Nutrition for mountaineering and alpine sports

Physical training for mountaineering and alpinism is not well supported due to the fact that it is a physical activity strongly rooted in tradition. The same happens with nutrition on the mountain; still these days, it is not unusual to see mountaineers on summits around 2000-3000 metres, pulling out a knife to cut dry sausage and cheese slices, to down them with a good sip of red wine.

Nutrition in mountaineering and alpine sports Carbohydrates (sugar) should be the main source of high level nutrients.

Nevertheless, those of us who work and research in the field of sports nutrition know for a fact that these habits are inadequate. Using an as example the aforementioned case, alcohol is diuretic, thus it dehydrates instead of hydrating, and both cheese and cold meat are very tasty, but mostly due to the high fat content, whereas in high intensity or long duration activities, such as mountaineering, and even more so in alpinism, carbohydrates (sugar) should be the main source of high level nutrients.

Hydration is another performance limiting factor on mountain activities, therefore, carrying water with us is crucial, but carrying an isotonic drink is even better. Dehydration on the mountain is something we should be well aware of, giving hydration priority before any other nutrition form, as not only it affects the alpinist’s performance, but it is also a factor which can put his life at risk; when we dehydrate at high altitude, with temperatures below -20ºC, the body is much more prone to suffer frostbite, because when we are dehydrated, our body temperature begins to drop, and when temperatures are high our body temperature also rises. We’ve had to call out on different professional athletes more than once,
namely on Juanito Oiarzabal, an alpinist who has suffered the consequences of dehydration on the mountain.

Thus, as a general rule, in mountaineering, alpinism and high endurance sports, being well hydrated is the first rule for the athlete’s health, moreover, the best ergo-nutritional help are isotonic drinks.

Of course, snack bars, gels or mountaineering specific food are also essential; their intake to provide 25-45g carbohydrates per hour is important. We also have to destroy the myth surrounding the benefits of nuts on the mountain, as they do provide high amounts of calories -which might be adequate for alpinists, as during long duration stays at high altitude, they tend to lose large amounts of weight, including muscle and fat. Nevertheless, the large amount of fat provided by nuts, is not immediately used by our body, and consequently their energy value for that physical activity on itself is poor. Moreover, many nuts and dried fruits contain large amounts of healthy polyunsaturated fat, as well as omega 3 polyunsaturated fatty acids, but their benefits are more structural than bioenergetic, because monosaturated fat (olive oil, for instance) and saturated fat (animal fat, coconut or palm oil) are more useful energetically .

The main goal for mountaineers and alpinists has to be hydration, and supplying sugar, mineral salts (sodium) and water through isotonic drinks. Mountain specific isotonic drinks should be more hypertonic than regular sports drinks; ideally, they should contain 0,7-1g of Na/l, and around 6-9% of a mixture of different sugars (fructose, glucose or maltodextrine). An intake of 0,5 liters of an isotonic drink per hour is advisable, as these drinks will provide us 30-45g of sugar per hour (glucose, quick energy for our body) as well as supplying sodium, the mineral we lose the most through sweat during physical activity.

In alpinism, above 4000m, the appearance of Acute Mountain Sickness (AMS) is quite common,causing headache, insomnia, general fatigue and lack of appetite. The latter is a major handicap for mountain tourists hiking at great altitude, therefore, they should eat solid and tasty food.

On the mountain, specially when attacking the summit, we often find that our thermo flask is frozen; we can avoid this by carrying a boiled drink, like tea or salted broth as our first drink, then filling the camelback with a slightly salted isotonic drink, carrying it close to our body to help it from freezing.

To sum it all up, the following table shows the elements to be included in adequate hydration and nutrition habits on the mountain.

Nutrition in mountaineering a An intake of 0,5 liters of an isotonic drink per hour is advisable.

BEFORE Water: 0,5L.,

prior to departure to the mountain. Observations: Urine should be transparent.

Eat 200gr. of HC, 2-3 hours prior to departure. Meal of bread, pasta, rice, potatoes, fruit or dried fruit.

Caffeine. Vasodilators Omega 3, ON precursors: arginine/nitrate.

DURING Isotonic drink: Between 0,5-0,9L./hour. Composition: HC= 6-9% Na= 0,7-1,2g/l. Drink a 250-300ml shot every 20-30´. Eat 60-80gr. of HC/hour. Between: Isotonic drinks = 30-45gr. Bars-Gels = 30-45gr.

Protein Bars: include more fat. Gels: Suitable for intense sections. We can add caffeine. Dried fruit

AFTER Hypertonic Drink: 1-1,5gr. Na/L. Priority is recovering 150% of the lost weight in liquids. Eat 1-1,5gr. of HC/Kg body weight. HC mix a small amount of protein, preferably hidrolysed whey (fast absorption).

Liquids: Natural= Juice with milk.
Prepared= HC+ Protein Powder + AAR.
Semisolid= Mashed potatoes with milk.
Porridge with milk. Soup with noodles.


HC/P  drinks (3-4/1)

*Only in mountaineering, in situations when the body is in a state of malnutrition.

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Urdampilleta A y Martínez-Sanz JM. Riesgos médico-nutricionales y planificación dietética en el alpinismo. Motricidad. European Journal of Human Movement 2012, 28:35-66.
Urdampilleta A y Alvarez-Herms J. La preparación física en el alpinismo: Nuevos métodos de preacondiciionamiento físisco. Efedeportes. Lecturas: Educación Física y Deportes. 165, Febrero 2012. Revista Digital – ISSN 1514-3465. Martínez Sanz JM y Urdampilleta A. Avituallamientos y estrategias dietético-nutricionales para eventos de ultra-resistencia. Sport Training Magazine 2012, 47:46-52.

Aritz Urdampilleta and José Miguel Martínez. The Phsiology and Altitude Training Unit. K2 Centre. Vitoria-Gasteiz. Scientific-Technical Advising for Sportive Planning. NUTRIAKTIVE.

Marc Sixto
Elena de Murillo