extreme sport nutrition expert
Tara Dellolacono Thies, CLIF Bar's nutritional strategist, explains the power of protein at Crankworx 2016. (Carmen Freeman-Rey)

How to Feed Your Adventure—Literally

Worried about bonking on the field? Here's what to eat for breakfast, snack and dinner, care of CLIF Bar's nutritional strategist. 

By Lena Desmond

There’s something about Tara DelloIacono Thies, registered dietician and CLIF Bar’s nutritional strategist, that instantly energizes you.

Maybe it’s the way she sets the blazing pace during a run, or how she charges on her bike. Or perhaps, more likely, it’s a combination of the way she describes the effects of nutrition on the body and how just hearing about her hodgepodge breakfast fires up your taste buds—whole grain oatmeal with a touch of Greek yogurt blended with peanut butter. Just by speaking, she can make you instantly hungry.

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After one day of mountain biking a few weeks prior to meeting Tara, it’s safe to say I bonked, hit the wall, almost literally and almost face first. I was flummoxed. I had a mere pint the night before, coupled with copious amounts of water. I had eight hours of sleep. I ate three square meals the day before. Maybe, I thought, it was because I missed a run earlier in the week and my cardio was off. Maybe I was just having a bad day. Maybe it was my bike. But then the voice of a mountain guide I’d met a few months earlier nagged in my head: “If you’re tired, you’re probably hungry.”

While I’m both a traveller and aspiring athlete, my focus on nutrition has been subpar. I’ve always looked at what’s available (not much by way of bars in the foothills of Nepal) and, when training, have chosen to push myself when I was feeling tired, rather than considering the question, “Could I just be hungry?”

It’s only recently that I’ve truly started investigating and experimenting with the effect of fuel on my body. Obviously, my mountain-biking energy pacing was way off. When you pace your intake of food properly during day of adventuring, you feel the difference: you’re more focused for longer durations and your muscles don’t fatigue as easy. But what is the perfect concoction?

I was lucky to later meet Tara at CLIF bar’s Crankworx basecamp. Her job? To feed adventures, delivering the right type of energy to athletes and busy bodies in the most efficient and delicious way possible.

clif bar nutritional ingredients
Eat well: CLIF Bar ingredients on display at Crankworx 2016. (Carmen Freeman-Rey)

OP: Let me start by asking a burning question: Is it true that if you’re tired, you’re probably hungry?

TDT: Well, your brain is a muscle and it needs to stay focused. It needs energy to do that. You use energy to make decisions: where you’re hiking, where you're placing your feet, which then becomes a safety issue if you’re not able to focus. Same with mountain biking. You’re making quick decisions that can result in injury if you choose wrong. Food, specifically nutritious food, becomes energy. At some point, of course, fatigue does occur, but minding your nutrition can ward it off a lot longer. What I like to say is, if you don’t have your nutrition dialled, it becomes your limiting factor at some point. The first step is making sure you have something to eat along the way. And the second step is making sure you’re timing nutrition properly so you don't have to slow down and so you can accomplish what you set out to do that day.

OP: Okay, so we’re about to head out into a big day in the big mountains. Let’s begin with breakfast. What do you eat? A big greasy bacon, eggs and toast breakfast sounds good.

TDT: The question here really is, what are you going to eat after your eight-hour fast to fill the tank? You want to get your body charged and ready to go out there into the mountains and burn energy, burn calories.

I call this “first breakfast.” You want this meal to be full of sustained energy. That would look like a hearty oatmeal. It’s high in fibre and has complex carbohydrates that digest more slowly than sugar alone. This kind of breakfast would be perfect for both a day of strenuous mountain biking or any active day exploring in the mountains. This gives you a solid foundation of energy to work from.

"When your carbohydrate stores are empty, that’s when you hit the wall; you bonk. In my experience, on a bike, it sneaks up on you a little bit more."

Now I’m thinking, after first breakfast, you might have to bike or drive in your car to get to the mountains. In this time, you’re pulling your gear together, which is great because you’ll have some digestion time. But then you will want to follow that up with a snack energy in the next two to three hours. Snack energy is just taking what I suggested for breakfast and shrinking it. A handful of trail mix, a CLIF organic trail-mix bar, the nut butter–filled bar [coming soon to Canada]. Your goal is to fill the energy gap.

OP: Are you going to be eating a sandwich or some sort of pasta during the day, then, in addition to the bar-based energy?

TDT: Well, then the question becomes, are you bringing a big lunch with you on a strenuous mountain bike ride? Probably not. I’m comparing it to a strenuous run where I’m not going to be wanting to eat a full on meal in the middle of my ride for digestion reasons.

When we start talking about the middle about the day, the two activities diverge. If you’re on a hike, you probably have more capacity to bring a solid lunch and a piece of fruit or vegetables with you. That would be perfect. Your body is going at a pace that would be able to digest and handle that.

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On the mountain bike, however, when you're doing a long ride, you probably wouldn't want to carry or eat a full on lunch. This would be the point where you’d want to cover yourself with a little bit more energy from a more substantial nut butter filled bar where the fat and protein from the nut butter will satisfy you. Then you’ll want to make sure you’re following that up with quick energy like a CLIF BLOK or a gel. They’re super-great when you're out on the bike to ensure you’re continually delivering energy to those muscles over the course of your ride. When you’re out there doing something strenuous, competitive and technical, you’ll want to consume around 30 to 60 grams of carbohydrates an hour. In CLIF terms, that equates to around half a pack of BLOKS and one gel an hour or one pack of BLOKS or two gels an hour—somewhere in that range. Everyone will have their own sweet spot on how much to eat, but I would start low with the 30 grams an hour and work your way up.

OP: Once an hour? But what if you’re not hungry at all?

TDT: When you’re running, it’s super easy to tell when you’re low on the quick energy. When your carbohydrate stores are empty, that’s when you hit the wall; you bonk. In my experience, on a bike, it sneaks up on you a little bit more. You don't notice it almost until it’s too late. It’s better to schedule your nutrition out and make sure you have enough to fill your stores ahead of time.

OP: Let’s say you’ve made it through your day. You’re at the bottom of the mountain. You’re zonked, but exhilarated and adrenaline fuelled. How soon after should you get a full meal in you?

TDT: When you’re done with your ride, you want to get in some recovery food right away. In the event you can’t get to that meal within the hour, that’s when you need another bridge food that gets the recovery process started so you're feeling ready to go the next day for training or another activity. CLIF Builders Bar or half a CLIF bar and see how it feels. Chocolate milk is also great because it’s loaded with carbohydrates and protein. Otherwise, if you’re about to get to your kitchen, you’ll want a nutrient-dense meal and packed with real food like your breakfast. That can be anything from a vegetable tofu stir fry or even a grass-fed, fresh burger or veggie burger. You’re getting protein and carbohydrates to replenish anything that you’ve used up. Whole, real food meals are what you’re going for.

OP: You recommend burgers? I’m more than okay with that.

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