Nutrition for teen climbers

Marisa Michael’s teenager crushing it at a comp at Bend Rock Gym in Oregon.

Teen athletes need a lot of calories!

If you’ve got teens, you know they can eat a lot. Like, you need the Executive Membership at Costco just to keep up. (Yes, I go to Costco weekly!)

My 16-year-old son has been climbing since age 11. We’ve had some experience with fueling for climbing after school days, snacks for all-day comps, and fueling for a growing body.

In my own research, I studied climbers aged 11-17 to learn what they ate, if it matched their estimated nutrition needs, their weight and height, their training load, and if that correlated with climbing ability.

The results were a bit concerning. Eighty-two percent of my cohort were not eating enough calories to account for the additional energy demands of exercise. This was likely unintentional, as only one of them scored “at risk” for disordered eating when using a validated research questionnaire. These kids were calorie deficient. 

Nutrient and energy demands during teenage years are sometimes the highest they will ever be. Proper nutrition will ensure teens grow to their fullest potential. Low protein intake, for example, is linked to reduced growth and lean body mass. Active teens need even more than their sedentary peers to support daily activities, exercise and rapid growth.

What should teenage climbers eat?

During the teen years, young people are more influenced by their peers than their parents. Trends show teenagers often snack more on energy-dense, rather than nutrient dense food. Twenty one percent of teen’s energy comes from sugar sweetened sources like carbonated drinks. Teenage climbers need to ensure they are eating adequate carbohydrates and protein to excel in climbing and support rapid growth.

How much protein should a climber eat?

Adequate protein intake supports muscle growth and development. Teen climbers should aim to have a protein-rich snack containing 20-25 grams of protein within an hour after climbing or training to support muscle growth and recovery.

A study on the nutrition of teenage climbers found that protein was the one nutrient category teenagers were sufficient in. Your teen is likely eating enough protein to support their growth and exercise demands. A general rule of thumb is 1.6 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight.

How many carbohydrates should a climber eat?

Teens should aim for 30-60 grams of carbohydrates per hour during active climbing. This will ensure the body’s glycogen stores are full and able to produce energy for the muscles to use. Studies show many teens are lacking in fiber. When it comes to carbohydrates the focus needs to be on fiber-rich, whole grain carbohydrates, but only AFTER a training session, so it doesn’t sit like a rock in your stomach while climbing.

Teens should use gym or training sessions to experiment with the forms of carbohydrates that sit best in their stomachs. Try using quickly-digesting carbs such as white bagel, pretzels, fruit snacks, sports gummies, sports drink, or animal crackers.

My cohort of adolescent climbers under-ate their estimated carbohydrate intake. What’s more, even with increased training hours per week, their carbohydrate intake remained flat. This means they weren’t eating more to fuel and match the training sessions they were doing. While this was a small study, it does give us some insight into how adolescent climbers eat.

What other vitamins and minerals are important for an active teen?

Teenagers and pregnant women have something in common. They are calcium positive. This means teens and mothers-to-be are absorbing more calcium than is used by the body at a given time. Teenagers need to take advantage of this by consuming at least 1300 mg of calcium per day to encourage maximal bone density.

The teen years are a critical time to build up bone density. Teens build up bone density until around age 20–after that it starts declining. Calcium and adequate overall calories are critical to maximize bone density. Weight bearing exercise is also great for building up bone strength.

Vitamin D is essential for calcium absorption. There are few food sources for Vitamin D, but 15 minutes in direct sunlight will help ensure adequate intake of this super vitamin. Fatty fish is one of the better sources of Vitamin D from the diet.

Iron needs increase during adolescence because of the rapid growth that takes place during this phase of development. Iron is crucial for building red blood cells. Add citrus to vegetables to aid in the absorption of iron from non-meat sources.

How can parents help their teenage climber?

Never, never, never comment on weight gain, unless you are guided by a pediatrician under certain circumstances such as eating disorder recovery. It’s normal for girls to gain around 40 pounds during puberty, and also put on more fat mass. A parent or coach may see this and think the kid is getting “fluffy,” but really it’s actually a very healthy and normal growth pattern. Both boys and girls have significant changes in their bodies. Coach and teammate comments about body size and/or food choices can easily trigger an eating disorder.

Coaches should refrain from commenting on weight or food choices. If you are truly concerned, you can approach the parent (not the climber) in a neutral way. Ask them if they’ve noticed any changes in meal patterns, energy levels, mood, etc. If both the coach and the parent are concerned, refer the climber to a sports dietitian and pediatrician.

Teenagers eat based on what is convenient and available. Help your child by teaching them how to prepare nutrient dense snacks in advance that are easy to grab and go.

Pack a variety of vitamins and minerals into hand held snacks that will aid in the development of your growing teen. Some quick to prepare ideas include:

  • Burrito: whole grain tortilla, avocado, meat (or beans for vegans), tomato, lettuce, cheese
  • Grain Bowl: quinoa, rice or other grain, beans, salsa, vegetables, protein (tofu or meat)
  • Sandwich: bagel or whole grain bread, cucumber, tomato, avocado, sprouts, cream cheese

Download our free climbing fueling guides for more ideas! Teens are in a unique stage of development. They need calorie rich meals and snacks to support physical activity and unprecedented growth. Statistically speaking, teens eat what is convenient and available to them. Help them nourish their bodies by having nutrient dense options available to grab and go before an after school training session or weekend climbing trip.

This article written by Marisa Michael and Kaila Dickey.

References

Judith Brown’s Nutrition Through the Lifecycle

Desbrow B, Burke LM, Cox GR, Fallon K, Hislop M, Leveritt M. Sports dietitians Australia position statement: sports nutrition for the adolescent athlete. Int J Sports Nutr Exerc Metab. (2014) 24:570–84. doi: 10.1123/ijsnem.2014-0031

Learn more nutrition to crush your climbing in the book Nutrition for Climbers: Fuel for the Send

Carbs for Climbers

This article was written by Kaila Dickey

Edited by Marisa Michael

Carbohydrates seem to get a bad rap from the fad diet industry. In the 80’s and 90’s fat was the bad guy. Now it’s carbs. I’m just waiting for the next macronutrient to be demonized. Carbs are actually a great thing for climbing performance.

Foods that are good sources of carbohydrates include:

  • Milk and yogurt
  • Fruit and fruit juice
  • Starchy vegetables (potatoes, sweet potatoes, beans, lentils, peas, corn, squash)
  • Sweets and desserts (including sugary beverages)
  • Grains and grain products (oatmeal, pasta, bread, rice, etc.)

Climbers use carbohydrates to fuel working muscles. Whether you climb trad, sport or prefer to boulder, no climber’s diet should exclude carbohydrates for performance.

Why climbers should include carbs in their diet:

  • Carbohydrates are stored as glycogen in the muscles.
  • The muscles break down glycogen into energy for the body.
  • The brain uses glucose as fuel. How can you think if your brain is hungry?
  • Adequate carbohydrate intake spares protein so protein is available to build muscle rather than produce energy

Signs you may need carbs when climbing

  • You feel weak, shaky, or dizzy
  • You miss easy moves
  • You lost your mental sharpness–it’s hard to figure out the beta
  • You’re irritable

How much carbohydrate do climbers need?

You want to fuel with carbohydrates before and after climbing. Fueling with carbs during a breaks on long climbing sessions (more than 2-3 hours) is also smart.

In general, climbers should consume 3-7 g of carbohydrate per kg of bodyweight each day. Use the 3-7g carb range as a general guide. Listen to your body’s hunger and let it dictate your intake from day to day. Honor that some days you might be hungrier than others and adjust your carbohydrate dial to reflect that. You may need more carbs if you are also involved in other sports like running or cycling.

To find out how much you need, first divide your weight in pounds by 2.2 This gives you your weight in kilograms. Then multiply by the range 3 to 7 grams per kilogram.

For example, if someone weights 150 pounds, divide by 2.2 to get 68.2 kg. Then multiply 68 by 3 and 7. You get a range of 204-477 grams of carbohydrate each day. The low end of the range is for climbing casually. The higher end is for hard, long climbs combined with strength and/or cardio training.

While actively climbing, eat 30-60 grams of carbohydrate per hour to prevent muscle fatigue. A quick glance at the nutrition label of your favorite crag snack will tell you if you are eating enough carb during climbing. If your favorite crag snack lacks a label, most medium sized fruits and starchy veg contain around 20 g of carbohydrates.

Climbing snack ideas:

  • 3 graham cracker sheets
  • 2 oz pretzels
  • 1 white bagel
  • 1 medium box raisins
  • 16 oz sports drink
  • 2 oz animal crackers

Download our free climbing fueling guides for more ideas!

Fad diets are gaining popularity in the climbing community. Many of these fad diets limit carbohydrates. High fat, low carb diets can be therapeutic for individuals with epilepsy or multiple sclerosis. But average climbers benefit from ample carbohydrates in their diet. The body uses the stored glycogen as a quick and efficient fuel source for working muscles. Climbers can also prevent mental fatigue by eating adequate carbs. The brain needs glucose too! If you want to avoid a flash pump, fuel before and during your session with adequate carbohydrates.

Download your own macro calculation tool to crush your climbing!

Learn more about how to use nutrition to crush your climbing in the book Nutrition for Climbers: Fuel for the Send

~This is general information only and not intended to be medical advice. Always consult your healthcare provider before undergoing any diet or lifestyle change.

Climbing Nutrition Basics

What to eat when climbing

You got your gear ready for climbing. You have your route in mind. But do you have your food planned out? What about hydration? If your fueling strategy involved throwing some protein bars in your gear bag and bringing a water bottle, you’ve got a great opportunity to fine-tune your nutrition. Read on for some easy tips on how to fuel right.

Climbers need carbohydrates

Carbs help fuel certain energy systems in your body that you need to climb at both an endurance pace and for any kind of move that involves power, like a dyno. Carbs sometimes get a bad rap, but your body and your brain need them. Fueling your body regularly during a climbing session will help stave off fatigue and also keep your mind sharp to avoid safety mistakes and botched climbing attempts.

Carbohydrates are commonly found in:

  • Grains (rice, bread, pasta, etc.)
  • Milk and yogurt
  • Fruit and fruit juice
  • Starchy vegetables (potatoes, yams, peas, corn, lentils, dried beans)
  • Sweets and desserts

Crag snacks

Include carbs in your daily fueling. A good goal is about 30 grams per hour. You can get that from eating snacks like:

  • Pretzels
  • Applesauce pouches
  • Dried fruit or fruit leather
  • Fruit
  • Bagels
  • Crackers
  • Bread

These are all lower in fiber than a lot of other carbs, which means they are quick to digest, leaving you feeling fueled and ready to climb, rather than having a load of fiber sit in your stomach while you’re trying to send it.

Climbers need protein

Carbs are great for delivering quick energy, but protein is useful for keeping you satisfied. Eating too much during a climbing session can leave your stomach heavy and your muscles and brain wanting some fuel. If you’re doing a quick session, like 1-2 hours, no need to add protein in. But if you’re climbing all day, you’ll want about 10 grams per hour to keep you feeling fueled and satisfied. Try things like:

  • Jerky or pepperoni sticks
  • Nuts and nut butters
  • Cheese (keep cold or eat it within 2 hours)
  • Deli meats (same)
  • Hard boiled egg (same)
  • Canned or pouch tuna or chicken
  • PB&J sandwich

Climbing hydration

Finally, what should you drink when climbing? Usually plain ol’ water will be fine. Drink according to thirst and urine color. If it is too dark or concentrated you need to drink more. About 8 oz per hour is a good goal.

You may need a sports drink with electrolytes if you are climbing longer than 2-3 hours, or you are in extreme conditions such as heat, humidity, or high altitude. It’s important to replace any electrolytes lost in sweat. If you sweat a lot–or your sweat contains a lot of sodium–and you only drink water, your blood will become diluted. This can be a dangerous medical condition called hyponatremia. On the flip side, if you become dehydrated this is also dangerous. Both can cause mental confusion as well–something you don’t want in a high-risk sport like climbing!

Download your free climbing macro calculator !

Want more information?

Get the book Nutrition for Climbers

Check out my publication in a scientific journal about nutrition for comp climbing.

Check out online courses on climbing nutrition

Read my articles in Rock and Ice about climbing nutrition (what to eat before, during, and after climbing)

Read my article in Gym Climber Magazine about climbing nutrition on comp day

~This is general information only and is not medical advice. Always seek the advice of your healthcare provider before undergoing any diet or lifestyle change.

Can intuitive eating be the answer to eating disorders in climbers?

How should rock climbers eat?

Intuitively. Most of the time.

When it comes to proper nutrition, athletes often toe the line between athletic excellence and disordered eating. In climbing, there’s pressure to cut weight in order to optimize strength-to-weight ratio. But if you ditch hunger cues, this could lead to mental and physical health problems.

According to one unpublished study by Dr. Lanae Joubert, 6% of male and 17% of female climbers exhibit disordered eating habits. The more elite the climber, the more likely they are to exhibit some form of disordered eating. Forty three percent of elite female climbers reported having disordered eating habits compared to 20% of advanced female climbers.

What is disordered eating?

Disordered eating is a range of behaviors where eating food isn’t a natural response to hunger. Disordered eating habits are driven by external cues (such as portion size, time of day, and diet rules), rather than internal cues (such as hunger, fullness, energy levels). Emotions often play a role. If climbers adopt rigid guidelines of what, when and how much to eat, it can lead to disordered eating.

Some examples include:

  • Eating meals at a certain time
  • Restricting calories
  • Obsessions with meals and food
  • Avoiding certain foods
  • Labeling food as “good” or “bad”
  • Manipulating diet and exercise to lose weight
  • Guilt or shame during or after eating

Health consequences of low energy availability 

In theory, the less you weigh, the less gravity opposes your weight, thus making it easier to climb. Climbers may go down a dangerous path that can lead to disordered eating behaviors if they are hyper-focused on weight.

To lose weight you have to create an energy deficiency, which means you take in less calories than your body uses. Sustained energy deficiencies can lead to a condition called Relative Energy Deficiency in Sport (RED-S) or low energy availability. RED-S can lead to dangerous health consequences.

Calorie deficiencies impact climbing in the following ways:

  • Reduced endurance due to glycogen depletion
  • Increase risk of fractures because of decreased bone density
  • Increased risk for osteopenia or osteoporosis
  • Increased risk of injury
  • Loss of lean muscle mass
  • Loss of period for female climbers (can impact bone health and fertility)
  • Mood disturbances
  • Loss of mental sharpness

With chronic underfueling, a climber’s strength may decline and ultimately do more harm than good. Proper nutrition is key, and poor nutrition can be a barrier to long term progress in the sport.  Adequate calories are required to help your muscles perform to their max and to preserve your health.

How proper fueling helps climbers

  • Muscle glycogen stores are full. This means you are able to produce energy for working muscles.
  • When glycogen stores are empty, you can replenish them to fuel more climbing.
  • Mental strength is maintained because your brain is fueled (the brain needs glucose too).
  • Lean muscle mass is conserved because protein isn’t used as fuel.

How can intuitive eating help climbers?

Climbing is a physically demanding sport. Our bodies are naturally programmed to maintain balance. When we impose restrictions by dieting, excluding or controlling we set the stage for war with food instead of food bringing joy and sustenance.

Intuitive eating is about being at peace with food and removing the control it may have over you. It allows for you to have a healthy relationship with food, one that promotes long term health and physical strength. It will help you tap into your body’s internal needs to ensure it has the protein, carbohydrate, water, fat and the overall calories required to perform the demands of the sport. Intuitive eating is about honoring the evolution of your physiology, being attuned to your body’s needs, and allowing that to guide your food choices.

Simple tips to start eating intuitively:

  • Let your body tell you what it needs and honor that. This means rejecting any preconceived notion of what you think is best, and trusting your body more. Eat when you are hungry. Honor the hunger.
  • Experiment with foods during training sessions to see which ones make you feel the most energized and satiated without bloating or discomfort.
  • Pre-fuel with long lasting carbohydrates before you head out to feed your cells and give yourself a strong start to the day.
  • Plan ahead. Pack fluids, carbohydrate and protein rich snacks that will provide energy when you feel depleted while you are out. This will ensure you have what you need to replenish glycogen stores, promote muscle growth and have the energy to keep climbing.

When intuitive eating may not work

Intuitive eating is a great framework for people if they are in tune to their body’s cue–hunger, fullness, satiety, and mental and emotional cues. It’s really difficult if you’re not in tune to cues or don’t understand how to notice and honor them.

Cues can be disrupted for a number of reasons–chronic dieting, disordered eating, medical conditions, medications, endurance exercise or heavy training, etc. If you are trying to rely on hunger cues to tell you when to eat, but your hunger cues are faint or missing, you may end up under-eating.

Finding help and support from a qualified dietitian and therapist can help you become attuned to your body’s cues. It takes time and practice, but most people get the hang of it. You may also need a dietitian to understand how much to eat in the absence of hunger due to heavy training.

Our bodies are smart. If you can be attuned to it’s cues, it can help you fuel right. The idea is simple, if the body is hungry, feed it. Climbers who aren’t used to that will have to plan ahead to ensure they pack the fuel they need for the day.  Chronic dieters or those that have gone through eating disorders may be out of touch with their body’s cues. It will take time, planning and conscious effort to move away from disordered eating habits. Adopting a mindset that aims for athletic excellence over disordered eating will ensure you are taking in adequate calories and avoiding calorie deficiencies so you can climb stronger, longer.

Want more information? Check out our on-demand intuitive eating course!

This article was written by Kaila Dickey and Marisa Michael

For more help and support with one-on-one consultations, book an appointment at realnutritionllc.com.

For more reading, visit intuitiveeating.org 

Listen to Marisa Michael being interviewed on the TrainingBeta podcast

Blog post: Mary Cain, Nike, and RED-S

Blog post: Should you lose weight to be faster?

Blog post: Lose weight to send? The dark side of climbing and eating disorders

Book: Nutrition for Climbers: Fuel for the Send

~This is general information only and not nutrition advice. Always consult your healthcare provider before undergoing any dietary or lifestyle change.