I am not a nutritionist, nor am I a doctor. (Though a med. student did help me author this post.) That being said, consult a doctor before making any decision about seriously changing your diet.
We all want to climb harder. We train and refine our technique at the gym day after day: climbing, hangboards, cross training, anything we can do to get stronger. However, I think many of us overlook one of the most important aspects of training… what we eat! It is something I have only recently started to take seriously in my own pursuits. With many of us living off of fast food and beer, we have been selling ourselves short of our full climbing potential.
With the correct diet you can climb harder, last longer, and have an overall feeling of good health! Climbing is obviously a physically demanding sport and thus requires the correct sustenance to perform optimally.
A diet that provides everything you need for healthy living is the most important aspect of a good diet. Many of us, myself included, starve ourselves of some forms of nutrition while simultaneously trying our best to eat as much of some other substance. This can even be true in our never ending quest for more protein; depending on the source you may be getting some of the amino acids you need while completely avoiding some of the others that are just as important. (More about that later)
Another aspect of a strong climbing diet is the type of food we eat. There is nothing worse than being out at the crag and having your energy reserves depleted. It is important to consume food that is not only going to give you energy, but give it to you long term, and with the best ratio of good stuff to bad stuff. My morning routine before hitting the tanks used to be a sugar free RedBull (you know because the sugar free part made it healthier) and a Cliff bar; while this gave me some great energy early in the day, it left me wanting as the day went on. For long term energy you want to consume complex carbs!
Complex carbs: Unlike simple carbs, containing only one or two sugars, complex carbs consist of three or more sugars linked together in a chain. These complex carbs take the body longer to break down due to their complex structure. Because of this, the energy provided by complex carbs lasts longer and tends not to spike your blood sugar–no spike, no crash. Complex carbs also carry more nutritional value than their simple counterparts; rich in fiber, minerals, and vitamins. Complex carbs can be found in a variety of foods, including vegetables, whole-grain bread, pasta, and cereal grains like brown rice.
Protein: It’s the end all of the athletic diet. Ask any athlete about their diet and the answer will always be, High Protein! However, there is a good reason for this protein obsession. Proteins are the building blocks of life, and more importantly muscle. You need protein in your diet to help your body repair cells and build new ones. When protein is digested amino acids are left behind. Your body needs these amino acids in order to build proteins necessary to drive the building of cells and functioning of organs.
The nine essential amino acids:
These amino acids are not produced by the body, they must be consumed in the food we eat. Different foods have different types of protein and in turn different types of amnio acids. It is important to consume all of these amino acids over the coure of the day.
The amount of protein (in grams) the average person needs per day: multiply your weight in pounds by.37.
However, for climbers and other endurance athletes: you will need to multiply your weight in pounds by.6 to.8
OK… OK… we know protein is important, but how do I get the right kinds? Well, I’m glad you asked. Everyone knows that meat has protein; in fact, if you ask most people where they think protein comes from that is the answer you will get. Now, this is all true; animal tissue is a legitimate source of protein, probably even more protein than you actually need. However, it is also a potent source of cholesterol, too much of which leads to problems like heart disease. There are also studies to suggest that consumption of animal products contributes to many different forms of cancer. If you choose to eat meat as a source of protein, try to stay away from red meats and stick with lean meats like fish or poultry. Unfermented soy (like that found in most soy milk and tofu) is also a viable option for protein, but really should be eaten sparingly due to the fact that it is generally genetically modified and messes with your estrogen leves.
However, protein can be found in a litany of natural plant based foods as well!
High Protein plant Sources:
Seeds and Nut
This is just a short list. There are tons of plant based foods that are high in protein.
Now if you are like me and have decided to go vegetarian… OK I’m only Pescetarian, but that just sounds pedantic. I eat fish. Sue me! Anyway, If you are trying to eat protein in the 80 to 100 gram range you are going to have to work at it. That means making sure you get some eggs (not too many), fish, nuts, and possibly a plant based protein powder to supplement into your diet to reach these numbers. It is more than possible to consume enough protein on a vegetarian diet, it just takes some planning.
Fats: Obviously climbing is a strength to weight ratio game, but don’t be scared of good fats. Your body needs fatty acids to function properly. These can be found in nuts, olives, avocados, and some fish. Try to avoid saturated fats–these are fatty acids, which at room temperature are usually solid. Imagine that in your bloodstream… These fats can contribute to raised cholesterol. Saturated fats can be found in margarine, oils, fatty meats, and dairy products.
Trans fats are a subtype of unsaturated fats that are not found in natural foods but are instead a byproduct of the production of hydrogenated oils. These are the fats that lead to atherosclerosis, which is when plaques of cholesterol adhere to your blood vessels, blocking blood flow. Atherosclerosis then leads to hypertension and heart disease, the number one cause of death in Americans. There is NO “healthy” amount of trans fat.
You may have heard that coconut oil is a superfood. As a small- and medium-chain fatty acid, it is absorbed directly in the small intestine and doesn’t strain the liver. It can be a rapid source of energy, but there’s debate as to how effective it may be. If you’re really in need of a RedBull, try a spoonful of coconut oil instead!
High-fructose corn syrup (HFCS):
HFCS however, is never a rapid source of energy. Once HFCS is ingested, the body actually uses energy (ATP) to store it–the body does not create energy from HFCS immediately. HFCS is actually stored as triglyceride (a fat); you want as few triglycerides in your body as possible. The only way this could possibly be helpful is if you consumed a large amount of HFCS and were then subsequently stranded on a desert island, accessing the stored energy only as you starved to death.
Hydration: An important and many times overlooked aspect to a healthy diet (especially a diet geared towards climbing) is hydration. Hydration is a key component to strength and stamina. When out at the crag is it extremely important to have enough water, especially considering the 30 pack you probably killed last night (we call that Negative Training).
However, this leads to the long-standing philosophical debate… Water or Gatorade?
Now, Gatorade (and other sports drinks for that matter) do provide an excellent source of electrolytes–necessary for healthy neural connectivity. But, not to take anything away from the University of Florida inspired sports drink, many come with a fair dose of sugar, glucose, or fructose, which you will want to avoid.
You can never go wrong with a good supply of water!