Improve Your Sport Climbing (16): Nutrition and Body Composition, Part 9 (HARD)

“Perhaps the single most important factor associated with sustaining a high level of athletic performance is maintenance of fluid balance during exercise.”

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

Taking in sports drink regularly throughout an intense workout or climbing day is highly recommended. Image courtesy of Ambro/

Taking in sports drink regularly throughout an intense workout or climbing day is highly recommended. Image courtesy of Ambro/












Today’s entry discusses the topic of adequate hydration 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).

You know from reading the previous “Improve Your Climbing” entry that sipping small amounts of sports drink throughout an intense workout or climbing day can help you sustain your energy levels and performance for longer than not taking in carbohydrates can. But what about the hydration side of the equation?

In ASN, Dr. Benardot provides a thorough explanation of the desirability for athletes to maintain fluid balance and avoid dehydration. I’ll try to (drastically) simplify it here as best I can. Sweat helps dissipate heat, allowing you to continue to perform physical activity. You must replace lost fluids in order to continue sweating adequately to dissipate heat. Sweat includes essential electrolytes (sodium, calcium, magnesium and potassium). If your blood volume drops, your ability to sweat decreases, as does your body’s ability to meet your working muscles’ need for greater blood flow. And blood volume drops with dehydration, while your risk of overheating rises.

“Most athletes induce voluntary dehydration because they don’t drink enough despite having plenty of fluids readily available,” says Dr. Benardot in ASN, going on to explain that athletes often appear to have a delayed ability to register thirst, and don’t drink until they’re already too dehydrated to come back to a well-hydrated state by the time they’re thirsty. Dr. Benardot suggests drinking every 10 to 15 minutes during exercise to help avoid dehydration and the performance decline that accompanies it, as well as other potential negative complications.

It’s important to note that some experts and studies have called into question the idea that athletes should drink at regular preset intervals, regardless of thirst, suggesting instead that thirst is indeed an adequate indicator of when to consume fluids and will suffice to keep athletes hydrated enough to avoid negative impacts on performance from activity-induced dehydration. See both “Effect of exercise-induced dehydration on endurance performance…” and  “Dehydration and endurance performance in competitive athletes” for support of the “drink according to thirst” approach to staying adequately hydrated so as not to impede performance outcomes.

The latter review also references the interesting discovery that athletes could perform better simply by rinsing their mouths out with a carbohydrate-rich sports drink without even swallowing the fluid. Of course, if you’re involved in a lengthy day of climbing or a hard training sesh, you’d probably be better off drinking some sports drink than spitting it out…

Regardless of whether or not drinking solely in response to thirst (vs. at set intervals regardless of thirst) will stave off dehydration enough to avoid performance impairment during a climbing day or workout, planning ahead to make sure you have plenty of fluids to drink available to you during a climbing day or a training workout is a smart strategy and should be a part of your nutrition plan. Forgetting to drink during workouts that last longer than an hour or for an entire climbing day is not likely to leave you in a well-hydrated state, and this may render your performance subpar.

If you simply chug tons of water during a difficult and lengthy workout or sporting event, you risk hyponatremia, or low blood sodium, which can actually be fatal. However, hyponatremia is still far less common than activity-related dehydration is in athletes. Still, you might want to reconsider if you’ve been adhering to a water-only fluid replacement protocol, since recent studies (including one linked above) have shown that sports drinks containing carbs and electrolytes can help athletes perform longer and stronger, keeping mental functions alive and muscles well fueled:

“Different activities result in different rates of carbohydrate utilization, but consuming carbohydrate-laden fluid consistently helps maintain athletic performance, regardless of the sport,” says Dr. Benardot in ASN.

Okay, so what kind of sports drink should you choose? A sports drink below 8 percent carbohydrate concentration absorbs more quickly than water alone and has been demonstrated to have a similar gastric emptying time as water, which will help prevent gastrointestinal (GI) distress. Dr. Benardot suggests that 6 to 8 percent carbohydrate solution is ideal, and preferably not made with fructose, which may cause GI problems as well. Not carbonated (read ASN for the full explanation of that one), and forget all of the extras beyond electrolytes and carbs.

In a nutshell, then, you should start your activity well hydrated and aim to keep your hydration levels up throughout your workout or climbing day. Drink roughly 16 ounces of fluid an hour or an hour and a half before you begin a workout, and then regularly sip on sports drink throughout any intense workout or climbing day, either at fixed intervals or according to thirst. Make sure you pack enough fluids for the time you plan to be working out or for your climbing day. When you’re done working out, consume a recovery beverage containing carbs and a small amount of protein (like chocolate milk or a specially formulated recovery drink; I like Clif Shot Chocolate Recovery Drink Mix ), and continue to drink fluids along with your meals until you’re rehydrated (clear urine is a good indicator of this).

The next Improve Your Climbing entry will conclude and summarize this 10-part series covering ways to optimize your nutrition plan and body composition (based mainly on Dr. Benardot’s recommendations) for climbing/athletic performance.

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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