The next time you find yourself slouched in a chair in the lodge, wondering what you're doing wrong while your pals head to the steeps, perhaps you should question your diet instead of your form. "What you eat can make the difference between a good, hard day of skiing and one where you're ready to jump into the Jacuzzi at noon," says Debra Wein, M.S., R.D. and co-founder of The Sensible Nutrition Connection, a Boston-based consulting firm. "If you try to exercise after your muscle fuel is depleted, you won't have much success or endurance."
It's true that the better shape you're in, the more efficiently your body will use its energy stores and the longer you'll be able to ski without tiring. But even well-trained athletes need a steady supply of high-quality fuel, especially in the mountains.
"You need about 300 extra calories a day at altitude 8,000 feet and up," says Monique Ryan, R.D., owner of Personal Nutrition Designs in Chicago. (That's 300 more calories than you normally consume to maintain your weight.) Tack that onto the 2,500 to 2,900 calories you burn in a day of downhill skiing, and you start to see what you're up against. The bottom line: When you ski, you're probably not eating as much as you should.
And you're probably not eating when you should. Focusing on what you eat once you get to the hill isn't enough. To properly replenish your energy stores and help carry you through a long ski day, you should eat particularly well the night before and the morning of skiing.
That means you need to plan. And it's easier than you think. By keeping things balanced-the body needs carbs, protein and fat to run properly-and by limiting your high-fat trips to McDonald's and the vending machine, you'll have better days on the hill. Here, a guide to pre-, mid-, and après-ski eating.
The Night Before Your goal tonight is to maximize the amount of glycogen, or fuel, in your muscles. Wein recommends high-complex carbohydrate foods, such as brown rice, whole-wheat pasta and cous-cous, along with fruit and vegetables. Treat yourself to a generous serving of pasta (about three cups), a slice or two of bread and a cup of vegetables. Throw in 3 or 4 ounces of chicken or a half-cup of beans for protein, and you should be set for the next day. Don't worry about consuming fat; it hangs around with protein, and you can get all you need (no more than 30 percent of your total calories) without thinking about adding it. (You don't need extra fat for skiing if you're already eating a balanced diet.) Drink lots of water, especially if cocktail hour is as essential to your ski vacation as snow. Alcohol is a diuretic, which takes all the water you've put in and sends it right back out again, along with valuable electrolytes. Offset the negative effects of alcohol by drinking extra water (one to two glasses per alcoholic drink).
Breakfast If you're getting up before the sun to head to the slopes, try to eat a little something-high-fiber cereal would be ideal, but wheat toast with jam will do-to get your blood sugar levels up. (This will also help you fend off that mid-day Dunkin' Donuts craving.) "An hour before you plan to start skiing, you should eat 50 to 75 grams of carbohydrates 200 to 300 calories," says Wein. That could be a bagel with jam, a low-fat granola bar or a sports bar with diluted juice. (A full-strength fruit juice has more sugar than your digestive system can quickly handle, which can cause stomach cramps.) Limit your fat intake, since it can slow digestion. And drink plenty of water, especially if you're a coffee drinker (caffeine is another diuretic). Although you may not feel thirsty, you get dehydrated quickly at altitude.
Mid-morning It only takes a few hours for your body to use up its glycogen stores. If you've been pounding the bumps all morning, you're probably running on fumes. It's time for a snack. "You want to provide your body with a regular source of carbs," Wein explaiins, "so it doesn't have to go into its reserves, which we don't have much of." Swig a sports drink or diluted fruit juice. Fill your pockets with dried fruit, trail mix, or sports bars and liquid energy gels. Do the same two to three hours after lunch. Keep drinking water.
Lunch You've been skiing all morning, burning off hundreds of calories, so what's wrong with a cheeseburger, fries and a candy bar? By loading up on fat and protein instead of carbs, you're setting yourself up for a sluggish afternoon. (It takes longer for the body to access energy that comes from fatty foods, so fat will slow you down.) "The best time to refuel your muscles is within 15 minutes after you stop skiing," says Wein. Within 15 minutes of exercise, your body is hungriest for the glycogen it needs. If you wait, your muscles won't bounce back as quickly. Make it count with a baked potato, yogurt, a salad and lots of water. A turkey sandwich will work, but hold the cheese and mayo. If you feel like you deserve a treat, allow yourself a candy bar after you've eaten everything else.
Dinner Again, maximize those first 15 minutes after you finish your last run and have some juice, low-salt pretzels or trail mix. Add a little protein (a container of low-fat yogurt); studies show it can help your muscles absorb carbohydrates more quickly. Within two hours, eat another serving of carbohydrates with about 3 ounces of protein.
"When you're using up your glycogen stores, which take 20 hours to replenish, the most important meal will be dinner," says Wein, "especially if you're going to ski four or five days in a row."
If you're planning on a winter filled with skiing and work, give yourself an easy edge with a balanced diet that includes 60 to 65 percent carbohydrates, 15 to 20 percent protein and 20 to 25 percent fat. You'll have a constant supply of energy to work with, and your friends won't be leaving you behind.
In the past 25 years, the number of injuries per skier day has declined by about half.
Take A Pill
A recent study found that 65 percent of travelers to Colorado's mountains develop altitude sickness within 12 hours of arrival. Mountain Lift thinks it can help. The company's new Altitude Adjustment pills-vitamin C, Siberian ginseng and ginger root, among other ingredients-supposedly improve circulation and minimize lactic acid build-up and fatigue. "The formula is reasonable," says Shari Lieberman, Ph.D. in clinical nutrition/exercise physiology. "For example, ginger root acts against motion sickness and nausea and Siberian ginseng buffers the body's response to stress." But Lieberman adds that she's not sure dosages are high enough to work.
Coffee to Go: The Caffeine Boost
If you're skiing a 50K cross-country race, caffeine can improve your performance. (It releases stored fats, which can then be used for energy.) "Three to six grams per kilogram of body weight will provide a performance-enhancing benefit for...endurance exercises," says Ellen Coleman, a registered dietitian and exercise physiologist at The Sport Clinic in Riverside, Calif. "For a 154-pound person, that's anywhere from 210 to 420 milligrams or two to four cups of coffee." For recreational alpine skiers, whose activity is high-intensity and short-duration, the situation gets complicated. "If you need coffee to wake up in the morning, a cup certainly won't hurt you," says Ed Burke, Ph.D. in exercise physiology. (And to the degree that it wakes you up, it could improve performance.) But drink down three or four cups, and the diuretic effects of caffeine combined with the altitude may put you on the road to dehydration.