If you’re tacking the National Three Peaks, The Yorkshire Three Peaks or any other Three Peaks Challenge you are going to want to get your nutrition right to maximise your chance of success.
The fuel demands of your body
Let’s go back to basics. Food is made of three macronutrients. Carbohydrates (sugars and starches), fats, and protein. All three of these are used by the body as an energy source. It’s the intensity of the activity that determines the percentage of each that is used at any particular moment.
- Carbohydrates are easily broken down and turned into glucose for immediate use. Glucose can also be can be sent to the muscles and liver and be stored as glycogen. Throughout the day your body is constantly using and replenishing its glucose and glycogen reserves.
- Fats are stored in the fat cells and released into the blood as fatty acids during exercise.
- Protein can also be broken down by the body and used for energy. The body is always using a small amount of protein as energy, but your body will break muscles down for energy to protect vital functions if glucose levels are depleted.
In reality, it’s a bit more complicated than that, but for simplicity, let’s stick with this.
Fat is your bodies preferred energy source when you are at rest and doing activity up to the fat burn zone. That is up to a heart rate of about 70% or your maximum heart rate, or MHR.
MHR (Maximum Heart Rate) is normally calculated to be 220 minus your age. So for a 35-year-old it would be 220-35=185.
70% of this would be 185×0.70= about 130 beats per minute.
Above this level of intensity, it is more efficient for the body to use glycogen as the primary energy source. This is because to use fat, your body has to first release the fatty acid molecules from your fat cells before the energy can be released. Whereas glycogen is in the blood ready to be used by your muscles for short but high-intensity activity.
Glycogen is readily available for the body to use as it’s stored in the liver and muscles. Unfortunately, we can only store a limited amount of calories as glucose in our body at any one time, around a maximum of 2,000 calories.
Because glycogen is a finite supply the body will try and preserve the amount of glucose in our blood by not using it as a primary energy source during low-intensity activity. It would rather save it for when it’s really needed such as hunting down prey or avoiding predators.
In other words, to protect the reserves of glycogen, the body will burn fat when it has enough time and resources to convert fat into energy.
Fat on the other hand contains about 7,700 calories per kilo, so our energy stores in fat are much greater than the 2,000 calories available to us in glycogen.
Protein is also important to consume as it helps muscles repair after exercise. When most people think of protein, they think of it as a substance to enable the body to build and repair tissue. It’s often overlooked that the body also uses protein as an energy source. It takes longer to process than carbohydrates so it’s a good long-term fuel.
As activity levels increase, glycogen, fat, and protein are always being used by the body in differing amounts. It’s never a case of one or the other, it is always a mix of all three, which is why it’s important to get a balance of all three when you are fueling for exercise.
Fats and complex carbohydrates
If you can hold a conversation, it’s probable that your body will be burning fat as its preferred energy source. If you start to get breathless to the point you cant hold a conversation then you are definitely going too fast. But you will also be dipping into your glycogen stores.
So it’s a good idea to keep your glycogen stores topped up by eating complex carbs. I’m talking sandwiches, flapjack, oatcakes, crackers, bread (loaf, naan, pitta, tortilla). Basically, anything you fancy that high in carbs but beware of simple carbs, such as sugars and energy gels. These can mess up your blood sugar and in my opinion, are not the right fuel for walking endurance events.
Fat will help your energy levels throughout the day as it is a slow-burning energy source similar to complex carbs. Fat also sits on the gut slowing digestion, which is good for sustained energy demands.
What is good food to take on a three peaks challenge?
Stick to what your body knows is my advice. Eat something you like to eat and will eat (there is no point in carrying food if you’re not going to eat it), and eat something that has a balance of carbs, fat and protein.
- The night before I have a carb-heavy meal (carb loading) to make sure my glycogen stores are full. I’ll also have porridge or similar in the morning as a glycogen top up and as a slow release energy source.
- I usually take a sandwich or a wrap with a topping of my choice.
- Peanut butter, cheese, or ham are my go-to sandwich fillers as they all have a mix of carbs, fat and protein. It’s what I normally have for lunch so my body is used to processing it and I like it. Obviously, this doesn’t suit all diets so take what you’d normally have for lunch. If you’re worried about being hungry take an extra sandwich or two
- I usually take crisps (fat, carbs, salt – which can also be important particularly on hot days when you can lose electrolytes through perspiration).
- Dried fruit, salted peanuts, and trail mix can also be welcome treats throughout the day.
- Then I take a chocolate bar or two. Twix, snickers, mars or what I have in the cupboard. Again, these are a mix of protein, fat and carbs.
Again, stick to what you and your body knows. You’re placing your body under an increased amount of stress so now is not the time to be radically changing your diet.
The problem with sugary snacks and energy gels on a three peaks challenge.
Energy gels and sugary snacks are great in some circumstances, walking is not one of them.
Energy gels are designed for use in high-intensity activities such as running a marathon or bike riding. This is where your heart rate is high and the duration is long enough to burn through the 2,000 calories of glycogen in your blood and muscles. At which point you will hit ‘the wall’, a marathon runners worse nightmare.
The purpose of energy gels is to be easy to digest and get the glycogen back into your muscles within 15 minutes of consumption. This means the athlete can avoid hitting ‘the wall’.
But walking isn’t running, the energy demands are vastly different and there is no way you will burn through all of your glycogen stores walking. As we mentioned above, your body will be burning more fat than glycogen during walking. Any glycogen you do burn will be topped up thought-out the day by snacks and eating lunch.
Energy gels can mess up your gut, your blood sugar and lead to hospitalisation
During marathons, I’ve often run past signs saying “don’t trust a fart after 20 miles”. As funny as this is, it’s also true. Not because of the running, because of the energy gels runners consume because they are afraid of ‘the wall’. To the body, gels are an unusual cocktail of food, often laced with caffeine for an extra go-go kick! And they do cause gut problems in a lot of people.
The glycogen boost can also mess up your blood sugar levels if the activity you are doing isn’t intense enough to burn through all that extra energy. Walking, (even walking uphill) isn’t sufficient, and because gels are simple carbs, your body can’t store them. Without other food to slow down digestion, gels and sugary snacks give you a sugar high and then a sugar crash forcing you to consume another gel or more sugar.
This cycle of feasting on sugar can and does lead to hospitalisation which is why we say energy gels are not suitable hill food. Leave the gels at home and save them for a run or a bike ride.
You could of course argue that by consuming normal food with a gel you are going to flatten the sugar high, but this makes consuming the gel redundant as it’s no longer giving you the instantaneous energy boost.
The problem with bananas, apples and oranges on a three peaks challenge.
Bananas and oranges are a real problem on the hills. It’s not consuming the fruit which causes the problems, but rather the discarded peels and skins left behind.
Banana skins, apple cores, and orange peels are litter. Plain and simple. Just because they take years to degrade doesn’t mean they are not litter. Human waste and tissues also degrade but I wouldn’t want to have my lunch sitting next to it.
Banans skins take 2-3 years to degrade where most people think they degrade in a few weeks or months. The decay process is also slowed in the upland environment as there are less microbes and insects around to decompose the discarded waste.
Discarded peels are also not great for the environment. The decay process acts as fertiliser meaning the soil chemistry will change. This allows species to grow that should not be present in the moorland and these new species will threaten the established species, forever changing the local ecosystem.
How many calories do I need for a three peaks challenge?
This is a difficult one to answer as the answer depends on your weight (including full kit, food and water), the terrain, and how fast you walk.
The folks at greatist.com give this table as an example of energy expenditure.
As you can see, energy demand increases as the pace increases and unfortunately the heavier we are the more fuel we burn.
So a 70kg person is likely to burn 200-300 calories per hour which over a 10 hour walking day equates to 2000-3000 calories
However, this does not mean you need to carry and consume 3000 calories. Some of the calories you burn walking will come from your breakfast that will be digested thought the day and fat stores which can be replenished later on.
Then again, if you weigh more, are carrying a heavy backpack or are going for a fast time you could easily burn through 5000 cal during the day, so taking 3000 calories in food would be entirely suitable.