Food is energy. Or, to be more specific, carbohydrates are energy.
Ok, technically fat, and to a much lesser extent protein, are also sources of energy, but carbs are your body’s main fuel source, especially for high intensity activities like climbing.
So does that mean you should go and shovel platefuls of carbs down your throat before your next climbing session?
Short answer: No.
Longer answer: Your body relies on an adequate supply of ALL nutrients (carbs, protein, fat, vitamins, minerals, and water) in order to provide you with necessary energy and ensure optimal energy metabolism. Yes, your pre-climbing meal should emphasize carbs, but the content and timing of your meal both play pretty important factors in the outcome of your session.
The main role of nutrition, from a sports perspective, is to support your training.
Let’s just call all climbing ‘training’. Even though you may not be doing any specific training for climbing, I’m going to put the assumption out there that whether you’re training or not, you want to have a good session and see some kind progress and improvement.
Knowing when to eat and how to select the right nourishing foods may help to delay the onset of fatigue and improve performance. Having a shortage of almost any nutrient can be a factor that leads to fatigue because it can disrupt the optimal performance of many body processes, like the metabolic pathways your body uses to create energy. High intensity performance, on the other hand, may become impaired when you don’t adequately stock your fast twitch muscle fibres with fuel.
Tips for Knowing WHAT to Eat
- A meal that is high in carbohydrate, low in fat, and has low to moderate amounts of protein will be easily digestible and will provide your body with a good amount of energy
- Select your calories wisely by choosing foods that have a high nutrient density (high amount of nutrients for the lowest amount of calories) so your body’s energy systems can continue to function properly, even as they work harder while you climb
- Minimize or avoid refined carbohydrates because they create rapid spikes in your blood sugar levels that lead to hypoglycemia (low blood sugar), resulting in feelings of lightheadedness, hunger, and fatigue. Refined carbohydrates are sugars and starches that go through processing and are essentially stripped of their nutritional value. They are typically high in calories, refined sugars, refined grains, fat, and sodium, and low in nutrients, and fiber. Examples include: breads, cookies, cakes, muffins, pastries, pasta, candy, etc.
- Fiber is great at helping you feel full after a meal, but minimize the amount you eat the closer it gets to your climbing session because it can result in some intestinal discomfort as you exercise.
- Avoid or minimize gastrointestinal distress by avoiding bulky foods like bran, gas forming foods like beans, spicy foods that may cause heartburn, and high sugar foods that can cause cramps and nausea.
- High fat and/or high protein meals delay digestion, reducing the energy your body has to climb and can also lead to intestinal distress if you climb while your stomach is still full.
- Complex carbohydrates (especially starches) are great for energy. Examples are: whole grains, brown rice, beans, peas, squash, sweet potatoes, plantain, and other root vegetables. Also, keep in mind that your body prefers the carbs in vegetables rather than whole grains because they don’t increase your insulin levels as much as grain carbs.
- Proper hydration also plays an important role in the proper functioning of your body. Be conscious that you’re drinking enough fluids to keep you hydrated and avoid diuretics like alcohol, which increase water loss. Also, be aware that large amounts of protein increase the water output of your kidneys.
Tips for Knowing WHEN to Eat
- Don’t skip breakfast. A good breakfast can supply you with a good amount of calories and nutrients to start your day. Opting to skip breakfast is comparable to a small fast, since you likely haven’t eaten for several hours. Your blood sugar may drop, resulting in weakness and a hit to your climbing.
Interesting fact: A study done on cyclists showed that having breakfast improved their endurance by 36% compared to those who skipped breakfast.
- Eating a meal and then heading to the gym or the crag is not a good idea. You want your stomach to be relatively empty with hunger sensations minimized as you enter into your climbing session. A large meal eaten 3-4 hours prior will give you enough time for digestion.
- If you’ve consumed a good meal 3-4 hours prior to climbing, then your fuel stores should be adequately stocked and it is not necessary to eat anything immediately before going climbing.
- As I mentioned before, a full meal should be eaten 3-4 hours prior to climbing.
- A snack or very small meal can be consumed about 1 hour before climbing if you didn’t have time for a full meal a couple hours before. Focus on food with a low glycemic index (i.e. foods that do not lead to a rapid spike in blood sugar). Some examples of foods with low glycemic index include: carrots, beans, lentils, apples, oranges, bananas, and peanuts.
- A fruit can be consumed 15-30 minutes before climbing as a means to help ensure adequate hydration.
- If you feel like you’re in need of a quick energy boost, an easily digestible snack can be consumed immediately before your session. Easily digestible snacks include: a smoothie, fruit juice, vegetable juice, fruit, or a handful of nuts or seeds.
A critical point to remember when it comes to sports nutrition is that maintaining a daily diet that provides you with a good balance of carbs (emphasizing complex carbohydrates), protein, fat, vitamins, minerals and water will provide your body with a good supply of energy to meet your climbing needs. This means that a good and healthful diet will do a sufficient job in keeping your fuel levels adequate, and less effort will be required on your part to keep topping up your tank.
And lastly, one of the most important things you can do is to experiment with different foods and eating strategies. Many people react differently to carbs, so documenting and learning which foods do and don’t agree with you can be extremely useful.