Like all other sports, rock climbing requires the athlete to be adequately hydrated and properly fed to perform their best. In other words, the athlete must consider their diet and nutrition as part of their training and success in the sport and not something separate.
In this article, we will discuss some of the most important considerations you should make as a rock climber regarding your diet and how to prioritize nutrition as the critical foundation on which all your successes in climbing can be built.
Why Is Climber Nutrition Important?
As climbers, we obsess over climbing hard and designing cutting-edge training regimens that involve finger boarding, core exercises, pull-ups, and all kinds of other training exercises. We obsess so much that, unfortunately, sometimes we forget that training isn’t all about what exercises you can perform.
It’s also about the nutrition (or lack thereof) in our diet. Simply put – when our body does not have adequate nutrition, it cannot perform and recover to the best of its ability.
Symptoms of Less-Than-Ideal Nutrition for Climbers
|Difficulty sleeping||Cannot lose weight despite dieting and exercising|
|Energy lulls in the mid-morning and afternoon||Fatiguing easily during climbing sessions|
|Feeling shaky and getting pumped super easily||Little to no progress despite training a lot|
If you’ve experienced any of these symptoms, it could be because you were not fueling your body properly.
To counteract these symptoms, knowing how to fuel your body or feed yourself with nutritious foods is important. Learning how to fuel your body with proper nutrition is an individual experience. It depends on multiple factors such as:
- The duration of the exercise
- The intensity of the exercise
- The timing of your eating
- Your age, weight, and sex
However, despite all of us being different, in terms of nutrition, there are basic commonalities between all humans that remain true.
Considerations for the “Best” Diet For Climbers
Ultimately, what you eat and what your body requires to function and feel healthy is personal. Nonetheless, there are some baseline considerations that you should consider based on what food experts and nutritionists have come to figure out about climber nutrition.
A Balance of Macro and Micro Nutrients
The primary purpose of macronutrients is to supply your body with energy. Adequate energy is vital for your body to maintain its normal bodily processes, like heart rate and breathing. Energy is also essential for performance, like working, performing household tasks, and rock climbing.
Let’s take a look at three critical examples of macronutrients – carbohydrates, proteins, and fats.
Carbs are an important macronutrient for rock climbing. While climbing, carbohydrates fuel the anaerobic and aerobic energy systems. Carbohydrates also help regulate your blood sugar and provide fuel to your brain in the form of glucose. In the next section, we will talk about simple vs. complex carbs.
Protein is also very important for rock climbers. Protein is important for muscle growth and repair, bone health, tendon and ligament health, skin health, and immune function.
Amino acids are the building blocks of protein. Some amino acids are non-essential, meaning your body manufactures them, while others are essential, meaning you need to consume them in your diet for your body to operate optimally.
Fat is another crucial macronutrient for climbing. Sometimes fat gets a bad reputation, but fat is essential for life. For example, your body needs fat for absorbing fat-soluble vitamins, like vitamins A, D, E, and K.
Fat also plays a role in energy metabolism. This means that fat helps provide the energy your body needs to perform, like carbohydrates.
Micronutrients, also known as vitamins and minerals, do not provide energy. Instead, they play a critical role in how your body functions. With the exception of vitamin D, micronutrients are not produced in the body–therefore, you must incorporate them into your diet.
All micronutrients are essential if you want to perform optimally. But the complete list of micronutrients is very long. So, for brevity’s sake, let’s look at five crucial micronutrients for rock climbing.
|Important Micronutrients for Rock Climbing|
|Micronutrient||What It Does||Where You Can Find It|
|Magnesium||Improves bone health, regulates blood pressure, and helps muscle contractions||Leafy greens, fruit, eggs, poultry, meat|
|Iron||Helps with metabolism and cell function and carries oxygen to the body’s tissues||Meat, seafood, nuts, beans, and dark leafy vegetable|
|Calcium||Improves bone health and enzyme and hormone function||Kale, broccoli, and dairy products|
|Vitamin D||Helps nerve and muscle function, improves bone health and immunity||Fatty fish, egg yolks, mushrooms, and the sun.|
|Vitamin C||Strengthens the immune system, improves skin health, and functions as an antioxidant||Citrus fruits, bell peppers, berries, potatoes, tomatoes, and cantaloupe|
Simple vs. Complex Carbohydrates
Carbohydrates are super important for fueling climbers, especially prior to a climbing session. There are two types of carbs to think about – simple and complex carbohydrates.
Simple carbs are what most people would label as “bad” carbs. However, the idea that these carbs are bad and should be avoided may not be accurate. Even simple carbs should play a role in your diet, but your consumption should be limited.
Simple carbs are typically added to foods as sugar or corn syrup. They are simple because your body can quickly use them as a fuel source without working hard to break them down.
This can be helpful. However, the energy you gain from simple carbs is short lasting. Simple carbs also contain little to no vitamins or minerals. And simple carbs are notoriously consumed in excess, which, when combined with a sedentary lifestyle, is where they get their bad wrap.
Examples of simple carbs include:
- Sugary breakfast cereals
- Packaged cookies
- Baked goods like muffins
- Certain drinks like soda and fruit juice concentrate
On the other hand, complex carbohydrates are digested more slowly. They are packed with more fiber and nutrients than simple carbs and release glucose more slowly into your bloodstream.
Examples of complex carbs include:
- Fiber-rich fruits and vegetables
- Whole grains
How many carbs is enough carbs?
The most recent nutritional science recommends consuming 1 to 4 grams of carbohydrate (CHO) per kilogram (KG) of body weight pre-exercise, somewhere between one and four hours before.
- 1g/1kg CHO consumed 1 hour before exercise
- 2g/kg CHO consumed 2 hours before exercise
- 3g/kg CHO consumed 3 hours before exercise
- 4g/kg CHO consumed 4 hours before exercise
Timing is Everything
When it comes to climber nutrition, you shouldn’t only focus on what you eat, but also when you eat.
Learning when to eat before a climbing session, how to keep yourself fueled during the session, and what to consume after the session to aid recovery all involve the correct timing.
The food you put in your body will act like fuel for your climbing. Therefore, you want to eat high-quality foods and eat them at the correct time.
For the most part, you want to give your body time to digest. Typically, having a big healthy meal a few hours before a climbing session is ideal. A small, easily digestible snack right before your session is also a good idea.
Ideally, you are looking for a balance of carbohydrates, fat, and protein. Some common pre-workout meals include:
- Hard boiled eggs and crackers
- Banana and nut butter
- A power bar and fruit
- The classic PB and J sandwich with apple
- Oatmeal with peanut butter and berries
What you want to avoid is eating too close to when you start climbing. Eating too close to exercise can lead to gastrointestinal distress. To avoid gastrointestinal distress, avoid consuming supper fatty, protein-packed and fiber-rich foods within 60 minutes of your session.
Instead, give yourself plenty of time, or go with a liquid meal, like a protein shake, because they are easier to digest and break down
During your climbing session, the goal is to consume small amounts of different foods to avoid bonking. Bonking is when your body runs out of fuel to perform its best. In other words, the muscles become depleted of glycogen, the carbohydrate energy stored that your body uses to fuel itself.
Symptoms of bonking may include:
- Poor coordination
- Cognitive impairment
- Extreme physical weakness
To avoid bonking, proper hydration and nutrition is critical. You want to drink plenty of water and consume easily digestible foods like granola, dried fruit, power bars, or nuts throughout your climbing session.
After the climbing session, your focus transitions to recovery. The food you consume after climbing directly correlates to how well your body will adapt, recover, and prepare for the next session.
For the most part, protein is the most important for a proper recovery. Ideally, you should eat a meal high in protein within 30 to 60 minutes after a climbing session to help the protein synthesis process. After a climbing session, consuming protein-rich foods will help replenish energy stores and build, repair, and maintain muscle.
High-quality food sources of protein include fish, meat, eggs, and dairy products. But you can also get tons of protein from plant-based sources, such as soy, legumes, quinoa, and plant-based powders like pea protein.
Drink More Water
One of the most important considerations you can make to improve your diet to support your climbing is to drink more water.
Hydration plays a critical role in performance, injury prevention, and recovery. But how much fluid should you drink?
It’s difficult to make specific recommendations because climbers come in different shapes and sizes, have different metabolisms, climb with different intensities and durations, and climb in variable climates.
Nonetheless, here are some important guidelines for your next climbing session.
|Hydration Guidelines for Rock Climbing|
✅ Drink 17-20 ounces of water 1-2 hours before exercise
✅ Drink 7-10 ounces of water 10-15 minutes before exercise
|During climbing||✅ Drink 5 to 10 ounces of water every 10-15 minutes|
|After climbing||✅ Drink 16 to 24 ounces of water for each pound you lost due to sweating|
A Problematic Diet
In many modern and industrialized societies, the average person’s diet is what researchers have named a “Western Diet.” The Western diet vastly differs from our ancestral diets, also known as Paleolithic diets, prioritizing an enormous variety of wild plants and animal foods. And, of course, the Paleolithic diet did not contain any processed foods.
On the other hand, the standard American Diet, or Western diet, includes a lot of processed foods, refined sugars, and other unhealthy ingredients. In particular, the Western diet is characterized by five critical characteristics.
- An increase in energy intake and a decrease in energy expenditure
- Increased saturated fats, omega-6 fatty acids, trans fatty acids, and a decrease in omega-3 fatty acids
- A decrease in complex carbohydrates and fiber
- An increase in cereal grains and a decrease in fruits and vegetables
- A decrease in protein, antioxidants, and calcium
As a result of the Western Diet and lifestyle, chronic inflammation, cancers, and other degenerative diseases have become a severe threat to public health. For example, one-third of all American adults (roughly 71 million people) have one or more types of cardiovascular disease, including 13.2 million cases of coronary heart disease.
Climber Nutrition Recommendations to Correct the Western Diet
The Western Diet many of us have become accustomed to is problematic and unsustainable. Fortunately, as climbers, we prioritize physical exercise and eating healthy to limit some of the drawbacks of our Western culture’s diet.
Here are some recommendations to correct or counteract the Western diet many of us have become accustomed to consuming.
- Prioritize whole, organic, and fresh foods.
- Increase consumption of omega-3 fatty acids from fish, fish oil supplements, or plant sources.
- Avoid trans fats and limit your intake of saturated fats. Instead, substitute monosaturated (nuts, seeds, avocados) and polyunsaturated fats ( whole grains, soy, and fish).
- Focus on lean protein sources, like skinless poultry, fish, game meats, and lean cuts of red meat.
- Avoid high-fat, salty, processed meats like bacon, sausage, and deli meats.
- Drink more water and less sugary drinks
Final Thoughts - There Is No “Best” Diet for Climbers
There are a lot of articles on the internet that try to explain the “best” diet for climbers. But unfortunately, there is no perfect answer. What’s best for you may ultimately differ from what you learn online or see other climbers doing in their lives.
That’s why this article talked about the non-negotiables of nutrition – the basic commonalities that are true for every human who wants to perform their best and improve their climbing, whether they be a pro climber or an amateur.
So, take what we explained here with a grain of salt, and apply it to your climbing in a way that makes your body feel healthy and happy.