Monday, January 7, 2008

Calories and compromise.

Say you wanted to take a long bike tour somewhere. Suppose it was a winter-ish trip. Let's assume that the place you're going is devoid of humans or structures. You'd not only be alone, but everything you needed on the trip would have to come with you right from the start.

With me so far?

You'd need to figure out all sorts of logistical challenges in the months and years leading up to the start. Getting there is one part, getting all of your stuff there is another. But before any of that can happen, you'd need to figure out what to take, what to leave, and how to carry all of it.At some point you have to sit down and make some educated guesses: How many calories will you need every day to maintain a pace that'll get you to the finish of your route? What kind of calories do you need--what ratio of carbs, protein, and fat? Will you need supplements to keep your body working after a week's worth of labor along the trail? When (during each day) will you eat? How will you prepare the food?

Lots of questions, with many 'right' answers to each of them. The only way to truly know any of these answers is to go out and complete the tour, taking some notes along the way. That's not an option here so you're back to making educated guesses.This is where it gets fun, or funny, depending on perspective. Based on past trips of a similar length and duration (but completed in a different style) I estimate that I'll need to consume about 8,000 calories per day to keep moving, keep warm and recover when sleeping, and to maintain a reasonable body mass throughout. On past trips I've eaten significantly more calories each day and not lost any weight, but there are differences: most of those calories were easily processed simple sugars, which kept the motor running but not running well.

An even bigger concern is that to carry enough calories in simple sugars would mean carrying hundreds of pounds of food. If you know anything about keeping a snow bike afloat on a gossamer thin crust, you know that this is simply not an option. Not to mention that you'd need to add even more food to account for the extra work you'd be doing to haul the hundreds of pounds of food to start with. Gah.Armed with this knowledge, the last two winters I've done several weekend overnights eating custom assembled (my own recipes) freeze-dried meals that I thought would be 'optimal' for such a trip. I learned quickly that I simply can't process 8,000 calories worth of this kind of food in a day while working this hard. So I adjusted each recipe and tried again. Couldn't even get 5,000 calories in. Went back and tweaked each recipe to get more carbs and fewer proteins and fats (carbs are much easier to digest when working), but it made little difference: I was still too physically full to take another bite. Not to mention significant GI distress.

Uh oh.

So now what? If you're gonna ride/push/drag a bike for 4 solid winter weeks, you gotta fuel the motor or you're not gonna make it very far. Carrying hundreds of pounds of food is not an option. Eating more is not an option.Some folks have addressed this issue by having food drops placed for them along their route. For this winter's trip I *could* feasibly do this, but for next winter's it is not possible. Besides, it seems more than a bit wasteful to employ multiple airplanes to support a recreational bike tour.

I can only think of one alternative: Hyper-loading.We're all familiar with the concept of carbo loading to theoretically store more glycogen for a ride, run, race, etc... Same theory here, but a slightly different execution. A pound of fat on one's person is worth approximately 3500 calories. In other words, if you burn 3500 calories you'll lose ~one pound. Most athletes don't have too much available in terms of extra calories to burn, but what if you could somehow gain a chunk of excess weight before your event, while still maintaining adequate fitness to complete the event?In this case, I don't see any other alternatives.

Knowing that:
-I need to be eating 8,000 calories per day for 25 days = 200,000 calories.
-I can only eat about 4,000 calories per day = 100,000 calories.

Means that I need to pre-store roughly 100,000 calories.Do the math there, and brace yourself for a grin: I need to purposely gain 28.5lbs!

Digest that (ha!) for now. More later.



  1. Your basically talking about starving your self for a month. No real experience in trying it but your going to need your muscles and without adequate carbs and protein your going to eat them away to stay alive no matter how much fat reserves you have. The question is will you have enough muscle to make it to the end...

    I would think that you could eat more calories. I know when I do my endurance rides I can take in 300-350 calories an hour easily using some of the powder products like Sustained Energy. That alone would be 4000 calories in a 12 hour ride and I know I can eat before and after normally.

    Good luck, sounds like a "interesting" trip.

  2. Wow ... interesting theory. I'd love to see this work in execution. I definitely wouldn't want to be the guinea pig.

    Nutrition realities aside ... if you gain 28 pounds, aren't you still technically carrying 28 pounds of extra weight? There are a lot of condensed calories in pure fat but there are other ways to carry them ... butter ... vegetable oil ... seal blubber.

    I read somewhere once that, in the early 20th century, white guys in Alaska would slowly introduce themselves into the Natives' protein and fat-rich diets over time before their winter travels. They believed they were increasing their metabolism by eating a meat-rich diet, but they also helped their bodies become more accustommed to processing diets that were mostly meat.

    Anyway, good luck with the weight gain. If you can make it work, you'll be an anit-diet hero.

  3. I believe this will work if you can learn the point at which your efforts cause your body to stop burning fat and switch to other fuels.

    You will want to keep under that point of effort so that your body keeps expending its fat reserve and doesn't attack your muscles.

    I'm no doctor, but I believe this is how it will work from other readings. You may also want to do some research into the old Arcic expeditions of the early 1900's. There is a book by Cook that I am hoping to read, My Attainment Of The Pole, that could potentially offer insight as he used techniques and knowledge of the natives much more than other explorers.

    One other thing that could influence your food needs is how warm you are, particularly when you sleep at night. An extra pound or two of sleeping bag might keep you X amount warmer and lessen your caloric needs. Just something fun to think about.


  4. Great and fascinating idea. It should work.

    Get enough carbs in to spare the muscle each day.

    From my memories of nutritional physiology,in starvation states, your tissues will preferentially burn fat except the brain which continues to need nearly pure glucose. There is no metabolic pathway to go from fat to glucose, so with no carbs/protein, you will convert amino acids to glucose to feed the brain.

    Even small amounts of glucose (and you will be taking in more than a little) can be protein sparing. This is why post surgical patients who don't eat for a few days get a dextrose solution, even though it does not come near to fulfilling their caloric needs.

    Interesting that the crux problem in what you are planning is essentially fuel, fuel, fuel.

    Your strategy is a proven one for many mammals with feast or famine lifestyles. Polar bears don't eat for 4 months.

    It is really an amazing challenge, and I would think going for it with an appropriate escape plan would be very exciting.

    Certainly no worse than the Bataan Death march where prisoners marched 6-7 days with no food or water. At least you won't have hostile soldiers trying to beat you to death on the way.

  5. Get a ben and Jery's sponsor and you'll be golden!

  6. I wish I could donate some of mine. You could ride around the world. :^)

  7. Plenty of precedent in the mountaineering world. Thats a lot of pizza and ice cream, sounds like fun training.

  8. I'm sure your research and planning is over the top for this - but wow. How can you gain 30 lbs and be fit enough to pull off the adventure? Are you sure that extra bodyfat can be utilized as fuel at the rate necessary for the trip? Can you operate at a calorie deficit of 4,000ish/day for a month without serious illness - including the mental variety?

    All tough questions. Does the missus know what you're up to?!?

    I like Jill's reasoning. When I'm doing multi-day stuff I always have some summer sausage along which is mostly fat. I'd rather carry it in a pack or rack than my back.

  9. "Bring me another bowl of ice cream...I'm training."


  10. My wife suggests making your bike outa sausage, or maybe your clothes, edible undies?

  11. Well, with all this food talk I am curious about how much TP you have to pack..... or if you just use snow?