Food for the Trail: Fueling for Recreation

Photo by Cat Mayer

Photo by Cat Mayer


Fall is peak season for outdoor recreation in the Grand Valley. The forecast for just about every day reads “50-80 degrees and dry.” Now is the time to run Palisade Rim, bike 18 Road, or paddleboard without the crowds on Highline Lake.

Maximum enjoyment of these activities requires peak nutrition and hydration. Eating and drinking too much can leave you bloated. Underpreparing or eating at the wrong time can lead to the dreaded “bonk.” Technically speaking, a bonk happens when you’ve depleted the glycogen (a form of sugar) that your body stores in the muscles and liver. Fortunately, two local family physicians who excel at outdoor sports are here to help us better understand exercise nutrition and avoid common pitfalls.

Dr. Amy Davis has trained early-career physicians at St. Mary’s family medicine residency for 22 years. Outside the clinic, she was a sponsored triathlete during medical school, and she just qualified for the Boston Marathon with her daughters. She serves on the Mesa County School Board and lives on an organic farm in Palisade. She shares a bonk story from the Pike’s Peak Ascent:

“I didn’t eat or drink properly before the race and couldn’t keep my stores up. I still felt great at 8 miles, but all of a sudden at mile 11, I got nauseous and so fatigued I couldn’t even walk. I just wanted to lie down on the trail. I’ve vowed ever since to be regimented about my hydration and nutrition.”

Dr. Ryan Sullivan recently joined the St. Mary’s residency after graduating from Albany Medical College in New York. His primary sport is ultra mountain running. Despite the rigors of medical training, he will typically average 60-80 miles on the trail each week. His bonk story came from a long bike ride:

“I brought only water and wasn’t monitoring my body closely. The bonk came on so suddenly that I almost passed out right on my bike. I was saved only by a bakery that sold me two donuts for a buck.”

Both doctors follow similar principles in eating for recreation, but they approach the guidelines from opposite ends of the spectrum. Davis favors the convenience of grab-and-go nutrition. Sullivan prepares most of his fuel at home according to his vegan lifestyle.


1 cup oats

1¼ cups oat flour

1 cup peanut (or other nut) butter

3 overripe bananas, mashed

2-4 Tbs maple syrup or honey

Optional: almond slivers and dried fruits like cherries, cranberries, or diced apricots

Heat oven to 325°. Mix everything in a bowl, and cool in the fridge for 20 minutes. Form into 1-inch balls and put on a baking sheet. Bake for about 25 minutes.

Photo by Cat Mayer

Photo by Cat Mayer


Serves 4

4 Tbs butter

1 tart Western Slope apple, thinly sliced

Ground cinnamon to taste

6 eggs

1 cup milk

1 cup flour

½ tsp salt

Optional toppings: almond butter, jam, syrup, or a mixture of sour cream and brown sugar

1. Place the butter in a glass 9x13 pan and microwave just long enough to melt. Arrange the sliced apple in rows in the pan, and sprinkle with cinnamon.

2. Mix the eggs, milk, flour, and salt in a blender, just enough to fully incorporate the flour. Pour the egg mixture over the apples in the pan.

3. Place the pan in the oven. Set your oven timer to begin baking the hootenanny at 390°, 30 minutes before you anticipate returning from your morning run.

4. The hootenanny is done baking when the puffy edges are golden brown and the middle is still soft but not runny. Serve immediately for maximum fluffiness.

Note: You can replace apples with other seasonal berries or fruit.


1. Short outings: If you’re going out for less than an hour, they both agree that not eating is the way to go. Food in the belly can cause indigestion and force your body to multitask. Just down some water and hit the trail.

2. Before recreation: Eat a light meal at least 30 minutes before recreating, focusing on carbs with a little protein and healthy fats. Drink one liter of fluid in advance. This can be water, a sports drink, or our all-natural, DIY electrolyte option (see recipe). Davis prefers a banana with almond butter and washes it down with water. Sullivan typically goes with water, apples, bananas, and almonds.

3. During recreation: Drink 1 liter of fluid per hour, and eat mostly carbs. Never wait to feel hungry or thirsty, because that means your performance is already deteriorating. Davis adds a Gu gel with sodium and caffeine every hour. For longer runs she carries a hydration pack with water and two flasks with electrolyte drinks, drinking some of both every 20 minutes. Sullivan carries his homemade Oatmeal Balls (see recipe) or trail mix. He prefers water, but on a hot day he’ll pack along Nuun or Gu brand electrolyte tabs.

4. After recreation: For shorter or less intense outings, eating afterward is not essential. However, if you’re planning something longer, eat carbs and protein in a 3:1 or 4:1 ratio within 30 minutes of finishing. The carbs replenish glycogen stores, and the protein eases muscle repair. The hootenanny recipe (page 27) fits the bill quite well. This family favorite is the perfect fall breakfast to mix up just before a run. Use an oven timer to have it hot and ready as soon as you get home.

Photo by Cat Mayer

Photo by Cat Mayer


1 quart coconut water (for potassium and sodium)

1 cup fresh apple, orange, or grape juice (for sweetness and flavor)

2 limes or lemons, juiced

Optional: honey or maple syrup for sweetness, ½ tsp each sodium and calcium-magnesium powder for electrolytes

Mix everything together, and store in the fridge.