is not ideal. Fried food is not ideal with high levels of fats that do our bodies no good – unlike the good fats in avocado, for instance.

When self-control reigns supreme, I feel great eating grilled chicken, steamed vegetables and potatoes, and adding an avocado, mozzarella and tomato salad. Or a burger and fries.. sometimes!

Learning from your mistakes

I am still very much just learning and I make mistakes on nearly every run. Some that I am learning from and, sadly, some that I just keep making no matter what but I am making baby steps to maintaining more balance in the mountains. The crashes are getting pretty low sometimes and I just don’t want to be caught out somewhere dangerous without the mental nor physical capacity to keep myself safe.

But I am learning.

What are your nutrition strategies? What do you do, if different?

by Charley Radcliffe

6 Responses to “Eating on the go – nutrition while trail running”

  1. Matt

    I keep it simple. Gu gels, plain water, S!Caps electrolyte capsules if it’s very hot. Couple of Clif bars to give my stomach something to work on. That’ll hold me up to 40km in the hills. I’m over worrying about food philosophies and spending my evenings trying to get mashed avo and sweet potato into squeeze bottles!
    Oh, and Mountain Dew mixed with whey protein as an immediate post-run recovery drink. I keep a tub of protein in my car in case I forget. It works as well as the expensive recovery products I was using and the caffeine perks me up for the drive home.

  2. Pete

    This was a really good read Charley.
    I am in the latter stages of this year’s marathon training and I too have been experimenting with different ways of fueling, especially when it comes to gels during my long runs. The bounce products do look good though. I may just have to give them a try!
    Keep enjoying those Chamonix views! How could you not?

  3. Stuart Storr

    Hi Charley – just saw this! Happy New Year.
    In my experience, a key factor is finding out what works for yourself. For gels especially, it seems that different people handle different gels differently – some cause a puking sensation and don’t sit well, whilst others are fine. I tried several before finding the one that suited me best: Science in Sport (SiS) Isotonic Energy.

    The same was true, but to a lesser extent with energy bars. My bar of choice is currently Power Bar Natural Energy – although mainly before rather than during a run / ride. I sort of convinced myself that these are less “processed” than others – even though they do in fact contain some “non-natural” ingredients.

    For recovery, over the last 9 months I’ve focused on taking a protein / whey “gel” immediately after a tough run / ride. I use SiS Whey 20 which as the name suggests has 20g of protein. Before i started doing this I had all sorts of issues with failing to recover / being violently ill after a session. I think many people fail to take on board enough protein for recovery. This has been the single most effective change I’ve made.

    Also, with all of these, I found that understanding when and how much to take is also a matter of trial and error. Don’t over-do it, but take enough early on.

    Anyway, that’s my 2 cents. Back in the day of course, when runners were nutritionally-ignorant runners, we didn’t have gels or energy bars of protein gels. We had bananas, (too much) pasta, pie and chips, and beer…..



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