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Alli Rainey: Improve Your Climbing: Nutrition and Body Composition (Part 23)

Wednesday, February 4th, 2015

This entry discusses the topic of pre-, during, and post-workout/competition fueling as it relates to athletic performance and recovery, as covered by Dr. Dan Benardot, leading nutrition expert and author of “Advanced Sports Nutrition-2nd Edition” (ANS).

According to Dr. Benardot, you should plan to eat your final, high-carbohydrate meal of solid food at least an hour and a half before you climb or train, or you may experience gastrointestinal (GI) distress. GI distress (i.e. bloating, gas, diarrhea, abdominal pain) is actually common in athletes, and it can be hard to trace the exact causes of it without professional help.

It’s then best to keep your carb levels up both before and throughout your climbing day or longer (hour+) training sessions by sipping on a sports drink that contains carbohydrates. Make it a habit to consume a small amount every 10 to 15 minutes during activity. Obviously, if you’re climbing for longer than that, you will have to do your best to refuel between pitches or burns.

Also, if you’re exercising for a lengthy period of time or are out for a full day of climbing, chances are a liquid diet of sports drink isn’t going to suffice for maintaining energy and nutrient stores adequately, nor will it satisfy your appetite. And yet climbing on a full belly probably won’t work to your advantage (i.e. downing a lunch bag’s contents in one sitting).

In practical terms, what does this mean? It’s not that complicated. Make sure you are eating at regular intervals throughout the day (i.e.  try to eat six small meals vs. three large meals, a topic more thoroughly covered in a previous Improve Your Climbing entry). In your last true meal before your workout, aim for a high-carbohydrate composition, but include some fats and proteins as well. Then, as you move toward and into your workout or climbing day, snack regularly in small amounts on high-carb, low-fiber foods and drink water, and/or sip small amounts of a sports drink with calories from carbohydrates only – not protein during your workout/climbing day.

As Dr. Benardot observes in ASN:

“Protein added to a sports beverage reduces the content of what athletes really need: fluid, carbohydrate, and electrolytes. Therefore, the majority of energy in the preexercise meal and during exercise fluid replacement should be from carbohydrate.”

Make it part of your routine to swig a few sips of sports drink, and/or to eat a couple bites of a high-carb snack with some water, after every pitch or two of climbing (depending on how long the pitches are). Eating immediately after your turn, while you’re resting between climbs or pitches and before you belay your partner, may help you avoid GI distress, whereas downing a snack or drink right before climbing may provoke it.

The effects of eating/drinking small amounts of high-carb energy sources regularly throughout a longer training session or climbing day may surprise you if you haven’t paid close attention to this area before. The potential performance impact of sustaining your body’s energy needs during intense physical activity rather than backloading calories when you’re done shouldn’t be underestimated.

“Consumption of carbohydrate-containing beverages (e.g., sports beverages) and food during exercise delays fatigue and improves performance, even if consumption occurs late in the exercise session,” explains Dr. Benardot in ASN.

Finally, when you’re done climbing or training, replenishing your muscles as soon as you finish is an optimal recovery strategy. Again, carbohydrates take center stage. Simple carbohydrates should make up the majority of your immediate post-climbing/training intake, along with a small amount of high-quality protein. Several recent studies on milk – including one on climbers using chocolate milk as a recovery aid – as a recovery beverage have demonstrated its efficacy. Later post-training meals should include complex carbohydrates, along with fats and proteins as well, but the athlete should stay vigilant and focused on including plenty of carbs in his or her diet to restore and top off muscle glycogen stores between workouts and on rest days.

Alli Rainey: Improve Your Climbing: Nutrition and Body Composition (Part 23)

Let’s discuss the topic of adequate hydration as it relates to athletic performance and recovery next…

You know from reading the previous “Improve Your Climbing” entry that sipping small amounts of sports drink throughout an intense workout or climbing day can help you sustain your energy levels and performance for longer than not taking in carbohydrates can. But what about the hydration side of the equation?

In ASN, Dr. Benardot provides a thorough explanation of the desirability for athletes to maintain fluid balance and avoid dehydration. I’ll try to (drastically) simplify it here as best I can. Sweat helps dissipate heat, allowing you to continue to perform physical activity. You must replace lost fluids in order to continue sweating adequately to dissipate heat. Sweat includes essential electrolytes (sodium, calcium, magnesium and potassium). If your blood volume drops, your ability to sweat decreases, as does your body’s ability to meet your working muscles’ need for greater blood flow. And blood volume drops with dehydration, while your risk of overheating rises.

“Most athletes induce voluntary dehydration because they don’t drink enough despite having plenty of fluids readily available,” says Dr. Benardot in ASN, going on to explain that athletes often appear to have a delayed ability to register thirst, and don’t drink until they’re already too dehydrated to come back to a well-hydrated state by the time they’re thirsty. Dr. Benardot suggests drinking every 10 to 15 minutes during exercise to help avoid dehydration and the performance decline that accompanies it, as well as other potential negative complications.

It’s important to note that some experts and studies have called into question the idea that athletes should drink at regular preset intervals, regardless of thirst, suggesting instead that thirst is indeed an adequate indicator of when to consume fluids and will suffice to keep athletes hydrated enough to avoid negative impacts on performance from activity-induced dehydration. See both “Effect of exercise-induced dehydration on endurance performance…”and  “Dehydration and endurance performance in competitive athletes” for support of the “drink according to thirst” approach to staying adequately hydrated so as not to impede performance outcomes.

The latter review also references the interesting discovery that athletes could perform better simply by rinsing their mouths out with a carbohydrate-rich sports drink without even swallowing the fluid. Of course, if you’re involved in a lengthy day of climbing or a hard training sesh, you’d probably be better off drinking some sports drink than spitting it out…

Regardless of whether or not drinking solely in response to thirst (vs. at set intervals regardless of thirst) will stave off dehydration enough to avoid performance impairment during a climbing day or workout, planning ahead to make sure you have plenty of fluids to drink available to you during a climbing day or a training workout is a smart strategy and should be a part of your nutrition plan. Forgetting to drink during workouts that last longer than an hour or for an entire climbing day is not likely to leave you in a well-hydrated state, and this may render your performance subpar.

If you simply chug tons of water during a difficult and lengthy workout or sporting event, you risk hyponatremia, or low blood sodium, which can actually be fatal. However, hyponatremia is still far less common than activity-related dehydration is in athletes. Still, you might want to reconsider if you’ve been adhering to a water-only fluid replacement protocol, since recent studies (including one linked above) have shown that sports drinks containing carbs and electrolytes can help athletes perform longer and stronger, keeping mental functions alive and muscles well fueled:

“Different activities result in different rates of carbohydrate utilization, but consuming carbohydrate-laden fluid consistently helps maintain athletic performance, regardless of the sport,” says Dr. Benardot in ASN.

Okay, so what kind of sports drink should you choose? A sports drink below 8 percent carbohydrate concentration absorbs more quickly than water alone and has been demonstrated to have a similar gastric emptying time as water, which will help prevent gastrointestinal (GI) distress. Dr. Benardot suggests that 6 to 8 percent carbohydrate solution is ideal, and preferably not made with fructose, which may cause GI problems as well. Not carbonated (read ASN for the full explanation of that one), and forget all of the extras beyond electrolytes and carbs.

In a nutshell, then, you should start your activity well hydrated and aim to keep your hydration levels up throughout your workout or climbing day. Drink roughly 16 ounces of fluid an hour or an hour and a half before you begin a workout, and then regularly sip on sports drink throughout any intense workout or climbing day, either at fixed intervals or according to thirst. Make sure you pack enough fluids for the time you plan to be working out or for your climbing day. When you’re done working out, consume a recovery beverage containing carbs and a small amount of protein (like chocolate milk or a specially formulated recovery drink; I like Clif Shot Chocolate Recovery Drink Mix ), and continue to drink fluids along with your meals until you’re rehydrated (clear urine is a good indicator of this).

Alli Rainey: Improve Your Climbing: Nutrition and Body Composition (Part 23)

Lastly let’s summarize key nutritional aspects of athletic performance and recovery:

• Never get hungry, never get thirsty, and eating six smaller, well-balanced meals a day is a better plan for optimizing body composition than eater three larger meals a day. These were the top three pieces of advice given by Dr. Benardot for optimizing athletic performance and body composition via a solid nutrition plan.

• Focus on getting calories in regularly in relatively small doses in order to sustain muscle mass and keep body fat levels desirably low, as well as engaging in sport-specific training programs that continuously challenge the body in new, more intense, ways.

• Body weight is not the measurement athletes should use to assess their body composition and/or strength-to-weight ratio; body fat assessment is a much more helpful and useful metric to employ.

• Alcohol works against athletic performance both acutely and chronically. In other words, if you want to drink alcohol, drink. If you want to be an athlete, be an athlete.

• Supplements should be used to be used to supplement known biological weaknesses, not as a preventive measure. Increasing carbohydrate consumption and timing carbohydrate delivery properly would likely have a greater positive impact on athletic performance for most people than any supplement would.

• Carbs are not your enemy. Carbs are your muscles’ preferred fuel. Aim for a diet made up of 55 to 65 percent carbohydrates, and ingest carbohydrates at regular intervals throughout climbing/training sessions.

• Start your climbing day or workout hydrated, and stay hydrated and fueled by drinking sports drinks regularly throughout the workout or climbing day.

• Nutrition is a key part of optimizing your climbing performance. As Dr. Benardot says in ASN, “Athletes would do well to remember that training alone, without a sound and dynamically linked nutrition plan to support the training, will be self-limiting.”

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