Every athlete, regardless of the sport they do or the level they do it at, is aware that the food they put into their body impacts how their body performs. This is true with climbing as it is with all other sports, but since some aspects of climbing, such as bouldering, are more geared at short and powerful energy, while others, such as multi-pitch climbing, are more geared at long and steady energy, the nutritional needs of climbers vary wildly.
Like we sort of started to touch on above, nutrition is highly personalized, and what works for your friend might not work for you. This article will provide some guidelines as to what kinds of foods tend to be helpful and what kinds of foods to avoid, but remember, you are the expert on your body, so make sure you take care of your needs and don’t just do what someone else does because it’s trendy.
Why is Having a Climbing Diet Important?
How important having a defined climbing diet is depends entirely on what sort of climber you are. If you are a casual weekend climber who maybe does five single-pitch sport routes in a day and mostly just hangs out with your friends, a defined climbing diet may not be the most important thing for you. If you prefer to be out climbing hard every day or plan for long and strenuous climbing adventures, then perhaps developing a climbing diet would be a good thing for you to start to think about.
More important than having a set climbing diet is understanding how different foods are likely to make you feel and to have a general understanding of how your body uses different nutrients within foods. That way, you’ll have a good base knowledge of how the food that you choose to eat will impact your performance.
Understanding the why behind the choices you make when it comes to food and learning how your body responds to different types of food will also help you realize when it’s worth it for you to invest in expensive, high-quality foods and where you can cut corners to save some money. We know as well as anyone else that climbing can be an expensive hobby, but there are ways to pay attention to your food intake and bodily needs without spending a fortune doing so.
It’s important to develop a climbing diet that keeps you full all day and doesn’t lead to huge crashes between meals and snacks. These crashes are often a result of consuming foods that are digested too fast and don’t stick around in your body. Foods that take more time to digest burn slowly and will provide you with a more steady amount of energy.
What Should I Know about Nutrition in General?
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Generally, your body needs a good mix of protein, carbohydrates, and fats to function. These are called macronutrients and are what we will be focusing on in this article. You also need to make sure that you are getting all of the vitamins and minerals that you need, but we won’t be talking much about these, but they are important as well.
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Protein: Protein is what helps you build muscles. If you work out frequently and don’t consume enough protein, your body won’t be able to properly rebuild the tears created in your muscles by working out, and you won’t be able to get stronger.
Protein is typically found in meat but is also found in tofu, beans, nuts, broccoli, eggs, and spinach, just to name a few. If you are worried about your protein consumption, you can also use a protein powder to supplement your diet. The best way to get protein into a climber’s diet is through a variety of sources, such as those listed above.
If you do consume animal proteins, try to make a majority of the animal protein be from lean meats and limit your consumption of red meats. This means eating more chicken, turkey, and fish while limiting your consumption of beef and pork. These lean proteins pack a heavy punch of protein while minimizing the amount of harmful fats you are introducing into your body.
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Carbohydrates: Carbs are often thought of as something to be avoided, but your body really needs complex carbs in order to maintain a good level of energy over time. This means eating things such as whole wheat bread, brown rice, potatoes, fruits, and leafy greens, which are all better carbs for climbers or other athlete to be eating than anything that’s really heavily processed.
Carbs are broken down into two main categories; complex carbs and simple carbs. Simple carbs are easily digestible by your body, but won’t keep you full for very long since you tend to burn through them fast. Complex carbs take longer for your body to digest, but you are able to continue to get energy from them the whole time that they’re being digested.
Carbs that are less processed tend to be better for you, so try to steer away from foods such as white bread and instead think about getting whole wheat bread. Types of bread are also a great distinction between simple carbs, as seen in white bread, and complex carbs, as seen in whole wheat bread. Simple switches can help make your diet better for your climbing goals without changing your daily routine too much.
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Fats: Fats are a great way to provide your body with energy and are also necessary for the proper absorption of some vitamins. Many people try to limit the amount of fats they consume, but as with carbs, it’s all about picking the healthy fats. Try including some healthy fats in your diet such as avocado, olive oil, salmon, eggs, and nuts, as opposed to eating things like donuts.
These healthy fats should make up around 25-30% of your daily caloric intake, but this percentage depends on the style of climbing that you are doing. If you are more into long multi-pitch routes, maybe think about increasing the amount of fat to up to 35%. On the other hand, if you prefer bouldering, maybe think about lowering the percentage to around 20%.
Pre-Climb Nutrition and Recommended Foods for Climbers
Hydration is key! This goes for all aspects of climbing nutrition, but it is so important that it can’t be overstated. If your body isn’t hydrated, your joints won’t be able to move as freely, and you are more likely to injure yourself, so make sure you are well hydrated before, during, and after your day of climbing.
A good pre-climb meal or snack is about 30-50 minutes before climbing and consists mostly of carbs with some protein intake. Try to avoid fats as a pre-climb food choice since they tend to make you feel sluggish and can even hinder your performance.
For shorter climbs or bouldering days, try having some dried fruit to help fuel you up. For a longer day or a multi-pitch day, try having some slower digesting complex carbs, such as brown rice, to keep your energy up the whole day.
Mid-Climb Performance Nutrition and Recommended Foods for Climbers
Don’t forget to drink water and stay hydrated! A good recommendation for how much water you should be consuming per day as a baseline is half of your weight’s number in ounces. For example, if you weigh 160 pounds, you should aim to be consuming about 80 ounces of water per day. This only increases with exercise, so keep the hydration up!
During the climb, think about snacking every 60-90 minutes, depending on how strenuous your climb is and how fast your metabolism is. These snacks should be easily digestible carbs, such as nuts or more dried fruits. If you start to feel sluggish, though, don’t be afraid to eat more frequently, such as every 45-60 minutes.
Smaller granola bars are a great mid-climb snack. Dried fruit and nuts are also great snacks to help keep your energy up. This is how GORP, or good old raisins and peanuts, also called trail mix, got its popularity. The mix is a great combination of salty nuts and sweet dried fruit with the occasional chocolate. You can buy a pre-made trail mix or make your own with whatever mix-ins you want. Check out our recommended climbing snacks for rock climbing here.
Post-Climb Nutrition and Recovery for Climbers
Post-climb recovery foods are extremely important as they are what helps your body recover from a day of climbing. The way the human body builds new muscle mass and gets stronger is by creating micro-tears in your muscles through exercise, and then healing these tears to make them stronger. This process does require a lot of fuel, so make sure you continue to take care of your body even after your day of climbing is over.
Continue to provide your body with a good supply of carbs, since these are often easily digestible and will help minimize the post-climb crash. Your body will also need these carbs to help power the rebuilding of your muscles, so make sure you feed your body right.
Another important factor in post-climb nutrition is to include a good amount of protein. This provides your body with the building blocks it needs to rebuild your torn muscles. This is also why many athletes choose to drink a protein shake or even just a glass of milk or chocolate milk as a post-workout recovery drink.
It’s also important to limit your fat consumption during your post-climb recovery period. Fats will make you feel more lethargic and slow your recovery down, so stick to carbs and proteins as a post-climb snack.
It’s still super important to maintain your hydration levels after the climb. Remember, your body is rebuilding muscles, and anything to do with muscles requires large amounts of water. A good way to tell if you are hydrated enough is by the color of your pee. Dehydrated pee is bright yellow and may have an orange-ish hue to it, while hydrated pee is light yellow and can even be clear if you’re really hydrated.
Even if you’ve eaten all the right healthy foods and are well hydrated, you may still feel sluggish after a long day of climbing. This could be your body telling you that your food consumption is not balanced ideally for your body, but it also could mean that you need more salt.
Salt is something that we tend to limit, which is good because too much salt can lead to a variety of health issues, but some salt is necessary. If you spend a long day outside climbing or pushing yourself in the gym, you are very likely to sweat, and your body loses salt as it sweats so you’ll want to make sure that you have replenished your body’s salt reserves.
In general, after a day of climbing you should be replenishing all the supplies in your body that may be low and providing your body with everything it needs to recover and rebuild. A good balanced meal with healthy protein and carbs is a great thing to eat after a day of climbing.
How to Find Your Optimal Climbing Weight?
Weight is an interesting topic with climbers because it’s really all about balance. While having too much extra weight to pull up a climb can make it harder, not having enough weight means that you won’t have the muscle mass needed to climb. This may sound like a hard balance to find, but the ideal weight for climbing doesn’t actually exist, it’s all about being in a healthy weight range.
Generally, being made up of more lean muscle will be more helpful when climbing, but if you are not naturally built that way, that’s totally fine too. Just remember that it is about finding the right balance of muscle and weight for you.
There are some tips for how to tailor your diet to maintain a certain weight since once your body gets used to eating a certain amount of food, it can often be hard to change. The main tip is to mix your carbs and proteins. Eating both nutrients at once, in one meal or food item, will help your body maintain its blood sugar levels for longer and will keep you going without feeling hungry too soon.
This will also help minimize hunger pangs, meaning that you will be less likely to overeat. This is also super helpful when trying to maintain a certain weight or even lose weight. Eating whole, healthy foods that will keep you full and energized for a long time are a great way to lose weight as a climber.
Some great snack options include: beans and rice, chicken and a leafy green salad, veggies and hummus
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Popular Alternative Diets of Climbers
Climbers tend to be pigeon-holed into the role of the hippy-outdoorsy friend. You know, the vegan or vegetarian, earth-loving friend, and while there may be some merit to climbers often be sustainably minded and aware of their impact on the nature around them, this doesn’t capture all climbers.
There are plenty of successful climbers on any number of diets. Many professional climbers are omnivores, pescatarian, vegetarian, and vegan. If you pay attention to your body’s nutritional needs, it is possible to be an athlete on any diet; you just have to find what works for you.
In this article, we’ve recommended some ideas for foods and snacks that fit the categories we’ve talked about, but feel free to find other foods and snacks that also work in these categories. This is a starting list, not a complete list, so just take time and find some snacks that work for you.
Generally, the most successful climbing diets consist of a good amount of whole foods with complex carbs and healthy fats and proteins. It’s best to minimize your consumption of highly processed foods since these tend to have a high amount of sugar for the amount of carbs and protein that it has. Sugars aren’t bad, but they do burn up fast and will leave you feeling hungry and sluggish soon after eating them.
This means that many climbers tend to eat more whole foods, such as nuts or dried fruits, instead of heavily processed foods, such as donuts and cookies. These healthy snacks are also easy to find if you are on a particular diet. Most vegan snacks already tend to be whole, healthy foods, so there isn’t a lot of change if you want to be a vegan climber.
Wrapping Things Up: Climbing Diets and Nutrition Must-Knows for Rock Climbers
In general, a good climbing diet is personalized to your body and is designed to make your body function at its highest level. Make sure you take into consideration the type of climbing that you’ll be doing and the weather, climate, and other environmental factors that are likely to influence your diet. Boulderers tend to like more quick fuel snacks, while multi-pitch climbers or mountaineers tend to prefer more long-term, sustained energy snacks. Both are great; it just depends on what your goal is.
Because you read this post, you might also enjoy our post on how many calories do you burn rock climbing.