I’d like to think that I’ve always had pretty good eating habits, but it wasn’t until a couple years after I started climbing that I began to focus on how I could improve my climbing performance with proper nutrition.
Have you ever stopped to think about how proper nutrition could help your climbing?
If you’re a climber that serious about improving your climbing then this is something you’ve probably started to give some thought to. The foods and liquids you consume are your fuel, so obviously your body is only going to function at its best if you fuel it properly. But, it’s not just about fueling your body before a climb, during and after your climb are just as important.
First let’s understand why nutrition plays such a key role in climbing performance. Your muscles rely on energy stored in your muscles in order to perform as you’d like them too. In climbing, we rely heavily on our forearms, which is the muscle that is usually the first to suffer from exhaustion. Our forearms get so tried because they are in a state of contraction the majority of the time and can’t receive oxygen. When your muscles can’t rely on oxygen to produce energy (aerobic system) they have to rely on the anaerobic system, which generates energy in the absence of oxygen.
Unfortunately the anaerobic system is not nearly as efficient as the aerobic system. Your fuel storage depletes very quickly when your muscles have to rely on the anaerobic system, which means that your muscles will reach exhaustion much faster. So, seeing how quickly your muscles use your stored energy during climbing, I bet you can understand how important it is to properly fill your fuel tank. With proper nutrition you can delay muscle exhaustion and muscle exhaustion is usually the main reason for failure on a climb.
Before a climbing session you should be focusing on hydrating and filling your fuel tank. Hydration is important in improving muscle performance. Even just a slight decrease in hydration can result in a notable decrease in performance. But, hydration is not something you should only be concerned with before a climbing session. If you want your body to operate at an optimal rate at all times, then staying hydrated is something you should focus on every day not just on days you plan to climb.
Maintain hydration by drinking water throughout the day and avoid drinking too much fluid shortly before you start climbing which can make you feel a bit sloshy. It’s also important to gauge your fluid intake based on the weather. If the temperature is expected to be hot and/or humid, then just keep in mind that your fluid loss is going to be greater and occur faster.
Ok, so staying hydrated is a pretty simple concept, it’s the process of properly and efficiently filling your fuel tank that’s a bit more tricky. Basically, muscle fuel comes in the form of glucose and glycogen which your body gets from consuming carbohydrates. Your primary energy source is glucose and glycogen is your secondary energy source. So, in order to increase your muscle endurance and delay the onset of fatigue you want to raise your glucose levels. This will delay the need for your muscles to dip into your glycogen tank, which depletes significantly faster.
If you climb regularly then you should also have a regular consumption of carbohydrates so you can maintain good levels in your fuel tank. Now I’m sure you’re wondering what kind of carbohydrates are best for you to eat. Well, there are two types of carbohydrates; simple and complex. Simple carbohydrates are quickly broken down and absorbed by your body, whereas complex carbohydrates must be broken down into simple sugars first and provide a more gradual energy release. Ideally you want to consume complex carbohydrates at least a couple hours before your climbing session to give your body the time it needs to extract the energy and diet the food. Simple carbohydrates are great in cases where you’ve been stuck at work all day and need a snack that will give you energy fast as you make your way to the gym or crag.
So, what carbohydrates should you choose?
Well, choosing healthy carbohydrates can make a huge difference in not just your energy level but your health. Simple carbohydrates can be found in all fruits, but foods like sweets and soda also contain a great deal of simple carbohydrates. Choosing the healthier fruit option supplies you with the energy you need but also provides your body with nourishment. Energy from foods with added sugars is short lasting and high in fat and offer little nourishment.
There are many complex carbohydrates to choose from. You can find them in starches, grains, and vegetables. Whole grains, root vegetables and dried beans are excellent sources that are packed with vitamins, minerals, fiber and protein. Non-starchy vegetables are also great energizers that are rich in nutrients and fiber, and even though they provide less carbohydrates than starchy vegetables, they do wonders for your health.
Now, as a climber the last thing you want to do is feel heavy and weigh yourself down so you want to stick to foods that are light. Having a big bowl of pasta shortly before your climbing session is probably not the best idea. On climbing days, plan your meals according to your schedule. This makes it much easier to make sure you are supplying your body with the energy it will need for you to get out and send!
What are your favorite pre-climbing snacks? Share them below!