Tuesday, April 05, 2011

Facing the fuel

Since the White Mountains 100, I have been giving more thought to exercise nutrition. I realize this is a complex issue and I personally believe that everyone has different needs and inclinations that they largely must discover for themselves. The personal philosophy I have developed over years of trial and error is fairly simple: If I am out and about for the better part of a day, I need calories. Salt, too, but mostly calories. My method for getting those calories mainly involves listening to my body, and when that fails, cramming in whatever is available.

In my early days of cycling, I was constantly battling with low energy. I carried gels and energy bars because I believed those to be the "right" foods, but when it came time to stuff one of those smashed, waterlogged, half-frozen chunks of tar in my mouth, I decided I would rather pedal around in a daze than eat my food, so I didn't eat. Some suggested I try liquid nutrition, so I sampled all kinds of milky syrupy nutritional supplements: HEED, Gatorade, Perpetuem, Cytomax, the list goes on. These products all made me feel vaguely ill after a few sips, and since my water supply had been contaminated, I refrained from drinking as well. Yes, there was plenty of low-level bonking in my early days of cycling.

As the years went by, I found energy foods I vaguely enjoyed, but often they turned on me at inopportune times. These include Shot Blocks, Clif Bars, Luna Bars, Honey Stinger Bars, Odwalla Bars, etc. Tasty one mile, and foul the next. Because of increasing warnings about the importance of electrolytes, I continued to contaminate my water with products such as Nuun and CarboRocket. These were tolerable sources of electrolytes, but during long rides they revealed my weakness: I really don't like drinking flavored water when I am working out. It's not just the sugar, nutrients and calories; I don't like my water to taste like anything but water. To the point where I will avoid drinking it if I can.

While training for the Tour Divide, I made my first real breakthrough. I understood that three-plus weeks on the trail meant I would probably be running a calorie deficit no matter what I ate. I also understood that I would often have to carry two-plus days of food in my small pack, necessitating calorie-dense options. Finally, I understood that food availability would be limited to mainly convenience stores, and I'd have to learn to digest whatever I could get, whenever I could get it. In short, I would have to become an opportunivoure.

In all my years of cycling, I have found one thing that I have always been able to eat, enjoy, and process into energy, every time, without fail — Candy! Gummy snacks, peanut butter cups, Snickers bars, M&Ms, jelly beans, chocolate, various nuts and espresso beans covered in chocolate, and quite possibly my favorite, Sour Patch Kids (OK, these technically count as gummy snacks, but I felt they deserved a category of their own.) I'm willing to acknowledge that heavily processed sugar (or high fructose corn syrup) is a dubious source of energy, but it was energy all the same. I'm not exaggerating when I say that candy, brownies and other processed sweet foods probably supplied as many as 60 percent of the calories I consumed in 24 days of the Tour Divide. I didn't die. I lost 15 pounds, developed two cavities and became severely addicted to sugar, but I didn't die.

These days, I try to adhere to a happy medium. I continue to use natural energy bars, Shot Blocks, unsweetened dried fruit and occasionally gels, because these reportedly utilize a better combination of carbohydrates and nutrients for longer, cleaner-burning energy (high octane fuel). I also often bring candy bars on rides, just in case the natural energy bars morph into unappetizing bricks, as they often do in my mind. (Because any fuel is better than running on empty.) I do eat (mostly) healthy at home, with lots of fruits, vegetables, lean meats, low-fat dairy and grains (I prefer the old food pyramid diet. It seems to work well for me.) I supplement my lack of electrolyte-supplying liquids with Endurolytes, but in all honesty, I rarely take them. I acknowledge that I live in a warm climate now, and will probably need to start paying more attention to electrolytes. But they haven't been too much of an issue in the past, not in my typical exercise weather and moderate levels of intensity.

But now I'm back to questioning my nutrition strategies. The big bonk in the White Mountains 100, the fact I now live in a warmer climate, and my ambitions in trail running have left me wondering if I need to sample new sports nutrition strategies. I still buy into the "Calories in, calories out ... it really can be that simple" philosophy (note that my views are largely influenced by the fact I was able to continue turning pedals for 24 days of subsisting on absolute crap during the Tour Divide, therefore I believe many of our bodies aren't as choosey as we'd like to believe.) However, I acknowledge that there are levels of efficiency and effectiveness within the simple act of stuffing food in my face. I'm not necessarily looking to get X-percent faster. I'm just looking for new ideas. I'm going to spend some more time thinking about it. And yes, I am asking for advice. But if anyone tells me to try Hammer's new Perpetuem Solids, I am going to go out and buy a case of peanut butter cups.