If you are like me, when you think of someone taking dietary supplements for sports performance, you picture a muscular person in a cut-off tank top shaking their mixer bottle and glugging down a mystery concoction before, during, and after a weightlifting session. However, it’s not only weightlifters who use supplements to enhance their workout and recovery. Some rock climbers also use supplements.
As the sport of rock climbing has gotten more popular and “higher-end,” thinking about the Olympics, for example, supplements for climbers have increasingly gotten more popular. As a result, specific types of supplements are becoming more mainstream in climbing culture.
In this article, I will talk about some common supplements for climbers. I’ll do my best to talk about what the supplement is and the proposed impacts the supplement is supposed to have on your body. Then, at the end, I’ll share some advice I received from people who know more than me about taking supplements for climbing.
A quick note about dietary supplements
I am far from a specialist in nutrition and dietary supplements. My experience with supplements for climbing is purely anecdotal, I have not performed any experiments myself.
That being said, I’ve performed a lot of research. I’ll present what I found along with the sources and implore you to continue your investigation into the world of supplementing if you think your climbing could benefit.
Why some climbers take supplements
There are many different reasons why athletes take supplements. Nuances about who the athlete is, their nutritional background, genetics, the sport of choice, age, and gender all factor into why someone might take a certain supplement.
So without getting too far into the weeds, I want to share four broad reasons why not just athletes but climbers, in particular, take supplements.
- Correct nutritional imbalances
One of the most common reasons why climbers take supplements is to correct nutritional imbalances or to “fill in the gaps” in their nutrition.
For example, if a climber practices a vegetarian or vegan diet, they might have a gap from not eating seafood. To correct that nutritional imbalance, they may take fish oil pills to supplement their diet with omega-3 fatty acids.
- Increase gains
Climbers also take supplements to increase the gains they can get from their training.
For example, traditional weight lifting is often used as a complementary workout to rock climbing. In particular, rock climbers use weightlifting to build maximum strength. To supplement that process, some climbers use creatine to squeeze as many gains out of a workout as possible.
- Decrease risk of injury
Another reason why supplements for climbers have become popular is because they are supposed to help not only reduce the risk of injury but also enhance your recovery from injury.
For example, collagen supplements are designed to be taken before beginning a workout to not only enhance your performance but also aid in preventing injury and your body’s recovery. It’s thought that collagen is particularly effective at preventing bone fractures and soft tissue injuries.
- Enhance performance
To enhance their performance, some climbers take supplements before their training sessions. For example, performance-enhancing supplements like pre-workout mixes rely on caffeine to deliver a jolt of energy.
Whey & casein protein
Whey is a protein found in dairy milk. In supplement form, there are three primary types of whey protein.
- Whey protein concentrate: contains some low levels of fat and carbohydrates.
- Whey protein isolate: more processed and to remove all fat and lactose.
- Whey protein hydrolysate: a “predigested” form of whey protein commonly used in medical treatments and infant formulas.
Proposed benefits of whey supplementation
Whey protein supplementation may be able to aid in weight loss. In addition, there is some research to show that whey protein supplements may have anti-cancer properties, can lower cholesterol, improve immune response to asthma, and reduce blood pressure, decreasing the risk of heart disease and stroke.
Casein is another protein found in dairy milk from cows, goats, and sheep. Interestingly, it’s responsible for the milk’s white color. Other dairy products naturally contain casein protein, including yogurt and cheese.
In dairy milk, casein makes up about 80% of the protein profile. The other 20% is whey protein. In terms of proteins, casein and whey are very similar. However, casein is a slower-digesting protein. Caesins slow absorption is what gives it its unique properties.
Proposed benefits of casein supplementation
Caesin is a complete protein and contains all nine amino acids. As a slow-release protein full of amino acids, casein can provide your body’s cells with essential amino acids over a prolonged period.
Specifically, casein contains a concentrated amount of leucine, an amino acid that helps regulate metabolism and build and repair muscles. An interesting study found that a lot of that recovery can occur overnight if casein supplements are consumed before bed.
In addition, casein contains a lot of calcium, an essential mineral for teeth and bone health. Typically, casein supplemental contains about 50% of your daily recommended intake for calcium.
The two most common protein supplements are animal byproducts. Therefore, if you’re vegan or vegetarian, you need something different. That’s where plant-based protein supplements come into play.
Most plant-based protein supplements feature a blend of plants, including:
- Legumes such as soy, peas, beans, and lentils
- Whole grains
Proposed benefits of plant-based protein supplementation
There are many benefits to eating plant-based protein. Plant-based proteins are lower in saturated fat and cholesterol than animal-based proteins. They are also a good source of fiber, vitamins, and minerals. Plant-based proteins can help with weight loss, improve heart health, and reduce the risk of some chronic diseases.
Creatine is formed within the body from reactions involving the amino acids arginine, glycine, and methionine in the kidneys and liver. Outside the body, creatine is primarily consumed from red meat, seafood, and animal milk, like cow, goat, and sheep’s milk. Creatine is also consumed as a dietary supplement in powder form, tablets, capsules, liquids, and energy bars.
Creatine, as a dietary supplement, can increase muscle performance when effectively dosed. Specifically, a series of loading doses, followed by maintenance doses, renders the best results.
When you take creatine, commonly as creatine monohydrate, most of it goes to your muscles, where it’s converted into a compound of creatine and phosphoric acid. This compound, phosphocreatine, creates adenosine triphosphate (ATP). Your body then uses ATP as a continuous energy supply.
Proposed benefits of creatine supplementation
Besides providing your body with more energy and increasing muscle growth, creatine can help:
- Speed up muscle recovery by activating satellite cells that help micro-muscle tears.
- Increase anabolic hormones that can contribute to tissue repair, such as insulin, human growth hormone, estrogen, and testosterone.
- Increase water content in muscle cells, increasing muscle growth and reducing risk of dehydration and muscle cramps.
Collagen is a protein found in your body’s tissues. In particular, collagen is found in your bones, cartilage, nails, skin, hair, tendons, and ligaments. Collagen is responsible for joint health and skin elasticity.
Over time, the existing collagen in your body breaks down. In addition, your body has a harder time producing collagen.
Collagen is typically produced via a healthy and balanced diet. Foods that can help natural collagen production include:
- Fish, including the flesh and bones
- Meat especially cuts with connective tissues like chuck steak
- Dairy products
However, some people turn to collagen supplements to counteract the natural process of producing less collagen.
Proposed benefits of collagen supplements
The proposed benefits of collagen supplements that are particularly attractive to rock climbers revolve around the fact that collagen is naturally found in bones, joints, and soft tissues like tendons and ligaments, which all climbers continuously put at risk.
Most of the modern collagen research is inconclusive. But the one research paper that seems to be turning a lot of heads argues that collagen supplementation may affect body composition, collagen synthesis, and recovery from exercise and injuries.
Muscle proteins are comprised of twenty amino acids. Nine of those amino acids are considered essential, meaning they cannot be procured in the body but must be consumed as part of a balanced diet. The branched-chain amino acids (BCAA) are leucine, valine, and isoleucine are three of those essential amino acids.
BCAAs (along with the other essential amino acids) and non-essential amino acids are responsible for synthesizing muscle proteins. Specifically, they all must be present in adequate amounts for new muscle protein synthesis to occur to replace protein lost due to protein breakdown.
Proposed benefits of BCAA supplementation
What makes BCAAs unique is that they are supposed to stimulate muscle protein synthesis more than other essential amino acids. In particular, BCAAs may be best for increasing lean muscle mass, which is ideal for climbing.
Similarly, there is some evidence from a small study that BCAA supplementation may decrease muscle damage and improve recovery.
Glucosamine & Chondroitin
Glucosamine and chondroitin are components of cartilage, the soft tissue that cushions joints. In particular, glucosamine is one of the building blocks of cartilage’s structure. On the other hand, chondroitin helps cartilage retain water.
Both glucosamine and chondroitin are naturally produced in the human body. But supplements are also manufactured from the cartilage of animals such as pigs, cows, and shellfish.
Glucosamine and chondroitin supplements were originally created as a treatment for osteoarthritis. Now, glucosamine and chondroitin supplements are also commonly used among individuals (with and without osteoarthritis) as a way to improve their joint health.
Proposed benefits of glucosamine and chondroitin supplements
It’s understood that glucosamine and chondroitin have anti-inflammatory properties. They also may be able to protect cartilage through various mechanisms. Specifically, glucosamine and chondroitin protect cells called chondrocytes which are responsible for maintaining cartilage structure.
So, in theory, glucosamine and chondroitin supplements can slow down cartilage deterioration in the joints and reduce joint pain caused by inflammation. Whether or not this is actually true remains to be determined.
But because glucosamine and chondroitin supplements are generally understood as safe, meaning they have limited side effects, many people who suffer from osteoarthritis or who want to take steps towards better joint health take glucosamine and chondroitin supplements anyway.
Fish oil supplements are popular because they contain omega-3 fatty acids, also known as omega-3s. Research has shown that omega 3’s are important for various bodily functions.
For example, omega-3s play a vital role in the cell membrane, helping provide support and interaction between cells. They also serve as the catalyst for making hormones that help regulate blood clotting, contraction and relaxation of artery walls, and inflammation. Omega-3s also support vital body systems like the endocrine and cardiovascular systems.
The two most critical fatty acids are called eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA). EPA and DHA have become known as “good” or “healthy” (unsaturated) fats because they support your health in moderation. These differ from “bad” (saturated) fats which are risk factors for heart disease and stroke.
Fish oil supplements contain both EPA and DHA. Other types of supplements that contain omega-3 fatty acids include:
- Fish liver oil
- Krill oil
- Algal oils
- Flaxseed oil
Regular foods also contain omega-3s, like walnuts and edamame. In particular, foods like seafood and shellfish contain high levels of omega-3s. For example, mackerel, farmed salmon, and herring have some of the highest levels of omega-3 content.
In addition, certain types of plant oils, such as flaxseed, soybean, and canola, also contain an important omega-3 called alpha-linolenic acid (ALA).
Proposed benefits of fish oil supplements
A lot of the science around omega-3s has found that omega-3 fatty acids are most helpful for your heart health. For example, omega-3s may help lower triglyceride levels, raise HDL (good) cholesterol, and help lower blood pressure.
Advice for taking supplements
Throughout my research, I ran into different pieces of advice from various nutritionists, dieticians, and healthcare professionals. I’ll summarize the major takeaways below.
Consult a professional
If you want to incorporate a supplement into your diet, I recommend consulting a nutrition and dietary specialist or healthcare professional. That’s because the science of dietary supplements is rapidly changing, and therefore, it’s best to have a professional’s modern take.
Plus, you and your body are unique, so what benefits a supplement may have for the rest of your climbing buddies may not be the case for you.
Seek out products with third-party certification
Dietary supplements are not regulated by the Food and Drug Administration before hitting the shelves. Therefore, their contents and proposed benefits cannot be certain.
For that reason, it’s best practice to only purchase supplements that are NSF-certified or Informed Choice-certified. This means the product, at the very least, has been through a third-party procedure to test for notorious contaminants and banned substances.
Products marketed specifically for climbing may not be necessary
Over the years, the dietary supplement industry has gotten increasingly more specialized. Now, companies promote “unique” supplements and proprietary blends specifically designed for your sport, which in our case, is climbing.
And sometimes, climbing-specific supplements unnecessarily come with a higher price tag. So if there is a specific supplement that you are after, like collagen, for example, don’t feel pressured to buy collagen supplements from a climbing-related company.
Instead, just get the safest, most reliable, and most affordable collagen supplement you can find that has been NSF or Informed Choiced-certified.
Try single products
The most effective way to incorporate supplements into your diet and training plan is methodically and one at a time. In other words, when starting out, avoid using all-in-one mixes with a cornucopia of ingredients. These make it hard to decipher what supplement makes your body feel (or not feel) a certain way.
Instead, methodically supplement your diet with single products over a long period. That way, you can more effectively measure if the supplement is helping or hurting.
Final thoughts about supplements for climbers
In a perfectly ideal scenario, dietary supplementation is unnecessary because your diet provides everything your body requires to function properly. However, I know that’s not the case for everyone (myself included), and supplements are a convenient way to enhance your diet.
Just remember– they are called “supplements” for a reason. That’s because they are intended to be consumed alongside a healthy diet. In other words, they should not be used instead of eating normally.
So, if you choose to add supplements to your diet, do so methodically and guided either by a professional or professional opinion. May the gains always be in your favor!