- all photographs by Dave Pickford / www.davidpickford.com -
Like many other people, climbers often put pressure on themselves to be thinner. Climbing magazines contain images of superbly toned and muscular bodies and this is what ambitious climbers aspire to. Power to weight ratio is a popular term, and for climbers it is good to have a high one! In other words, if you can minimise body fat whilst retaining muscle, then you will be lighter and more able to pull your body up the desired route or boulder problem. This is true to some extent, but there are limits beyond which you will start to suffer.
A young French climber puts his light frame to good use on the hard classic of 'Mederik Craque' (8a+), sector Le Grand Toit, Gorge du Tarn. The idea of an 'ideal' climbing shape has been hugely influential in the dietary choices of sport climbers since the 1980's.
Going to Extremes
Malcolm Smith started climbing in the late 1980s when starvation diets were all the rage. He recalled for me his dedication to dieting at that time:
"The first major weight loss diet I went on was to do Hubble (F8c+) in 1992. I lost about 1 ½ stone and it made a massive difference to my power to weight ratio. For the next five years or so, my weight was up and down like a yo-yo. I would get it down to a ridiculously low level, fight to keep it there for several weeks, then go crazy with hunger and put it all back on again. The lowest I ever got down to (on about 1000 calories per day) was 8 stone 13. I remember stepping onto my fellow dieter's scales in a caravan in France and being well chuffed. We were both so cold at night in the caravan that we had to leave the fan heater on all the time. I felt light when I climbed though. The thing I remember most about those years was the hunger - what a nightmare! My main time of weakness was in the middle of the night, when I would often go downstairs to the kitchen for a pig-out. To counter this, I actually installed a bolt and padlock on the kitchen door and gave the key to someone else for safekeeping at night. One night though (in a state of crazed hunger), I came down and unscrewed the whole thing. My solution the next day was to cover the heads of the screws with glue!"
Malcolm's normal weight is between 11 and 11 ½ stone, so there is no wonder he felt cold at 8 stone 13 - he was literally starving himself. Lucy Creamer also experimented with dieting during the early 90s and tried to cut out fat completely. Ultimately, she felt it was damaging to her body and recalls feeling mentally drained, depressed and lacking energy. Nowadays, both Malcolm and Lucy eat a more balanced diet and remain at the top of their sport.
It is important to remember that these elite climbers dedicate their lives to training and the resulting body image is not a realistic goal for most of us. That said, I'm sure a lot of climbers would like to "lighten the load" a little and see how it affects their climbing performance. The remainder of this article offers advice on how to manage your weight sensibly, without going to extremes and jeopardising your health and sanity.
The Balanced Approach
The fundamental law of energy balance is simple: energy input = energy expenditure. In other words, if you consume less energy than you burn, you will lose weight. This is a state of negative energy balance i.e. energy expenditure exceeds energy input. However, this simple rule is not so easy to apply unless you are aware of, and can interpret, the energy content of your food. Food energy is measured in calories (kcal). I would advise reading the nutrition information on food labels - you will soon develop an awareness of which foods are high in calories. One important fact to remember is that fat contains almost twice as many calories per gram as carbohydrate or protein, so avoid fatty foods if you are trying to slim down.
Different people burn energy at different rates. Many factors affect this process, including body size, body composition, body shape, age, gender and physical fitness. Without using laboratory equipment to determine energy expenditure precisely, it is difficult to know how many calories you have burned and how much food you should eat to compensate. For most people, this is a matter of trial and error. The Estimated Average Requirement for total energy is 2550 kcal/day for adult men and for 1940 kcal/day for adult women. These values are useful as a guideline, but actual energy requirements vary greatly from individual to individual. For climbers and other active people, energy requirements increase according to the duration and intensity of physical activity.
Whilst trying to lose weight, it is important not to eat too little. The human metabolism is a highly sensitive feedback mechanism - if the body is starved, its metabolism will slow down to preserve precious energy stores. This happens to a lesser extent with dieters who often find that weight loss becomes slower and slower. The ideal scenario is to increase your metabolic rate by exercising more and eat regular, well-balanced meals.
A climber on a very short power-focused route in the Ali Baba cave, Rodellar, Spain. It is tempting for climbers attempting such routes to eat as little as possible (in the tradition of Malcolm Smith's 1000 calorie-a-day principle) for optimum power-to-weight. It is now clear that such extreme dieting is both completely counterproductive and also dangerous.
Carbohydrate should be the staple nutrient in most meals and contribute 55-65% of total energy intake. Our ancestors were hunter-gatherers, so the human body has evolved to survive (and perform strenuous physical tasks) on a largely vegetarian diet, high in carbohydrates. This does not mean that you have to consume huge plate-fulls of pasta every evening. There are many different sources of carbohydrate and two main types. Simple carbohydrates (sugars) are ideal for snacking on the go. If you are watching your weight, choose the natural sugars in fruit and milk products and avoid eating too much refined sugar. Sweet products such as biscuits, chocolate, syrups and soft drinks may also be high in fat or unnatural additives. Complex carbohydrates should form the bulk of daily carbohydrate intake. Good examples are vegetables, noodles, wholegrain rice and pasta, cereals and oats, wholegrain bread, potatoes, lentils and beans - plant-derived foods that are high in fibre. Carbohydrate is the preferred fuel for working muscles and climbers can easily use it to their advantage. Performance-enhancing nutritional strategies will be covered in future articles.
Jack Geldard high on Arnaud Petit's incredible 11-pitch masterpiece Rivieres Pourpres (7b+ max / 7a+ obl) Taghia, Morocco. On trad routes and big walls, the body demands a very high calorific intake. Low-carb diets are out of the question for such activities.
Low-carbohydrate diets, such as the Atkins diet, have become increasingly popular in recent years. The creators of these regimes promote a metabolic advantage in reducing or eliminating carbohydrate-rich foods, by causing the body to burn more fat. This has not been proven. However, scientific studies have revealed that protein-rich foods (particularly animal products) are more filling than carbohydrate-rich foods, so the weight loss actually results from eating fewer calories. The fundamental law of energy balance holds strong. The worrying thing is that thousands of people are being encouraged to consume more saturated fat (source: animal products) - a known risk factor for heart disease, stroke, diabetes and some cancers. The long-term effects of low-carbohydrate diets will not be seen for some years to come, but most nutritionists would agree that a balanced diet is by far the better option.
As well as plenty of carbohydrate, protein and fat are also essential for good health. Dietary protein is needed to repair the inevitable muscle breakdown/damage that occurs whilst climbing. Good sources of protein include dairy products, meat, fish, eggs, nuts, seeds, beans, legumes, soy products and cereal grains. The recommended protein intake is 10-15% of total energy intake, which is easily achieved with a balanced diet - even for vegetarians. The remaining 20-30% of total energy intake should come from fat. Unsaturated fat (plant sources) is better for us than saturated fat (animal sources) so try to shift the balance in your diet. Red meat is especially high in saturated fat, so replace it with fish, poultry or vegetarian alternatives. Processed foods are often high in saturated fat because that is what makes them taste nice. Beware of "low-fat" or "reduced fat" products that may be high in sugar or salt to compensate. Good sources of unsaturated fat include olives and olive oil, nuts and nut oil, seeds and seed oil, avocados and vegetable oil.
Dani Andrada, one of the world's best sport climbers, working a 9a+ roof project in sector Ventanas, Rodellar. Like his friend and contemporary Chris Sharma, Andrada has shown that you don't need to be a super-waif to climb the hardest pitches - you just need to be strong.
I hope I have managed to convey that extreme dieting is not necessary for effective weight management. To climb well, you must give your body enough energy to work hard, but not so much that you gain excess weight. So be aware of energy content (calories) but do not forget about nutritional balance. It is not wise or safe to eliminate any one nutrient altogether, it is far better to maintain a balanced diet and be aware how certain food groups make you feel. Different foods work for different people and there is no perfect diet for everyone. The main message is be sensible and do not deprive your body of what it needs to perform.
- Editor's Note: since this article was first published in 2004, the use of extreme dieting as a training tool has become increasingly common on the international competition circuit. PlanetFear advises all young climbers to remember that dieting can be extremely dangerous and will eventually lead to a decrease in performance, and to always follow the advice of this article: do not deprive your body of what it needs to perform.
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