Makings of a Well-Rounded Climber: Diet & Nutrition

Photo by Alexandra Kahn (Siurana, Spain 2018)

Written By Alexandra Kahn

Climbing is a unique sport- it is a fun activity that anyone can do, like surfing and snowboarding, but it is also a sport that requires practice and patience in order to improve. Since climbing gyms have been increasing in popularity, the desire to improve personal performance is increasing as well. There are coaches, teams, training apps, training programs and climbing clinics all aimed at improving climbing. However, just like other fitness-focused sports, there are additional components to keep in mind if improvement is the overall goal. While consistent climbing and training are very important, it’s also important to focus on a healthy diet, cross-training, and active recovery in order to prevent injury, recover faster, feel more energized, and succeed in your climbing goals. In part 1 of this series we dive into the importance of a good climber diet & nutrition!

Climbing only works certain muscles, but the other muscles need to be tended to as well to prevent muscular imbalances and poor posture. With training, comes an increase in muscle mass and an increase in the amount of protein needed to fuel the muscles. Diet is all about balancing intake of the right calories at different times of the day, based upon if you are training, climbing, or resting. It’s important to remember that each body is a different size, has different intolerances, different metabolisms, and different taste buds. To complement cross training and a healthy diet, active recovery is another key component essential for quicker comebacks, injury prevention, soothing muscles, and injury rehabilitation.

Photo by Francois Lebeau (Oliana, Spain, 2017)

To give you some more detailed advice and suggestions, we sat down with some experts as well as some athletes who apply this advice to their daily life. First up is nutrition:

I spoke with pro-climber Anna Laitinen of Finland, one of the biggest foodies and health conscious climbers I know, to ask her about her relationship with food.

What are your staple meals?

Protein-rich oatmeals, complex salads with both raw and warm ingredients. I start my mornings with oats and I’ve noticed it is the best breakfast for a long day of climbing or training. I add a lot of protein which keeps me full longer and I do that by adding egg whites, soy milk and have cold cottage cheese on a side. I also add some chia seeds and peanut butter omnomom. Check out the recipe for my basic egg white oatmeal!

Photo by Anna Laitinen

 What ingredients can you not go without?

Eggs, carrots, cottage cheese, whole grain crispy bread, and cinnamon.

What ingredients do you take with you on climbing trips just in case you cant find them?

Some goji berries, spirulina, chia, and maca. Those superfoods are quite challenging to find when you’re on the road! And when you’re spending long days at the crag and climbing a lot, a little boost might be needed at times.

Do you have any dietary restrictions because of health reasons?

No.  But I eat a lot of protein and I do watch that I get my carbs from a good source like vegetables, whole grain, beans etc. I prefer more long-lasting energy like whole grain instead of fast energy, and good fats from fish, avocado, and nuts. As an athlete, I need carbs for recovering and performing well. My intake changes depending on if I’m doing more bouldering, strength, sport or double-training sessions.

 

Alex’s Vegan Protein with Matcha Smoothie Bowl
Alex’s Vegan Protein Blueberry with Maca Smoothie Bowl

We also consulted with climber and nutritionist Alyssa Neil of Boulder, Colorado to discuss some of the science behind healthy diets and Anna’s eating habits. While interview responses would typically be shortened and edited, Alyssa provided us with such detailed information and is so well informed that it made sense to feature everything she told us. Hopefully, you will learn as much as we did and will take notes on her advice for future grocery shopping and cooking!

Can you give me some background about you, your business and the types of clients you work with 

Since I was getting my Nutrition & Dietetics degree, and realized nutrition needed to be individualized, I knew I would start a private nutrition counseling practice. My clientele tends to be powerhouse, overachievers; maybe it’s just because those are the people who want to dial in their nutrition and let those positive effects spill over into the rest of their life. Nutrition is profound like that. Learn how to eat and you’ll see many other aspects of life fall into place. Most of my clients are active in some capacity. I work with a lot of humans who move – climbers, lifters, runners, hikers, bikers, etc – which is super inspiring.

As a climber & athlete, what are some crucial things to eat 

Great question. This one has some layers depending on:
a) what activities you’re doing
b) your personal biochemistry
c) what else you’re participating in, in life (are you an athlete full time with lots of time to rest or are you carrying out other high-stress activities on top of your athletic pursuits,
d) where you live (alpine vs. sea level, vs. what’s available to you locally, etc…)

Now, with that all being said to preface how my answer would vary depending on the aforementioned variables, some crucial things that anyone active should focus on eating are as follow
1) a whole-food-centric diet; eat fewer processed foods and lots of nutrient-dense, whole foods
2) enough protein to support muscle breakdown and repair

3) a given fuel source; a carbohydrate or fat in varying ratios depending on the activity, their sex, how their body is fuel adapted, etc…
4) enough water. Seriously, this one is insanely important. Dehydration is not optimal in any sense, not for recovery, not for power, and not for your body to carry out basic functions. No one wants to feel like a limp noodle. Drink your water, people.

 

Homemade Buckwheat “granola” – raw and vegan

What foods/nutrients/minerals lead….

To fatigue? 

This is a tough one because it’s super specific to the person and their lifestyle/ how they have adapted. Generally, overly processed foods – think chips, cookies, conventional bread, high sugar foods and desserts, vegetable oils (soybean oil, corn oil, margarine, canola oil, safflower oil, etc…), which are highly refined, and the like – will cause fatigue, blood sugar spikes and drops (which can lead to insulin resistance and energy/mood swings), poor circulation, cardiovascular issues, nutrient deficiencies (e.g. over 30% of the US population is deficient in magnesium, likely due to consumption of highly processed, nutrient-poor foods), and can put people more at risk for inflammatory conditions over the long term.

Now, of course, we all know those select people who seem to be thriving on overly-processed foods while they are young, but I assure you, this will not serve their health long term.

There aren’t really nutrients or minerals that lead to fatigue; it’s more like “the dose dictates the poison”, at least for macronutrients (i.e. carbohydrates, proteins, and fats). For instance, over-consuming carbohydrates, which just break down and are absorbed as sugars during digestions, may put someone in the ever-so-infamous “carb coma” due to a dramatic spike and then drop in blood sugar levels. Another example of this is the over-consumption of fructose, a monosaccharide most commonly found in fruit, juices, honey, and processed foods that contain corn syrup and high-fructose corn syrup. To be utilized at fuel, fructose has to first travel to the liver to be converted into a substrate that the cells can absorb. This conversion process has some undesirable by-products when fructose is over-consumed or is consumed as part of a hypercaloric diet. These byproducts are triglycerides (free fatty acids in the blood), uric acid, both of which are not optimal. But again, “the dose dictates the poison”. Overeating any macronutrient/food regularly is not optimal and will likely lead to fatigue.

To increased energy? 

Any solid, nutrient-dense, whole-food centric diet will yield energy. Of course, eating foods that don’t cause digestive distress, and are not inflammatory to the individual is optimal. Some people do react to or experience trouble digesting an absorbing seemingly healthy foods but again, diet is so specific to the individual. That’s something we need to consider and respect. Everyone’s needs vary. There is no perfect diet. Overall though, a balance of nutrient-dense plants, proteins, and nourishing fats, all primarily from whole foods will give most people the most energy. Staying hydrated is imperative too!

More specifically,

a) nutrient-dense plants would encompass the following: leafy greens, cruciferous vegetables, root vegetables, tubers, beans and legumes, fruits, fermented vegetables, plantains and other whole food starches, seaweed, etc…

b) eggs, chicken, turkey, fish, pork, beef, buffalo, other game, tofu, tempeh, etc… depending on the individual’s access, food preferences, etc…

c) ghee, pastured butter, coconut and coconut products, raw nuts, avocado, high-quality cheese, etc…

Essentially, these foods support ENERGY because they not only help to maintain healthy blood glucose levels and provide energy-yielding macros (carbs and fat), but they also provide a variety of micronutrients, vitamins, minerals, essential fatty acids and amino acids, that are required for the production of cellular energy, the building of healthy brain chemicals, the synthesis of muscle, the maintenance of a thriving microflora in the gut, and the prevention of inflammation.

To increased inflammation? 

Generally speaking, the regular consumption of high sugar foods, processed oils, fried foods, overly processed grains, sugar-sweetened beverages, sweetened dairy, fast foods (which fall into the aforementioned categories naturally), and processed meats will lead to inflammation.

That doesn’t mean that if you enjoy a burger every now and then, or indulge in something that falls into these categories once in a while (less than once or twice a month) you are inflamed. Again, it’s the dose that dictates the poison, right? So, it’s more the regular consumption of these foods as part of your normal diet that will cause inflammation.

Usually, when we eat pretty healthy, then add foods like this back is we feel relatively lower energy, bloated, notice sluggish digestion, etc… If that ever happens, where you cut out a food or food group and add it back in only to feel less than optimal, it probably isn’t a food or food group you want to eat often.

To increased relaxation? 

I really like this question. I think it’s an under-explored area, but generally speaking, here are a few concepts to eat for “relaxation”. You want to support the production of brain chemicals that allow you/us to relax and feel good, right? So you could just focus on eating a whole food, nutrient dense diet so that you’re providing the vitamins and minerals that allow your body to flow with the production of “feel- good” chemicals.

But, you could also add in specific foods that contain magnesium, b-vitamins, vitamin C, selenium, and foods/beverages that provide specific compounds like l-theanine (tea and supplements), GABA-building blocks (skull cap herb, lemon balm herb, ashwaganda herb, l-theanine) tryptophan (turkey, dark chocolate or cacao, sesame seeds, red meat, raw nuts), tyrosine (fish, turkey, yogurt, pumpkin seeds, sesame seeds, soy, avocados), theobromine (dark chocolate and cacao), and various adaptogenic herbs that help to modulate stress response, mood, anxiety, mental acuity and cognition.

Moreover, creating rituals around eating and enjoying food and beverages can really help. For instance, I had a high-performance bodybuilder and real estate agent who also worked at a high-stress sales job. We decided that have a ritual around de-stressing would help so I suggested that every day at work he takes 2 to 5 minutes to step outside and drink either some magnesium citrate mixed into warm water or a tbsp of cacao powder mixed into warm water or almond milk. He did, and after a week of following this ritual, he noticed he was far more relaxed and his tension headaches melted away. We started to call it “magnesium o’clock” because this ritual let him step back, slow down, nourish, and then continue kicking ass.

To helping muscles build and/or recover? 

This one could span on forever with nutrient timing specifics, macro ratios, micronutrients, supplements and what not, but the main thing to remember is that correct nutrition plays a significant roll in both fueling and building muscles. So much of the time people kill themselves working out but neglect their diet and hydration. While the workout is still great, you won’t get the most out of it without the food to fuel and rebuild.

Protein is required to build muscle tissue. You can’t build muscle from carbs or fat. You need protein, amino acids, to build muscle. That says a lot because you need to be sure you’re getting adequate protein to recover and rebuild. After all, muscle is our metabolic engine; it keeps our metabolism humming and us feeling strong.

Carbs are also important for muscle function as they are stored as glycogen, a localized fuel in the muscles. Carbs will help with energy so you have the capacity to push harder through your workouts, training, and activities, but they don’t need to be over-consumed.

Of course, ensuring you get the minerals (aka electrolytes) you need is also essential to your muscles functioning optimally. Potassium, sodium, chloride, and magnesium are used for basic muscle function. You can get these in adequate amounts from food, but supplements can always be utilized if you’re highly active.

To boost the immune system? 

Diets that support immune system function are similar to the “ideal” diet, rich in whole, nutrient- dense foods with ample variety of plants, proteins, healthy fats, and fiber. Again, eat fewer processed foods and lots of nutrient-dense, whole foods, enough protein, which is not only needed for supporting muscle growth and repair but also to keep the immune system strong. Additionally, antioxidants and plant compounds are also helpful. Eating cruciferous veggies like cauliflower, kale, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cabbage, and colorful vegetables like beets, tomatoes, peppers, carrots, winter squash, etc., along with adequate omega-3 fatty acids, soluble fibers from beans, lentils, ground flaxseed, chia seed and winter squash, are all incredible for the body at large and for the immune system specifically. Moreover, high vitamin C foods like peppers, cauliflower, citrus, kiwi, papaya, broccoli, etc… Oh, and sleep and hydration. Stay hydrated and make sure you’re in bed by 10 pm most nights.

How do people learn what foods they need on a regular basis for their body type? 

You’re here exploring and discovering, right? No matter what you’re doing, whether it’s climbing, bouldering, eating, training, changing your nutrition, working on your career, or your spirit, or your overall health, you always need to be listening to the feedback you receive from your body, soul, brain, and environment. That might sound vague, but think about it, if you’re eating a specific way, but not feeling so great, try changing it, then listen to the feedback your body sends you. Notice your energy, notice your skin, notice how you recover, notice how you sleep, notice your cravings or lack thereof, notice your ability to focus. Changing up what you eat, how much you eat, the combinations of foods and drinks you consume, and when you eat, then listening for the feedback is the best way to learn. Often I’ll suggest clients write out changes and side effects so they are accurate and on point.

Alyssa’s Brown Butter Sword Fish with Gnocchi

What are some basic healthy ingredients we should never be without? 

a) Salmon (or other fatty fish like sardines) MACROS: protein + fat!O-3s which are important for anti-inflammatory properties, maintaining an optimal O-3:O-6 balance, and mitochondrial health MICROS: B-vitamins, magnesium (which is used in over 300 chemical reactions as cofactor – and is missing in much of the US food supply when people eat processed foods and is an electrolyte), potassium (electrolyte!), PLUS…. ASTAXANTHIN, which is a terpene – a carotenoid, like in carrots – is an antioxidant that protects the skin from degradation as well as being cardio-protective it’s also potentially neuroprotective, serving as an oxidative stress reducer in the brain. So, you’re eating salmon for more than just the protein and O-3s. Sardines could fill in here too; minus the astaxanthin and the reduced amount of bioaccumulation because they are a small fish/animal and therefore are “cleaner”.

b) Greens & Cruciferous veggies; all the types, all the flavors, all the textures. E.g. Watercress, Chinese cabbage, collard green, kale, arugula) and green leafy (chard, beet green, spinach, chicory, leaf lettuce)  groups were concentrated in the top half of the distribution of scores for “Powerhouse Vegetables”

These foods lend fiber, vitamins, minerals, water, and secondary plant compounds that define them as “powerhouse” foods. The thing to remember is it’s not all about the vitamins and minerals (micronutrients) and macronutrients; secondary plant compounds play a significant role too. For instance, cauliflower, cabbage, and some other cruciferous veggies contain INDOLE-3-CARBINOL, a chemical that is released when we chew the veggies. I-3-C is known to prevent cancer in lab animals that were treated with carcinogens AND I-3-C induced the cytochrome P450 pathway, which is a detox pathway that helps us metabolize estrogens so they don’t stay in the bloodstream too long. That + the fiber in these veggies is the perfect combo to ensure that we are maintaining healthy biotransformation (detox) systems.

c) Beans + Winter Squash – because who doesn’t want power farts?
No, but on a serious note, beans are a real powerhouse. MACRO-wise! They provide a really stable ratio of protein: carbs: fiber, which is fantastic for blood sugar regulation. Prevents BG spikes and dips, which will make you hungrier, and is not great for insulin response, or body composition. Speaking of body composition, the soluble fiber in beans is not only beneficial for digestive health (fiber feeds bacteria in the gut AND soluble fiber promotes healthy, regular bowel movements and reducing various diseases CVD) but the soluble fiber in the diet has been shown to reduce body fat and weight.

d) Eggs: Eggs are definitely a superfood; especially fresh-from-the chicken, backyard eggs. If you’ve ever tasted them, you know what I mean. Here is why I added eggs.
MACROS: Eggs are really fantastic as far as satiation goes. Protein and fat are the most satiating foods as they are also the slowest digested. Moreover, the protein in eggs (if you don’t have a food intolerance to them) is highly bioavailability, meaning we are very efficiently, very completely able to absorb it. Plus, it’s a relatively affordable source of high-quality protein compared to salmon, chicken, sardines, or even meat substitutes. There are no carbs in eggs, so that makes them a good addition to veggies, winter squash, GF grains, etc… MICRONUTRIENT WISE eggs are a powerhouse when it comes to delivering a wide variety of vitamins and minerals: eggs provide B-vitamins (thiamine (y), riboflavin (w/y), niacin (w), B6 (y), folate (y), and B12 (y), along with vitamin A (carotenoids in the y), E, D, K, DHA (and essential FA; an o-3) and AA. NOTE,  “(y)” = contained in the yolk and “(w)” = contained in the white 

Moreover they contain the following minerals: iron(y), calcium (y), magnesium(w), potassium (w), phosphorus (y), zinc (y), copper(y), and selenium (y). The YOLK, which is a nutritional powerhouse on its own, is the carrier for many of the nutrients listed above. The YOLK is primarily fat but does contain some protein as well. The fat in the yolk is saturated fat, which yes, does raise cholesterol (not always a bad thing), but what makes it really fantastic are the vitamins and minerals contained in it; the yolk contains all the materials needed to build a fetus, so you know it’s nutrient dense, right!?

Then there is choline, which is a neuroprotective and hepatic protective nutrient in egg yolk and in liver. Choline helps us to build neurotransmitters – brain signaling chemicals – and plays a vital role in the protection of the liver, specifically in preventing non-alcoholic fatty liver disease. Choline is also a substrate in the methylation cycle – a cycle we use literally all the time, as we methylate a billion times per second – and is used to (for simplicity sake), activate or deactivate chemicals in our body. Choline contributes to glutathione production (indirectly) AND is required for proper fetal development. So yes, eggs are fantastic and they are delicious whether you eat them fried over salad or scrambled

Advantages of meal prepping? 

There are quite a few, but the one that is particularly significant is the fact that when you have pre-made food waiting for you, you tend to have more control over your food choices and nutrition. This means that you’re always able to get protein, whole food carbs, veggies, and some healthy fats when you’re out and about, rather than having to fall back on fast food or gas station food, or waiting to eat until you’re so ravenous that you have no control over your food choices. Meal prepping only takes a couple hours a week and will allow you to save money (because of less restaurant, fast food purchases) and more nourishment as you can pack the exact foods your body is asking for.

Alyssa’s Turkey + Sweet Potato Slides– great to pack with you!

Reach out to Alyssa if you are interested in working with her or have any additional questions!

STAY TUNED FOR OUR NEXT PIECE ON SUPPLEMENTARY FITNESS and COMMENT BELOW IF YOU WANT RECIPES!

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