Improve Your Sport Climbing (16): Nutrition and Body Composition, Part 8 (HARD)

“[V]irtually all surveys have found that athletes fail to consume sufficient energy to fully satisfy their needs. …
[A]thletes should consume sufficient carbohydrate to meet the majority of their exercise-related energy needs and to restore muscle glycogen stores between exercise sessions.”

(Dr. Dan Benardot in  “Advanced Sports Nutrition-2nd Edition“)

Sipping sport drink throughout an intense workout or climbing day can help keep your energy levels up. (Photo courtesy of David Castillo Dominici/

Sipping sports drink throughout an intense workout or climbing day can help keep your energy levels up. (Photo courtesy of David Castillo Dominici/

This entry discusses the topic of pre-, during, and post-workout/competition fueling as it relates to athletic performance and recovery, as covered by Dr. Dan Benardot, leading nutrition expert and author of “Advanced Sports Nutrition-2nd Edition” (ANS).

According to Dr. Benardot, you should plan to eat your final, high-carbohydrate meal of solid food at least an hour and a half before you climb or train, or you may experience gastrointestinal (GI) distress. GI distress (i.e. bloating, gas, diarrhea, abdominal pain) is actually common in athletes, and it can be hard to trace the exact causes of it without professional help.

It’s then best to keep your carb levels up both before and throughout your climbing day or longer (hour+) training sessions by sipping on a sports drink that contains carbohydrates. Make it a habit to consume a small amount every 10 to 15 minutes during activity. Obviously, if you’re climbing for longer than that, you will have to do your best to refuel between pitches or burns.

Also, if you’re exercising for a lengthy period of time or are out for a full day of climbing, chances are a liquid diet of sports drink isn’t going to suffice for maintaining energy and nutrient stores adequately, nor will it satisfy your appetite. And yet climbing on a full belly probably won’t work to your advantage (i.e. downing a lunch bag’s contents in one sitting).

In practical terms, what does this mean? It’s not that complicated. Make sure you are eating at regular intervals throughout the day (i.e.  try to eat six small meals vs. three large meals, a topic more thoroughly covered in a previous Improve Your Climbing entry). In your last true meal before your workout, aim for a high-carbohydrate composition, but include some fats and proteins as well. Then, as you move toward and into your workout or climbing day, snack regularly in small amounts on high-carb, low-fiber foods and drink water, and/or sip small amounts of a sports drink with calories from carbohydrates only – not protein during your workout/climbing day.

As Dr. Benardot observes in ASN:

“Protein added to a sports beverage reduces the content of what athletes really need: fluid, carbohydrate, and electrolytes. Therefore, the majority of energy in the preexercise meal and during exercise fluid replacement should be from carbohydrate.”

Make it part of your routine to swig a few sips of sports drink, and/or to eat a couple bites of a high-carb snack with some water, after every pitch or two of climbing (depending on how long the pitches are). Eating immediately after your turn, while you’re resting between climbs or pitches and before you belay your partner, may help you avoid GI distress, whereas downing a snack or drink right before climbing may provoke it.

The effects of eating/drinking small amounts of high-carb energy sources regularly throughout a longer training session or climbing day may surprise you if you haven’t paid close attention to this area before. The potential performance impact of sustaining your body’s energy needs during intense physical activity rather than backloading calories when you’re done shouldn’t be underestimated.

“Consumption of carbohydrate-containing beverages (e.g., sports beverages) and food during exercise delays fatigue and improves performance, even if consumption occurs late in the exercise session,” explains Dr. Benardot in ASN.

Finally, when you’re done climbing or training, replenishing your muscles as soon as you finish is an optimal recovery strategy. Again, carbohydrates take center stage. Simple carbohydrates should make up the majority of your immediate post-climbing/training intake, along with a small amount of high-quality protein. Several recent studies on milk – including one on climbers using chocolate milk as a recovery aid – as a recovery beverage have demonstrated its efficacy. Later post-training meals should include complex carbohydrates, along with fats and proteins as well, but the athlete should stay vigilant and focused on including plenty of carbs in his or her diet to restore and top off muscle glycogen stores between workouts and on rest days.

The next Improve Your Sport Climbing entry will discuss hydration as it relates to athletic performance and recovery.

This multipart series of articles starts here, in case you have to catch up – you’ll also find a full table of contents, complete with links, in that entry. My designation of each area as “easy,” “medium” or “hard” is purely subjective. I’ve arrived at the designations from my personal experience garnered from 20+ years of climbing along with observations I’ve made as a climbing coach/certified personal trainer. You may find some of the areas harder or easier to change. You also might not agree with me or my take on things. That’s fine – feel free to take it or leave it as you wish! Also, remember that the information I provide here is purely offered as advice and that no exercises or training program should be undertaken without receiving medical clearance from a healthcare professional.

One other caveat: As will be true for all of the entries and articles in this series, if you’ve already mastered or maxed out the topic at hand to the best of your ability level, you’ll reap far fewer benefits or none at all from my suggestions – good for you that you figured it out, but sorry I couldn’t help you out more. Happy climbing and training!

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