Proper Nutrition for Indoor Rock Climbers
Physiology of Rock Climbing
Physiologically, climbing is unique to all other exercise, and Nutrition for Indoor Rock Climbers is critical to their success.
In most recreational activities an increase in exercise intensity is paralleled by an increase in oxygen consumption. However, at least with high-level climbers, oxygen consumption does not necessarily increase with the difficulty of the climb. Additionally, overall energy expenditure is far less than in cycling or running because it is confined to a selective group of muscles primarily due to sustained and intermittent forearm contraction.
Anaerobic metabolism plays a key role in energy production to drive muscle contraction for climbing. Muscles have two energy systems: an aerobic one, which generates energy in the presence of oxygen, and an anaerobic one, which generates energy in the absence of oxygen.
Sustained forearm contraction relies almost exclusively on the anaerobic system, which is only about five percent as efficient as the aerobic one. This reliance on the anaerobic system has important consequences: Muscles fatigue more quickly and nutrient stores are depleted more rapidly than in aerobic exercise.
A third consequence of anaerobic metabolism is acid buildup in the muscles. During climbing, acid levels can increase almost threefold (compared to resting), and they remain elevated even after the climb. Acid buildup is related directly to muscle fatigue. Hand-grip strength can decline by a whooping 57 percent from the beginning to the end of a climb.
Muscle fatigue is not the only issue for climbers. Brain fatigue, also known as central fatigue, is a major factor in performance decline. Fatigue signals emanating from the brain can directly impact the force of muscle contraction. Additionally, brain-fatigue signals can produce a loss of concentration.
Although nutrition can mitigate the depletion of muscle-energy stores and delay the onset of fatigue, climbing imposes practical limitations on fueling methods. Weight and bulk are the enemies of climbing performance, the nutrition must be light and portable. The climbing environment also imposes additional limitations. Hot, humid or windy conditions can speed fluid loss and dehydration. In light of these physiological and practical obstacles, how does a climber select the best combination of nutrients to achieve optimum performance during a climb and rapid recovery afterward?
The ideal way to develop an effective nutrition plan is to segment your effort on every climb into three stages, recognizing that each stage has different nutritional needs:
Priming for Your Climb
Most climbers use the priming (pre-climb) stage to fully hydrate their bodies. The beverage of choice is water and the standard recommendations suggest consuming one liter or more prior to starting the climb. However, fluid intake should be driven by three considerations: the number of climbs one expects to do in a specific time frame, 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 your climb(s), 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 quite possible 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.
This is because muscles contain only a limited amount of glycogen (the form in which the muscle stores energy). When glycogen is depleted, muscle performance drops dramatically. Even though climbing utilizes 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.
Consuming food or beverages can delay glycogen depletion by raising blood-glucose levels. Muscles can utilize blood glucose as an energy source. The net result is that limited muscle-glycogen stores are preserved and muscle endurance is extended.
Glucose comes from dietary carbohydrate. Therefore fluid and carbohydrate are the cornerstones of pre-climb nutrition. The goal is to raise the blood-glucose level before you start climbing. But there’s a role for protein, too. Protein has been shown not only to improve re-hydration, but also to help minimize fatigue signals emanating from the brain.
There are numerous advantages to consuming fluids, like sports drinks that contain protein, as part of your
You can use various combinations of fluid and solid food to optimize your pre-climb nutrition, but there are a number of advantages to consuming a sports drink that contains protein because it can meet your total pre-climb needs, is easy to consume, and absorbs rapidly. As a general guideline, consume 100 to 120 calories of a carbohydrate/protein sports drink in the priming stage.
There are a number of key goals for fueling during your climb: providing a rapid source of energy, minimizing dehydration and controlling muscle damage. All forms of exercise create muscle damage, which is an underrated cause of fatigue and loss of performance. In climbing, muscle damage in the forearm muscles is of special concern. Research has shown that protein, when consumed with carbohydrate during exercise, reduces muscle damage and thus delays fatigue. Again, as shown, lots of different nutrition options and combinations can meet your fueling goals.
The University of Montana studied three treatments of 1) a carbohydrate/electrolyte sports drink, 2) water, and 3) water combined with a carb/protein gel in a 4:1 ratio. Dr. Seifert, the study’s principal investigator, said, “One reason we conducted this study is that rock climbing is characterized by a high percentage of isometric muscle contractions, which cause significant muscle damage. We therefore expected that carb/protein supplementation would reduce the level of muscle damage.”
In studies, researchers report that the carb/protein gel, compared to the carb-only supplement, did indeed reduce muscle damage—by 56 percent. And compared to water, the carb/protein gel reduced muscle damage by 79 percent. Seifert concluded, “These findings indicate that a carb/protein gel supplement offers significant advantages during rock climbing. Depending on the intensity of your climbs, your body consumes between 100 to 200 calories per hour.
Perhaps not surprisingly, an online poll of climbers noted that beer was their preferred recovery drink. However, your body’s nutritional needs do not end when the climb is completed. Nothing against beer (!), but we would that serious climbers delay their first beer until after they have consumed real recovery nutrition, as doing so will reduce their post-climb muscle soreness and help them climb better the next time.
The post-exercise period represents a unique metabolic opportunity for athletes. 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.
Research has shown that when the right combination of nutrients is consumed during this time, the result is greater and more complete restoration of muscle-energy stores and an increase in protein synthesis, which is critical for repairing and rebuilding damaged muscle tissue. This greater recovery translates into a much stronger performance the next time you exercise. As a general guideline, consume about 125 calories of a recovery beverage for every 30 minutes of climbing.
There two things of note here. Two caveats. First, if you delay consuming your recovery nutrition beyond the recovery window, you lose most if not all of the benefits of this heightened metabolic activity. Second, not all nutrients work equally well. Multiple studies have shown that 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.
“My research subjects are high-level, experienced climbers. After a two- to three-hour climbing session they are totally spent, which underscores why refueling during a climb is so critical. Yet in spite of the obvious benefits I have found that most climbers do not pay attention to nutrition. It is not unusual for them to complete a three- to four-pitch climb and their only nutrition is a single water bottle. I understand why they don’t want to carry additional weight, but this weight must be balanced against the obvious benefits of improved climbing performance and safety. At the minimum climbers should carry a handful of gel packs, which weigh almost nothing.”
Your nutrition alone won’t magically transform you into a 5.14 climber! But consuming the right nutrients at the right times will enable you to climb stronger and longer, and bounce back faster.
We hope you’ll stop by and see us at our newest gym location in Chesterfield, Maryland Heights or downtown St. Louis sometime soon, or visit us in Bloomington, IL. You can also call for more information, at (314) 991-2516.