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Alli Rainey: Improve Your Climbing: Nutrition and Body Composition (Part 22)

Wednesday, January 21st, 2015

Alli Rainey: Improve Your Climbing: Nutrition and Body Composition (Part 22)

Today’s entry discusses the topic of alcohol as it relates to athletic performance and recovery, as covered in my recent interview with Dr. Dan Benardot, leading nutrition expert and author of “Advanced Sports Nutrition-2nd Edition.”

Q: What are the effects of alcohol on athletic performance?

Alli Rainey: Improve Your Climbing: Nutrition and Body Composition (Part 22)The data are incredibly clear. Alcoholic beverages specifically impact reaction time for up to five days and for at least three days after consumption. And yet consumption of often quite large quantities of alcohol post-competition or post-exertion is prevalent in virtually all sports. The pressure of performance is high, and athletes turn to alcohol after to relieve this pressure. However, it can take up to a week to recover from this type of consumption. This is the problem with acute alcohol intake.

There’s also a problem with a chronic consumption of alcohol at not such a high intake. Alcohol is an anti-nutrient. It inhibits the production of a number of B-vitamin coenzymes that are required for nutrients to be absorbed, so you can get de facto vitamin deficiencies even in the presence of those vitamins because alcohol blocks the coenzyme production. This is just one way that alcohol interferes with the body’s use of nutrients. Another example of interference happens with retinol, the precursor to vitamin A. [For more on this, read Alcohol, Vitamin A, and Beta-Carotene: Adverse Interactions, Including Hepatotoxicity and Carcinogenicity.]

I understand if you’re not an athlete having a drink in the evening to relax. And in fact, there are a couple of new studies out looking at beer consumption as a post-activity replenishment beverage. As a post-exercise replenishment, a moderate amount of beer may not be bad if you’re not going to exercise again in the next few days or do another sporting event for a month. The relaxing effect of alcohol is valid, and it can potentially help you remove metabolic by-products more efficiently – but only if you’re not exercising or participating in an event for a long period of time afterwards.

Alcohol works against athletic performance both acutely and chronically. The bottom line is that if you’re actively involved in athleticism, lay low. In other words, if you want to drink alcohol, drink. If you want to be an athlete, be an athlete.

(For more on the potential effects of alcohol consumption on athletic performance and recovery, read ESPN.com Special Section on Drugs & Sports: AlcoholAlcohol: Impact on Sports Performance and Recovery in Male Athletes; and What I Do and the Science Behind It (9): Alcohol.)

Q: Are there any supplements athletes should take?

Alli Rainey: Improve Your Climbing: Nutrition and Body Composition (Part 22)A: Supplements should be used to be used to supplement known biological weaknesses, not as a preventive measure.

For example, if somebody is low in iron, they will not perform up to their athletic ability. Women are predisposed to having an iron deficiency. If this is the case, then a reasonable iron supplement makes sense – but if you take too much, it’s toxic, so iron should only be supplemented if a deficiency is found [via a blood test]. It can increase risk of all sorts of diseases if you supplement unnecessarily.

Most athletes don’t realize that there’s a reduced tissue sensitivity that occurs with a chronic intake of supplements. If you’re healthy, you use a tiny bit of stored vitamin C per day, and you could go a long time without any symptoms of scurvy. But if you chronically take a huge supplemental dose, your tissues “figure out” that they don’t need it, and they consequently don’t let it in as easily, so you get a resistance in tissues to the vitamin in question, and then you’re stuck having to take the vitamin, as you’ve altered your daily requirement. If you stop taking it, you will need it – because you’ve increased your daily requirement by supplementing.

Be extremely careful about how and why you take supplements. If there’s a biological need, sure – have a logical dose. Most people don’t realize this, but they are being given huge doses of vitamins and minerals. For example, with iron, taking too much every day is an ineffective way to return to a normal iron status. Chronically exposing yourself to a huge amount of any particular vitamin or mineral predisposes your absorption system to take in less and less of that particular substance. Also, receptors that take up a number of different vitamins and minerals can become completely saturated by the overly supplemented vitamins and minerals, causing other necessary vitamins and nutrients to not get absorbed. This can create other nutrient deficiencies, even if your diet appears to be well balanced. So generally speaking, even with a known deficiency, taking a smaller supplement here and there tends to be better to return to normal levels than taking a regular and relatively huge daily dose.


In “Advanced Sports Nutrition,” Dr. Benardot also discusses ergogenic (performance-enhancing) aids in depth, concluding, “There is no ergogenic aid that can make up for a proper fluid intake, a solid nutrition intake, an appropriate training regimen, and sufficient rest.” He warns that many ergogenic aids actually contain potentially harmful and/or illegal substances not listed on the labels. He is of the opinion that most athletes would see a marked increase in performance if they paid more attention to regularly consuming carbohydrates and fluids before, during and after training and competition, as it’s common for athletes to underfuel and get dehydrated despite having plenty of fluids and foods readily available to them.

Dr. Benardot summarizes his main point about ergogenic supplements as follows: “Of all the ergogenic aids mentioned…it is very clear that carbohydrate holds the greatest promise for improving both endurance and power performance. Before trying anything else, athletes should consider a regular consumption of carbohydrate with plenty of fluids.”

The next entry will delve into the roles that carbohydrates, along with protein and fat, play in supporting peak performance and recovery in greater detail.

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