Nutrition: The Road To More Efficient Climbing (Part 2)

Nutrition: The Road To More Efficient Climbing (Part 2)

The main objectives of refuelling on your ascent (or periodically throughout the day if you are climbing with ropes only) are to provide a quick source of energy, minimise dehydration and control muscle fatigue. All forms of exercise create muscle fatigue, which is an underestimated cause of fatigue and performance loss. In climbing, muscle fatigue in the arm muscles is of particular concern. Research has shown that protein, when consumed with carbohydrates during exercise, reduces muscle fatigue and as a result, fatigue is delayed. Again, as it turns out, many different food options and combinations can meet your boosting goals.

The University of Montana study has measured the effects of three different nutrition interventions on muscle fatigue during simulated wall climbing training. The three treatments were 1) a carbohydrate/electrolyte drink, 2) water, and 3) water combined with a carbohydrate/protein mix in a 4:1 ratio. The study’s principal investigator, Dr. Seifert, said, “One reason I conducted this study is that climbing is characterized by a high rate of isometric muscle contractions, which cause significant muscle fatigue. Therefore, it is expected that carbohydrate/protein supplements will reduce the level of muscle fatigue.”

The researchers reported that the carbohydrate/protein mix, compared to carbohydrate supplementation alone, did reduce muscle fatigue by 56 percent. And compared to water, the carbohydrate/protein mix reduces muscle fatigue by 79 percent. Seifert concluded, “These findings suggest that a carbohydrate/protein supplement offers significant benefits when climbing.” Depending on the intensity of the climb and the type of climb, 100 to 200 calories per hour are consumed.


An online poll among climbers notes that beer was their preferred drink for recovery after climbing. However, your body’s nutritional needs don’t end when the climb is complete. While I have nothing against beer, I would say that serious climbers should delay their first beer until they have consumed food that will actually benefit their body’s recovery, as doing so will reduce their muscle soreness after climbing and help them climb better next time.

The post-exercise period is a unique metabolic opportunity for athletes. Immediately after exercise, the metabolic system which is responsible for replenishing muscle energy stores, rebuilding muscle protein and reducing muscle fatigue is in a state of increased activation. Unfortunately, this metabolic window is only open for about 45 minutes. Research conducted by myself and others has shown that when the right combination of nutrients are consumed during this time, the result is a greater and more complete restoration of muscle energy and an increase in protein synthesis, which is critical to repair and rebuild damaged muscle tissue. This greater recovery translates into much stronger performance the next time the body is exercised. As a general guideline, consume approximately 125 calories of a recovery drink for every 30 minutes of climbing.

Two caveats. First, if you delay the consumption of recovery nutrition beyond the body’s recovery window, you will miss most, if not all, of the benefits of this increased metabolic activity. Second, not all nutrients work equally well. Multiple studies have shown that the ideal recovery drink contains carbohydrates and protein in a 4:1 ratio. In fact, compared to a carbohydrate-only drink, a carbohydrate/protein drink replaces muscle energy stores 128 percent better and makes muscle protein rebuild 38 percent more efficiently. The results compared to water are even more dramatic. The bottom line is that you should consume proper recovery nutrition within 45 minutes of the end of each climb.

The Edge Nutrition

Based on his studies, Dr. Seifert makes some important observations. “My research looks at high-level, experienced climbers. After two to three hours of climbing, the climbers become completely exhausted, a result that demonstrates why refueling during a climb is so critical. However, despite the obvious benefits I have found, most climbers do not pay attention to nutrition. It is not uncommon for them to complete three to four levels of climbing and their only nutrition is a single bottle of water. I understand why they don’t want to carry the extra weight, but that weight must be weighed against the obvious benefits of improved performance and climbing safety. At a minimum climbers should carry a handful of ice packs, which weighs next to nothing.”

The nutrition you consume before, during and after climbing will not magically turn you into a climber-level climber. But consuming the right nutrients at the right time will allow you to climb with more energy and allow your body to recover faster.

The Separation of Herbal Hype from Herbal Science

A number of herbal supplements promise to improve your climbing performance, but there is often a discrepancy between the manufacturer’s claims and the results of studies. The challenge for climbers is this : How can you separate the hype from the science? For example, two popular herbs, Cordyceps and Rhodiola, claim to improve endurance, reduce lactic acid and increase oxygen delivery to muscles. Published studies paint a very different picture. Five scientific studies came to the same conclusion, these herbs do not improve any parameter of endurance or reduce muscle fatigue. Although these results may discourage climbers, a study recently published in another Chinese article, on ciwujia, may provide some hope for climbers looking for a “magic” herbal product.

Herb Ciwujia

Ciwujia is a well-known herb, a relative of ginseng that has been used in traditional Chinese medicine for over 1,700 years. Ciwujia first came to the attention of sports scientists in the mid-1990s, based on anecdotal reports of its use in Tibet by mountaineers who used it to improve their performance at high altitudes. Multiple studies conducted in the US and China have shown that ciwujia improves exercise performance, reduces feelings of fatigue and lowers lactic acid levels. The most recent study published in the prestigious Chinese journal, Journal of Physiology, is particularly credible because the researchers used a special technique that is described as the gold standard for any research. They found that eight weeks of taking ciwujia supplements increased oxygen uptake by 12 percent and performance endurance by 23 percent. Two things to keep in mind if you decide to use ciwujia. First, positive results were observed after eight weeks at a dose of 800 mg per day. Second, make sure that the ciwujia you use is a standardized extract. This is the only way you can be sure that the amount of ciwujia listed for each capsule is accurate.

Your friends in climbing


For years, carbohydrates have dominated the debate regarding improving muscle performance. We now know, however, that adding protein to a carbohydrate supplement can produce great improvements in both performance and recovery. In the 1990s, researchers at the University of Texas showed that combining carbohydrate and protein in a 4:1 ratio improved both the speed and quality of muscle recovery. Carbohydrate/protein drinks replenish muscle glycogen stores nearly three times better than carbohydrate-only drinks, reduce muscle fatigue by 90 percent, and improve endurance and performance by up to 55 percent. In fact, the carbohydrate/protein shake was 37 percent more effective than a 90 percent pure protein shake at replenishing muscle protein. The carbohydrate/protein combination has also been shown to be superior when consumed during exercise. Compared to water or carbohydrate-only beverages, protein-enriched sports drinks dramatically increase hydration, prolong endurance and reduce muscle damage. Based on these studies, protein should be considered an essential macronutrient before, during and after climbing.


Many climbers drink coffee before starting climbs. Although caffeine has been shown to improve aerobic performance, research now suggests that it may be particularly beneficial for climbers. For example, caffeine consumption may inhibit fatigue signals sent by the brain for fatigue, which have been shown to reduce the strength of muscle contraction. Caffeine also raises blood sugar levels, providing a source of energy for working muscles. Consider adding caffeine in the refueling stage in the amount of 100 mg in the middle of a multilevel climb. A number of carbohydrate and carbohydrate/protein drinks contain caffeine.

Simple sugars

One of the most persistent myths in sports nutrition is the idea that long-acting carbohydrates delay fatigue better than products containing “fast-acting” sugars because they provide a more stable level of glucose in the blood. In reality, however, the exact opposite is true.

Exercise performance declines very quickly when muscle glycogen stores are depleted. The goal, therefore, is to preserve muscle glycogen as long as possible. Fast-acting carbohydrates are rapidly absorbed in the gastrointestinal tract, transported to muscle cells and metabolized to provide energy to the working muscles. By providing an immediate source of energy, fast-acting sugars maintain muscle glycogen, thus extending endurance. This is critical for climbers.

Long-acting carbohydrates certainly have an important place in climbers’ overall diets, but that place is not during or immediately after climbing.