Tag Archives: climbing nutrition

Improve Your Sport Climbing (16): Nutrition and Body Composition, Part 7 (HARD)

“The recent popularity of higher-protein, higher-fat, and lower-carbohydrate diets has serious and potentially negative implications for athletic performance.” (Dr. Dan Benardot in  “Advanced Sports Nutrition-2nd Edition“)

Image Courtesy of phasinphoto/FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Image Courtesy of phasinphoto/FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Today’s entry discusses the ideal distribution of macronutrients in your diet for the promotion of top athletic performance and recovery, as covered by Dr. Dan Benardot, leading nutrition expert and author of “Advanced Sports Nutrition-2nd Edition” (ANS).

Carbohydrate, fat and protein are the three macronutrients that provide us with the energy needed for survival. Every food you consume includes one, two or all three of these essential macronutrients. Each plays an important role in a well-balanced diet, and each type of macronutrient also has a preferred and a less-preferred form to consume – meaning that not all carbs, fats and proteins are created equal.  For more on the types of carbs, fat and protein you should select (and which ones to avoid or limit), read the first chapter of ANS.

Carbohydrate: Poor carbohydrates. They’re so misunderstood and maligned. Carbohydrates are your muscles’ preferred fuel source, and supplying your body with enough carbohydrates at appropriate times (while also staying hydrated) is probably the No. 1 thing you can do to enhance athletic performance. Since sport climbing is generally a high-intensity sport, you actually use more carbs when you’re trying hard on a climb for fuel than anything else. Once you deplete that fuel source, it’s game over, unless you supply your body with a steady stream of carbs throughout a workout or climbing day to allow your muscles to continue to have adequate fuel for the demands you’re placing on them – not to mention your brain.

As Dr. Benardot explains in ASN: “A failure to sustain glucose delivery to working muscles results in cessation of high-intensity activity.” Since our ability to store carbs is limited (unlike our ability to store fat), not taking in carbs during an intense training session or climbing day is a surefire way to sabotage your efforts. Benardot continues, “When blood sugar becomes low, mental fatigue sets in, and mental fatigue results in muscular fatigue regardless of how much energy is stored in muscles.” In addition, it’s likely that not taking carbs and fluids in during intense activities (like sport climbing or training for sport climbing) can result in muscle breakdown – not what most folks are trying to get out of a solid climbing day or training effort.

Benardot makes it clear that human survival needs in terms of diet are quite different from what humans should be eating to promote peak athletic performance. He suggests that athletes aim to get 55 to 65 percent of their total daily calories from carbohydrates to optimize performance and recovery, both. If you think this is easy, think again! Use an app like MyFitnessPal to track your macronutrient intake for a few days, and the results might surprise you, even if you think you eat a lot of carbs already.

Fat: Fat is an essential nutrient that helps deliver fat-soluble vitamins and that is needed for certain bodily functions. It also helps you feel full and makes food taste good. Athletes should take care to have a balanced approach toward including fat in the diet, taking care to have no more than 25 percent of total calories to come from fat, as even a few days’ increase in fat intake has been shown to result in decreased athletic performance, most likely from a lack of adequate carbohydrate consumption.

Protein: Protein gets too much play in most athletes’ diets, according to Benardot, who warns against using protein to replace carbohydrate in your diet, as this can seriously diminish your training and performance results, both. He explains that the majority of athletes (and the American population in general) already consume more protein than necessary to optimize athletic performance and general health. By doing so, athletes often undermine their training and performance results, in part because eating too much protein can lower the intake of carbohydrates essential for performance and recovery, both.

Eating an adequate amount of protein is of course necessary for performance and recovery. For nonathletes, the recommendation given in ASN is .8 gram per kilogram of body weight, while for athletes, the recommendation is roughly double that amount, or between 1.2 and 1.7 grams per kilogram of body weight. Ideally, you’ll eat even amounts of protein at each meal, as the body uses protein more efficiently when consumption is distributed like this throughout the day, rather than eating 90 grams of protein in one sitting.

Burning protein for energy in place of carbohydrates is undesirable and inefficient for your body. Protein is harder for the body to use as fuel and excessive protein consumption can lead to loss of body water, too, due to the way the body handles it. Too much protein in the diet is often stored by the body as fat, or burned for energy, a process that creates a great amount of metabolic waste products that the body must then get rid of.

Interestingly enough, endurance athletes (like distance runners, swimmers and cyclists) typically have higher protein needs than athletes participating in sports like sport climbing and bouldering – because your body actually does burn protein for fuel, and the more endurance-oriented the activity, the more protein gets burned for fuel during the activity. Remember from the discussion on carbs above that carbohydrate (glycogen) storage is limited, so if you exercise for a prolonged period of time without replenishing fuel stores adequately, your body will burn more and more protein for fuel as muscle fuel stores get depleted (muscle loss, anyone?).

The next Improve Your Sport Climbing entry will discuss the optimal timing and distribution of nutrients before, during and after training or competition/performance days.


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!

Climbing Training Tips 4 through 6

Climbing Training Tip 4: Train climbing weaknesses 3 or 4x as much as you train your strengths. (read more)

Climbing Training Tip 5: “Low-carb diets will result in a reduction of muscle glycogen…which will impair the athlete’s performance.” From Periodization-5th Edition: Theory and Methodology of Training, by Tudor O. Bompa and G. Gregory Haff.

Climbing Training Tip 6: Maximize your training gains by avoiding overtraining. (read more)

What I Do & The Science Behind It (5): Nutrition

What I Do: I follow a conscientious, healthy eating plan that includes delicious meals and snacks made up mainly of whole foods, plus appropriate supplements, all aimed to support my efforts at achieving top personal levels of climbing training, performance, improvement and recovery.

At the beginning of this summer, I made a conscious decision to completely overhaul my diet and change my eating habits – hopefully for life, this time. I wanted to create a healthy eating plan that follows current general and sports-specific guidelines given by experts in the field, and I wanted to make sure that it wasn’t an eating plan that left me constantly obsessing over food, starving, binging or bonking. I started modifying my food intake by changing the composition of my meals to focus more on whole foods, and then continued on from there (see below). Since making these dietary changes, I feel more energetic and less hungry, and I actually take more pleasure out of my food choices – both because they are delicious, and also, because I know they’re serving my overall goals as an athlete as best they can. Writing nutrition articles for LIVESTRONG.COM, including those referenced below, has only encouraged me to make healthier and healthier diet choices as my nutrtional education continues.

The Science Behind It: Developing a healthy lifelong eating plan does not involve “going on a diet.” Diets that have end points almost invariably fail, because as soon as you start eating “normally” again, meaning returning to your old, less-healthy habits, your body can’t help but regain any weight you’ve lost, also losing out on any other beneficial aspects of your more health-oriented eating plan. As a January 2006 article appearing in “The Medical Journal of Australia” astutely put it, “Weight loss requires long-term commitment to permanently change eating and exercise habits.” I’d add to this that a healthy lifelong eating plan and/or an eating plan for top climbing performance/training results requires the same for most people – a commitment to permanently change dietary habits, whether weight loss is necessary or desired or not.

Here are the basic areas in which I have changed my diet to create my healthy and sustainable lifelong eating plan:

1. Whole Foods: As recommended by USDA’s ChooseMyPlate.gov, I now eat mainly whole foods, particularly avoiding refined sugar, refined (white) flour and trans fats as much as possible.

2. Meal Composition: Also following nutrition guidelines for the general population, I strive to eat far more fruits and vegetables than I previously did. In this way, among others, my eating plan follows the guidelines for the Mediterranean diet. For more, read Recommended Percentage of Calories From Carbohydrates in a Mediterranean Diet and Recommended Meals Per Day.

3. Portion Sizes: I pay particular attention to my portion sizes of lean protein, whole grains, fats and sweets. These items tend to be more calorically dense than fruits and vegetables, making them easier to overeat. For more on portion sizes, read Making Sense of Portion Sizes.

4. Nutrient Timing: Eating at appropriate times to promote peak energy levels and prompt quick recovery from workouts is essential for climbers seeking top training and performance results. It’s key to eat a small recovery snack containing a 3 or 4 to 1 ratio of carbohydrates to protein within 30 minutes of finishing a climbing workout or day, as explained in the October 2008 International Society of Sports Nutrition position stand on nutrient timing. For more on nutrient timing, read Sweets and Working Out.

5. Vegetarian Meals: I don’t eat red meat every day – in fact, I don’t eat any animal flesh two to four days per week. At the start of my diet overhaul, I realized that I was eating virtually no legumes, ever, and I was therefore missing out on the nutrients and healthy variety these foods can provide. Not only does this choice benefit my body personally (see Meatless Meals: The Benefits of Eating Less Meat) but also, it benefits the planet as a whole – see UN Says Eat Less Meat to Curb Global Warming for details. Though I was a vegetarian for 11 years, I currently still do eat meat (including fish and poultry) and other animal products (yogurt, egg and cheese) for the variety of nutrients they provide. For more on the animal products I eat, read Eating Local.

6. Healthy Fats: Healthy fats are an integral part of any healthy diet. I eat almond butter, peanut butter, nuts of all kinds and extra virgin olive oil regularly for their health and weight-maintenance benefits. Read more about fats in your diet: Different Kinds of Fats, Side Effects of Extra Virgin Olive Oil and Side Effects of Almonds.

7. Delicious Choices: A healthy lifelong eating plan shouldn’t equal a boring mealtime wasteland. It’s important to seek out healthy foods that you look forward to eating, making every mealtime a culinary celebration of tantalizing and tasty delights. Just because you’re eating healthy, whole foods on the whole doesn’t mean you need to turn into a food Nazi, either – I certainly enjoy my dark chocolate, and while I was delighted to learn that scientists think the health benefits of chocolate outweigh the risks, I’d still eat a small portion of it every few days, regardless – simply because I love it.

8. Liquids: Don’t forget that adequate hydration is a part of every healthy eating plan and climbing training/performance plan. Dehydration hinders performance and recovery, making it crucial for climbers to stay hydrated throughout climbing and rest days, both. (As I write this, I pause to go downstairs and grab a glass of water.) For more on this, read Dehydration and Athletic Performance: The Link.

9. Supplements: I use nutritional supplements to promote improved recovery, health and performance, but I only use natural supplements that I’ve researched thoroughly and am convinced will benefit my body with no harmful side effects. Though I’m not recommending these for anyone else (you should conduct your own research and keep in mind that I’m not a nutritionist – well, keep that in mind for all of this article, actually), the supplements I regularly take include fish oil, tart cherry juice/cherries, green tea and whey protein. I also avoid taking NSAIDS (over-the-counter painkillers), because they can harm your body’s ability to recover.

10. Substances: I drink a moderate amount of coffee (one to two cups) daily, and I was delighted to learn about the benefits of drinking dark-roast coffee. Caffeine is a performance-enhancing substance that may yield some performance benefits for rock climbers. Caffeine might also promote faster muscle recovery when ingested with carbohydrates directly after exercise.

As for alcohol, though you might have formed the impression that I’m a teetotaler, I’m not – but I only drink alcohol when I send a meaningful route (which, as I commented at the crag the other day, means not very often) – and then I limit myself to two drinks. I want to save this topic for a future WID & TSBI entry, though, so I’ll leave it at that for now.

I avoid other substances entirely, as I don’t believe that they contribute anything positive to my health or my potential climbing performance.

For more information on creating a healthy climbing diet to support your climbing training and performance, check out Basic Nutrition and Diet Advice for Rock Climbers, Weight Loss/Diet Program and Tips for Better Climbing Performance and Climbing Fitness & Diet Plans – Both Take Time & Mental Strength. To delve more deeply into the topic of athletic nutrition, I recommend Performance Nutrition: Applying the Science of Nutrient Timing.