Nutrition for Long Days

Article by Heather Clark
Saturday 28th November 2009

Most climbers can remember some ridiculously long days out: they give us an immense feeling of satisfaction, often providing our richest and most memorable climbing experiences. It may be winter climbing or mountaineering, or doing huge multi-pitch routes, or cramming as many routes as possible into one day.

A winter storm clears Mont Blanc's awesome Peuterey Ridge. Alpine winter climbing requires the utmost attention to be given to nutrition in order to avoid a potentially dangerous 'energy crash'.

If you are into long days, this article is for you. In climbing terms, this is endurance exercise and therefore good nutrition is essential. Research has shown that nutritional strategies can help endurance athletes to improve their performance. Most of this research has involved long distance runners or cyclists, but climbers can easily apply the same knowledge to their own endurance activities.

Performance Fuels

Here, the emphasis is on carbohydrate - the most efficient fuel for hard-working muscles. However, the extent of reliance on carbohydrate metabolism depends on the intensity (relative difficulty) of climbing. If you undertake a long route of an easy grade, your body is working at low-intensity and therefore using fat stores, as well as carbohydrate, for energy. But if the route is closer to your limit, the effort is both long-duration and high-intensity and carbohydrate metabolism dominates. A similar comparison in running would be the difference between going out for a long, steady jog and competing in a mountain marathon race. It is all about how hard your body will be working throughout the day. So you need to consider this beforehand and choose your food accordingly.

Carbohydrate is stored by the body in the form of glycogen - chains of glucose molecules. Prior to endurance exercise, it is important to maximise glycogen stores in the muscles and liver, in order to delay fatigue for as long as possible. Carbohydrate loading has become common practice in many endurance sports and can be used effectively by climbers. All you need to do is increase your carbohydrate intake for one to three days prior to the day you are preparing for. Eat plenty of complex carbohydrates, such as pasta, rice, cereals, oats, wholegrain bread, vegetables, potatoes and beans.


John Arran and Shane Ohly have completed several endurance climbing challenges. In June 2003, they climbed 500 routes (each) in a single day on various Gritstone crags in the Peak District - an exhausting effort! Fortunately, they were well aware that nutrition would have a big impact on their performance. They both carbohydrate-loaded with large amounts of pasta prior to undertaking their challenge. They also used specialist snack bars (Go produced by Science in Sport), high-carbohydrate sports drinks (PSP22 produced by Science in Sport) and even more pasta to keep them going for over 18 hours, long after their glycogen stores were depleted.

Before setting out for a long day, breakfast is essential to boost your metabolism after the overnight fasting period. Try to eat a large portion (even if you do not feel hungry) and remember that your next big meal will not be until the evening. Porridge and muesli are ideal as they contain plenty of complex carbohydrates.

Paul Riley on the lower section of Yosemite's 'Freerider' on El Capitan, one of the world's finest big-wall free climbs. To climb at your best on a route like this, careful attention to your nutrition requirements before and during the climb is vital. 

Even if you have carbohydrate-loaded and eaten a good breakfast, it is important to top up your blood glucose throughout the day, like John and Shane did. Have regular snacks between routes/pitches or eat on the go where possible. A large number of specialist products are available, but standard household foods will also do the job. Flapjacks and cereal bars are excellent high-energy snacks. Ian Parnell recommends halva (sesame product) which is high-energy, lightweight and a good source of protein too.

High-carbohydrate sports drinks can be very effective, but if the concentration is too strong they can cause stomach discomfort. It is advisable to start by diluting them more than the label suggests and then experiment to find a concentration that works for you. There is obviously a limit to the amount of food you can eat on the move, so sports drinks (if used correctly) can provide an ideal solution in times of energy deficit.


This is one aspect of nutrition that many climbers neglect. Significant sweat losses occur when we climb, which are further magnified in hot climates or at high altitude. If muscles dehydrate by just 3%, the loss of contractile strength and speed is nearer 10%. If more severe dehydration occurs, symptoms can include muscle cramp, extreme fatigue, shortness of breath, headache, nausea, vomiting and eventually a state of coma. Adequate fluid replacement is vital for optimal climbing performance and endurance.

Remembering that "adequate fluid replacement is vital for optimal climbing performance and endurance" on a hot summer's day on Lundy Island, UK

The problem is that it can be difficult to know whether you are drinking enough. Thirst is not a good indicator, so if you wait until you feel thirsty you are probably already dehydrating. The easiest way to monitor your own hydration status is by looking at your urine colour. Clear or pale yellow urine indicates that you are well hydrated and this method is more reliable than it might sound.

Before you embark on a long route, make sure you are carrying plenty of water - it will be worth the extra weight. If you are in the mountains, make use of natural water sources and (if necessary) carry water purification tablets. If you find it difficult to drink large quantities of water, you may find that flavoured sports drinks (or fruit cordials) taste nicer and this will encourage you to drink more. If you prefer hot drinks, remember that tea and coffee contain caffeine, which is a diuretic and will dehydrate you further.

In his book Extreme Alpinism (1999), Mark Twight emphasises the importance of adequate hydration. He recommends drinking small amounts consistently throughout the day. Hydration bladders allow frequent drinking on the move - surely essential kit for most climbers? For cold climate mountaineering, insulated bladders and hoses should prevent freezing if hot water is poured in and sealed. Another technique, used by endurance runners, is to invert the bladder (so that the hose is at the top) and blow warm air back into the system. If you need a reminder to drink regularly, try setting an alarm to go off every 15 minutes - irritating but effective!

Ian Parnell, one of Britain's most experienced extreme mountaineers, regards hydration as a very important factor in mountaineering. He often carries a stove with him and aims to boil up 3 litres of water every 8-10 hours. He believes that time spent melting snow and boiling water can be regained through enhanced performance and mental alertness. The practical aspect of where you are going to stop to boil up water also needs to be considered during the planning phase.


After a long day of climbing, be sure to eat plenty. You have earned it and burned it! If you are planning to climb again the next day, it is essential to replace what you have lost and make the most of your recovery time. Glycogen is stored at a faster rate during the first two hours after exercise, so this is a good time to eat a proper meal. Carbohydrate is important now as well, to replenish muscle glycogen stores and enhance your recovery. Try to incorporate some protein in the same meal, to combat the muscle protein breakdown that occurs whilst climbing.

Effective fluid replacement will greatly enhance your potential to climb well the next day. It is vital to re-hydrate before you go to sleep, as you will dehydrate further overnight. This is sometimes hard when you feel exhausted and I have heard lots of people murmur that they are too tired to drink. But if you want to restore fluid balance in your body, then you must force the water down. Sports drinks can help at this stage too - they contain sodium and other electrolytes which stimulate both appetite and water retention. Again, keep an eye on your urine colour and do not stop drinking until it's clear.

'Hydrating' at the end of the day's climbing in Spain: always make sure you're re-hydrated with non-alcoholic fluid before hitting the sauce. 

I am well aware of the temptations of alcohol at the end of a great day when you are in celebratory mood. You return to the campsite, start cooking and instinctively open a beer - and it tastes so good! Then the social banter takes over and before you know it you've had several beers and not given a second thought to how dehydrated you felt when you came in. Beers may be refreshing and they are of course fluid, but they do not do much to rehydrate you unfortunately - just the opposite. So remember to gulp down a couple of pints of water before you start on the alcohol - you will appreciate them in the morning!


All photos copyright David Pickford /

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