The Performance Diet: Use Science to Improve Your Climbing

 

Waffles. Eating a big stack of waffles for breakfast just before climbing at the Red River Gorge … oh, what a mistake. I arrived at the crag feeling groggy, the waffles just sitting in my stomach. On the wall I seemed to get pumped extra fast, felt weak, and performed poorly until the end of the day. 

Food directly affects our performance. What we eat impacts how hard we climb, or don’t. Even a single meal can strongly affect our bodies for hours, as I learned the hard way with waffles full of refined carbohydrates and unhealthy fats. Now my go-to breakfast is oats with berries, flax and walnuts.

Food is chemistry, and every process in our body is chemistry. Food is not just for energy and muscle building, it is packaged with a plethora of nutrients that can enhance performance and recovery and improve our health. 

Let’s delve into some foods to avoid and others to include for optimal climbing performance. 

 

Branched-Chain Amino Acids (BCAA) for Recovery?

When you consume protein, it breaks down into individual amino acids that can be used for a multitude of tasks, one of which is making new muscle. Muscle tissue functions as a storage site for amino acids. If you are sedentary, you will not build muscle. Muscle tissue grows in response to mechanical stimulus—in our case, the forces of climbing. The muscles in our body are in a constant state of flux, breaking down and rebuilding.

As described by Robert Wolfe in a 2017 article in the Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition, if we assume you are on an empty stomach, roughly 30 percent of the amino acids released from muscles during the breakdown phase go toward vital organs, with some used for energy, while 70 percent are recycled back into muscle. We would lose muscle overtime if we lacked adequate food to supply amino acids and did not exercise to stimulate muscle growth with those amino acids.

Branched-chain amino acid (or BCAA) supplements in powders and pills are widely used among climbers, bodybuilders and other athletes. BCAAs contain three essential amino acids: leucine, isoleucine and valine. BCAAs, more than other protein supplements, substantially increase the enzymes that drive muscle protein building. So, the theory goes, the more BCAA consumed, the stronger the muscles.

Then we should eat BCAA supplements post-session for the best recovery, right? Not exactly. 

All nine essential amino acids are required to build muscle. If you are consuming BCAAs on an empty stomach after climbing, it is essentially impossible for your muscles to build, because you have only provided your body with three of the nine! The missing six essential amino acids can only come from your own body during the breakdown phase. Without those, you lose muscle mass.

Remember, these effects only occur if you eat BCAAs as a post-workout “meal” in place of food. You could avoid these issues by consuming it with a meal. Or, the option I prefer is simply to eat real food after climbing. Unless you’re a strict fruitarian, you will get more than enough of the amino acids you need by eating until fullness. If you are climbing, you will naturally be hungrier, thus you will eat more food, with inherently more protein consumed.  

Nutrition is much more than protein, fat and carbohydrates: It is a package deal involving a variety of other nutrients, most not found on a food label. For example, Florinda Fratianni et al in a 2014 article in the Journal of Functional Foods demonstrate that lentils are not only protein-rich to aid in muscle building, but contain phytochemicals (only found in plants) associated with prolonged lifespan and increased immunity, and can aid in faster recovery. Some other good post-climbing meal examples are whole spaghetti with garbanzo beans, red lentil dal with brown rice, and soft corn tacos or burrito with black beans and other fillings (guacamole, salsa, onions, etc.). All of these options will substantially aid in recovery and promote muscle growth post-climbing.

 

Caffeine for Performance?

Caffeine is a stimulant that can increase physical performance. It is found in tea, coffee and other foods, and in supplement form as well. Yet in supplement form it may be deleterious. For example, in a 2006 article in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology, Mehdi Namdar et al showed that when cyclists consumed 200 milligrams of caffeine (the amount found in two cups of coffee) in supplement form, blood flow to the heart was reduced at altitude, though not at normal elevation. This effect can translate to reduced endurance at high elevation. Kumiko Hirata published a 2004 article in the American Journal of Cardiology showing that black tea increases blood flow to the heart, an effect that is advantageous for endurance.

A concern is that caffeine in the concentrated form of supplements is a diuretic. Drinking tea or coffee in their liquid forms will increase urination, but not because of the caffeine—only that the water from these drinks has to go somewhere! For this merely normal effect on urinary output, however, you need to be drinking coffee with normal caffeine content. Adam Seal et al published a 2017 article in the Frontiers of Nutrition demonstrating that high-caffeine coffee (each cup containing the equivalent of five and a half cups’ worth of caffeine) resulted in double the fluid output you would get by drinking coffee with half of that amount of caffeine. For performance, drink tea or two cups maximum of coffee with a normal amount of caffeine. 

Nitrates for Performance?

You may have heard about the benefits of beets or beet juice for endurance due to the nitrate content. As described by Satnam Lidder et al in the British Journal of Clinical Pharmacology (2012), when we eat nitrates in beets or from any other food source, the bacteria in our mouths convert it to nitrites, which convert to nitric oxide in our stomachs. The nitric oxide circulates to our muscles, making the mitochondria of muscle cells, the power plant of the cell, more efficient at producing energy. Filip J. Larsen et al in a 2011 article in the journal Cell Metabolism demonstrated a 19 percent spike in cellular energy production due to the effects of nitrates. Andrew Jones in a 2018 article in Annual Reviews indicated that this spike in cellular energy translates to a direct increase in endurance. Further, nitric oxide can cause a faster contraction of muscles, meaning more power. For climbers, this effect can translate into more endurance on hard sport routes and an ability to stick dynamic moves better.

By weight, beets have a high amount of nitrates, but arugula and spinach have an even higher nitrate content. Romaine lettuce also has more nitrates than beets per unit of weight. Because beets are heavier, though, one small beet has as much in the way of nitrates as four cups of arugula. Juicing beets or blending arugula/spinach in a smoothie can make it easier to get in a lot more nitrates. Or you can be a weirdo like me and eat a couple bags of plain arugula (I love the taste). 

To maximize endurance, eat about four beets (or their juice) or one and a half boxes or bags of arugula or spinach about two hours before the expected physical activity. 

Fruits: To eat or not to eat?

Many climbers and others seem to mischaracterize fruits as high in sugar and thus unhealthy, contributing to potential unnecessary weight gain. But the difference between table sugar and that of fruit is vast. Bananas, apples, peaches, mangoes, grapes, berries … you name it, fruits are one of the lowest-calorie dense foods you can eat. One pound of fruit is around 200-400 calories, whereas a pound of sugar is 1,800 calories. It is essentially impossible to gain weight eating fresh fruits in their intact form (excludes fruit juice). You can have them in abundance. 

Fruits may improve recovery and maximize strength building because they are high in antioxidants and protective phytochemicals, found only in plants. These benefit our bodies, which undergo regular oxidative stress as a normal byproduct of metabolizing food for energy; meat and fattier foods increase oxidative stress far more than whole plant foods. This oxidative stress can directly damage muscle tissue. Many studies have linked elevated oxidative stress to muscle loss and increased muscle soreness following exercise. C.E. Neville et al in a 2014 article in the Journal of Musculoskeletal and Neuronal Interactions demonstrated that adolescents who eat more fruits have more strength than those who eat fewer. Additionally, most muscle-specific oxidative stress occurs after exercise. This damage causes our muscles to utilize energy inefficiently, resulting in rapid fatigue. In response to oxidative stress, muscles build up antioxidant defense enzymes, but they often become overloaded. Eating fruit can help counteract these effects. 

Due to aging, our bodies become less and less efficient at buffering acidic conditions in our blood, and muscle breakdown occurs to buffer this acidity. As Julia J. Scialla et al indicate in a 2013 article in Advances in Chronic Kidney Disease, meat and cheese are metabolized as highly acidic compared to fruits and vegetables. Fruits, however, are metabolized as highly alkaline due to their high potassium content and low phosphorous content, meaning they can protect our muscles from progressive breakdown. 

 

Conclusion

My personal goal is to climb hard and progress my whole life. The lessons from these dietary do’s and don’ts can be summarized simply. Eat real foods, not supplements, and mostly plants. 

 

Feature image: Molly Thompson-Smith of the U.K. on Father and Son (8c/5.14b) in the Frankenjura, Germany. Asked what she had for breakfast that day, Thompson-Smith laughs and says, “A simple porridge with some nuts, milk and apple in it.” Thompson-Smith made finals last year in the Lead World Cup in Chamonix, was third in Kranj in 2017, and has been top 10 at eight World Cups. By Jan Novak


Also Read

Eat Carbs and Climb Harder

  • Rami Najjar (@plantbased_climber) is a Ph.D. candidate and nutrition scientist at Georgia State University in Atlanta, studying the molecular mechanisms of cardiovascular disease and the role plant-based foods has on these cellular pathways. He has been climbing for 15 years and frequents the Red River Gorge and Chattanooga.

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