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Eating For Endurance in the Mountains | Training and Skills

j_topping-2By Andy Hyslop

I was going to call this article something like ‘Endurance Nutrition’ but changed my mind when I realised that would probably make a fool of myself if I got too scientific. What I do have is a lot of experience of trying to maintain energy levels during endurance activities in the hills whether it’s climbing, running or cycling. When I started to think about some of the my big days in the hills such as the Bob Graham, Nose in a Day, Skye Ridge etc., I realised that I could recall a suprising amount of detail about what I ate and how I felt afterwards; almost as if the experience of eating in situations of extreme fatigue had left an indelible imprint on my memory. One thing I am convinced about is that food and eating in certain circumstances can have a big motivational effect on the day as well as nutritional, almost to the point where the calorific benefits become less relevant than the timing and taste. Pancakes, lard and syrup. John Topping tucks into some proper grub So here are a series of anecdotes from the past, taken from my own experiences and from others, which should help in your own quest to find the right food to eat at the right time. It wasn't until I started fell running that I had a problem with maintaining energy levels in the mountains. Cheese and pickle butties seemed to work fine and for longer routes in the alps a mixture of cheese, condensed milk, sausages and sweeties was enough for multi day routes. The intensity of the activity was the issue. So, for multiple days in the hills the amount of energy I was expending over a fairly long period meant that I could eat and keep down a wide range of tasty grub. Whilst I was physically fit, as soon as I upped the intensity to running for 2 hours or more I had a problem getting enough food down fast enough.

Too Much Glucose

Staminade was the one of the few sports drinks available in the 1980s. Fell runners would carry small bags of Staminade powder on long races which they opened and filled with water at convenient streams. This meant that you could consume a reasonable amount of liquid without having to carry the weight. Whilst Staminade contained electrolites it was virtually all glucose which meant that lots of people experienced problems with a sugar crash following the sudden rush of energy coming from the glucose they had just consumed. The problem was further compounded by eating almost anything sweet such as Mars Bars, Kendal Mint Cake etc. The course of events might go something like this: I feel a bit tired so I’ll have some Staminade. I feel great now. 10 mins later - I feel dreadful and can hardly run so I’ll eat a Mars Bar. Opps I’ve thrown up! Please can I have sausage, egg and chips.

billy_bland-2The Bob Graham Round

It all sounds pretty obvious now but it took me a long time to work out what the problem was, even though I had some good clues along the way. I particularly remember eating a bacon buttie on the way up Skiddaw at the start of my Bob Graham Round with Clive Wilson. It tasted like the best thing I’d ever eaten which can’t be bad regardless of whether it was suitable food just 1 hour into a 24hr challenge. The legendary Billy Bland at the Duddon Fell Race. He used Mackeson as an enregy drink. We did eat some sugary things; mainly wine gums and sweets, but at the road crossing we were tucking into the likes of macaroni cheese and spaghetti bolognese. A defining moment for us both was when we were both going through a bad patch around Pillar and Kirkfell. We’d been out for a long time and it still seemed like a long way to go. Unexpectedly a supporter met us half way up Great Gable with a flask of tomato soup. With something warm and tasty inside us, and our spirits lifted, the pace changed from a walk/jog to a running speed that would be respectable in a short fell race. We made big gains on the schedule to Honister Pass which set us up for the final push to Newlands. It was around the same time that Billy Bland and Stuart Bland were running their lightning BG rounds. The ‘Fell Runner’ reported that the Bland’s solution to replenishing energy levels was to shove a Mars Bar in your mouth then get your pacers to hold you upside down by your ankles and give you a good shake. Well, they were obviously doing something right because Billy Bland’s amazing record of 13 hours 53 minutes still stands. Billy was also reputedly partial to a can of Mackeson at road crossings which leads me nicely into the next tale.


More recently I was chatting to someone who had completed a round of the Lakes 3000 foot peaks at 70. This chap was a surgeon and meticulously researched the best energy food/drink to consume on his round. His radical conclusion was that beer had the best mix of carbohydrate and minerals to sustain the body over a 24 hour period of exertion. To prove his point he managed to get Jennings Brewery to sponsor him with Cumberland Ale which is what he consumed for the duration of the round. So, if you were struggling for the motivation to do one of the long mountain rounds maybe the prospect of consuming several crates of ale may tempt you.

Corn Starch

By the late 80s a new energy drink appeared on the market called Maxim. Cyclists started using it first but runners quickly caught on. It came as a white powder which you mixed with water to make an almost tasteless and odorless drink. Put simply, Maxim was corn starch (apparently, long chain carbohydrates). The nutritional effect was totally different to Glucose. Rather than getting an instant energy rush followed by a crash, the complex carbohydrate of the starch released a steady flow of energy over a longer period which was ideal for any activity lasting more than a couple of hours. For me the discovery of Maxim was like finding a new drug. Suddenly I could run for hours without the fear of the dreaded Bonk (sugar crash). Although I felt tired after a couple of hours I was amazed that I could keep going for several more hours with no further deterioration in pace. Maxim transformed my performances in long races and made me think about how I could use it for long rock climbs.

nose_rackThe Nose In A Day

After a couple of climbing trips to California I become obsessed with the idea of climbing The Nose In A Day. I had a nose_rack.jpgspeculative trip to Yosemite in '92 with Martin Doyle when we climbed several long routes in a day including NW Face of Half Dome and West Face of El Cap. Although we were going well by British standards, I still didn't think we were climbing cracks fast enough or had the depth of experience in long route tactics specific to Yosemite. The Nose In A Day Rack. Note the 3 green bottles and line of Power Bars. After 7 months of training I returned to Yosemite with John Topping to have a serious attempt at The Nose In a Day. Of course we didn’t just fly in and get on the route; we had three weeks of preparation climbing other long routes and perfecting our technique. Although we thought we had a good chance of climbing the route in a day we were going to be on the wall in hot sun for at least 12 hours. Getting the right nutritional balance of fluid and energy was going to critical. We finally settled for 6 litres of Maxim and 12 Power Bars between us. It was just about possible for the second to jug with a sack containing 6 litres of liquid at the start of the route. The only other gear we had with us was a thin cag and emergency bivi each. What happened on that day is another story but suffice to say we on the route for 23 hours and 47 minutes. We had a freezing bivi on the summit of El Cap in nothing more than cotton T shirts and thin cags followed by a long descent in the early hours. While our climbing ability barely got us to the top in a day, our choice of food and drink was spot on.


Having made some friends in California I adapted some of the things I learned from hardened ‘In A Day’ locals. Greg Murphy and Peter Coward had both climbed The Nose and Half Dome in a day (yes, both together in the same day!); a feat that was so far beyond my comprehension that it might as well be on another planet. Greg and Peter were both advocates of the ‘something tasty’ approach. While they certainly carried plenty of Power Bars and were both sponsored by Power Bar for a time, they also carried food like parmesan cheese and salami sausages. Parmesan has the advantage of not melting in hot weather and a good salami will stay together long enough in 90 degree heat to be savored at a crucial juncture. Peter Coward on Charlotte Dome. A 28 mile round trip with a bit a climbing in between. On a day trip to climb Charlotte Dome with Peter Coward we carried energy drink, powers bars, parmesan and salmi. The approach is 14 miles with a 11,700 foot pass near the start which you need to climb on both the approach and the return trip. The route itself although good is almost incidental to the 28 mile flog with a rack and a rope. Utterly thrashed, a final mouthful of salami was enough to get us back over Kearsarge Pass and to the trail head in Onion Valley.


In 2008 Peter Coward asked me if I wanted to do the 300 mile John Muir Trail with him. Of course I said yes but made the mistake of letting him buy the 10 days of food we would need. Unfortunately our ideas about eating on a multi day trek couldn't be further apart. We certainly had plenty of calories in the form of dried pea and black bean soup, dried whole milk, and maple syrup cookies. I would have preferred a stash of tasty Ramen Noodles containing lots of salt and additives. The moral of that story is, never trust someone else to buy the hill food from a San Francisco whole earth market.


More recently I have been using High 5 Energy Source for anything from long days in the hills to orienteering races longer that 12K. High 5 along with its competitors such as SIS is a modern day development of Maxim. It comes in a variety of flavours so the chances are you will find a flavour that goes down easily when you’re feeling a bit queasy. On a couple of long bike rides this spring I carried High 5, backed up with cafe stops where I consumed tasty grub like black pudding and and fried eggs. As a backup I carried some cheese butties which went down extremely well after a 100 mile flog on the mountain bike. Good luck with your adventures in the hills and remember: ‘Eat Food, Drink Beer’