This article originally appeared in Climbing in 2017.
Does your climbing performance vary from day to day? Do you send hard only to feel like a wet rag the next time out? Do you feel a constant need to snack to avoid getting “hangry” or crave coffee to battle a midday crash?
The biggest gains in climbing come when your energy level is consistently high. This allows you to climb stronger, longer, and more frequently. Strategic eating optimizes energy levels and strength, and minimizes recovery time. After years of climbing in Northern California, experimenting on myself and working with clients to develop the Trailside Method, a four-week program of strategic eating for active outdoor lifestyles, I developed these strategies to help you eat your way to “next-level” performance.
Step 1: Eat Balanced Meals
Eating balanced meals and snacks will stabilize your energy at a high level, even out your appetite, and prevent midday crashes. Balancing meals and snacks means that every time you eat, you’re ingesting some form of carbohydrates, protein, and fat.
These are your body’s main fuel source—the gas that gets the car running. Carbs break down in your digestive tract to glucose, your body’s most readily available fuel, which then passes into your blood to fire cellular activity. How quickly you absorb glucose depends on the type of carb you eat. Both types come in refined (processed) and unrefined (whole) forms. Unrefined simple and complex carbohydrates are best: The easiest way to know how a carbohydrate is going to act is to eat it in its natural, unrefined state, as Mother Nature intended.
- Simple carbohydrates: These are the quickest source of fuel and the most easily digested. Because of this, your blood sugar will spike and crash rapidly. A simple carb is like trying to keep a bonfire going all night with newspaper, leaving you with short bursts of flames. Some examples of unrefined simple carbs include honey, molasses, and maple syrup, while refined simple carbs include cane sugar and high-fructose corn syrup.
- Complex carbohydrates: These have a carbohydrate structure that is harder to break down and usually present with fiber; therefore, they’re slower to digest, giving a steady, more gradually increased and decreased supply of glucose to the blood. Complex carbohydrates are a slow-burning log that gives off better heat and requires less maintenance. Some examples of unrefined complex carbs include most vegetables, legumes, nuts, and seeds, while refined complex carbs often come in the form of breads, pasta, and baked goods.
The protein structure is a chain of amino acids that your body breaks down and uses for different functions. The main function of protein in climbing is to aid in rebuilding muscle tissue after exercise. So, if carbohydrates are the gas for the car, protein is the mechanic repairing and rebuilding damaged parts at a pit stop. Animal proteins such as meat, poultry, eggs, and cheese are the best for repairing muscle tissues. Vegetarian proteins such as tempeh, legumes, whole grains, nuts, and seeds can also provide adequate repairing power if eaten together in a diverse diet.
The main function of fat is to slow digestion, to keep you full and control the rate at which you use your carbohydrate fuel. If carbs are the gas and protein is the mechanic, then fat is the brake pedal. Eating fat will slow down the digestion of both simple and complex carbohydrates. Some examples of good fats include avocado, nuts, olives, coconut, and butter.
Step 2: Ratios of Carbohydrates, Proteins, and Fats
Knowing the different roles that carbohydrates, protein, and fat play allows climbers to customize food to our specific needs. In a primarily strength-focused sport like climbing, higher-protein and lower-carb food choices work best for rest days or light climbing days, since you’ll need more mechanics on duty to repair muscles after exercise and less immediate energy. As your intensity level increases, so will your carbohydrate requirement.
The ratio in the pie chart above assumes you’re taking in enough calories for your weight and activity level. To figure out how much you should be eating, try this test: After dinner, wait 15 to 20 minutes before going back for seconds to give your brain time to catch up with your stomach. If you’re still hungry after the wait time, proceed; if not, then you’ve eaten enough. If you can go four to five hours before getting hungry, then you’re getting enough calories. If you get hungry before then, ask yourself:
- Was there too much or too little protein, carbohydrates, or fat?
- Did I eat enough?
Ratio for a rest day:
Step 3: Combining Ratios and Timing Across Disciplines
Timing and food ratios allow climbers to fine-tune and manipulate food for optimal performance. If carbs are the gas, protein is the mechanic, and fat is the pedals, timing is how you upgrade your mini-van to a sports car.
For any climbing day, start off with a meal that includes 40 percent complex carbs, 35 percent protein, and 25 percent fat. Then, within 45 minutes after you finish climbing for the day, eat a snack or meal with the ratio of 30 percent simple carbohydrates, 60 percent protein, and 10 percent fat. This ratio will change based on the type and intensity of your climbing. Below, we’ve given ratios and sample meals and snacks for each climbing discipline. (Note: As you climb, right before or after a pitch or problem is the perfect time for unrefined simple carbohydrates. When exercising, your body can take in more fuel and use those quick-acting simple carbs for a power boost. They are also a good way to quickly refill your glycogen stores post-climbing, which aids with recovery.)
For a half day of bouldering
If you need fuel to send, have a snack that is 50 percent simple carbs, 30 percent protein, and 20 percent fat. After climbing, stop for a recovery lunch that is 30 percent simple carbs, 60 percent protein, and 10 percent fat. Drink water to stay hydrated all day long.
- Breakfast: Five-grain porridge with butter, sea salt, and hardboiled eggs
- Snack: Banana with peanut butter
- Lunch: Lettuce-wrapped burger with sweet potato fries
For a day of sport climbing
To help clip the chains, have a snack that is 60 percent simple carbs, 25 percent protein, and 15 percent fat. When you’re done climbing, stop for a recovery meal that is 40 percent simple carbs, 50 percent protein, and 10 percent fat. Drink water to stay hydrated all day long.
- Breakfast: Smoked salmon and goat cheese frittata with tomatoes, onions, and green lentils
- Snack/lunch: Apple slices wrapped in prosciutto
- Dinner: Rotisserie chicken with mashed potatoes and broccoli
For a long day of trad or alpine/ice climbing
Start your day with a bigger meal that incorporates the normal ratios. As you climb, have small, easy-to-digest snacks that are 70 percent simple carbs, 20 percent protein, and 10 percent fat. When you’ve returned to the car, stop for a recovery meal that is 60 percent simple carbs, 30 percent protein, and 10 percent fat. Drink a homemade electrolyte beverage to stay hydrated all day long.
- Breakfast: Quinoa bowl with scrambled eggs, black beans, bacon, and avocado
- Snacks: Oatmeal and fruit-squeeze pouches, dates and almonds, or sweet potato chips with almond-butter pouch
- Dinner: Beef stew with potatoes, carrots, and celery
The goal of strategic eating is to make climbing nutrition actionable so that you can focus on the real goal, which is getting the most enjoyment out of doing what you love. So eat balanced meals, incorporate ratios, and time your simple carbs around exercise. If you feel great, you’ll climb better on a more consistent basis and can recover quickly, which means more pitches, problems, and sends.
Julia Delves is the founder of Trailside Kitchen and developer of the Trailside Method, a 4-week program of strategic eating for active outdoor lifestyles. Learn more at trailsidekitchen.com.