Sometimes we get it, sometimes we don’t. But we always want it and more of it. It’s that feel-good brain chemical called endorphins, referred to as a “runner’s high” – the feeling of euphoria associated with long-duration, rhythmic exercise where you are working your body to its maximum potential. But runners are not the only ones who experience it. This feeling of accomplishment, drive, or passion surrounds all of us who live for the outdoors. Whether it’s tackling rough water on a paddling route, summiting the peak of an epic mountain, running along wet rocks at the edge of a riverbed, or climbing several miles on a mountain bike, exercising in the outdoors only seems to enhance that happy brain reaction we all desire.
Endorphins are a superb motivator and are very healthy when kept under control. They play a crucial role in overall health and performance, so it’s importance to be knowledgeable about what the body needs to nurture its recovery with nutrition. With that being said, nutrition before, during, and after prolonged activities requires the proper mix of timing, fluids, and nourishment, with the most important component coming during the recovery phase.
When you nourish your body with plant-based foods and proper fluids, you will have a much easier and more enjoyable journey. You will be able to perform for longer, and thus reach that happy point when the endorphins start flowing.
The Fueling Phases: Before, During, and After
1. Before You Hit the Trail:
The most important factor is digestibility and food requires energy to digest. Since energy is vital, you want to have control with how you spend it. Many foods take large amounts of energy to digest, so choose foods that are high in net gain. Net gain refers to the useable nutrition the body is left with once the food is digested and assimilated. If food hasn't been digested completely, you can cramp easily. Proper plant-based nutrition will provide you with a solid eating plan loaded with foods that are high in net gain.
Consume food providing a combination of complex carbs, fats, and proteins. A great choice includes oatmeal with hemp protein, flaxseed oil, fresh berries and sliced bananas. Be sure to also hydrate with 16-32 oz. of water.
TIPS: For carbohydrates, the best fuel comes from non-starchy, real, whole foods (seeds, raw nuts, fresh fruit, nutrient dense smoothies). Common carbs (refined sugars/high fructose corn syrup, wheat flour) can lead to inflammation or fatigue and other food sensitivities.
2. During Your Day of Adventure:
Never allow yourself to become hungry or thirsty. If you can tackle this, you will be a true, outdoor rock star (ORS). Nutrition during prolonged activity requires the proper mix and timing. For example, too little fluid or the wrong carbohydrates can result in cramping and other intestinal problems you would rather not have when you are at a high elevation with breathtaking views.
Fuel your body with clean, plant-based foods that are easy to digest. Be sure to include fats, proteins, and carbohydrate-rich choices. Protein will complement the carbohydrate, allowing it to enter the bloodstream at a steady rate, thus delaying the onset of hunger and sustaining energy levels. Much of the real energy comes from carbs and fat. Fat is the longer-lasting energy source and is needed most during endurance activities. Fat also supports brain health, helps maintain body warmth, keeps the joints lubricated, aids in recovery and minimizes the inflammatory processes.
Some great choices include bananas, whole-grain/brown rice tortillas with natural nut butter, hemp seeds, homemade granola, raw nuts and limited-ingredient energy bars like Kit’s Organic, Pro Bar, Larabar, and Nii Bars. Excellent superfood brands that are packaged for convenience include: Natera from Naturally Splendid, Vega, Nativas Natural, and Hemp Hearts from Manitoba Harvest.
Also, hydrate often and keep electrolytes balanced. Sweat consists of water and electrolytes (salts). Simply replenishing water without also replenishing electrolytes can create imbalances and even lead to water intoxication. Milder symptoms include cramping and muscle twitches and even blacking out. Be mindful on what you drink though, as many sports drinks are unfortunately just flavored sugar water containing artificial ingredients and colors loaded with refined sugar. Coconut water is an excellent, natural choice and can even be used as a base to make your own homemade concoctions. Some additional easy-to-pack electrolytes include bananas, sea salt, and individually packed replenishers, such as Vega Sport Electrolyte Hydrator, Nuun tablets, and Ultima Replenisher.
3. After — The Recovery Phase:
Within 20 minutes of completing your long-duration adventure, the body needs simple carbs to enter the bloodstream. This means your snack choice should contain minimal fat and protein and no fiber, since these slow the rate at which carbs enter the bloodstream. A 4:1 ratio of carbs to protein is most effective, as it will speed up glycogen replenishment (rate at which muscles absorb carb). Great choices include a recovery drink, or other near-liquid-consistency foods. These are much easier to digest, therefore requiring less energy. Ground flaxseed and hemp protein are excellent choices. You can equally use a small amount of hemp oil too as it will help repair soft-tissue damage.
About 1 hour past, a nutrient-rich meal is best. If possible, opt for choices that include plant-based, easily digestible protein and healthy Omega-3s, such as hemp and flaxseed. An example would be a high protein salad with lots of fibrous veggies, high protein seeds, pseudograins and legumes like quinoa, peas, lentils, and pumpkin seeds. A healthy dressing to use is hemp/flax oil, sea salt, ground pepper and garlic.
A Note on Hemp and Flaxseed: Hemp is a complete protein, containing all 10 essential amino acids with superior digestibility (highest percentage of all plant sources.) It also improves mental function, muscle control and normal body maintenance of cells, muscles, tissue and organs. In addition, hemp has a low glycemic index. Flaxseed has the highest level of Omega-3 in the plant kingdom. Aside from its ability to reduce inflammation, Omega-3 allows the body to burn fat as fuel more efficiently. Flaxseeds are also high in potassium, a vital electrolyte.