Central Issues Addressed in This Article
How best ramp up my energy production to higher levels? What new behaviors are needed to minimize my fatigue and maximize energy while traveling on foot in the wilderness? What are the most important elements or fundamentals to focus on while achieving this goal? What about energy bars and drinks? Electrolyte replacements?
Most experienced wilderness travelers have developed a number of strategies for minimizing fatigue and maximizing energy, whether conscious of them or not. No matter what strategies are used, they can always be refined and improved. There are no magic bullets; only an ongoing challenge to refine the system we use as new information becomes available. This challenge only increases as we age.
This article is organized to view this topic systematically. Viewing it systematically means taking into account the many different factors (strategies, elements) that play a role in our energy and fatigue experiences, and looking at them as a whole. The section immediately below covers the most significant factors—thirteen in all. The reader is expected to supply additional factors that have been missed or that play a unique role in their own physical makeup.
Hikers having serious medical conditions affecting levels of energy and fatigue (e.g., diabetes, Lyme disease, chronic fatigue syndrome, cancer, AIDS) will still benefit from taking the systems approach proposed in this article. Some modifications will likely be needed to accommodate specific medical conditions.
One final starting assumption is about authority and expertise. I do not claim to be an expert or authority on this subject. I have developed considerable expertise, however, which is shared in this article. Much of the information presented is readily available. It is also relatively easy to find authoritative sources on most of the topics covered. Any errors found in this article and my expertise are not critical to the systems approach that is the heart of this article.
Energy/Fatigue Strategies: Thumbnail Sketches
For each set of strategies described in this section, I first review what I perceive as traditional wisdom (basic) and then move to more advanced and controversial perspectives. The goal of the basic information is to bring to consciousness what most readers already know (i.e., traditional wisdom if you are an experienced hiker) and to use it as a stepping stone to present more advanced principles and strategies. The goal of the “advanced” offerings is to assist you in considering potentially new behaviors for minimizing fatigue and maximizing energy.
Even though you are likely to agree with most of the basics, agreement is not critical. The advanced strategies presented are often more controversial and agreement will be less likely. Sometimes the advanced strategies will conflict with the basics. Let’s now examine these basic and advanced strategies of energy production and fatigue reduction grouped into thirteen different categories.
Solid Food (Basic): On the trail, carry easy to get to solid food. Regularly eat small snacks rather than big feasts; do not allow yourself to get hungry. Even though lots of carbohydrates are needed for energy, eat a balance of macronutrients (protein, fats, carbohydrates), especially if you are going to be out for a while. To avoid dipping into your reserves, begin eating and drinking carbohydrates no later than one hour into a long hike. Eat more carbs during the day for consistent energy on the trail. Eat more protein and fat in the evening for muscle recovery and warm sleeping. Protein is also needed to maximize the glycogen (carbohydrates) stored in bodily tissues.
Solid Food (More Advanced): To avoid a roller coaster effect, eat plenty of complex carbohydrates (i.e., food with a low glycemic index) whose sugars are absorbed more slowly. Since simple and complex carbohydrates are absorbed at different rates, eat and drink them in different forms at different times of the day to maintain a steady flow of energy during heavy exercise. For example, oatmeal, candy bars, dried fruit and sports drinks all have different absorption rates. In the same vein, do not overconsume on one type of sugar. Since it is easy to max out on the amount of glucose your body can absorb, eat carbohydrate-rich foods that contain other kinds of sugar (e.g., fructose, maltose, sucrose). One study showed that the ideal ratio of glucose to fructose for endurance athletes is 2:1 (Asker Jeukendrup, professor of exercise metabolism, University of Birmingham, England). When out on the trail for any length of time, eat as many fruits and vegetables as you can using powdered, candied and dehydrated forms when fresh are not available. The name of the solid food game: variety, variety, variety!
Hydration (Basic): Carry water where it is easy to get to; do not allow yourself to feel thirsty. By then, you are already dehydrated. However, some dehydration becomes inevitable with longer, higher intensity exercise. Cold weather exercise is dehydrating; drink regularly even if not thirsty. Warning! Our body will often shut off its thirst response after it gets dehydrated to a certain point.
Hydration (More Advanced): Since the digestive system can only absorb about a quart of liquid an hour and we often expend more than that, hikers should hydrate before, during and after exercise. During hard exercise, drinking every fifteen or twenty minutes is ideal. To accomplish this, consider carrying water bottles that are easy to get to or use a hydration bladder with a hose.
Electrolytes (Basic): Avoid electrolyte deficiencies. When sweating a lot over a period of several hours, replace them with salty food, sports drinks or electrolyte pills accompanied by water.
Electrolytes (More Advanced): If using energy (performance, sports) drinks during moderate levels of exercise (for their caloric and electrolyte content), balance them with solid food and plain water. During heavy exercise and hot weather, greatly increase sodium intake (either from salty food or crushed salt tablets in water). In these conditions, drink an adequate amount of water, but avoid electrolyte deficiencies (especially sodium and potassium) caused by drinking too much water without sufficient electrolyte replacement. For much more detailed information on this subject, see a later section in this article or go to this website article: Relationship of Electrolytes and Heavy Exercise.
Weight Reduction (Basic): Decrease pack weight as much as possible while at the same time balancing needs for safety, comfort and functionality. Be aware that all of the small items, while weighing very little individually, can add up to a significant amount of carried weight. Know the individual weights of all items or kits carried. The measured weights will sometimes surprise you.
Weight Reduction (More Advanced): Move out of your comfort zone with increasingly less and lighter weight gear. Review the article: “The Challenge of the Lightweight Backpacking Movement” for detailed information on this process. Carry a water treatment method(s) you have confidence in to decrease the amount of water carried. In addition to reducing pack weight, decrease the weight of items worn (especially on the feet). The type of footwear used will have a considerable impact on the energy used while walking. See the article on “Boots, Shoes, Sandals or Bare Feet?” for detailed information on this decision. If it fits your body type, significantly decrease the percentage of body fat (unless going on a long distance hike with limited resupply). This form of weight reduction is at least as important as the other forms.
[Note: In the complete article, nine more “energy/fatigue” elements are developed in this same basic/more advanced format.]
The above paragraphs provide a preview of the complete article (approximately 16 pages) available as a free download. Click on the following to download in either a Microsoft Word or PDF format.
The sub-topics listed below are developed in this complete article:
Basic and Advanced Energy/Fatigue Strategies
Reader Participation: Behavior Changes
Energy Production as an Integrated System
Author’s Energy/Fatigue System Specifics
Individual Differences and Exceptions
The Truth About “Energy” Bars
Relationship of Electrolytes and Exercise
Additional Issues for Reflection