The Importance of Diet in Climbing
“Every sport uses a different energy system, and climbing uses an energy system all its own”, explains Morteza “Morry” Tafakory, a good friend of Push Climbing and also head of rehabilitation for California Fitness and physical therapist for the Saigon Heat basketball team.
“In climbing we focus on burning the sugar in your muscles, the glycogen. You can reload those sugars either as fast sugars, for which I'd recommend fruits, or slow sugars – starches, carbs. What I wouldn't recommend is sports drinks or anything from a factory – I like climbing in the wild and you don't find a lot of Coke machines out there.”
Morry isn't a great fan of supplements either.
“It's a lucrative business and if Sherpas can get up Everest without fish oil pills you'll be fine reaching your own goals without having to buy supplements.”
But if he avoids buying his food in pill form he does take care to eat certain foods for climbing.
Try Magnesium – not just for chalk
“Climbers should focus on certain minerals, especially magnesium as you don't just use it on your hands but also in your body where it relaxes muscle,” Morry explains. “Climbing depletes magnesium reserves and when they run low you cramp. Magnesium rich foods include almonds cashews walnuts, and leafy greens – spinach, broccoli, or bok choy. It also helps you sleep since low magnesium results in muscle tension that can stop you getting good deep sleep.”
“Hydration above all else” sounds like a Morry motto.
“70 per cent of your body is water and dehydration can even lead to problems transporting oxygen in the blood so you should be drinking before, during, and after. If you feel a dry mouth you're already dehydrated.” Morry's tip for re-hydrating is coconut or other fruit juices with a pinch of salt added.
“You see energy drinks advertised as having electrolytes but you can make your own with fruit juice and a pinch of sea salt – that's all you need.”
“For recovery you need proteins – but that doesn't mean you can only get proteins from animals. I'm veggie five days a week and get all the protein I need. I prefer fish and eggs over cheap meat, but that's a personal thing and I don't pass up grass-fed beef. In the end it's all about balance. One salad doesn't make you a healthy person, any more than one burger suddenly makes you American.”
Top tips for climbing nutrition
Some tips from our climbing team about eating for success, before, during, and after. This is not a recipe for a sustained summiting expedition, but the climber looking at a few hours climbing where your output is likely to be pretty dynamic and you don't want to “bonk,” or physically tire completely.
“Keep it light and easy to digest” says Morry. “Bananas are always winners for sugar, potassium, and magnesium”.
Push instructor Fernando Romero agrees: “Remember you have to metabolize the food and it's hard to do that when working at high intensity so I like to breakfast on water, fruit, carbohydrates from granola – things that are easy to breakdown like, yes, like bananas.”
During the Climb
Although long distance climbing expeditions gulp down fats in the from of salted butter and even olive oil most of us would do well to avoid fats during exertion because they're harder for the body to break down. Likewise the temptation to pull out that two-foot long salami sub sandwich half way up the multi-pitch might make sense to your head but it won't make a lot of gut sense.
“A handful of nuts is a great supplement and easy to carry”, notes Fernando. “The best thing is to have small amounts of different foods scattered throughout the day when you're doing physical activity if you want to avoid “bonking.” Fernando is literally crunching on raw carrot at the foot of the climbing wall while he says this which is the nutritional equivalent of walking the walk.
“After your workout that's where you really want to give your body a boost”, observes Fernando. “It's time for that protein intake but while a lot of people immediately think of meat it's true that veggie based proteins like beans and quinoa are better for you because they're easier to digest, and faster to break down and that helps speed recovery. You should take care to replenish fatty acids though, some legumes, nuts, and eggs are rich in the omegas your body needs now.”
Chicken breasts are probably the go-to protein replacement of most sports, but availability and price vary depending on where you are and it's good to know that vegetarians have plenty of options.
There's no better example of that than Push's very own climbing champ Jun Vidal whose own advice is to, “get protein within 30–60 minutes after a workout. That could be eggs, or whey protein powder, but incorporate a variety of complete sources of protein.”
“To name just a few options, there are yogurt, eggs, quinoa, beans, and a mushroom-based mycoprotein called Quorn.”
If you haven't heard of it Quorn is beloved of Brits but not always easy to get hold of in S.E. Asia. “A vitamin B-12 supplement is also a good idea” says Jun, thinking again of vegetarian climbers, “because most sources of B-12 are from animal products. B-12 helps with energy levels, so getting enough is especially important for athletes.” If you don't like your supplements in pills and are British or Australian then you might want to know that good veggie B12 sources include Marmite and Vegemite.
Above all don't get too hung up on food as a science. Most of us aren't professionals measuring their food and calculating their calories, in fact even for weight loss counting calories may be counter productive. “Eating properly doesn't mean calculating everything to the point where the numbers distract you from the point”, says Fernando. “Is one calorie from a chocolate bar the same as one calorie from chicken breast? No. So don't miss the point which is the quality of the food, and how you're using it.”
“Eat a balanced diet” advises Jun. “This goes for vegetarians and omnivores alike. The key is getting a variety of fruits and vegetables and not having too much of any one food. Above all listen to your body”.
So there you go. Variety, good ingredients, a thought about vitamins and minerals, and above all listen to your body. Although be careful about that last one. Personally when I listen to mine I can clearly hear it whispering “beer and pizza”. All things in moderation.