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Alli Rainey: Improve Your Climbing – Nutrition and Body Composition (Part 20)

Wednesday, January 7th, 2015

Part 1:

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Yet another easy topic to cover in 10 short entries – not making this easy on myself at all, am I? And I am by no means a nutritionist, nor am I an expert in this area. However, I do commonly hear so many, many misconceptions about both nutrition and body composition bandied about among climbers that it seems important to try to share what I have learned here.

Most of my nutrition knowledge comes from reading several excellent books on sports nutrition, of which Dr. Dan Benardot’s “Advanced Sports Nutrition-2nd Edition” ranks top on my list (I just read it for the second time; great training books usually get reread numerous times by yours truly). I’ve also read a lot of articles and studies (yes, I’m nerdy enough to search PubMed for studies on sports nutrition and athletic training in general). Also, exercise nutrition is of course covered, albeit relatively briefly, as a part of becoming a certified personal trainer.

In any case, I’d like to preface my entries here by stressing that if you really want to learn everything you need to know to optimize your fueling strategies for peak climbing performance and recovery, start by reading Dr. Benardot’s book – or at the very least, grab a copy and read the main summarizing points at the end of each chapter. You won’t have any questions about or arguments with anything covered in these next few entries after reading it, unless you want to go head to head with an abundance of scientific research. But if you don’t have time to read the book, in the next few entries, I’ll try to cover what I consider to be a few of the most crucial aspects of nutrition for peak athletic performance for sport climbers in particular, and boulderers/other climbers in general.

As an added bonus for me and you both, I got in touch with Dr. Benardot to help me out with picking out areas in particular I should shine attention on when covering this (vast and somewhat overwhelming!) topic. He graciously consented to be interviewed for this series of entries to help clarify what the most important aspects of nutrition athletes – and more specifically, sport climbing athletes – should focus on for peak athletic performance.

Point No. 1 from Dr. Benardot: Nutrition and body composition optimization strategies should be integral components of any serious athlete’s training plan.

In other words, no matter how great your physical training plan for climbing or your climbing itself may be, without having a solid nutrition/body composition optimization plan in place to support your training/climbing efforts, you are not likely to reach your true potential, no matter how hard you try. (Hmm, this sounds strangely similar to the point made by Dr. Carlstedt about intelligent, scientifically supported mental training methods being an integral part of an overall training program; read more about that here). These things are not separate from physical training and should not be considered separately; everything you do has the potential to work for or against your climbing goals – and how much, what and when you eat can have a huge positive or negative impact on these.

More from my interview with Dr. Benardot will appear in the next few entries.

Part 2:

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Today’s entry covers the top three areas of priority for climbers to focus on in a nutrition plan, as covered in my recent interview withDr. Dan Benardot, leading nutrition expert and author of “Advanced Sports Nutrition-2nd Edition.”

Q: What are the top three things athletes/climbers should focus on in a solid nutrition plan?

A. Never get hungry, never get thirsty, and eating small meals frequently is better than eating three large meals a day with the same amount of calories.

One of the things people don’t often realize is that insulin is produced exponentially according to calories consumed, meaning that the greater the caloric load in a given sitting, the more insulin you’ll produce. Controlling the insulin response is a key to keeping body fat down. Big, infrequent meals increase insulin production. If you allow your blood sugar to get low, your body will have a proportionally huge fat production at your next meal – no matter what you eat.

By allowing your body to get hungry, you can actually lose muscle [more on this in the next entry]. Satisfying your blood sugar needs helps keep your appetite-controlling hormones at bay, so insulin is better controlled. It’s better to eat six small, well-balanced meals a regular intervals throughout the day than to eat three huge meals with lots of hours [time to get hungry] in between each meal.

Part 3:

Deciding what to focus on for the very first entry in Move of the Month presented a bit of a challenge at the outset. Out of all of the infinite number of possibilities I could choose from for movements – both specifically used in climbing as well as training movements – which should I highlight first? But when I took a moment to reflect, the answer came pretty easily: Eyes on Your Feet. In other words, the importance of continuously remembering to focus your visual awareness on your feet while you climb, consciously, until this becomes second nature (i.e. unconscious) to do so, a part of your climbing rhythm.

“Duh,” you might be thinking right now. “Of course you should look at your foot placements when you climb.”

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However, even though you may be thinking that this is obvious, you may not actually be implementing this technical/tactical strategy to its fullest potential when you climb, which is why I chose to spotlight it. It’s very common for climbers to not reap the full potential benefits of intelligent and precise foot placements when they climb, even if they think they are.

The way to break yourself of this habit is to pay attention to what your eyes (and your feet) are doing, especially during your warm-ups and cool-downs, making sure that you watch as your foot connects with the intended foothold exactly and precisely, every single time. The common error is to think you’re doing this, but to actually be looking away at the last second or even fraction of a second before your foot connects with the hold, which can lead to a huge dump in climbing efficiency as you fail to take full advantage of each foot placement.

Repetition Yields Fruition: Drill It!

  • Get Started: During your warm-up, watch each foot connect with every intended foothold exactly where you want it. Oftentimes, climbers think they’re doing this, but they’re actually looking away from footholds at the last second, assuming that their foot is connecting properly with the foothold. Pay attention and watch every single foot placement you make. Choose an easy route, and climb it slowly, focusing on each and every foot placement. Always place the foot on a hold or a smear with intention. Look at the foothold, and then place the foot quietly and precisely on the hold.
  • Step It Up: Look down and out to the sides at the new footholds that become available to you between every hand movement. Look in every possible direction that you could potentially step. Climbers regularly become overly focused on handholds, since they’re closer to the eyes and brain, and forget to reassess footholds with every move. Don’t forget to look left and right, low and high, and take into account toe hooks, heel hooks, flags, and back steps as well as more standard foot placements. Experiment with using different/not-as-obvious footholds on your familiar warm up/cool down. Develop a level of comfort with using the footholds that make the most sense for you, not just the obvious ones. The more you do this and make it second nature, the faster and better you will become at quickly scanning all available footholds and better yet, knowing where to look and selecting the most efficient footholds to use without wasting any time.
  • More Advanced: Building on the above, work toward developing a high level of comfort with pasting, front-pointing and smearing wherever you find a good balance point – not necessarily needing a true foothold at all, but instead feeling where your body is ideally positioned. “Create” a foothold where you want one even if there isn’t anything to stand on at all by driving pressure into the top of your toes, the side of your foot, or the edge of your toes (among other potential positions) against the wall even when there’s no hold there, at the perfect balance point. You can use this method when you’re flagging, too, taking some weight off of your upper body muscles and helping to ratchet your body up to extend your reach (flagging will be another move of the month!).

    And (ironically breaking the watching-the-foot-connect rule) once you’ve developed a sound ability to “feel” body positions and foot placements, you won’t always need to watch your foot to find and effectively utilize foot placements like these – you will just naturally drive your foot in at the right place and angle on the wall below or to the side and oriented in the right way to help assist you through the move as best it can.

I’m assuming for all of the above that you already have properly fitting climbing shoes, and that you know that it’s usually smartest to stand on the edge or tip of your big toe, or when back-stepping on your toe(s) (as opposed to the balls of your feet, and heel hooks and other exceptions aside) to maximize both your strength/power and your reach on any given move when necessary. For more on footwork, check out Improve Your Sport Climbing (12): Technique, Part 6 (EASY-HARD): Primary Technical Issues (A): Footwork.

Part 4:

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Today’s entry begins a two-part discussion about optimizing body composition and strength-to-weight ratio, as covered in my recent interview with Dr. Dan Benardot, leading nutrition expert and author of “Advanced Sports Nutrition-2nd Edition.”

Q: How should climbers/athletes work toward optimizing their strength-to-weight ratio?

A: For starters, weight is the wrong metric, period. Anybody who uses weight as a marker of prediction of athletic success will fail. The first question that should be asked if somebody says, “I need to lose five pounds before a competition,” is, “Five pounds of what? Muscle? Fat? Bone? What?”

Telling an already-fit athlete to lose weight is absolutely the incorrect strategy. If you gain five pounds of muscle and lose five pounds of fat, you’ll look smaller and be stronger, so your strength-to-weight ratio will be better. You’ll have more endurance because your muscles will work more efficiently. The bottom line is that if you think of losing weight and only weight, inevitably you’ll go about doing that differently than if you specifically tell yourself, “I’m going to lose fat.”

To ideally alter your body composition, you have to work at it in a way that allows you to sustain sport-specific muscle mass and lose fat [assuming you have fat to lose]. The body’s reaction to an inadequate caloric intake is to lower the tissue that needs calories [i.e. lean mass, meaning muscle]. It has to figure out how to survive with fewer calories – the only way to lower your need for calories is to lower the amount of tissue that needs calories [again muscle mass]. You’ll consequently lose muscle, so that you alter your strength-to-weight ratio negatively, ultimately making your athletic endeavor more difficult.

You have to be in a negative overall energy balance to lose fat, but not too far below the balance, or you lose muscle. If you go too low [i.e. let yourself get very hungry or have long periods of time between eating], you’ll actually lose muscle and gain fat – even if you experience overall weight loss [remember, fat weighs less than muscle, so if you replace muscle with fat, you’ll weigh less but have a worse strength-to-weight ratio]. If you delay eating, you are not in energy balance or close to it, and you are promoting fat production and muscle loss. (Check out NutriTiming® for an app that can help you track this metric effectively).

~ Alli Rainey, prAna Ambassador

Learn more about Alli

Alli Rainey (allirainey.com) discovered rock climbing more than 20 years ago, and it has been a driving passion in her life ever since. After incurring an injury that prompted her to explore training for climbing beyond just climbing itself, the results amazed her so much that she started studying the science of athletic training in earnest. This led her to become an ACTION Certified Personal Trainer (CPT) and a climbing coach. Rainey is also a Yoga Alliance certified yoga instructor (RYT-200) and a magna cum laude graduate of Harvard University. Facebook: /alliraineyclimbing; Twitter/Instagram/LinkedIn: allirainey