Words and Photo by Danielle Baker
Hypoglycemia goes by a few different names; 'hitting the wall' conjures up images of men running marathons in headbands and short shorts circa 1982 and 'bonking' makes me think of people in spandex slumped over their handlebars trying to remember where they went wrong with their carb intake from the night before. Neither of these two descriptions are what I experience. I get 'hangry'.
Hangry is described on the Internet as 'a state of anger caused by lack of food; hunger causing a negative change in emotional state.' Well 'a negative change in emotional state' may be an understatement. I have shredded my share of purple pants while attempting to throw my bike in a hulk-like rage. At best, when my blood sugar drops, I sever all communication and focus the energy I have left, drawn from the depths of my glycogen stores, to find food. I communicate only in grunts, head nods and spontaneous tears until I am fed. I, all but, foam at the mouth.
I didn't know anything about how to eat on a ride when I started; I simply equated mountain biking with being angry. It would start out fun and slowly deteriorate until I was ending a relationship, swearing off a friendship or selling my bike. My friends clued into what was happening before I did and would often shove food in my mouth unannounced.
Being hangry is the result of not ingesting enough carbs to maintain your blood glucose for the activity that you are participating in. As I came to find out, our bodies can only store enough glycogen to support approximately 90 minutes of riding and even less if you are a planning an epic climbing extravaganza. Your muscles and brain need the glucose and when your muscles and brain don't get what they want they form an army that is fronted by the worst of your emotions. This is science, really. While symptoms of a hypoglycemic breakdown can be physical, such as feeling weak, lethargic, and dizzy, it is the mental symptoms that sneak up on you. Hangry spells often come on slowly and can rear their ugly heads through a slow build up of confusion, disorientation, hostility, irritation and feelings of defeat and hopelessness. My most commonly-recognized symptom is my want to curl up under a leafy fern while insisting that my friends must leave me behind and go on without me. Hypoglycemia, even in the early stages, can feel very dramatic.
Waiting until you are hungry is never advisable. If you are already making a pillow out of dirt under a leafy fern or have thrown your bike at a tree, it may be hard to salvage your ride. You're body is a bit of a slow learner, by the time it sends the 'oh shit, I'm hungry' signal to your brain, you've been without the right blood glucose level for some time.
Eat on a schedule. Ingest simple carbs every 30 – 45 minutes while riding. Drink sports drinks and eat gels and chews to get your sugar keep your sugar levels up. If you have already started crying (Ed. Note: if you are a male reader and can’t see yourself crying on the trail, simply replace the verb with “whining”, “pouting” or simply “being a dick”), stick to the simple carbs. Power bars take longer to breakdown in your system and therefore will require you to keep your angry and bitter thoughts to yourself even longer. Simple carbs have a chemical structure that can be broken down quickly and efficiently into the glucose our body so badly needs. Drink plenty of water to break down the sticky stomach lump you are creating and help it transfer to the useful glucose.
Pack food that you like. There is no point in spending dollars on prepackaged snacks that Lance Armstrong endorses (yes, that is an outdated reference) if you don't like the way they taste. You will avoid them until you are sitting on the side of the trail hugging your knees and insisting this is the exact time you want to discuss what is wrong in your relationship. Pack food that you like and will eat, actually ingesting the food is much more important than the exact make up of the carbs in it. An eaten cookie or homemade granola bar will get you farther than an unopened gel package. Unopened gel packages just become ammunition for your friends to throw at you; it's called 'poking the bear'.
The moral of my story is 'friends don't let friends ride hangry', it can be messy. Educate yourself and always carry extra food. You never know when a low, blood-sugar emergency will have you pinning down a friend on trail, stuffing food into their mouth and yelling 'the power of Christ compels you'.