Featured photo: Bob riding the world famous Slick Rock Bike Trail, Moab, Utah.

The heat from the rising sun activates the sweat glands on the back of my neck; drops of sweat snake down the center of my back. It is 6 am on a clear June morning. The deep blue sky outlines the desert rock. The air smells clean and fresh. The rising sun brings out the rich hues of yellow and red alternating with dark shadows. Windless… not a sound except for rotating hubs and tires humming on the slick rock. It is 80 degrees on its way to 100. My buddy Bob and I are sixty years old, five days into a seven day multi-sport adventure. Today we are riding the world-famous Slick Rock Bike Trail outside Moab, Utah.

Proper nutrition is key to productive training, successful competition and a safe adventure. Even more so as we age. The last several days were spent in Salt Lake City, Utah paragliding in the morning and rock climbing or mountain biking in the afternoon. In the evening, back to paragliding for a sunset glass-off flight. We’re in a heat wave with daily temps in the high 90s. Tomorrow we head to Gunnison, Colorado to meet up with my friend Paul and climb Independence Monument, a 400 foot vertical desert tower in the Colorado National Monument. Each day we are stressing our bodies both mentally and physically.

This edition of What I Learned Is about nutrition: Feeding Your Fire. I write about digestion basics, nutrition timing and tips for training and big events. Some of this information is basic, but important to review. You can get away with feeding yourself junk when you’re young. As you age, your nutrition becomes critical.

Digestion Basics

The digestive tract is comprised of the following organs:

  • Mouth: chews and mixes food with saliva.
  • Esophagus: passes food to the stomach
  • Stomach: adds acid, enzymes and fluid; mixes food to a liquid mass.
  • Small intestine: secretes enzymes digesting fat, carbohydrates, protein and absorbs nutrients into the blood
  • Large intestine: reabsorbs water and minerals; passes waste to the rectum

The digestive system has accessory organs that aid digestion.

  • Salivary glands: produce starch digesting enzyme.
  • Liver: manufactures bile to break down fat
  • Gallbladder: stores bile
  • Pancreas: manufactures enzymes to digest energy yielding nutrients and releases bicarbonate to neutralize stomach acid.

I takes four to six hours for food to pass through your stomach; five to six hours to completely empty the small intestine. It can take thirty to forty hours from eating to elimination.

The digestive system has its own immune system which depends on bacteria living in your digestive tract. These bacteria protect against invading organisms and work with the immune system to create vitamins and breakdown food.

Prebiotics and Probiotics are popular with athletes to maintain a healthy gut. Scientific studies have demonstrated positive health effects. I recommend fruits, vegetables and added fiber as a prebiotic. I have found taking a supplemental probiotic helpful in promoting digestion.

Photo: Me and Bob with happy guts, Moab, Utah.

Timing Caloric Intake

Timing your caloric intake for training or a big event is an art: too little and you bonk; too much and you suffer gastrointestinal distress. The more strenuous the workout and the greater the stress of competition, the more difficult it is for the digestive tract to process food.

If possible, you should eat two to four hours before training or a competition. If training early morning or you need something before a race, I recommend liquid or semisolid calories because they pass more quickly through the stomach. I’ve found protein shakes with added carbs work with least gastric stress for me.

I’m an intermittent faster: I stop eating at 8 pm and fast until noon the next day. This works for short less intense morning workouts, but not for hard training rides or racing. During a long duration or hard workout, you run down your supply of available carbs. Even if your body is burning mostly fat for fuel, it needs some carbohydrate supply to burn fat. In order for fats to be broken down completely and provide energy, carbohydrate breakdown has to happen simultaneously. If the available supply of carbs is restricted, you bonk. Not only will you find it difficult to finish your workout or event, but the effects of bonking stay with you into the next day.

Even you can’t eat before a workout, then make sure you have some liquid or gel carbs. I have found 30 grams of Clif Bloks per hour are easy to digest and enough to power my fat burning energy system.

For a long duration event or multi-day adventures, you need to pay close attention to your nutrition and hydration. Make sure you are eating a healthy mix of macro-nutrients: protein, carbs and fat. If your urine is anything color other than pale yellow, drink more fluids. You’re your vitamin and mineral supplements, especially Calcium Magnesium.   

Photo: Bob following a pitch on the Schoolroom, Little Cottonwood Canyon, Utah.

Nutrition for Training and Competition

The goal of your nutrition program should be to:

  1. Promote health
  2. Improve performance
  3. Manipulate body weight and composition

Proper nutrition does not make you faster or stronger. Rather, nutrition supports your body and provides the nutrients needed to improve your health, strength, power and endurance. Proper nutrition maintains a healthy immune system, body weight and body composition.

Your nutrition needs change over the course of the year. As your training program changes, so should your nutrition change. If my clients are building muscle, they need more protein in their diet. If they are looking to lose weight, they restrict their carb intake. If they are looking the get lean, they lower their carb intake at the same time focus their training on improving their fat burn. See my article Fat for Fuel

There are resources on the web to help you figure out the quantity and type of foods and drinks to consume before, during and after training. The art of nutrition comes in planning and implementation of a nutrition program that positively influences body weight and composition at the right time. The right program can achieve these goals and optimal performance. If you treat nutrition with the same care your physical training, you will achieve more health and performance benefits especially as you age.

Here a few suggestions for nutrition training for a big adventure or competition:

  1. Identify what foods sit best in the gut. As your training intensity increases, blood flow is restricted to the digestive tract.
  2. Simulate your event or competition do figure out what foods work best.
  3. Train to be an efficient fat burner
  4. Fine-tune your plan based on experience and feedback from different environments and durations. Pay attention to your hydration and electrolytes, especially in hot and humid conditions.

Remember, what you eat and drink today is what you use tomorrow. Stay ahead of your body’s needs. Subjecting your body to stress with inadequate nutrition or hydration incites rebellion. You could suffer from the insurrection for 24 to 48 hours.  

Photo: Independence Monument, Colorado National Monument.


The day after riding Slick Rock found us at the base of Independence Monument. It was 90 degrees in the shade. Fortunately most of the 400 feet of technical climbing is on the north side of the tower. We take turns leading, eating small amounts of carbs, and staying hydrated. The final day of our trip found us launching our paragliders off the summit of Monroe Peak, Utah. At an elevation of 11,227 feet, Monroe is the highest drive-up paragliding launch in the U.S. Bob launches first and I follow. Together we glide out over the Sevier Valley to the landing zone 6000 vertical feet below.

I live for adventure. As I get older, the objectives become easier and less dangerous; adventures get tamer. Training becomes more important. Feeding Your Fire is mission critical. If I can help you with your training, objectives or adventure please email me at steve.crookedthumb.com.

Thank you for reading!

Photo: Bob on glide over the Sevier Valley, Utah.

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