Post-exercise Nutrition for Rock Climbing
By Michelle Jospe
Nutrition can have a big impact on how well you climb. What foods you choose and when you eat can influence your energy, performance, endurance, and recovery. There has been a lot of research conducted concerning what foods are best for sports performance, and we can use this information to better our climbing performance.
The period immediately after exercising is a very important time; what you choose to eat during this period will either help or hinder your future climbing performance. That said, it is also important to eat a good snack before hitting the crag or gym—choose something that is high in carbs, low in fat, and is easily digestible.
Recovery eating is the most important thing you can do to feel good and strong for the next day on the rock. To become fitter and stronger between climbing sessions, our bodies need to adapt to the physiological stress we’ve put them through. To start the next climbing session in the best shape possible, we need to refuel muscle glycogen, replace fluids and electrolytes lost in sweat, and make new muscle proteins and red blood cells.
Climbing uses up muscle glycogen (the carbohydrate stored in muscles), which is what powers movement. It takes up to 24 hours to completely replenish muscle glycogen, so fuelling up as soon as you finish climbing is the best thing you can do to ensure optimal performance for the next day. The sooner you provide the necessary nutrients to your body, the sooner your body can start restoring itself. Proper and speedy recovery nutrition is most important when you’re putting in long and hard climbing days, without resting in between.
Consuming a combination of carbs and protein within 30 minutes after exercise is ideal for climbers, as this will allow your body to replenish glycogen and build new muscle. As a rule of thumb, you should aim to eat a total of 1g of carbs per kg of your body-weight, and 0.2g of protein per kg of your body-weight in this period. Foods that are low in fat are best as fat slows down the speed of digestion. These recommendations are relevant for all kinds of climbers and mountaineers, but the foods that are available to people vary, so read nutritional labels and find appropriate combinations for your body size.
If you have access to a kitchen soon after exercising, some recovery snacks that will assist speedy recovery include:
• Breakfast cereal and milk
• Low-fat yoghurt, plain or flavoured, plus fresh or tinned fruit
• Fruit, cottage cheese and sultanas
• Baked beans (half a can) and two slices of toast
• A large mug of hot chocolate made with milk plus four low-fat biscuits
• Flavoured milk (500g)
• Two slices of toast with edam cheese (21g) and apple juice
Muesli bars are a common snack after climbing. Unfortunately, the majority of muesli, snack, and cereal bars are low in protein, and high in fat. You would need to eat six to eight of most bars to get enough protein, which would result in eating around 30g of fat, which will slow digestion and increase calorie intake, with little benefit.
If you’re trying to lose weight, pick healthy snacks that have high amounts of vitamins and minerals, such as calcium and follow up with a healthy meal afterwards. Alcohol has a lot of calories with no nutrients, and does not contribute towards recovery, so limiting alcohol will help you lose weight.
Climbers often finish the day with some level of dehydration, especially after a hot, sunny day at the crag. It’s important to restore fluid balance, as dehydration can worsen performance during later climbing sessions. Around 500ml of fluid per hour while exercising is recommended, but this changes with the intensity of exercise, the temperature, the humidity, and the size and genetics of the individual climber. A good way to measure hydration is to weigh yourself before and after a session. For every kilogram lost, you need to drink 1.5kg of fluid to replace it.
Our bodies need both water and electrolytes, especially salt and potassium, to properly rehydrate. Starting your session properly hydrated and drinking throughout the day is key to avoiding dehydration. Drinking water while eating your recovery snack is a great way to rehydrate and refuel, as the salt from the food will restore your electrolytes, so you won’t need to buy sports drinks. Sports drinks are useful in hot weather, or when it is difficult to consume enough carbs. Flavoured milks are an easy way to meet your fluid, electrolyte, carb, and protein needs after exercise.
It is commonly thought that caffeine increases dehydration. Fortunately new research has shown that caffeine doesn’t increase urine production as much as previously thought, especially for people who are used to caffeine, so drinking coffee, tea, and caffeinated soft drinks can be a good way to rehydrate after climbing. Even better, a new study has shown that having caffeine along with carbs can increase muscle glycogen recovery, so a cup of coffee with your recovery snack may be ideal!
Alcohol doesn’t necessarily negatively affect performance, as long as we drink sensibly. When drinking, you are likely to forget about optimal recovery nutrition, therefore it’s a good idea to refuel with recovery snacks and rehydrate before drinking your celebratory beer. A couple of drinks the evening before a big climbing day won’t have a negative effect for most people, but you should avoid heavy drinking.
If you injure yourself climbing, avoid drowning your sorrows, since keeping away from alcohol for 24 hours after an injury will help it heal faster. Alcohol increases unwanted swelling to injuries, which slows down the speed of healing.
Unfortunately, heavy drinking (eight to ten standard drinks) interferes with recovery by reducing rehydration (since alcohol increases urine loss), and reducing glycogen recovery. So you should avoid high levels of alcohol consumption when you’re trying to perform at your best.
Eating a carb and protein rich snack and drinking enough fluid as soon as possible after climbing will ensure that you will be perfectly fuelled for your next session on the rock.