Eating well is an important part of our daily lives, but especially when participating in a sport, such as hiking. If you’re going on a short walk and have no special dietary concerns, you can eat just about anything–within reason of course–and still fare well.
If you’re heading out for a longer jaunt, however, you may wish to consider your nutritional needs more thoroughly to ensure you and your body get the most out of the experience.
First up: hydration. And, yes, hydration is an essential aspect of nutrition. One tip you’ll hear time and again is to make sure you’re drinking before you’re thirsty. Why? Because by the time you feel thirsty, your body has already become dehydrated.
You’ll want to start your hike by hydrating with somewhere around half a litre or 20 ounces of water about 2 hours before you set out. Then, while you’re hiking, you can drink to quench your thirst, and when you finish, you’ll want to consume another half a litre or so of water or an electrolyte or sports beverage.
Speaking of electrolytes, if you’re hiking in the heat, they’re a must. You not only need to replenish the water your body is depleting, but also the sodium, potassium, magnesium, chloride, calcium, and manganese you’re burning through.
My preference is to add an electrolyte replenishing powder to my water, but you can also buy electrolyte replacement drinks, or snack on salty foods as part of your refueling efforts, especially if you prefer plain water.
Breakfast/The First Meal of the Day
Before you hit the trail, it’s important to fuel your body with a nutritious breakfast, or first meal of the day. If you’re like me, you may not eat first thing in the morning. I actually begin my day by consuming 32 oz of water. But I always eat after having my morning cup of coffee and certainly before I begin a hike.
You’ll want to choose a breakfast that is low in fat and fibre, fairly high in carbohydrates and includes some protein. This will help fuel your walk and keep you from getting an unwanted–and in some cases–untimely stomach ache.
Whatever you choose, you’ll want to make sure you eat at least an hour before you set out so you have adequate time to digest. Good options include oatmeal with a bit of dried fruit made with the milk of your choice, scrambled eggs with cheese and a piece of whole grain toast, or a high quality energy bar if you need something quick and easy.
Carbohydrates are the easiest form of fuel for your body to access while hiking in part because they’re easier to process than fats and proteins. This is important to avoid a stomach ache and build endurance while preventing fatigue. Ensuring adequate carbohydrate intake also prevents your body from burning its own muscle and fat as an energy source while you’re on the go.
I find good quality energy bars, as well as dried and fresh fruit to be the most effective sources of carbohydrate. They’re easy to transport, and depending on the duration of your walk, you may need a few options to keep you going. As a general rule, most people need to refuel every 1 to 2 hours depending on the intensity of their hike.
Eat for Recovery
Nutritionists and trainers will all tell you that you have about 45 minutes to refuel after a high intensity exercise session, and this advice applies to hiking as well. During this time your body is especially receptive to repairing your muscles.
You’ll want to consume a combination of protein and carbohydrates during this time as the protein provides amino acids to help repair your muscles, while the carbohydrate replaces the sugars your muscles have used for energy along the way.
While you can buy powdered recovery drinks, I’m always a fan of eating real food when possible. That said, protein shakes and bars definitely have their place in my pack and in my pantry. A protein shake made with a high quality protein powder, a banana and a bit of nut butter is one of my favorite homemade recovery drinks. I also recommend things like salami or a bit of a hard cheese with a few wholegrain crackers, cottage cheese and granola, a balanced trail mix, or a high quality protein bar.
It’s important to follow these tips and learn to think about your nutritional needs as much as you think about your hiking kit. This will ensure your body supports you in the best way possible on all your hiking adventures to come.