Marisa Michael, MSc, RDN, CSSD is a registered dietitian, Board Certified Specialist in Sports Dietetics, and a certified personal trainer. She holds a master's degree in sports nutrition and the International Olympic Committee's Diploma in Sports Nutrition. She loves climbing and triathlon and is mediocre at both sports.
This is a great question! Unfortunately we don’t have a precise answer. There are several ways to estimate calories expended while climbing. But before we get to that, you may want to consider WHY you’d need to know how many calories you burn while climbing?
There could be a number of reasons:
You want to fuel your climbing session appropriately
You’re just curious–you like numbers and data
You want to lose weight. This list of articles helps you explore why losing weight likely won’t help you be a better climber.
Another reason people sometimes want to know calories expended is if they are suffering from disordered eating or compulsive exercise. If this is the case, see professional help from qualified eating disorder providers.
Aside from all these considerations, maybe you just need to know (or at least estimate) how many calories you burn during a given climbing session.
Most research we have indicates active climbing uses between 8-11 calories per active minute of climbing. This does not include resting or belaying.
One way to estimate calories burned while climbing is to use the Metabolic Equivalents (METs).
One MET of energy expenditure = 1 calorie/kilogram/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.
Another way to estimate calories burned while climbing is to use a smartwatch.
Use caution with this information, most fitness devices are not accurate when it comes to estimating calories burned! They can be off by as much as 40%. FitBits, Apple Watches, Garmins etc. all have a large margin of error. It can get you in the ballpark if you’d like to use these numbers to help understand how much to eat to fuel your climbing, but it may be more useful to rely on hunger cues rather than your watch.
Variables that determine calories burned while climbing
Energy expended is depending on several factors, including but not limited to:
Familiarity with the route
Familiarity with type of climbing (a trad route would be more difficult for someone with no trad experience, for example)
You also may need to consider the approach when calculating energy expenditure. A very long or steep approach to the crag is going to demand more calories than driving to the gym parking lot and climbing indoors. Some researchers estimate 1200 calories for ~4 hours of climbing, not including a long approach.
The bottom line: Don’t focus on calories burned in order to lose weight, but knowing approximately how many calories you use while climbing can help you fuel the session well, support training adaptations, and recover quickly. Remember, estimating calorie energy expenditure is not precise (and neither is calorie counting!) so don’t get too hung up on the numbers. Just enjoy climbing and notice how your body feels.
Download our free RED-S tracking tool and free climbing fueling guides for more information!
~This is general information only and not nutrition advice. Always check with your healthcare provider before undergoing any diet or lifestyle changes.
Mermier C.M., Janot J.M., Parker D.L., & Swan J.G. (2000). Physiological and anthropometric determinants of sport climbing performance. British Journal of Sports Medicine, 34:359-366
Baláš, J., Panáčková, M., Strejcová, B., Martin, A., Cochrane, D.J., Kaláb, M., Kodejška, J. & Draper, N. (2014). The relationship between climbing ability and physiological responses to rock climbing. ScientificWorldJournal, 678387. doi: 10.1155/2014/678387
Bertuzzi, R.C., Franchini, E., Kokubun, E., & Kiss, M.A.P.D.M. (2007). Energy system contributions in indoor rock climbing. European Journal of Applied Physiology, 101, 293-300. doi: 10.1007/s00421-007-0501-0
Booth, J., Marino, F., Hill, C., & Gwinn, T. (1999). Energy cost of sport rock climbing in elite performers. British Journal of Sports Medicine, 33, 14-18.
Dickson, T., Fryer, S., Blackwell, G., Draper, N. (2012). Effect of style of ascent on the psychophysiological demands of rock climbing in elite level climbers. Journal of Sports Technology, (5): 111-119
Watts, P.B. (2004). Physiology of difficult rock climbing. European Journal of Applied Physiology, 91, 361-372. doi: 10.1007/s00421-003-1036-7
Watts, P.B., Daggett, M., Gallagher, P., & Wilkins, B. (2000). Metabolic response during sport rock climbing and the effects of active versus passive recovery. International Journal of Sports Medicine, 21, 185-190.
Watts, P.B., España- Romero, V., Ostrowski, M.L., & Jensen, R.L. (2013). Change in geometric entropy and energy expenditure with repeated ascents in rock climbing. Poster, American College of Sports Medicine Annual Meeting, Indianapolis, IN.
As a psychiatrist who worked primarily with eating disorders for quite a few years, I have seen a number of patients who developed serious eating disorders at least partly based on a wish to become lighter in order to climb harder. On the other hand, I have also met patients who used to overexercise in other sports and who have discovered a healthier way of relating to their own bodies through climbing. I thought this duality was fascinating and wanted to explore it further.
Also, as an amateur climber and father of a 12-year-old who climbs, I follow the international climbing scene and I cannot help but notice the perpetual debate about the role of weight in climbing. It seemed to me like there is a lot of talk about nutrition, weight, and body image in the climbing community, but that the topic of disordered eating is also often described as somewhat taboo – as a dark secret or as “the elephant in the room”, so to speak. I figured that a good way of exploring these potentially sensitive matters would be to study how people discuss them on online anonymous forums dedicated to climbing.
What was the most striking theme or comment you saw on these climbing online forums you studied?
Overall, the finding that was most striking to me was probably that the topic of eating disorders is far from a “blind spot” or an overlooked phenomenon among climbers, at least in these online communities. It may very well be that official climbing associations have not always taken eating disorders as seriously as they should have or that people do not necessarily talk about disordered eating at the crag or in the gym, but on the online forums that I studied there is certainly a lively and nuanced discussion about weight, disordered eating, and body image in relation to climbing.
Another thing that struck me is that forum users uniformly show support and even admiration for climbers who do not fit the stereotypically slender or athletic mold. Larger climbers would describe how they can often feel uncomfortable at the wall, and other forum users would always root for them and praise them for being courageous enough to climb anyway. Considering that fat stigma tends to discourage many people from exercising in public, it was good to see that forum users were generally very supportive in this regard. Of course, this may or may not reflect the actual atmosphere at the climbing gym. Also, I was surprised that there was not more discussion about race, body image, and climbing on the forums – if anything, I would say that an actual blind spot of the climbing community is probably “colorblindness” and inclusion of BIPoC climbers.
What is your perception of how the climbing community views eating disorders?
First of all, as a clinician with a special interest in eating disorders, I was glad to see that so many forum users had very sound advice to offer on this topic and that people were generally eager to help those who displayed a destructive relationship to food and weight. When it comes to the question of the impact of weight and weight loss on climbing performance, forum users are clearly divided. Many view a low body weight as an undeniable benefit in an antigravitational sport, but an equally large share of the posts that I analyzed emphasizes other skills – technique, power, psychological aspects, etc. – as far more important and point to negative effects of weight loss, such as fatigue and proneness to injury.
Interestingly, I noticed a certain ambivalence in many posts. For example, a comment may initally describe the effects of weight loss on performance as very marginal and highlight other climber qualities, only to conclude by “admitting” that, everything else being equal, this small gain may sometimes be what is needed in order to send. Clearly, even those forum users who downplay the importance of a low body weight do so in constant dialogue with the dominant idea of weight loss as beneficial. Those that point to other aspects as more impactful typically have to argue their position, while those that emphasize weight simply refer to “the laws of physics”.
What insights or ideas do you have to help the climbing community have a better relationship with food, body image, and climbing as a sport?
In my study, I found very few hands-on suggestions for how the climbing community ought to tackle disordered eating. This may not come as a surprise – eating disorders are complex phenomena and I think it is important to realize that there is no simple quick fix when it comes to disordered eating, among climbers as well as in other contexts. There are some signs that point to an overall healthier relationship with food and body image among climbers today compared to earlier decades. For example, many older forum users primarily associate eating disorders with the “Lycra crowd” of the 1980s and early 1990s and describe how a growing emphasis on moves that require a lot of power have diminished the focus on body weight over time. The establishment of climbing as an athletic discipline is also seen as promoting modern evidence-based approaches to training and nutrition and thereby reducing the reliance on outmoded ideas about dietary restriction as a key to success.
On the other hand, some worry that the very same tendency – the transformation of climbing from an experience-based outdoor activity into an achievement-based sport – may lead to an unhealthy focus on shortsighted tactics such as weight cycling. Not least, some forum users express concern about what is described as an emerging negative “soccer mom” culture in climbing, by which parents and coaches pressure young climbers to perform at the expense of their well-being. As climbing has become more and more popular, problems that are typically associated with the highly individualized gym and fitness culture at large, such as disordered eating, excessive exercise, and illicit performance-enhancing substances, risk becoming more prevalent in the climbing community as well.
Another thing – and I am not sure what it is like in other sports – is that the climbing community is still pretty tightly knit, and I guess it was even more so 10 or 20 years ago. You might be climbing at the same gym as some of the world-class elite climbers or you meet them at the crag at some point and there is a sense that you are somehow pretty close to the climbing “superstars” that you watch on the World Cup circuit. I suppose this is generally a good thing, but there are also numerous reminders in the online forums that the performance-boosting tactics that might be useful for a top-level V15 climber is not necessarily what you need to break into V6. This highlights the need for positive role models in climbing and the necessity of maintaining a realistic view on what is really helpful at the level you are at. This may sound as a cliché, but I think that the best advice that I can offer at this point is to simply encourage further discussion about eating disorders in the climbing community. I do not talk about this in detail in the paper, but it was evident that whenever famous climbers openly share their experiences with disordered eating or when there is a documentary such as LIGHT, this clearly helps forum users in sharing their own experiences and sparks fruitful discussions.
How long did it take you to conduct this research?
The forum posts that I analyzed covered approximately 20 years. They were downloaded over a period of 2 months, but I probably spent around 5 or 6 months in the online communities – in addition to assessing posts about eating, weight, and body image, I would also access a large number of forum threads concerned with other topics than those under study, in order to immerse myself more fully in the online communities and gain a better understanding of the whole spectrum of topics under discussion.
As a complement, other sources were also used in order to enrich the understanding of the study topic. For example, whenever a forum user made reference to a social media or blog post, a video clip, or a magazine article discussing disordered eating or body image concerns in the climbing community, I would read/watch it and consider how it related to the other collected data. These sources typically described top-level climbers’ own experiences of and thoughts on restrictive eating and body dissatisfaction; since these individuals can be considered public figures, I did not include their data in the formal analysis.
What would you like the climbing community to take away from your research? How could they use it to help?
I hope that it may in some sense be helpful to be aware of just how much weight talk there still is in the climbing community, but also to build on the many valuable experiences and insights offered by climbers who partake in online discussions. Again, one thing that I myself take away from this study is that most climbers – although certainly not all – that are active online appear to have a fairly nuanced and realistic view of nutrition, weight, and training. Whenever somebody seemed to be on a destructive path, there was always at least some other forum users who would provide balanced advice and try to point them in a healthier direction.
Clearly, there are many people that fall in love with climbing precisely because it emphasizes what your body can do rather than how it looks. Still others dismiss the idea of climbing as achievement-oriented altogether and point to elements such as having fun with friends and being close to nature. It is obvious that climbing can be a positive arena in combating body image issues and I can only hope that the climbing community will continue to embrace these values – after all, I think that this down-to-earth sensibility is what many of us appreciate about the climbing community, even if we sometimes obsess about grades or worry about plateauing.
Anyone can develop RED-S, which is a syndrome caused by under-fueling. Not eating enough to match your activity level can cause RED-S. Athletes and active people are more at risk, especially athletes where the sport may require (or the culture requires) a thin body, such as ballet, gymnastics, climbing, rowing, and weight-class sports (wresting, boxing, etc.).
Can you recover from RED-S?
Absolutely! It will take a team of knowledgeable professionals to help you through the recovery process, including a sports dietitian, sports physician, coach, and sometimes a therapist or sports psychologist. RED-S recovery usually involves complete rest or dialing back training, coupled with increased food intake.
Is RED-S serious?
Yes, if left untreated in can lead to injuries such as stress fractures, long-term damage to your organs, hormonal imbalances, infertility, and even cardiac issues. RED-S should not be self-diagnosed or managed on one’s own.
How do I know if I have RED-S?
If you suspect you have RED-S, seek medical help immediately. The physician can assess your heart, labs, menstrual status, and more to make a thorough assessment to decide if you have RED-S. You can use our free RED-S symptom tracking tool to monitor yourself and make sure you are not suffering from any signs of RED-S.
Optimize your energy: fueling strategies for your multi-pitch adventure
Climbing a multi-pitch route requires a lot of energy. Often these adventures involve a long approach with a heavy pack, hours of climbing, exposure to heat, cold, wind, and altitude, hauling or climbing with a pack, and a long descent. All of these factors increase your daily energy expenditure. In order to perform your best, maintain mental acuity throughout the day, and recover quickly, it is critical to fuel yourself with adequate intake before, during, and after the climb. Continue reading for tips, tricks, and examples of how to fuel for your multi-pitch adventure.
The night before:
Packing snacks for your big day is important but don’t neglect nutrition the day before either. Eating a nutrient rich dinner with plenty of carbohydrates the night before your multipitch mission will help maximize your energy for the next day. Your muscles store energy in the form of glycogen. Consuming carbs before your adventure ensures that your glycogen stores will be topped off and ready for big energy expenditure the next day.
Examples of balanced, nutrient dense meals include the following:
Brown rice or quinoa
Grilled chicken or tofu
Garlic tahini dressing
Whole wheat or chickpea noodles
Plant based meatballs or grilled chicken
Red sauce or pesto
Grilled chicken or tempeh on tortillas
Black or pinto beans
Fresh salsa and avocado
The morning of:
Start your day off fueled up and well hydrated. Combine carbohydrate rich foods for quick energy with protein and fat for more sustained energy. A nutritious breakfast is especially important if your multipitch climb involves a long approach. If you don’t fuel well and hydrate early, you risk arriving at your climb already in an energy deficit for the day. This sets you up for decreased performance and reduced mental capacity.
Examples of pre-climb breakfasts include any of the following or a combination:
Oatmeal with the fixings (options include):
Hemp, chia, or flax seeds
Nuts (walnuts, almonds, pecans)
Berries or other sliced fruit
Raisins or other dried fruit
Granola with milk of choice or yogurt
Topped with fruit
Omelet or scrambled eggs
Toast with jam
Pancakes or protein pancakes
Topped with peanut butter and fruit
Throughout the day:
Choose snacks that are easy to eat, easy to digest, and efficient to pack. Avoid heavy foods that will take up extra space and weight in your pack but also include foods that you like and will be excited to eat. Aim to munch on something every hour you are out on your climb. Continuously taking in small amounts of fuel will help keep you going all day and prevent bonking from letting your energy levels get too low. A good way to do this is to eat a few bites between each pitch while you are belaying or waiting for your partner to rack up. Staying ahead of your hunger is extremely helpful. Don’t wait until you are ravenous to start eating. Munch on small, carb-rich snacks and sip fluids consistently. Keep snacks easily accessible in a chest or pants pocket or in a small pouch clipped to your harness.
Examples of easy to pack and easy to eat crag snacks include:
Dried fruit (dates, figs, mango, apricots)
Energy bars with simple, whole food ingredients
EnduroBites, RX bars, KIND bars
Tortilla with some combo of peanut butter, honey, banana, nutella
These tend to get less smashed than sandwiches
Peanut butter and honey/jam/banana sandwich
Trail mix with dried fruit, nuts, seeds
Pretzels (something salty is nice and encourages you to keep drinking fluids)
Nut butter packs sweetened with honey
Caffeinated gel packs
After the adventure:
The sooner you start refueling after your big day, the faster you will recover. Have some snacks or a meal packed and waiting for you in the car that you can eat when you get down. A combination of carbs and protein is ideal at this time. Carbs will help reload the glycogen stores in your muscles and protein will help jumpstart repair the repair of any tissue and muscle damage incurred throughout the big day.
Examples of recovery foods include:
Protein shake, fruit, and pretzels
Tortilla wraps with hummus and avocado
Fruit dipped in nut butter
Leftovers from dinner the night before
Energy expenditure is HIGH on multipitch climbing days.
Approach (often long)
Climbing for hours of the day
Exposed to the elements all day (heat, cold, wind, altitude)
Often hauling a pack or climbing with a pack which increases expenditure
The message is pervasive and loud. You must lose weight if you want to climb better. But, do you really?
Nope nope nope. Not really.
We have several studies that look at anthropometrics (measurable body characteristics like weight, height, body mass index, and ape index). Researchers mostly found that anthropometrics did not correlate with climbing ability. Two studies found that only about 1.8-4% of climbing ability is due to anthropometrics.
Climbing ability is mostly attributed to trainable aspects, such as flexibility, strength, and endurance. And some non-trainable aspects that come with time, such as hours training per week and years of climbing experience. There may be some instances where a climber could periodize weight loss in order to send a certain project, but this should not be a general recommendation.
What does this tell us about how to improve? Don’t trust that knee-jerk reaction to lose weight in order to send your project. There are many other things you can focus on. Narrowly focusing on weight loss in order to climb better is myopic and often counterproductive. Explore our resource page for more on relative energy deficiency in sport, disordered eating, and how weight loss can negatively impact your climbing and health.
Things you can change to improve climbing ability (besides weight)
Equipment: Do you have the right shoes for the type of climbing you’re doing? And for your skill level? Shoes can make a difference in how well you climb. One study from the International Rock Climbing Research Association (Nov 2021) showed that speed climbers improved by merely switching to a stiff rubber sole, rather than a softer one. Do you have the right type of harness? Is it comfortable and safe? If it is ill-fitting, you may be climbing worse than if it’s an appropriate fit for your style of climbing and body type.
Nutrition: Proper fueling can make a huge difference in any sport or training program. Are you fueling with the right kinds of foods at the right time? Are you recovering with the proper macronutrients? Do you eat adequate overall calories? All of these things can make a big difference in your climbing ability over time! Nutrition for Climbers: Fuel for the Send is the definitive guide to climbing nutrition. Fueling right is a no-brainer.
Hydration: Dehydrated athletes experience greater rate of perceived exertion, decreased cognitive ability, decreased coordination, decreased power, and decreased concentration. All these things are kinda important when climbing. Keep yourself hydrated with the proper electrolytes to stay fresh and strong.
Strength: This one is pretty obvious. You have to have strength in order to climb up a cliff or wall. A nice, trainable characteristic that has nothing to do with dieting or restricting your food.
Flexibility: Hello, heel hook. Nice to see you. Glad that could happen because you’re flexible. Ditto for any awkward route that involves specific moves suited to a master yogi.
Endurance: Ever get winded halfway up the route? One case study (also from IRCRA conference Nov 2021) showed a climber that improved four grades in three months just by training endurance with a structured HIIT (high intensity interval training) program. Endurance is essential for any climber, but particularly big wall/multi-pitch type stuff. Train your endurance to improve your climbing performance.
Skills: A skilled climber knows how to keep elbows in, hips to the wall, weight the foot correctly, and a ton of other technical skills and bespoke movements that a beginner doesn’t understand. Gaining skills and knowledge of climbing technique is an effective way to improve climbing ability without losing weight.
Supplements: Although supplements in climbing research is far behind many other sports (I only know of two that looked at beta alanine in climbers), we can draw from other sports with similar movement patterns to determine what supplements may help with climbing performance. Creatine, beta alanine, nitrates, and sodium bicarbonate all are likely beneficial and well-researched in athletes. (Always check with your doctor before adding any supplement to your routine).
Mental training: A route can shut you down if you’re not in the right state of mind. Outdoor climbers face unknowns such as weather, rock integrity, anchor integrity, and more. Indoor climbers, especially during comps, can be shaken by other competitors, the route setting style, timing of the comp, and pressure to perform. Climbing is inherently a bit freaky for many simply because of the height. Frustration from falling or not sending can get you in a bad mental state. Reframing your thoughts and understanding self-talk can help with climbing performance. The November IRCRA conference had a sports psychologist present her findings that several sessions with a psychologist actually helped improve climbing ability. Imagine that.
Beta: You gotta get the beta in order to send it! Good beta can improve ability.
Repeated attempts: Research shows that climbers that are familiar with the route are more efficient with their moves. This can translate into better climbing on that route.
I hope this opened up your mind a little to the possibility that there are several things you can do besides lose weight in order to climb better!
It’s always fascinating to learn what top-level athletes eat. Kyra Condie, Olympian and elite climber, was kind enough to speak with me over the phone so I could pick her brain about her experience with fueling in Tokyo.
I first asked how she prepped before arriving in Tokyo. She said she had met with a dietitian from the USOPC who helped her figure out some fueling needs. Since she’s vegetarian, Condie has additional challenges to fueling herself well. (See our post on vegan diets for climbers if you want some tips!)
Condie packed tons of snacks to have on hand, “I figured it was better to have too much than to run out!” She brought along things like:
Chia squeeze pudding
She also brought her own coffee pot to boil water and prepare simple foods like oatmeal in her room. She packed a lunch box full of trail mix and other snacks to the comps.
As far as meals, “The dining hall was pretty accommodating,” says Condie. It was open 24/7 which was nice to have access to food whenever she needed it, especially for athletes arriving from a different time zone where your eating schedule doesn’t match Tokyo’s. She said the timing of eating was different, and she had to adapt to the new time zone and the comp schedules.
There was a fridge available to the athletes, so she could send someone out to get groceries for her. Due to covid restrictions, the athletes were not allowed to go out themselves. This was a bit of a challenge trying to describe exactly what to buy, especially in a foreign country. Condie says she at a lot of silken tofu cups, which was a great addition to her diet.
She also says, “I drank for Propel than I ever have in my life!” Because that is what was easily available to the athletes.
A final tip from Condie that will work well for any traveling athlete: “Try to find a food specific to the country that you’re traveling in that you like and works well for you.” For Tokyo, this meant soba noodles. If she wasn’t sure what would be available, she knew soba noodles would work well. She says she does this for World Cups as well and it’s a great trick to staying fueled.
A huge thank you to Kyra Condie for sharing your experience!
Welcome to the basics! As a climber, you need a balance of fats, carbohydrates, and protein to help your body function at its best, prevent injury, and optimize recovery. While this post may seem basic to some, it’s the foundation of many body processes and is useful to understand!
There are a lot of nutrition myths and misinformation out there. Understanding what is true about how your body uses different nutrients can help set you up for success.
Food provides energy for your body. Adequate energy is essential for your body to have the resources it needs to function. Your body uses this energy to maintain normal body processes, such as heart rate, breathing, producing new cells to maintain tissues, digestion, and more.
Energy in food is measured in calories or kilojoules. Your body needs a certain amount of baseline calories to exist, and then you need additional calories to do whatever else you want your body to do. Working, daily household tasks, exercising, and even thinking require extra calories. Getting the right amount to support your body will help you be healthy.
Energy needs vary from person to person based on their gender, age, body composition, and activity level. They also vary if you are stressed, injured, or sick. Energy needs also fluctuate from day to day or week to week—they aren’t always exact or static.
Macronutrients are nutrients that provide energy. These are carbohydrate, protein, fat, and alcohol. Let’s take a look at each one.
Role in the body: Many popular diets eliminate or limit carbohydrates (or carbs), but carbohydrates an important macronutrient for sports performance. Whether you are climbing, skiing, hiking, lifting weights, or anything else, your body needs carbohydrates to fuel those movements.
Carbohydrate is the fuel in the anaerobic energy system and the aerobic energy systems. If you are doing a moderate-paced endurance exercise, your body is using a mix of both carbohydrates and fat to fuel that workout. If you are doing an intense move, such as a sprint or power lift, your body uses carbohydrate to fuel that movement. Carbohydrate provides four calories per gram.
The food you eat, including carbohydrates, also keep your blood sugar regulated and provide fuel for your brain. Glucose is a form of simple sugar (carbohydrate) in your blood. It serves as fuel for your cells and brain. Your body likes to keep blood sugar levels regular so you can feel optimal and perform your best.
Glycogen in a storage form of glucose. It is stored in your body in your liver and skeletal muscles. Glycogen helps keep your blood sugar stable by breaking down into glucose when you are sleeping or fasting. It also is on-board fuel in your muscles to power any muscle contractions.
Most people have around 1200-1400 calories of glycogen in their muscles and liver. If you exercise for about two to three hours without eating any food or drinking any fluids that provide calories and carbohydrates, you can run out of fuel and “bonk.” This is common in endurance evens such as marathons and triathlon, as well as cross country skiing or all-day adventures.
Bonking simply means your body runs out of fuel to power your exercise. Symptoms include feeling weak, shaky, and lethargic, with heavy legs and fatigue. You can prevent bonking by eating regularly, about 30-60 grams of quickly-digestible carbohydrate per hour (such as a white bagel, gummies/chews, juice, honey, or sports drink, or even up to 90 grams per hour for long endurance events. You can recover from bonking by stopping your exercise, eating quickly-digestible carbohydrate, and waiting about 20-30 minutes for your blood sugar to come back to normal.
There are no “good” or “bad” carbs. They are simply fuel for your body. Some carbohydrates, such as fruits and whole grains, contain vitamins, minerals, and fiber, which makes them a good choice for overall health. Others, such as fruit juice and gummy candy, do not have useful nutrients other than the carbohydrate itself—but they are very useful in certain situations.
Eating regular meals help regulate blood sugar. Eating before exercise if it’s been more than two to four hours since your last meal can help you feel fueled and energized for the workout.
Food sources: Main food sources of carbohydrate include:
Grains: rice, bread, pasta, oats, barley, cereal, etc.
Legumes and lentils: kidney beans, garbanzo beans, lima beans, etc.
Sweets and desserts: candies, cookies, cake, soda (not diet)
Milk and yogurt
Your carbohydrate needs may vary depending on your activity level. The baseline carbohydrate needs for normal healthy adults is around three to five grams per kilogram per day. If you are doing heavy training or have a long day of hiking, skiing, or climbing, you will need more carbohydrate, up to 7-12 grams per kilogram per day.
Role in the body: Protein plays a number of different roles in the body. It’s an incredibly important nutrient for overall health and also sports performance. It’s involved with muscle growth and repair, bone health, immune function, tendon and ligament health, skin, and all organs.
Protein is made up of amino acids, which are like building blocks for protein. Some amino acids are not essential, meaning your body can manufacture them on its own. Some are essential, which means you need to get them in your diet in order for your body to operate at optimal health. Protein provides four calories per gram.
Eating a wide variety of foods usually supplies enough overall protein and amino acids to be healthy. Those at risk for not getting enough protein are vegans, vegetarians, and people that are dieting or restricting their food intake.
Protein also helps people feel full and satisfied after a meal. Adequate protein is needed to help preserve lean muscle mass when trying to lose weight.
It is a crucial nutrient for athletes. Whether you are a climber, skier, hiker, alpinist, runner or anything else, your body needs enough protein to perform optimally.
Meat, fish, poultry
Dairy products (milk, yogurt, cheese)
Legumes (beans and lentils)
Nuts and seeds
Soy products (tofu, tempeh, edamame)
In general, proteins from animal sources, such as eggs, meat, fish, poultry, and dairy products are better absorbed and used in your body than protein from plant sources (like tofu, beans, lentils, and nuts).
Protein from whole food sources offer a variety of nutrients, as well as fiber if it is from a plant source. This is usually better than using a supplement such as a protein powder, although in some cases protein powders can be useful.
The recommended amount of protein you may need varies widely based on your individual health history and your current exercise program. The minimum requirement in most countries is around 0.8 grams per kilogram per day.
Athletes will need much more to function optimally. A strength athlete, or an athlete undergoing a very intense training program may need up to 2.2 grams per kilogram per day, while an endurance athlete with a moderate training program may need around 1.2-1.6 grams per kilogram per day. If you are recovering from a surgery or injury, you may also have increased protein needs, from about 1.3-2.0 grams per kilogram per day.
Find a qualified dietitian to help you determine your own calorie, protein, and carbohydrate needs for your particular situation.
Fat sometimes has a bad reputation, but fat is essential for life. Your body needs fat for absorbing fat-soluble vitamins (vitamins A, D, E, and K). Fat makes up almost all cell membranes in the body. It also provides energy and essential fatty acids your body cannot do without. Fat provides nine calories per gram.
Two main types of fats are saturated and unsaturated. In general, it’s best to get most of your fat as unsaturated, as this is better for overall health and risk for heart disease. Foods like olive oil, fish, nuts, seeds, and avocado provide healthful fats that are beneficial for your body.
Fat also plays a role in energy metabolism. This means that fat can be a fuel source for your exercise and training. Fat is used as a fuel source, along with some carbohydrate, when the body is exercising at a moderate intensity, such as jogging, walking, hiking, or skiing—anything you can do for several minutes to hours.
Nuts and seeds
Fish, meat, and poultry
Full-fat dairy products, such as butter, yogurt, milk, cheese, and ice cream
Fried foods, such as French fries, donuts, or breaded fried meat and fish
Baked goods made with fat, such as biscuits, cake, and cookies
Most countries recommend limiting your intake to about 60-70 grams of fat per day, with 10% or less of total energy intake as saturated fat, and little to no trans fats.
Alcohol is technically a nutrient, as it provides energy at seven calories per gram. However, it is not recommended to be a large part of your diet, as it is a toxin and also can be very harmful to health, as well as addicting.
Alcohol should be used only in moderation or not at all. Consult with your healthcare professional before using alcohol to ensure it will not interact with any medications or cause harm to your body.
While alcohol is not recommended, it is included here because many people drink it on a regular basis. It’s important to be aware of how it can affect your training. Alcohol can interfere with muscle rebuilding and repair after a training session, decrease concentration, interfere with quality sleep, dehydrate you, and decrease coordination. It can also add additional unwanted calories that your body may not need, and thwart your ability to eat a good meal if you are drinking instead of eating.
With the right balance of macronutrients, and variety of food in your diet, you can feel better and climb harder.
~This is general nutrition information and not medical or nutrition advice. Always consult with a healthcare professional before undergoing any diet or lifestyle change.
I often get the question, “Should I take a multivitamin?” The answer is, it depends! It’s best to only take a vitamin or mineral supplement if you have a known deficiency. You can get tested at your doctor to see if you are deficient, and get recommendations on if you need to take anything, what to take, what form to take it in, and how much to take. Taking a vitamin or mineral supplement as “insurance” or “just in case” is not recommended. At best, it can result in wasted money and really “expensive pee,” because your body will just excrete out water-soluble vitamins it doesn’t need. At worst, you could end up with a toxicity or negative health outcomes.
Also consider if someone is recommending that you take a supplement, vitamin, or mineral—do they have an incentive for you to take it? Are they selling it? Or do they get a percentage of the sale? If so, don’t do it. If you truly need a supplement, you can get it from neutral third-parties. Multi-level marketing often sells questionable products and there is nothing you can only get from MLM that you couldn’t get at a normal store that you would actually NEED.
Also be sure your supplement is clean from contaminants by looking for the NSF Certified for Sport, Informed Choice, or USP labels.
Micronutrients do not provide energy but play an important role in health and the way your body functions. There are many micronutrients, but we picked out the most common ones and made this reference chart for you. Keep in mind, it doesn’t list every single function, nor every single food source (that would be impossible!).
Recommended intake is set for most adults age 18 and up based on guidelines from the United States. You may need a different amount based on your health history. Always check with your doctor before taking any vitamin, mineral, or supplement.
What it does
Recommended intake per day
Implications for sports performance
Carries oxygen to tissues, helps with metabolism and cell function
Meat, seafood, nuts, beans, dark leafy vegetables, fortified cereals and breads
Males 8 mg, Females 18 mg
If deficient, may feel weak, fatigued
Bone health and strength, nerve conduction, enzyme and hormone function, muscle contraction
Dairy products, fish with edible bones (sardines), kale, broccoli, fortified soy and cereal products
Supports bone health and may help prevent injury
Helps with numerous cell functions, immunity, growth in children
Nutrition tips for competition and recovery: Adapt your nutrition strategy to match your climbing style. For example, if you spend more time in static holds, more sustained movement (rather than dynos and quick, intense movements), or more endurance-style climbing, fuel your body to match those needs.
A short climbing session may need just 30-60 grams of carbohydrate before the session. A longer session with more endurance climbing would benefit from eating protein along with the carbohydrates, as this is more slowly digested, giving you longer-lasting energy.
Those with spinal cord dysfunction may experience decreased muscle mass below the level of the lesion, and a reduced resting energy expenditure. This simply means you may need less calories overall on rest days.
Some athletes with spasticity or other movement disorders can actually have increased energy needs since the muscles are firing much more often. It’s often difficult to estimate energy needs and expenditure for para-athletes. If you need specialized help with fueling your climbing, seek out professional help from your doctor and dietitian.
Temperature Regulation: Difficulty regulating body temperature is common with neurologic impairment. The impairment can affect the ability to shiver or sweat in the affected body regions. In addition, certain medications used for some movement disorders can cause you to be more susceptible to overheating. Please ask your doctor about any side effects in temperature regulation.
In warm temperatures you need to ensure you are hydrating adequately. In general, about eight ounces of fluid per hour in normal climbing conditions is enough. You may need more if you are climbing in more extreme conditions, such as high altitude, heat, humidity, or extreme cold. Using cold, icy beverages in the heat can help lower your body temperature. Knowing your own personal sweat rate and bowel schedule can help you plan for a successful climbing session. When environmental temperatures are cool, try dressing in layers or using hot beverages to stay warm.
Skin: Climbers with adaptive equipment, such as a wheelchair or prosthesis, need to pay special attention to their skin health. Areas of skin that don’t have normal feeling are at increased risk of pressure and rubbing injuries. If repeated skin breakdown is an issue, work with your doctor, equipment provider, or a professional prosthesis/orthotist to ensure you get the right equipment and the right fit for your body.
Athletes need to eat and hydrate adequately to support skin health. If your skin is prone to breakdown and pressure sores, ask your doctor or dietitian about nutrition for skin healing and preventing skin breakdown. Some supplements, such as vitamin C and zinc, may be appropriate on a short-term basis.
Bone Health: Para climbers may be at risk for decreased bone density due to decreased ability to perform weigh-bearing exercises in some athletes. Adequate overall calories and protein are important, as well as calcium and vitamin D. Ask your doctor before taking any supplements.
Collagen seems to be a really popular topic right now. I keep seeing climbers post on social media questions like,” Do I need collagen? It seems useful. Will it really help?”
What are the claims around collagen supplementation?
There are a lot of claims around collagen, ranging from improving skin, hair, and nail health, to helping prevent tendon injury, to improving bone density and joint pain. For the purpose of this blog post, we’ll focus on what collagen may be able to do for climbers. Sure, you may want luxurious hair, but what about skin healing and tendon/ligament health? That’s probably more important to you as a climber.
What is collagen?
Collagen is an abundant protein in your body. It is part of the structure of bones, muscles, skins, tendons, and ligaments. In theory, if you supplement with collagen, it may help with tendon and ligament health. Here’s a nice quick read on collagen supplement basics. And here’s a really beautiful and comprehensive read on collagen for injury prevention.
Collagen (a common brand is Vital Proteins ) is made up of bovine (cow) hide (they also have a marine version). Some is made of skin, bones, and fish scales. Clearly, this is not a vegan or vegetarian product!
The structure of a tendon is made up of a triple helix composed three amino acids: hydroxyproline, proline, and glycine. The uniqueness of collagen supplement seems to be that these three amino acids in high amounts are possibly useful for soft tissue health when you orally supplement.
It could be potentially be tough to get these amino acids in the right amounts just through diet, especially if your tendons are injured and may have increased need. Dietary sources of glycine include meat, fish, dairy products, egg whites, bone broth, and chicken and pork skin. Your body also makes its own glycine.
Is all the collagen hype backed by research? Read on, my friends.
What is the current research around collagen for athletes?
We’ve got a little bit! It seems that the hype, marketing, and products are way beyond the actual research. What we do have is promising, but much more is needed.
What other nutrients are important for tendon health?
Vitamin C is important. It aids in collagen synthesis. Meaning, if your body is trying to build up collagen in your soft tissue, it needs vitamin C to do it. Current research suggests taking vitamin C with collagen (recommendations range from about 15-500 g). Food sources of vitamin C include oranges, strawberries, peppers, broccoli, potatoes, and more.
Copper is also an important nutrient for collagen synthesis. It helps build the collagen structure in your body. If you are not deficient, there is no additional advantage to adding more copper. It’s only useful if you were already deficient and then corrected that deficiency. Food sources of copper include shellfish, seeds, nuts, wheat bran, and chocolate (Heck yeah!).
Overall adequate calorie intake is also really important. If you are dieting, going through an eating disorder, or even inadvertently not eating enough, your tissue health can be compromised. Your body needs enough energy in the form of food/calories in order to fuel your workouts and recover, rebuild, and repair after the workout. Collagen supplements may not do much if your body is struggling to get enough overall calories.
Other nutrients important for general injury treatment and prevention:
So you can see that narrowly focusing on just collagen may not be the best thing for your overall tendon health. A food-first philosophy will help you get a wide range of nutrients to keep your body healthy. In general, eating high-quality protein (lean meat, chicken, fish, eggs, dairy), whole grains, nuts & seeds, fruits & vegetables, and legumes is a great way to get the nutrients your body needs.
How much collagen do you need to take to see results?
Most research shows you need to take around 10-20 g per day, along with the vitamin C (doses in the research vary–probably around 50g is adequate). This may need to be done for at least 12 weeks consistently to see any results. Take it 30-60 minutes before your training or physical therapy session. The loading stimulus of the workout helps strengthen tendons.
I’ve seen some food products where they add collagen (marketing hype much?) and it’s not even a therapeutic dose. Like this Skinny Pop popcorn (face palm). Similarly, I’ve seen a lot of influencers and well-meaning nutritionists create recipes using collagen powder, like collagen energy bites, cookies, muffins, and pancakes. But if you only use one scoop of collagen (10 g) for the whole recipe, you’re not getting the adequate dose of collagen to do anything meaningful for your tendons.
And no, do not mix your pricey PhysiVantage collagen supplement (which includes vitamin C) with hot coffee as they suggest. Heat destroys vitamin C. So you paid a premium for vitamin C to be added to your collagen, and then you just obliterated it.
When your aim is to support general athletic health and muscle health, collagen is far inferior to whey. Whey and other complete proteins from animal sources contain higher amounts of leucine, a key amino acid that signals muscle protein synthesis. You need ALL amino acids to repair and rebuild muscle adequately, and leucine in good amounts. You would need five servings of collagen to get the same amount of leucine as one serving of whey.
What collagen product should I use?
There are a few of them out there! Using a hydrolyzed collagen is recommended, since it dissolves nicely into liquids and smoothies, and it also is already broken down for easy absorption.
I recommend only using products that areNSF Certified or Informed Choice certified. This means they have been third-party tested for contaminants. Supplements are notorious for being contaminated with banned substances, heavy metals, and more.
Some NSF Certified collagen products:
Bubs Naturals ($43 for 20 oz, or $2.15 per oz)
BioSteel ($24 for 7 oz, or $3.42 per oz)
Gnarly Collagen Pro ($45 for 16 oz, or $2.80 per oz)
Klean Athlete ($37.60 for 12 oz, or 3.13 per oz)
Vital Proteins ($25 for 10 oz: $2.50 per oz on their website. Costco sells it for $36 for 24 oz, which is $1.50 per oz.)
PhysiVantage, which I am including because I see a lot of questions about this product, is a popular collagen supplement marketed toward climbers, is $45 for 16 oz, or $2.81 per ounce. It is not third-party tested. It claims to be “supercharged” because it has added vitamin C, tryptophan and leucine, making it a complete protein. However, if you’re already eating a nicely balanced diet, you’ll be getting these amino acids and vitamin C from other sources. It’s not necessary to spend extra money to get this collagen supplement.
Not only is collagen research in its infancy, with limited studies (and the studies themselves having only about 10 subjects), but it’s a stretch to say you need to add amino acids to collagen. There are no studies examining if the Gnarly or PhysiVantage product is superior (or equal to, or inferior to) collagen or whey or anything else. There’s no research on it period. Full stop. Their claims about its (potential) efficacy stem from plain collagen research, not collagen with amino acids, vitamins, or minerals added to it.
It’s difficult to tell from the PhysiVantage supplement label how much leucine it contains. Leucine, a key amino acid involved with signaling muscle protein synthesis, is well-researched as a useful component for muscle strength, rebuilding, and repair. It is found in high-quality whey protein powders. A dose of around 2 grams of branched-chain amino acids (BCAAs) is good. Two grams of just leucine–comparable to what’s in whey–is even better. PhysiVantage has 1.6 g of BCAAs + tryptophan (according to the label), so that’s not great.
Gnarly Collagen Pro, which is also heavily marketed toward climbers, has vitamin C and zinc added to it. Worth noting is that long-term zinc supplementation may cause anemia and copper deficiency. It can also interact with some medications, including antibiotics and diuretics.
I wouldn’t recommend taking a product long-term that has a mineral added unless you know you are deficient and/or unable to get it from the diet. Also, this line on their packaging made me chuckle, “Pasture-raised peptides.” What is that even supposed to mean? As if a bunch of peptide molecules are happily hanging out in a green pasture under blue skies, frolicking about. Marketing madness at its finest. I do give Gnarly credit for being NSF Certified for Sport. Nice touch.
Here’s a breakthrough idea: YOU DON’T HAVE TO USE A SUPPLEMENT THAT IS MARKETED JUST TOWARD CLIMBERS! Look at that price list above. If you’re going to use collagen, pick the one that is third-party tested and the cheapest. Hint: It’s not Gnarly or PhysiVantage.
If you want a complete protein, eat food. It comes with not only all those wonderful amino acids, but also flavor, fats, carbohydrate, fiber, antioxidants, phytochemicals and other nutrients useful for health.
Two eggs have about 2.7 g BCAAs (cost ~$0.50)
3 oz cooked chicken breast have about 4.87 g BCAAs (cost ~$0.50)
16 oz milk has about 3.3 g BCAAs (cost ~$0.50)
If you need a protein powder (there’s a lot of reasons you may want one), use whey if you are not vegan. This is the gold standard and has a tremendous amount of research backing it up. If you are vegan, use a protein blend. And check out this article on vegan nutrition for climbers while you’re at it.
If you want a protein powder for traditional muscle recovery and building, don’t use collagen (nope, not even the “supercharged” stuff). If you want a supplement that MAY help with soft tissue health, you can TRY collagen if you have the budget for it. Be sure to take it with vitamin C before a workout at the correct dose for at least 12 weeks. Otherwise, just eat food!
Do yourself a favor and download the free NSF Certified for Sport app. Nope, I have no affiliation with them, I just think it’s a great app. Use it for any supplement you use and make sure it’s safe and clean. Especially if you’re a competitive athlete subject to doping tests, you NEVER want to use something that isn’t third-party tested for anti-doping standards.
I actually don’t have an affiliation with any supplement company, which is why I am able to write this post. You’re welcome!
Is there a less pricey alternative to collagen?
Good ol’ plain gelatin. Yes, it’s true. You can mix two small packets of unflavored gelatin with Gatorade or anything else and drink before training (gives you around ~15 g). Add in a vitamin C gummy and you’re good to go. You can also try homemade gummies (you would need to eat a 1/2 recipe to get the right dose of gelatin).
Two unflavored gelatin packets cost about $0.85.
Are there any vegan collagen products?
Er, maybe. Scientists are starting to create collagen from genetically modified yeast and bacteria. This obviously hasn’t been researched in an athletic population or compared against actual collagen in peer-reviewed studies looking at outcomes in soft tissue health.
There are a lot of vegan “collagen booster” products out there. These are mostly vitamins, minerals, and various plant “blends.” None of these are the real deal, and would likely not help in any way. The vitamins and minerals would only potentially be beneficial if you are already deficient in that nutrient. And if that’s the case, just supplement with that isolated nutrient, not a blend.
~This is general information only and not nutrition advice. Always consult your healthcare professional before undergoing any diet or lifestyle change.