Fueling & nutrition for the female trail athlete

My first summit hike of Mt. St. Helens took over 16 hours round-trip, and I hit the wall a little more than halfway up. From there, every step to the summit was a struggle, and it took days to recover after the climb. I didn’t know it then, but a flawed nutritional strategy had set the stage for this experience!

Fast forward to today, with twenty additional years of experience and countless trail miles under my belt, and I know a few more things about fueling the female athlete. I’ve learned through trial and error, hard lessons, and great mentors, too. I’m thrilled to share these tips with you now! 

DISCLAIMER: I’m not a doctor, and everyone is different. There is no one-size-fits-all approach, and the needs of your body may be very different from mine. I recommended using these tips as a starting point. Adjust them all as needed to your own personal goals and metabolic profile. This will involve some experimentation on your part, but the process is well worth it. Eventually, it will help you to power you through long days, and ultimately reward you with more enjoyment outdoors. 

Goal #1: Avoid The Bonk

“The bonk” is commonly experienced as a sudden drop in energy, nausea, dizziness, and, in extreme cases, hallucinations. 

Avoiding it became critically important to me when I started tackling longer hikes, and unfortunately, I’ve experienced it several times. Especially on ambitious, multi-day trips with lots of elevation gain. 

It happens when the energy needs of an endurance athlete (sometimes greater than 400 calories an hour) exceed the amount of glucose available in the body. The depletion of glycogen (a fast-burning simple carbohydrate easily accessed by the body) can quickly create this caloric deficit, which is why endurance athletes are most vulnerable to it.

As you can imagine, the physiological needs of endurance sports, combined with the common societal pressures for women to avoid fat and worry about weight gain, can create a recipe for failure for female athletes.

Fueling Fundamentals: Laying The Groundwork 

I focus on three fundamental rules to keep me fueled on the trail:

  1. Eat Enough: 2,400 – 3,000 Calories /per Day
  2. Eat Often: Minimum 200 – 300 Calories /per Hour While Moving
  3. Eat Well: Focus on Quality Food Sources

Of course, these rules are more easily followed with intentional pre-trip planning and on-trail time management strategies. Here are three strategies that work for me: 

  1. Break Often: Every 1-2 Hours, take a quick break and have a 200 – 300 Calorie Snack 
  2. Keep Food Accessible: Keep small Snacks in Hipbelt Pockets for Snacking On-the-Go
  3. Don’t Eat Boring Food: Rotate Salty / Chewy / Crunchy Snacks that you actually want to eat!

Good News Ladies: We Are Natural Endurance Athletes!

Yes, we have yet ANOTHER secret superpower! Recent studies point to the ability of the female endurance athlete (operating below 70% max effort over long periods of time) to more efficiently burn fat as fuel. Score! This is great news for women athletes, as the human body has a greater ability to store fat rather than glucose as available fuel. 

The secret to my success is a potent combination of the fundamentals noted earlier and this additional fat-burning superpower. I’ve found that I perform best on an outdoor nutrition plan based on the following caloric breakdown:

  • 50% Fat
  • 20% Protein
  • 30% Carbohydrates

Yes, this model IS lower in carbohydrates than many long-distance hiking nutrition plans you may have seen before, and your mileage may vary. However, I have found that a higher fat nutrition plan is not only more weight-efficient (gram-counters rejoice!), but less prone to generate energy crashes, and subjectively tastier than higher carbohydrate models too. IMPORTANT NOTE: This strategy relies on eating often (at least every 1-2 hours) in order to allow enough time to convert fat calories into usable fuel. Remember to avoid the bonk! 

What’s On My Grocery List?  

Basically, I start with standard meal templates and then look for ways to add more quality fats, drop out low-quality carbohydrates, or both. 

Example: Dropping some of the oats in favor of chia seeds in breakfast recipes, adding freeze-dried cheese to noodle or rice-based dinner recipes, or adding coconut oil to commercially prepared backpacking meals.

I also highly recommend whole foods over processed food sources. You will never find a store-bought carbohydrate-heavy bar in my pack. What you will find are high-fat natural food sources like:

  • Nuts & Nut Butters
  • Avocados
  • Hard Cheeses
  • Salami
  • Coconut Oil Packets

These are rounded out with enough supporting ‘guest stars’ to provide both convenient and tasty transport as well as nutritional complements. They often include:

  • Tortillas or Durable Breads
  • High-Fat Crackers or Chips
  • Dried Fruit and Vegetables

What is ‘Fat Adaptation’? 

Your performance as a female endurance athlete may also be enhanced by overall lifestyle changes too. Alterations to your day-to-day nutritional approach may greatly influence your ability to efficiently perform over long distances and grueling days, so it’s worth considering. 

This process of ‘fat adaptation’, recently popularized by the keto diet, focuses on enhancing the ability to burn fat as a primary fuel source. I recommend researching Fat Adaptation, training in a fasted state, and the practices recommended by the ‘Training for the New Alpinism’ and ‘Uphill Athlete’ team for further reading of this topic. 

Wrapping it all up: Food is Fuel

As you can imagine, I now plan the food that goes into my pack with the same level of scrutiny and intention as anything else. Food is the fuel that supports our bodies over countless miles, carries us to breathtaking vistas, and supports our recovery process, so it should never be an afterthought. 

Of course, food can be delicious and fun too (I do love me some fun-shaped crackers!) but it is so much more than that. A solid nutrition plan can be the difference between long and wonderful days in nature, and endless suffer-fests. Remember: You’re in charge of choosing the fuel that goes into your own personal adventure machine. 

Choose wisely! 

Your turn. Leave a comment:

  • What food items sustain you best on the trail?
  • Do you have memorable food stories or lessons? Please share.
  • What questions do you have about fueling for the female athlete?

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