This phrase says it all. But how true really is it?
Throughout my life I’ve been paying a lot of attention to what I eat, not exactly how much though. I stopped eating red meat over twenty years ago and still occasionally eat fish. This probably makes you think, “But where does she get all her protein from?”. Well, small lifestyle changes and getting used to them, adapting and finding food we enjoy which also offers us some health benefits is the key. In addition, being quite active, eager to maintain my fitness and achieving rapid recovery makes me constantly re-evaluate the optimal combination of nutrients on my plate.
Even though nutrition seems individualistic, there are some overall recognised guidelines to help to optimise athletic performance. It is generally recommended that no matter your height, weight, or gender, all athletes should aim for about 120 grams of protein daily, divided as evenly as possible into 20 gram servings that are consumed being separated by three hours breaks between them. The best high-protein foods for me would be as little processed as possible and these include:
- Lean meat (poultry, fish, sea food or lean red meat)
- Low-fat cheese
- Nuts and seeds
- Chia seeds
Embrace the Complex Carbohydrates
The best diet for athletes in training, must include at least 40% of complex carbohydrates. They’re a significant source of long-lasting energy that helps your body maintain strength and brain power.
Some of the best complex carbs for your diet are:
- Wholemeal bread and pastries
- Nuts and seeds
- Brown rice
- Fruits (blueberries, bananas)
- Green veggies (spinach, kale, broccoli)
- Starchy veggies (regular and sweet potatoes, green peas)
One of the more persistent myths in sports nutrition is the idea that long-acting carbohydrates delay fatigue better than products containing “fast-acting” sugars because they provide a more sustained level of blood glucose. In fact, just the opposite is true. Exercise performance declines very rapidly when muscle-glycogen (the form in which the muscle stores energy) stores are depleted. To minimise it, preserving muscle glycogen as long as possible is extremely important. Fast-acting carbs are rapidly absorbed in the GI tract, transported to muscle cells, and metabolized to provide energy to working muscles. By providing an instant source of energy, fast-acting sugars preserve muscle glycogen resulting in extending endurance and this is critical for climbers. Some of the simple sugar sources are:
- Fresh fruit
- Energy bars
- Some veg including carrots and beetroot
- Sesame snaps
We need fats
Generally, athletes shouldn’t consume excessive amount of fats. Though healthy fats are a vital source of energy and their primary role is to slow down the process of digestion. But, wherever possible replace saturated fats (fatty meat, palm oil) with small amounts of monounsaturated (avocadoes, olive oil) and polyunsaturated fats. Polyunsaturated fats include omega-3 and omega-6 fats.
Omega-3 fatty acids are good for your heart in several ways. They help:
- Reduce triglycerides, a type of fat in your blood
- Reduce the risk of developing an irregular heartbeat (arrhythmia)
- Slow the buildup of plaque in your arteries
- Slightly lower your blood pressure
Omega-6 fatty acids may help:
- Control your blood sugar
- Reduce your risk for diabetes
- Lower your blood pressure
A rock climber’s diet should consist of 25-30 % fat at the most, depending on your activities. The best foods with healthy fats are:
- Coconut and its products
- Olive oil and olives
- Grass-fed butter
- Ground flaxseed
- Raw cacao nibs and dark chocolate
- Fatty fish (tuna, mackerel, salmon)
It is crucial to supply the body with consistent energy throughout the day but not overeat shortly before the physical performance. This is such a bad idea! So, not only start the day with some hearty breakfast but plan on eating small amounts of food throughout your climbing sessions to help sustain the energy. This will prevent the shakes when the sugar level drops, how many of you have been there before? These shakes are known as bonking. Bonking is what happens when an athlete’s blood sugar drops during long term exercise.
Also, an amount of research has shown that protein, when consumed with carbohydrates during exercise, reduces muscle damage and thereby, delays fatigue. Personally, to prevent bonking from happening and maintain sustained energy flow with minimised muscular damage, I often snack on natural energy sources such as bananas, dry fruit and nut mixes, honey sesame snaps, Nutella bars (not so natural but yummy) cheese and veg wraps.
Immediately after exercise, the metabolic machinery responsible for replenishing muscle-energy stores, rebuilding muscle protein and reducing muscle damage are in a heightened state of activation. Unfortunately, this metabolic window of opportunity is only open for about 45 minutes. As a general guideline, consume about 125 calories of a recovery beverage for every 30 minutes of climbing. The ideal recovery beverage contains carbohydrate and protein in a 4:1 ratio. In fact, compared to a carbohydrate-only beverage, a carb/protein beverage replaces muscle energy stores 128 percent better and rebuilds muscle protein 38 percent more effectively. The results compared to water are even more dramatic. The bottom line is that you need to consume appropriate recovery nutrition within 45 minutes of finishing each and every climb.
Most climbers use the pre-climb stage to fully hydrate their bodies. The beverage of choice is water and the standard recommendations suggest consuming one litre or more prior to starting the climb. However, fluid intake should be driven by three considerations: the number of climbs (or pitches), temperature and humidity and the fact that, on average, our GI tract can only absorb about 36 ounces of fluid per hour. If you are fully hydrated before you start climbing, top off by drinking 16-20 ounces. Drinking too much before you start climbing will make you feel uncomfortable and if you exceed your body’s absorption capacity, will do you little good.
There is no question that maintaining hydration is a critical goal. A fluid loss of two percent of overall body weight, which is not unrealistic when climbing in high temperatures, can significantly reduce muscle performance. However, hydration is just one part of the equation, and the pre-climb plan should always include nutritional supplementation beyond water. The reason why, is that muscles contain a limited amount of glycogen. When glycogen is depleted, muscle performance drops dramatically. Even though climbing utilises a selective group of muscles, the body cannot recruit glycogen from other muscle groups. In other words, there is no central glycogen pool. When you deplete glycogen in your forearms, it is not readily restored, and sustained use of the forearm muscles rapidly depletes the glycogen pool.
Replenishing lost electrolytes during physical performance, especially on athletic sport routes is also important. One of the best ways is to sip on young coconut water. But if you have kidney disease, the amount of potassium in a cup of coconut water could be dangerous and lead to an irregular heartbeat. People with chronic kidney disease should limit high-potassium foods and beverages, which includes any item with 200 milligrams or more potassium per portion.
My little favourites…
There is no magic bullet and we should eat well-balanced and varied diet but there are a few things that I consume almost every day. These include:
Freshly squeezed juice
To provide my body with vitamins, minerals and enzymes, I try to juice a selection of fruit and veg in my slow juicer and drink it as fresh as possible. My preferred selection of ingredients is half a cucumber, an apple, a carrot, a medium size beetroot, a cup of kale, a slice of ginger, short celery stick and a teaspoon of dry organic powdered pomegranate skin to increase antioxidant content. Its flavour is quite sweet and refreshing with pomegranate aftertaste. I do it approximately an hour or so before a physical activity or climbing outing. It is claimed in numerous studies that drinking beetroot juice can boost athletic performance up to 16%. This is because nitrate in beetroot juice leads to a reduction in oxygen uptake, making exercise less tiring. A number of studies reveal that drinking beetroot juice reduces oxygen uptake to an extent that cannot be achieved by any other known means, including training. Peak levels arrive about 2-3 hours after ingestion and are approaching baseline again by 12 hours later.
Another drink which I consume on daily basis is my first thing in the morning collagen drink. This helps me to regenerate my muscle tissue quicker, strengthen my bones and joints and regulate energy output. I started drinking it years ago, when I was recovering from my badly broken arm followed by two surgeries. In order to speed up the recovery of my damaged tissue, my physio recommended drinking hydrolysed collagen (type 1,2 and 3) with a mix of glucosamine sodium powder, chondroitin powder and MSM or eating chicken broth every day. Being a veggie, I went for option one. This is very simple to prepare as it takes a pint of lukewarm water, a large measuring spoon of premixed powdered supplements and a dash of lemon juice, as vitamin C helps to absorb collagen. I believe this drink really helps me to regenerate soft and hard tissue as well as speeds up the recovery process after injuries.
Shilajit- known as the “destroyer of weakness”
This mysterious sticky, black, tar-like substance comes from rocks in high mountain ranges. Shilajit has been used in traditional Indian Ayurvedic medicine for centuries, and when used correctly, shilajit may have several benefits for the body. This may be due in part to the high concentration of fulvic and humic acids, as well as many minerals. Decades of intense scientific analysis and study have revealed that it reduces stress and improves sleep and endurance, reduces pain and inflammation, promotes healing and detoxifies heavy metals, balances hormones and supports longevity. I take it only occasionally as it contains easily absorbable iron, as a veggie, I try to think about my overall diet and having my vitamins and minerals sourced in as natural way as possible. In order to introduce shilajit to a diet, a person can dissolve a pea-sized portion of it in liquid and drink it up to three times a day, depending on the instructions on the package. I dissolve it in a glass of lukewarm water and drink it about an hour before a physical activity as it can have slightly stimulating effects, not nearly as much as coffee though. The recommended dose of shilajit is 300 to 500 milligrams per day. However, it is important that a person speaks with a doctor before taking any natural supplements.
Hutchinson, A., (2013), Beet Juice: How much and when?
https://www.runnersworld.com/nutrition-weight-loss/a20806337/beet-juice-how-much-and-when/ . Accessed: June 2019.
Portman, R., (2015), Nutrition: Eating your way to better climbing. https://rockandice.com/rock-climbing-training/nutrition-eating-your-way-to-better-climbing/. Accessed: May 2019.
U.S. Department of Health and Human Services; U.S. Department of Agriculture. 2015 – 2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans. 8th Edition. health.gov/dietaryguidelines/2015/resources/2015-2020_Dietary_Guidelines.pdf. Updated December 2015. Accessed: May 2019.