Practical advice to help you ‘eat for your feet’ and get the most from your walking.
Words by Alexandra Cook, and recipes by Kieran Creevy
The world of nutrition is constantly evolving. These days, proper fueling isn’t just reserved for elite athletes and being prepared doesn’t simply mean sticking a bar of Kendal mint cake in your jacket pocket. It’s about what you can eat to perform better, recover faster and get the most out of your walking. But the booming sports nutrition industry offers such a bewildering range of advice that it is easy to get confused with what you should be eating and when.
The simple fact is that all exercise uses the body’s stored energy, no matter what intensity. If these stores are not replaced, then over time energy will run low and performance will decline. As we know, the energy that foods contain is expressed in calories. Although every calorie provides the same amount of energy, the way in which the body breaks down a calorie from a carbohydrate, protein or fat differs vastly. That’s why it’s vital to consider different energy sources when fuelling for walks.
What fuels your walks?
Carbohydrate is to exercise what petrol is to a car. It’s the body’s preferred energy source, as it’s more readily converted to energy than fat. We have a small amount of carbohydrate circulating in the blood as glucose, with most stored in the muscles and liver as glycogen. This is very limited compared to the body’s fat stores, which could theoretically provide enough energy to power a walker for 1,300kms.
In simple terms, when glycogen stores deplete, your muscles and brain run out of fuel, making us feel exhausted and drained. The good news for hikers is that due to slower pace and lower overall heart rate, it is a lot longer before you hit that ‘wall’, since the body also uses fat stores alongside carbohydrate for energy. Fat oxidation is not fast enough to provide energy during high intensity exercise but is fine for moderate walking speed.
Protein has a different role. There is no evidence that consuming protein during exercise improves performance, but since it takes longer to digest than carbohydrate, the advantage of eating protein on a walk is that it will keep you full for longer, as well as providing a savoury taste change to carbohydrate.
So do we really need to worry about what we eat when out walking? It seems like the body looks after itself. Unfortunately, this is not the case. Fuelling requirements when walking will differ greatly depending on factors such as length of walk, altitude, temperature and weight carried. The type of carbohydrates that are needed will also differ at various stages of your walk.
Carbohydrate-rich foods come in various forms, which can be classified by the Glycaemic Index (GI). This measures how much a food increases blood sugar levels. Low GI foods that don’t greatly boost blood sugar such as oats, seeded bread, pasta, yoghurt and some fruits offer a sustained release of energy over time. They are good to eat pre- hike or during a lunch stop, as they keep you fuller for longer.
However, there are times when your body may benefit from a quick release of energy through high GI foods, such as ripe bananas, a white bread jam sandwich, jelly babies or energy bars. These are perfect for energy ’on the go’, when blood sugar levels have dropped and instant, easily absorbed energy is needed.
As well as nutrition, hydration is vital to performance. If you don’t drink enough, especially in hot conditions or at altitude, your performance will decline significantly. Severe dehydration can be dangerous, as it can mean you become confused and disorientated, so be aware of the early signs, such as headaches. How much fluid you need depends on the duration of your walk, air temperature, altitude and how much you sweat. The key is to make sure you start your hike well-hydrated. If your urine is clear, you can be reassured that this is the case.
When the weather is brutally hot and you are likely to sweat a lot, consider taking sports drinks or tabs to replace lost electrolytes. The balance of electrolytes in the body affects and regulates hydration as well as being important to nerve and muscle function. Electrolyte drinks containing sodium and potassium salts help to replenish the body’s electrolytes.
There is no need to over drink, just be guided by your body and drink according to thirst. In hotter environments a more structured approach may be needed, such as drinking 100-250mls every 15 minutes, but the best advice is to stay vigilant and listen to your body.
Before heading out on a walk, consider the following points, as these will dictate what food and drink you need to bring:
- Length & intensity of walk
- Conditions and weather
- Will you need to be self-sufficient or can you find sources of food and drink on the route?
- How you will eat or drink (do you intend to stop for meals or take an ’on the go’ grazing approach)?
- What equipment do you need to prepare food (e.g. a camping stove for hot meals on multi-day trips)?
1 - Fuelling for short walks
If walking for only a few hours, taking food isn’t as important as longer walks. Ensure you have a hearty breakfast with a good balance of wholegrain carbs and protein. But do ensure you always take water, even during short walks, and drink regularly, especially in hot weather. If walking alone or in isolated places, be prepared for all eventualities and bring emergency food supplies just in case.
Pre- walk breakfast ideas
Wholemeal bagel, banana and nut butter
Poached eggs, avocado & wholemeal toast
Porridge oats, dried fruit, flaked almonds & honey
Natural yoghurt, homemade granola & fresh fruit
2 - Fuelling for long walks
For longer walks you will need a supply of ‘on-the-go’ snacks to keep energy levels up as well as something more substantial to have as a midday meal. Again, a hearty breakfast is a great start to the trip. Aim to have a snack each hour and drink as your body dictates. If it is very hot, take a mouthful of fluid every 15 minutes (approx 100-250mls). In cold weather, a vacuum flask containing a hot drink will not only keep you hydrated but will raise your spirits and your core temperature.
‘On the go’ snack ideas
Crackers and cheese
A balanced day hike lunch (choose one food from each group):
Boiled new potatoes
3 - Fuelling for multi-day walks
This is where attention to detail is key. As you will be carrying more food with you, you will have to consider its weight vs its nutritional value, and think about whether you can replenish your supplies at local farms or shops (provided you have some way to cook them, eggs are easy to purchase and make great meals, although require careful carrying!).
The focus on multi-day trips is not only fuelling for performance, but also for recovery. Protein is often thought of as a top nutrient for recovery, although there is little evidence to show it aids short-term recovery. Protein is important for repairing and rebuilding muscle but this process takes days or weeks, so it’s not going to make a difference to your walk the next morning.
Your main considerations should be rehydrating properly, then refuelling energy stores. Try to eat a high-carb meal within an hour of stopping. If it will take time to make camp and fire up the stove, have an energy bar or a banana as soon as you stop to get the recovery process going.
Tips for multi day walks
- Calculate the number of days you will be out on the trail and count the number of meals you will need.
- Be creative about meals – eating freeze-dried rations for days on end is not inspiring.
- Weigh out the ingredients for each meal you are making before you go. Pack each meal in a separate bag. This will make preparation far easier out on the trail.
- Bring spices, herbs or hot sauce to give your meals some kick.
- Pack daily snacks in a separate bag or pocket so you know what you need to get through in the day.
- If it’s hot, consider taking drinks containing electrolytes.
Alexandra Cook is a clinical and sports dietitian specialising in endurance nutrition. Visit thesportsdietician.co.uk
Recipe ideas for on-the-go energy
Cheese, olive, & caramelised onion bread
- 550g self-raising flour
- 1 tsp baking powder
- 100ml olive oil
- 100g Greek yoghurt
- Water as needed
- 2 eggs
- 1 tbsp granulated sugar
- 1 tsp coarse sea salt
- 100g mature cheese, grated
- 100g green olives (stoned)
- 50g caramelised onions (previously cooked and cooled)
- Mix together the flour, baking powder and salt.
- Blend the oil, yoghurt and 1 egg together, then add to the flour.
- Mix well until you have a smooth dough. Add extra water or flour as needed.
- Mix the caramelised onions and cheese into the dough.
- Wrap in cling film and chill for an hour.
- Heat the oven to 180c
- Grease a springform cake tin.
- Press the dough into the tin
- Add the olives, and press well into the dough
- Beat the 2nd egg and paint the top of the dough.
- Dust the top of the bread with the sugar.
- Bar for 25-30 minutes until a skewer inserted into the centre comes out clean.
- Remove and allow to cool on a rack for a few minutes.
- Remove from the tin and serve warm or allow to cool, cut into slices and pack in a Tupperware box or zip lock bag.
Date, nut and seed balls (makes 25 balls approx.)
- 100g medjool dates, stoned
- 100g apricots
- 100g cashew nuts
- 100g almonds or walnuts
- 50g tahini paste
- 50g date syrup
- 5g sea salt
- 5g citric acid
- 5g spices such as cardamom or ginger
- Optional: Cacao powder, sesame seeds, dried lime powder, freeze-dried raspberry powder
- Chop the dates and apricots roughly, or whizz in a food processor.
- Add the linseed, almonds and cashews & blend well.
- Add the date syrup, tahini paste spices and salt & mix 50g milled linseed & pumpkin seed.
- Add the citric acid, blend and taste.
- Turn out onto a tray lined with greaseproof paper
- Chill in the fridge for 1 hour to firm up
- Roll into small balls
- Coat in one or more of the powders
Recipes by Kieran Creevy. Kieran is an expedition and private chef and international mountain leader.