Should Climbers Eat More (Not Less) To Send?
Other factors are more important than body weight determining how well you climb. But you should still count calories—to make sure you are getting enough food.
It seems undefinable, yet present. Harm disguised as virtue. A looming problem that is not yet solved—or is it even a problem? Under-eating among climbers is championed and admired, yet current research shows climbers do not eat enough to support health and training. And in my own research in adolescent climbers in 2019, 82% of climbers under-ate their target calorie needs, and 86% under-ate their target carbohydrate needs.
Researchers also looked at climbers’ dietary intake, risk for low energy availability (basically not eating enough to match their body’s needs) and risk for eating disorders. According to Monedero et al. (2022) these researchers found that 88% of their participants had suboptimal dietary intake and 8% were at high risk for disordered eating. Still another study by Sas-Nowosielski’s research team in 2019 found climbers were under-eating both calories and carbohydrates, and were dissatisfied with their body mass.
How did we get here? Why do some climbers fall into the abyss of diet restriction and eating disorders? Because those high-gravity days can really do a number on your psyche. Couple that with seeing lithe, toned bodies at the crag, and elite climbers displaying both prowess and abs in competition can make one think, “I must weigh too much to be a good climber.” And we have proof that this mentality is real.
We have anecdotal data such as Kai Lightner, Caroline Wickes, and Angie Payne, Emily Harrington, and Andrea Szekely sharing their experiences with disordered eating. The documentary Light portrays climbers that have struggled with this mental illness.
We also have scientific data. In one study presented at the International Rock Climbing Research Association in 2018 in Chamonix, France, researcher Gina Blundt-Gonzalez and her team asked climbers to rate if they agreed with statements like, “My climbing performance would improve if I lost weight,” “My climbing performance would improve if I lost body fat,” and “I try to decrease my body weight and body fat to improve climbing performance.” Most climbers agreed to strongly agreed with these statements. Preoccupation with body and diet increases eating disorder risk.
This year researcher Mattias Strand combed Reddit and nine other climbing online forums for conversations about eating disorders. Three themes emerged: Yes, eating disorders are a problem, no they are not a problem, and eating disorders are a thing of the past. Others debated whether losing weight will really help performance, while still more questioned the health of competitive climbers that appear as “living skeletons,” and other similar language. Clearly, many climbers have thoughts about body weight, eating disorders, and performance.
How many climbers actually suffer from eating disorders? In my adolescent study, thankfully only 1 subject out of 22 was at high risk. Still, nearly 5% seems like too many, given the devastating nature of eating disorders. In a study conducted by Dr. Lanae Joubert in 2020 she found that 9% of climbers were at high risk for disordered eating. That number increased the more elite the climbers were. Forty-three percent of female elite climbers were at high risk for disordered eating.
Also Read: Should You Lose Weight To Climb Better?
In a 2022 study headed by Dr. Lanae Joubert, our research team surveyed IFSC licensed female climbers and asked about their menstrual status and eating disorder risk. Twenty-five percent had some sort of irregularity with their menstrual cycles, suggesting that they may not be eating enough to maintain normal menstruation. Fifty-nine percent of these females had a body mass index of less than 20 (healthy is considered 18.5-24.9) , suggesting a trend toward irregular menstruation with lower body weight. While looking at BMI on an individual level isn’t usually helpful, it is useful when examining trends within groups. Some also reported menstrual disturbances when they increased training volume or decreased food intake. And 26% reported having had or were currently experiencing disordered eating.
Reading between the lines suggests: You may be thin, but it may cost your health. Let’s recap:
- Many climbers do not eat enough
- Some climbers are striving for thinness
- Some are at high risk for eating disorder
Taken together, it seems safe to say that we should still acknowledge that eating disorders are a concern, whether within the climbing community or elsewhere. Eating disorders can cause serious and sometimes permanent health problems. Some signs and symptoms of disordered eating include:
- Skipping meals when others are eating
- Eliminating foods or food groups until allowed food choices are progressively narrowed
- Not eating with others
- Weight changes (loss or gain)
- Going to the bathroom after meals
- Feeling preoccupied with food thoughts
- Tracking, weighing, measuring food
- Inflexibility in food choices outside of the home, such as traveling or going to a restaurant
- Decreased training gains
- Frequent illness or injury
- Lost or irregular menstruation
- Mood changes (irritability, anxiety, depression)
- Lightheadedness or dizziness
- Foggy mind; inability to concentration
- Feeling out of control around food or addicted to food
How Much Should Your Eat?
Eat enough! Climbers can burn anywhere from 300 to 600+ calories per hour. More strenuous climbing, such as backcountry adventures with a long approach can use many times this. Be sure to eat enough to cover your basal metabolic rate, plus exercise expenditure and day-to-day activities. For many climbers this is much more than the “standard” 2,000 calories per day.
One way to know how many calories you need is to use metabolic equivalents (METs) to calculate your energy expenditure during climbing.
One MET of energy expenditure = 1 kcal/kg/hour. General rock climbing is 8 METS. For a 160 pounds person (73 kg), you plug it into an equation: Weight in kilograms x METs x hours exercises.
73 kg x 8 kcal/kg/hour x 1 hour = 584 calories burned for 1 hour of climbing for a 160-pound person. Remember, this only estimates how many calories you used while climbing, not the rest of your daily activities or your basal metabolic rate.
To prevent relative energy deficiency in sport (RED-S), you need at least 45 calories per kilogram per day of your fat-free mass, but this calculation requires that you know your body composition, and most climbers likely don’t and won’t go to the trouble to get measured.
What else can we do? Use evidence-based practices. Yes, climbing is a high strength-to-ratio sport. Yes, weight matters. But so does experience, footwork, strength, flexibility, training hours per week, finger strength, and so much more. Research is pretty clear that in climbers within a normal weight range, weight has little to no bearing on climbing performance, estimated at 1.8 to 4% impact. That’s it. Study after study shows that in general, body mass index (BMI), body fat, and body weight do not correlate with climbing ability.
This means to get better at climbing, weight loss should not be the messaging.
We should use neutral language in how we talk about bodies and food choices. “Oh, you like gummy bears for climbing? That’s cool. It must energize you.” Not “Eww, gummy bears are full of processed sugar.” More of, “Can you weight your foot on that chip properly, or get your hip to the wall?” And less, “I bet if you lost five pounds you could send that.”
We can speak up if we see something that causes concern. “I notice that you skip snacks during our three-hour team practice when everyone else is eating. Tell me about that.” “It looks like you are feeling more fatigued than usual. Do you need a break for some fluid and a snack?” “You mentioned that you lost your period. Have you asked your doctor about that?”
Subtle yet simple changes in how we speak about our bodies, our weight, and our climbing ability can mean the difference for those susceptible to developing eating disorders. Especially with our youth climbers who are going through puberty, teaching them to expect and embrace body changes and pivot their technique and training to reflect that, rather than hyper-focusing on body weight changes, will enable us to flip the script for future generations.
Marisa Michael, MSc, RDN, CSSD is a board-certified specialist in sports dietetics and author of Nutrition for Climbers: Fuel for the Send. She serves on the USA Climbing medical committee and has a private practice in Portland, Oregon. Find her online at nutritionforclimbers.com or on Instagram @realnutritiondietitian for nutrition coaching, eating disorder support, workshops, and writing services.