Nutrition Supplements For Climbers

Article by Heather Clark
Monday 29th June 2009

Preparing the traditional Anatolian 'Gozleme' flatbread near Geyikbayiri, Turkey: perfect food for pre-climbing carbohydrate loading. But what else does an athlete need apart from carbohydrate, protein, and fat in an ideal diet? 

This article is not about steroids or any illegal drugs, but the more common and accepted dietary supplements. The supplements industry is booming and makes millions each year by targeting sports people, who are inevitably more concerned about their diet than the average couch potato. Claims that taking a pill can enhance performance are particularly luring, but don’t believe all the hype! Caution is needed in assessing the various (and frequently dubious) nutritional merits of these products, which is what I hope to address here.

Supplements: A Necessity or Just Reassurance?

Active climbers tend to consume more total energy (calories) than sedentary individuals in order to sustain their additional energy expenditure. Any increased nutrient requirements are usually well satisfied by this overall increase, providing the diet is well balanced. But who knows for sure that their diet is 100% adequate? It is often this element of uncertainty that causes people to use supplements. I know of several climbers who take multi-vitamin tablets “just to be sure” they are getting enough of each individual nutrient. This may sound sensible, but is it worthwhile?

For most climbers, the answer is probably no. However, if you are training heavily or enduring long days of climbing or mountaineering on a regular basis, then there is a chance that eating well-balance meals may not be enough. If you feel that this applies to you, then only personal testing of various supplements will satisfy your curiosity and give you the definitive answer.

Top Australian climber Vince Day high on the endurance pitch of Ironman (8c), Rodellar, Spain. For climbers training hard and pushing their grades, experimenting with supplements is a good way of optimising performance. 


Supplement Summary

1: Vitamins

Vitamins are critical for normal energy metabolism and physiological function. For this reason, many athletes believe that consuming vitamin supplements will enhance their performance. In fact, a healthy balanced diet of adequate energy intake will provide all of the vitamins needed for optimal performance. There is no evidence that vitamin supplementation above the level required to maintain normal health and physiological function directly improves performance. Certain vitamins (such as B12) can actually become toxic if consumption is extreme.

At the other end of the scale, vitamin deficiencies can be detrimental to performance and health. Climbers who train heavily but consume low-energy diets (for weight loss purposes) are likely to have marginal nutrient intakes. If you suspect that certain vitamins may be lacking, then taking supplements may be beneficial. Otherwise it is probably a waste of money…but perhaps it is worth it for peace of mind?

Antioxidants vitamins A, C and E are protective against cell damage caused by the oxidation process i.e. the conversion of glucose to fat and energy. Exercise is associated with increased oxidative stress in skeletal muscle and there is some evidence to suggest that antioxidant vitamins may be beneficial during the post-exercise recovery period. Athletes tend to have higher levels of antioxidant enzymes – a physiological adaptation to oxidative stress – so supplementation with antioxidant vitamins may be unnecessary.

2: Minerals

Mineral deficiencies should be easily corrected with a well-balanced diet and are unlikely to affect performance. However, climbers who exclude certain food groups should be aware that some minerals might be lacking. For example, calcium requirements are easy to meet if you consume three servings of dairy produce per day. Vegans will need to supplement calcium, but calcium-fortified soy products are also available. Other sources include turnips, mustard greens, broccoli and legumes.

Vegetarians should take care to consume sufficient iron, by eating plenty of dark green leafy vegetables. Non-haem iron (plant sources) is less readily absorbed than haem iron (animal sources). Note that vitamin C enhances iron absorption, so try to consume the two together, for example cereal with orange juice. This will benefit your overall health, but not necessarily your performance. Whereas iron deficiency anaemia (IDA) is known to compromise performance, milder iron depletion does not. Iron supplements have not been shown to enhance performance, except where IDA exists.

3: Protein/amino acids

These supplements will not improve your strength or performance if you already consume sufficient dietary protein. Despite the impressive claims made by manufacturers, there is a “ceiling” beyond which extra protein has no beneficial effect. (The effects of protein were discussed in the Bouldering article). Again, there is an element of “insurance” against an insufficient diet and I am sure that is why some climbers use protein supplements. If you do, beware of consuming too many calories because protein powders/drinks are less filling than high-protein foods.

Instead of spending your money on expensive powders, I would advise simply eating some protein-rich food every day – preferably 10-15% of your total calorific intake. Good examples are dairy products, meat, fish, eggs, nuts, seeds, beans, legumes, soy products and cereal grains. Try to eat a variety of protein-rich foods to ensure that you obtain all of the essential amino acids.

4: Caffeine

Caffeine has been shown to enhance athletic performance and is a well-established mental stimulant. Frequent consumption causes the body to become accustomed to caffeine, so a period of abstinence should result in increased sensitivity. However, the affects of caffeine may be too short-lived to really benefit climbing performance. Shane Ohly has made an interesting observation about the link between coffee and climbing:

“If I drink a coffee (at the office) just before going climbing, I notice a distinct high followed by a distinct low. The climbing session tends to be shorter than if I drink a pint or two of water beforehand. My performance is less sustained and I find myself needing a snack sooner”.

5: Creatine

Creatine is an amino acid that occurs naturally in the diet (mainly in meat). Our normal daily intake of creatine tends to be less than we require and the body has limited capacity to synthesise it. Creatine phosphate is necessary for explosive power output, but a muscle’s supply may be depleted within the first few seconds of muscle contraction. By saturating the muscle with creatine, its power endurance capacity is improved. Research has shown particular benefits in sports that involve repeated bursts of high-intensity, anaerobic exercise with short recovery intervals – like bouldering. However, the peak power achieved in a single burst of activity may not be affected. Therefore, it seems that creatine supplementation can make a significant difference to climbers, especially those who do not eat meat.

6: Glucosamine Sulphate

Glucosamine Sulphate has become popular in recent years among climbers and other athletes, particularly for athletes recovering from soft-tissue injury. It is thought to soothe painful joints and decrease the risk of osteoarthritis, but the evidence is mixed and few proper studies have been carried out with athletes. There is strong medical evidence for its value as an aid to tendon and ligament repair and recovery: if you do experience joint pain or stiffness, it may be worth experimenting with. Vegetarians, however, should be aware that glucosamine sulphate is derived from fish shells and sometimes even shark cartilage!


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Glucosamine for tendons - 27/07/2009
Thank you for an interesting article with, as far as I can tell, sensible advice. I have one question about Glucosamine. As you say, the evidence for Glucosamine for arthritis (joint cartilage repair) is mixed. I am not aware of any evidence, in animal studies or in humans, that Glucosamine aids tendon or ligament repair or recovery. There is certainly not "strong medical evidence" that Glucosamine helps ligament and tendons unless I've missed a large chunk of literature.

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