by Jennifer Novakovich
As many of my own blog followers know, I’m a Canadian nutritionist and I’ve been living out of my tent for the past few months, living the dream of being a full-fledged climbing bum. As a result, I’ve had a lot of people ask me along the way how they can eat a performance enhancing diet for rock climbing. In a sport where body weight is quite important, many people fall into the trap of not eating enough or going on fad diets without enough carbohydrates. Diets lacking either carbohydrates or calories can be particularly detrimental to performance. So how can you tailor your diet to performance, specific to rock climbing? With all of the varying information available, learning what’s best is almost an impossible task. This article will be a compilation of current research on sports nutrition that I think is vital for athletes, specifically rock climbers.
Glycogen is one of the most important considerations while formulating a diet for performance. Glycogen is stored in muscles and ultimately provides fuel during exercise. Low muscle-glycogen levels are consistently shown to reduce performance, time to fatigue, and overall recovery. Restoring glycogen is therefore fundamental for a performance boosting diet, especially when on a high training load, on a climbing trip, or during multi-day competitions. Since muscle glycogen is primarily determined by net calorie consumption (basal metabolic rate plus energy loss from exercise) and carbohydrate intake, both are vital when trying to maximize glycogen stores.
Calorie restrictions deplete glycogen stores so calorie intake should match the demands to maximize glycogen stores. Furthermore, guidelines are unanimous for high-carbohydrate diets, and low carbohydrate diets (3–15% calorie intake) have consistently been shown to diminish base performance. It’s amazing how many climbers fail to recognize how important calories and carbs are, with eating disorders particularly common to maintain low body weight. While there’s a bit of a cost-benefit of low calorie diets and low body weight, it is impossible to reach peak performance while muscle glycogen is depleted. Furthermore, if you’re climbing well now on a low calorie diet, just give it a few months. Nothing will burn you out faster, make you more prone to injury, and lead to overtraining than an eating disorder.
After a workout there is a shift from breaking down to building, characterized by glycogen replenishment, growth, and repair. During this time, there is a shift to better glucose uptake (enhanced GLUT4 to cell membranes) in order to quickly restore glycogen for recovery. This is the time frame that nutrient uptake is particularly important for athletes and lasts about 45 minutes following a workout. The rate of glycogen made is actually proportional to blood insulin (a factor for glucose uptake) and higher glycemic-index (speed to raise blood sugar) carbohydrates do a better job at quickly restoring glycogen.
Depending on what you’re doing (e.g. climbing trip, multi-day competition), aggressive nutritional strategies can go a long way to help you recover faster by achieving higher muscle glycogen. The glycemic-index of the carbs you consume should be determined by how much time you have to recover between workouts. Climbing the next day after already having a grueling previous day? Opt for something with a higher glycemic index. Have a bit more time? Most athletes will be able to replenish their glycogen using a low-medium GI carbohydrate, which may be an important consideration to keep the weight down (e.g. higher GI carbs are often higher in calories). Higher GI carbs include foods like sweet potatoes, bananas, dried fruits, and many grain products (hence why many athletes carb-load with pasta or rice). Tables on glycemic indexes are readily available online, but keep in mind that ‘cleaner’ foods are a better option than highly refined foods (e.g. doughnuts or cookies that are low in nutrients, have a lot of additives, etc.).
What about protein? While protein has been long been considered a key nutrient for athletic performance, it may not be quite as important as many athletes seem to think. While the current recommendations for protein among athletes is about 1.3g/kg per day, many athletes choose to go above and beyond that amount because they have the notion that it will only make them stronger. Furthermore many athletes choose to take protein supplements with greater than 30g of protein in one serving. To me that’s just a huge waste of money for something that is both hard on your body and not fully absorbable. Furthermore, too much protein can actually be detrimental to performance since it often replaces carbohydrates in the diet, resulting in less stored glycogen (enhanced even more if on a low-calorie diet). Despite the growing protein supplement industry, surveys of athletes consuming enough calories consistently show sufficient protein intakes with diets alone. Take home point: we don’t need as much protein as you think.
So is there any value for protein supplements in terms of performance? Yes, but not for the reasons many people think (e.g. more protein=more strength). Their value comes from a relatively new concept in nutritional research. Recent studies are showing recovery, performance, and adaptation benefits with the consumption of high quality protein within the first 45 minutes of a workout, along with carbohydrates. The best dose is typically about 20–30g (variable with body weight) and should be taken with plenty of carbs. In this case, a protein supplement may be an easier option if you are unable to eat a meal immediately after working out. While nutrient timing can be easily incorporated to climbing workouts and competitions, it is harder to use this science to help with full days of outdoor climbing. My best advice would be to consume carbs and protein (at about a 4:1 ratio) throughout the day in snacks, and maybe use this nutrient timing concept after you’ve finished the hardest part of the day (e.g. after working on a project for example).
Other components of your diet should include eating a well-balanced diet with lots of produce to ensure adequate vitamin and mineral intakes. Aside from a lack of carbs or calories, a nutrient deficiency is a sure fire way to shoot yourself in the foot in terms of performance. Other than that, anti-inflammatory foods such as ginger, fish (or fish oil/algal supplements), and turmeric would be smart additions to your diet to promote recovery. Climbing in the heat? Electrolytes and adequate hydration are pivotal here. Unfortunately, to keep things short, I can’t delve more deeply into any of these last few topics but if you’re interested in learning more, feel free to look around on my website (www.jennovafoodblog.com) or message me directly with questions (I also give nutrition consults). Hopefully, with the information in this article, you can now go and confidently eat a diet that will support your dreams of being a rig sender!
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