Fueling the Fire
By Steve Isaac (aka Chief)
Energy and hydration go hand in hand during long term athletic events like a
WaterTribe Challenge or Crucible. You need to keep your fuel and fluid
levels in balance or you cannot produce enough energy to keep moving.
Triathletes call it "bonking" or "hitting the wall." It's actually easy
to keep everything in balance if you know a few facts and keep some simple
rules in mind.
|If you are going to start exercising, be sure to get an OK from
your doctor. You can also get a stress test that will tell you your
actual maximum heart rate.
Your body needs the correct amounts of fat, carbohydrates, protein,
electrolytes, and water to keep functioning at an optimum level. Most of
us have more than enough fat to keep us going for days or weeks at a
time. But fat burns in a carbohydrate fire. If you don't
have enough carbs stored or replenished, you will not be able to process your
fat and you will bonk. If you don't have enough water, you will dehydrate
and bonk. If you don't restore depleted electrolytes your nerves and
muscles will cease to function, your brain will swell, your lungs will fill
with fluid, and you will bonk or die.
Fortunately, it is relatively easy to keep your systems in
balance. It all starts with your heart.
Your body is like an analog computer that indicates how all your
systems are doing at any given time by your heart rate. If you are
reasonably fit and your systems are in balance, your heart rate will tell you
how many calories you are burning and in what proportion of fat to carbs.
However, the indicator isn't perfect. It can be thrown off by
dehydration, illness, psychological state, and numerous other factors.
But most of the time we can use your heart rate to determine your fuel needs.
Your Heart Rate
Heart Rate Monitors
Purchasing a heart rate monitor is a very good idea. It will make your
training sessions more efficient. I like the Polar 610, if you can get
it, but there are less expensive models that work very well. Also, the
Suunto Advizor watch has a heart monitor, a compass, an altimeter, and a
barometer which is nice during expeditions.
So how fast does your heart beat. Right now take your pulse
and see what your nominal resting heart rate is. Count the number of
beats in 15 seconds and then multiply by four. This is an indicator of
overall fitness. As you continue your training you should see your
resting heart rate come down. Something in the low 60's is good,
Many very fit people have resting heart rates around 40 beats per minute.
Now let's figure your maximum heart rate. Subtract your age
from 220. For most people this is a good approximation of your nominal
maximum heart rate. There are more accurate ways to measure it but for
now these two numbers will do nicely.
Insert your age into this box and click
the button to run the numbers and customize the following table for
you. It is preset to my age but you are probably older :)
At the age of
72 your maximum
heart rate is estimated to be:
% of Max
Fat contains 9 calories per gram. One pound of fat
contains 454.54 grams or 4091 calories. That is enough to fuel over
16 hours in Zone 3 for each pound of fat on your body.
Carbohydrates and protein contain 4 calories per gram.
Note that the number of calories burned in each zone does depend on
your body weight or what activities you are performing. But for our
purposes these numbers are close enough no matter your weight. Your heart
rate is the only piece of data that you need to determine how many calories of
each type that you are consuming. Your weight and physical conditioning
also impacts what zone you will be in for any given activity. If two
people jog three miles at 10 minutes per mile, a 150 pound man in good
condition might be in Zone 1 or 2. Another man weighing 250 pounds just
getting off the couch might be in Zone 5. The calorie counts above would
apply to the physically fit man. They would not apply to the couch
potato. His heart rate is high due to physical exertion AND poor
health. However, a physically fit man weighing 250 pounds might be in
Zone 3. The table above works if you are reasonably fit and in good
Most of us have plenty of fat so we don't need to worry about
getting enough. A very fit man weighing 160 pounds and having 6% body fat
is carrying 9.6 pounds of fat. Enough to go about 10 days at 16 hours per
But carbohydrates are the key. Above zone 2 our bodies can
store only about two to three hours worth and we are out of gas. You have
to replenish carbs constantly to achieve high performance levels over sustained
The two zones of primary interest to paddlers in the WaterTribe
Expedition Races are Zone 1 and Zone 2. Since Crucible races are over in
one day, Zone 3 and Zone 4 can be sustained. Zone 5 is reserved for
battle: crossing Boca Grande Pass, fighting a tide race, storm
conditions. Take a good look at the table above and notice how
easy it is to keep your carbs replenished in zones 1 and 2. But notice
the exponential increase in carb requirements for zones 3, 4, and 5. It
gets increasingly difficult the longer you stay in these zones. If you
are in zones 4 and 5, you might be able to cram enough food into your stomach,
but there wouldn't be enough blood available to digest it. Also, how will
your keep your boat moving forward while trying to feed your furnace at such
high rates. And if that isn't enough, there are two limits which your
Limit 1: Your body's systems can only metabolize about
350 calories per hour.
Limit 2: Your body's systems can only absorb about 1
liter of water per hour.
Zone 1 -- An Afternoon Paddle
Most reasonably fit kayakers are going to be in Zone 1 most of the
time. Typical trips are leisurely with lots of time spent on a
beach. WaterTribe Challengers can find themselves in this zone when the
wind and tide make paddling easier. Always take advantage of this zone to
eat solid food because your blood supply is not needed for your muscles and can
be diverted to your stomach. This is a recovery zone. Training in this
zone is beneficial and puts very little stress on your joints and your body's
systems. If you "need to get in shape," start in Zone 1 with walking or
Zone 2 -- Burning Fat
Notice that Zone 2 burns more fat per hour than any other
zone. If you are trying to lose weight and get in shape, you want to
spend a lot of time in Zone 2. Your body is training itself to convert
fat to energy. Training in this zone will increase the number of
mitochondria in each cell. Efficiency in all zones will benefit. If
you don't replace the fat you are burning by snacking, you will lose
weight. For ultra endurance sports lasting several days, you want to get
your body fat to about 12% but not much less than that.
Notice that you will need about 63 calories per hour of
carbohydrates and another 20 calories per hour of protein. That
translates to about 1/2 of a 20 oz. bottle of Gatorade per hour along with a
"chew" of low fat jerky.
During an expedition race like the Everglades or Okefenokee or Lake
Michigan most of your paddling time should be in Zone 2. You can keep
this up all day long.
I find that training in Zone 2 is difficult. Running always
gets me into Zone 3 after a couple of miles. The only forms of training
that keeps me in Zone 2 is bicycling, swimming, and paddling.
Zone 3 -- Cardiovascular Fitness
This is the aerobic training zone. You get the most training
benefit for cardiovascular fitness in Zone 3. You still burn lots of fat
but carbohydrates are your main source of energy in Zone 3.
You will need about 330 calories per hour of carbs, but only 30
calories per hour of protein. That's about one 20 oz. bottle of Gatorade
every 20 minutes along with our chew of jerky each hour. Now that's a lot
of Gatorade. Instead, you might want to start using PowerGel or Gu or
some other carb source to supplement your sports drink.
Zone 3 is sustainable for days if you can keep up with your bodies
demands for carbs, protein, electrolytes, and water. This takes planning
and practice. It isn't easy to keep up with this type of demand hour
after hour and day after day. World class adventure racers and ultra
runners and cyclists do it all the time.
Zone 4 -- Threshold of Super Fitness
Calories burned from fat goes way down but training in this zone is
essential for truly outstanding physical fitness. You will transition
from aerobic training to anaerobic training. Your muscles will not be
able to get enough oxygen. You can continue but you will feel the "burn"
from the build up of lactic acid. Endorphins will be produced that give
you the "runner's high" and your body will begin to get really efficient.
Even if you are very physically fit, you may find it difficult to
stay in Zone 4 longer than about one hour. I like to train in Zone 4 two
days per week for one hour each day.
Zone 5 -- Battle
One of the best reasons to wear a heart rate monitor during your
race is to help you stay out of this zone. Typically it is difficult to
even sip water from a CamelBak when you are in this zone because your oxygen
demands are so high you cannot afford to interrupt your breathing. Forget
opening a gel pack or a bottle of Gatorade. All your fuel has to come
from stored sources in the body. This zone cannot be sustained for longer
than a few minutes. If you stay in this zone until exhausted, you may not
recover for a long time which could force you to quit a Challenge.
Reserve this zone for those moments when everything is on the line. Perhaps a
sprint to the finish or getting through a tough section of water.
Fueling the Zone
The following table provides some guidelines for sources of carbs
and protein that will fuel one hour in each zone. Notice that in Zone 3
you can get your fuel with 3 PowerGels or 6 apples. Try eating six apples
in an hour and you will see why PowerGels are so important. The flip side
is that PowerGels taste pretty good at first, but I guarantee that the 15th
PowerGel of the day will go down hard. No matter what you decide to eat,
avoid fat as much as possible. Fat is harder to digest and will divert
too much blood to the stomach.
||4 oz Gatorade
8 oz. Gatorade
50 oz Gatorade
No time for
||1 oz jerky
||2 oz jerky
||3 oz jerky
||If you have that horrible "sloshing" in your stomach, you
drinking too fast. If you aren't urinating about every 2 hours or
so you aren't drinking enough.
to eat or
Notice the NAs in zones 4 and 5. When you are working at
these levels, you cannot afford to put protein in your stomach. There
won't be enough blood available to digest it. Instead it will make you
sick or cause cramps. Also, in zone 5 all your carbs must come from carbs
stored in the muscle. Stay out of zone 5 except for very short periods of
The table recommends that you consume about 1 liter of water per
hour in all zones. This may be more than you need in the lower zones and
not enough in the higher zones. But this is about the maximum your body
can process. By consuming more than you need in lower zones you will
be well hydrated if you suddenly need to boost your energy levels.
Notice how difficult it is to fuel the body starting in zone 3 and
getting almost impossible in zone 4 and totally impossible in zone 5. On
the other hand, zones 1 and 2 are easy to fuel. What does that tell you
over a 12 to 16 hour day? That's right -- stay in zone 2 as much as
The key is to be physically fit so that you can keep your boat
going at hull speed while your heart stays in zone 2 or zone 3. So buy a
heart rate monitor and wear it next time you go paddling.
Hydrate or Die
Hydration will be covered in more detail in another article.
For now a couple of simple rules and a warning will suffice.
Your body can only process about one liter of water per hour.
If your body needs more than that due to metabolism and sweat, you can begin to
dehydrate even if you are drinking a lot of water.
pink frothy sputum
In addition to water you must replace electrolytes or you can
get into a dangerous condition know as hyponatremia or "water intoxication" in
layman's terms. This is a build up of excess fluid in the brain and
lungs. The critical point for this condition is high intensity exercise
that lasts for roughly 4 hours or more combined with inadequate
electrolytes. This condition is often confused with dehydration because
many of the symptoms are similar. Treating the condition with plain water
only exacerbates the problem. Death is a very real possibility.
||Assumes you also use one
PowerGels per hour.
If duration is more than 3 hours also use high salt snacks such as
jerky, pretzels, chips. In extreme conditions supplement with electrolyte
pills (salt tablets).
An Eating Plan for the Day
This plan assumes you want to travel fast and light. You
don't want to wash dishes and you want to crash as soon as possible because you
are already sleep deprived. This is the adventure racer's plan for an 8
to 12 day event.
Perk up some real coffee. Drink half the pot and put the rest
in a good thermos bottle. When you are done, rinse the coffee pot out
real good. Washing isn't necessary.
Eat a high carb and moderate protein breakfast bar. Some fat
is OK but try to keep it down. I like HarvestBars and ProteinPlus, both
from PowerBar. A HarvestBar and a ProteinPlus bar while breaking
camp and drinking coffee is about right for me. Choose something you like
and works for you. Even Pop Tarts work.
During the Day:
Consume high carb snacks with limited protein throughout the
day. Carb to protein ratio should not exceed 4 to 1. Keep the fat
content down as much as possible. Check the table toward the top of the article
for the amount of calories to consume.
Stay in zone 2 as much as possible. Zone 3 might be necessary
when crossing a pass or fighting a current. Zones 4 and 5 should be
avoided if possible. However, have PowerGels handy just in case.
Use a combination of PowerGels, apples, oranges, bananas, chips
(low fat), pretzels, and limited jerky (low fat) for snacking during the
day. Unless you can stay in zones 1 and 2, forget traditional gorp,
nuts, chocolate due to too much fat.
Know your heart rate zone and pay attention to the tables on carbs
and protein requirements. Remember zone 2 is your preferred zone for long
days in succession.
Note the hydration table and make sure your hydration needs
according to your zone are met.
Your evening meal might come at 03:00 but you must still view it as
a dinner and it is the most important meal of the day. Your body had been
pushed to the limit and this meal will help it repair itself and get ready for
the next day. You will be somewhat dehydrated at the end of the
day even if you stayed on your fluid replacement program. This is the
time to fully hydrate your body so you are ready for the next day.
As soon as your kayak is anchored safely mix up a 16 oz. drink of
EnduroxR4. This is a recovery drink that will go a long way toward
keeping your body well fueled and ready for the next day.
Keep drinking water as you setup camp until your urine is clear.
Boil enough water for a freeze dried meal and any other use.
Perhaps an herb tea to help you sleep.
A freeze dried meal that serves 2 to 4 people is about right for
one long distance racer. Get the kind that has its own mixing bag so
there is no cleanup.
Have as much desert and fat as you want. Watch out for
chocolate or other foods that might keep you from sleeping soundly.
Take a pee bottle into your hammock or tent.
A Racing Example
While writing this article I put these principles to work in a
one-day adventure race here in Florida. Preparation started the night
before the race with a large carbo loaded dinner and plenty of water. At
05:00 I had coffee and Pop Tarts (hey, I was in a hotel room). At 06:00 I
had a banana which was my last solid food before the race. I drank orange
juice, a 16 oz. bottle of water and a 20 oz. bottle of Gatorade over the next
two hours leading up to the start at 08:00. I urinated about 3 times
during this period the last about 5 minutes before the race. Just before
the race started I took my first PowerGel with a few gulps from my hydration
pack. I was very well hydrated and fueled at the start.
I completed the race in 6 hours while wearing a heart rate
monitor. I spent about 1 hour in zone 2, 3 hours in zone 3, 1 hour in
zone 4 and 1 hour in zone 5. Of course these zones were mixed up so my
hour in zone 5 was not all at once. During the race I consumed 80 ounces
of Gatorade, 6 PowerGels, and 2.5 liters of water. I urinated a small
amount 2 times.
During July in Florida's summer heat and humidity you are always
going to sweat faster than you can replace fluids. So at the end of the
race I was a bit dehydrated, but I felt pretty good.
Contrast my fueling needs with the winners and you will see why it
is important to get in shape at a much lower weight. The winners did the
race in roughly 3 hours and 20 minutes. Their heart rates were lower than
mine so they didn't need as much fuel. Instead of carrying all that extra
water, they did the first section with one or two bottles of Gatorade.
When they switched to the bike, they probably had another full bottle.
Add a couple of PowerGels and they can do the whole race. Since their
load is less they need less fuel and they are on a winning spiral.
The moral of the story is to get in the best shape possible.
But that is another article.
Leave No Trace
PowerGels and their competitors are great products but they have
one big problem. The convenient single serving packets have a tear off
top. During triathlons and adventure races you see the tops and empty
packets dropped along the trail. I hope the WaterTribe will be more
careful and carry out all empty packets and tear-off tops.
I carry a small Ziplock bag to put empty packets into so they won't
make everything else sticky. When you reach civilization, dump your
garbage in an approved dumpster. If you are in a one-day event like the
Crucible and you know that your calorie demands are going to be very
high, you can use multiple serving PowerGel packets that reduce the problem
because they don't have a tear off top. You can also load gels into
non-disposable flasks designed for the purpose. I don't recommend these
flasks for multi day events due to sanitation issues. However, they work
well for one-day events because you can put the flasks into the dishwasher
after the race.
The heart rate information contained in this article is adapted
from The Heart Rate Monitor Book by Sally Edwards and Sally Reed and published
by Velo Press. Other sources too numerous to mention have been digested
over the years.
Note that I am not a doctor or a nutritionist or any other
recognized expert in the field. The opinions expressed here represent my
study of the issues over the years. However, they are supported by my own
Gatorade -- I
used Gatorade as an example in this article because their products are
ubiquitous, they are available in liquid or powder form, and they work.
There are other sports drinks on the market so choose one you like. Do
not confuse sports drinks with so called energy drinks like Red Bull.
Stay away from them.
Again these products are ubiquitous and they work. Many other sports bars
and gels are on the market so experiment and find one you like.
Excellerade -- It has been shown that a ratio of 4 to 1 (carb to
protein) has certain beneficial effects beyond the scope of this article.
I use EnduroxR4 everyday after strenuous exercise. It works for me.
I haven't used Excellerade yet due to the lack of retail outlets but I hope to
try it soon. EnduroxR4 is available from GNC.
CamelBak -- A
great source for hydration systems. Their bladders are top notch.
Their packs are good and relatively cheap.
© 2001 Steve Isaac