“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“)
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!