As they fly over jumps, muscle around sharp turns at 60 mph and glide with ease over long cross country courses, winter Olympians often made their sports look graceful and effortless. But as anyone knows, all that skill took long hours of training and preparation.
While the average weekend warrior probably doesn’t have the luxury of being able to spend hours on end training on their favorite slopes, they can see big gains in their fitness and endurance by eating like an Olympian. Proper nutrition allows athletes to explore their favorite mountains longer and with more energy, so whether you are an athlete in training or someone who just likes to explore the wilds in winter, paying attention to the fuel that goes in is just as important as making sure you have the right gear.
Consider that studies have shown exercise is impaired when an individual is dehydrated by as little as two percent of his or her body weight and one can understand the importance of proper nutrition.
But there is more to it than just calories. Food timing, having the right combinations of proteins and carbohydrates are all important elements to a well-rounded diet.
The U.S. Olympic Committee’s Sport Performance Division has a resource site that includes several recommendations for optimal performance.
Among the tips are to stay hydrated, eat a snack before training, eat a wide variety of foods that are high in antioxidants to build the immune system, refrain from eating foods that are processed or fried and to eat within 60 minutes of a workout.
The committee also recommends using sports bars, gels and drinks when necessary, but to not overuse them. The general guideline is if a workout is going to last an hour or more at a moderate to high intensity, a gel or bar might help.
In other words, if you are taking off on a snowshoe adventure, it would be wise to stick a snack in your pocket, but you don’t need that 32-ounce jug of Gatorade to take the dog around block, despite what commercials might imply.
The site also includes example plates of what an athlete should at on an easy, moderate or hard day of exercise as well as tips on hydration, breakfasts and more.
For Beth Wolfgram, a sports dietician at the University of Utah, staying hydrated is one of the biggest challenges people face in cold weather. People aren’t as apt to drink water when it is cold outside or don’t realize how much they are sweating.
“Water is always a good option but so are warm soups and hot chocolate to help replace lost fluids and electrolytes,” she said. “Altitude can also magnify dehydration, so more fluids are needed.”
While many understand the idea of eating before an adventure, an often overlooked aspect to sports nutrition is the recovery food.
However, athletes know the best time to eat to help the body recover is within an hour of hard exercise. This is when the body’s metabolism is working hard and can best metabolize the nutrients given. Miss the window and the metabolism will slow because it thinks it is heading into a starvation period.
The Olympic Performance site recommends one gram of carbohydrates per kilogram of body weight and 15-20 grams of protein along with electrolytes and plenty of water to replenish what the body needs in a hard training session.
“For most people who are doing moderate activity, a balanced meal will cover their recovery needs,” Wolfgram said. “But if someone is doing long and intense activity, then the recovery food becomes even more important.”
While training sessions are fine and good, keeping fueled while exercising outdoors is just as important and can be trickier, as anyone who has tried to carry a banana in their pocket while skiing then falling on it can attest.
Ready-made snacks such as trail mix, peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, dried fruit and turkey jerky are high on Wolfgram’s recommendation list.
As with everything, keep in mind one size doesn’t fit all. In just the same way an Olympian in the ski jump isn’t going to burn as many calories as a cross-country skier, someone out for a leisurely winter hike won’t burn as many calories as an adventurer plowing his or her way through the backcountry.
Train and eat according to your activity levels is the best advice.
One last word of caution from Wolfgram though, lest you are thinking celebrating your big effort like you won an Olympic medal.
“Alcohol dehydrates the body and is not a good fuel replacement,” she warns.