Athletes, Nutrition

Second of Four Part Series on Getting High: Nutrition Considerations at Altitude

While I am a back at sea level for the moment, my attitude remains elevated post adventures above tree line.  My Broken Arrow Sky Race  experience has my giddy weeks later. The run started off slow for me as one can expect going up a mountain at elevation. The air, however, was crisp, sky clear, and snow (in June) slushy for bombing down the mountain without wiping out on jagged rocks!

Toeing the starting-line a running friend asked me for last minute nutrition advice for running at elevation. Scanning my mind for tidbits that would be useful to her on short notice, I opted for this piece of intel:


Eat early and often!

Experience (aka fails) has confirmed for me that the body indeed runs at a higher intensity at altitude (as if there is room to doubt) due to the stress of less oxygen. This stress results in an increase basal metabolic rate, respiration, and heart rate creating increase demand for energy (food with carbohydrate calories).

The trick is to remain conscious of eating regularly, at least every thirty minutes beginning at the start. Early race adrenaline, excitement, and fresh legs can leave even me to forget that I need to begin fueling in the first hour. My Broken Arrow choice was an organic energy food pouch followed by three energy chews which, I let each dissolve slowly, one at a time, for full effect on mind and body (check out this sweet science).  If I don’t get my energy nutrition in early I can forget strong quad moves for seriously stellar descents like the one from KT-22 to the bottom of Shirley Lake Canyon at Squaw.

Add the fact that  altitude has been  shown to blunt appetite, and it is easy to get behind on energy nutrition needs from the start. This is of course where I like to preach about planning out ‘what to eat when’ to maximize all the fitness and training. Having a plan that has become so routine through practice and mind replay that I don’t have to think is ideal.  Having a plan doesn’t mean I don’t adapt my intake based on what is happening. Rather, it allows me freedom to assess my body and adapt as needed from a solid foundation .

Realizing my running friend asking for last minute advice may not have a plan, I don’t want to freak her out. So I ask her  what nutrition she is carrying. Great! She has enough to cover the minimum of thirty grams of carbohydrate per hour. That is likely not going to be enough so I tell her what is at the aid stations where she can pick up another thirty grams in the form of the most familiar looking carbohydrate source on the table – which for her is likely gels.  Then, set the alarm on the watch to go off in thirty minute intervals to remind the brain to eat something and drink.

The old alarm trick is a classic sports dietitian recommendation. But, I must be honest! I have NEVER done it. Why? Perhaps it is because I am a dietitian who is entertained by tracking consumption against miles, time, distance, and how my body feels. I am always assessing where I am at and what I need next. Climbs are also useful as a checkpoint for nutrition intake. I find it difficult to breath, chew, swallow, drink, and move all at the same time at elevation. So, I eat as I approach the climb so I can focus on the footing and breathing.

Many athletes underestimate their needs at elevation and then over compensate with too many calories and carbs at one time trying to recover when they hit the “wall”. This can do a number on digestion. Steady consumption is what is needed throughout, just like the pace.

Note: I happened to know my friend  is not fat adaptive and she has a pretty fast top gear so this amount of grams of carbohydrate suited her. Some people do just fine with thirty grams per hour. We are all different.

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Nutrition Strategist and Registered Dietitian with twenty years of experience creating nutrition strategies that influence and inspire people to accomplish big things.