Updated: Apr 24, 2020
There's an idea in the climbing community that if you want to send hard, you have to be lighter. I've seen climbers cut their calories and double their exercise in the name of reaching the next grade. While I definitely acknowledge that yes, climbing is a somewhat weight-dependent sport, it is also a muscle-dependent, a flexibility-dependent, and a mindset-dependent sport. Simple logic would say "Yeah, of course, a lighter mass is easier to move up the wall," but your body's biology doesn't follow simple logic. Forcing your body into a lower weight won't help you send and will most likely make you a worse climber. Let me tell you why.
Climbers tend to lose weight using two methods: cutting calories and increasing training.
Your body needs fuel to run, plain and simple. If you are not giving your body the energy (aka calories) it needs to simply be alive and to complete the rigorous training you are forcing on it, it will find the energy on it's own. In an underfed state, your body will react in several very predictable ways. Your metabolism will slow and your body will go into what is known as starvation mode. Just to remind you, your body is completely unaware of the fact that post-send, you'll start feeding it again. To prepare for what it thinks is a never-ending famine, it's primary concern is preserving glucose which is the preferred fuel for the brain. Thus, you switch to utilizing fatty acids (your fat sources) and amino acids (proteins, including your muscles) for energy.
The logic behind weight loss for improved performance is to improve your weight-to-muscle ratio so as to maintain your strength level with lighter weight to carry up the wall. You will not perform your best if your body is breaking down your muscles for energy. Your weight-to-muscle ratio will stay the same or more likely will decrease. When you return to your normal pattern of eating, your energy storage will stay elevated resulting in a higher weight-to-muscle ratio than you normally reside at. This sequence of events unfortunately tends to cycle with each progressive restriction and return-to-normal, slowing your metabolism further and requiring more restriction to reach the weight goal you're aspiring for. Additionally, in this underfed state, you won’t be as mentally sharp, impacting your decision making and focus on the wall.
You might be thinking, “If I'm training while I'm restricting, I'll be building muscle so my weight-to-muscle ratio will improve.” Training hard takes fuel. To see muscle maintenance or improvements from training, you have to provide your body enough calories to power and repair your muscles after training. In an underfed state, you'll find yourself weak, easily fatigued, and needing longer time to recover than in a fed state. You’ll be too tired and probably overly focused on your next meal to truly give the climb the effort it deserves.
So what can you do? You want to climb harder and you feel like you've plateaued. I am a firm believer that there is no right diet for everyone and everybody reacts differently to training. Intuitive eating and intuitive training are complex concepts but I'll distill them down into simple steps you can use to reach your climbing goals.
1. Honor your hunger:
If you don't feel your best, you're not going to climb your best. Eating the food necessary to fuel your training and climbing is so important. You'll be more energized, you won't get pumped as fast, and you'll have a sharper mental focus on the wall. Eating a well-balanced diet provides you the nutrients needed to properly recover and build muscle after climbing sessions.
Additionally, recognizing and honoring your hunger and fullness cues will allow you to give your body exactly what it needs. Your body will settle into its biologically determined "set-point" weight range in which you function optimally. In case you're thinking, but Julianne, I can't eat when I'm hungry, I'll gain so much weight and I'll never reach my goal. Please scroll back up to the top and reread how your body reacts to being underfed.
The fitness industry likes to discredit us and convince us we can't be trusted to keep our bodies fit and healthy. When you're truly being aware of your body's hunger and fullness cues, you'll stop eating before you overeat to avoid feeling sick and stuffed. When you are making choices to take care of yourself and feel good, you won't have the desire to make choices that result in you feeling sick.
2. Cultivate body awareness:
Get to know your body. Bringing nonjudgmental curiosity to how climbing feels in your body, from your head space to the ligaments in your fingers, allows you to be more in tune with your potential. A huge benefit from this is avoiding injury. A large amount of injury occurs when we're pushing our bodies and we accidentally go past the breaking point. When you truly get to learn your body, you'll know how far you can push it without injury.
This allows us to push our bodies to their maximum capacity in a safe fashion. Which means that when you're climbing your project, you'll know how much more energy you have left to give. You can train and climb hard with respect to your body and it's experience.
This doesn't necessarily mean long hang-board sessions or hours in the weight room. Instead of climbing mindlessly, hoping to reach that next grade, work on your technique and skills.
Focusing on basics such as footwork and hip position can help you bring your climbing to the next level and fosters sustainable improvement. Force yourself to work on your weaknesses and climb a variety of routes, on ropes and on boulders. Train your endurance with ladders, traverses, and repetitive up/down climbing of routes below your grade.
In my experience, when climbers "plateau" they've just reached the point where their natural strength skill maxes out. Reaching the next grade doesn't mean you need to chop off your index finger and live in a bush only eating ketchup packets for two weeks, it just means you have to do the work to make yourself a better, more efficient climber.
4. Mind over Matter:
Mindset is the most important factor that is getting in the way of your send. Breaking into a new grade or touching the chains on a route you've been dreaming of can be a heavy weight on your shoulders. We often work things up to be so momentous that we subconsciously convince ourselves we're incapable. Truly believing that you have the potential and the capability of sending is the key to actually sending. There are entire books written about this topic - Rock Warrior’s Way, anybody? Mental training is just as, if not more, important than physical.
We need to stop the “Losing weight is necessary to send” myth from being commonplace in our climbing community. It’s hard to go to the climbing gym or crag without hearing body shaming or diet talk. Our community has a higher incidence of disordered eating than the national average. Eating disorders in female climbers are three times the national average. In recent years, female pro-climbers have spoken up about their eating disorders, the pressure to mold themselves into the “ideal” climbers body, and the harmful, disordered culture cultivated in our sport since the beginning.
There is no ideal “climber’s body.” No specific body type is needed to climb which is what makes our sport so amazing. It’s accessible to everyone but the culture within it ostracizes climbers based on their bodies.This isn’t an issue just for climbers in naturally bigger bodies or for professional climbers, this is an issue affecting all of us. We boost ourselves as a community of fun-seeking, open-minded, and loving dirtbags. Let’s stop encouraging disordered behaviors and start boosting each other up.
Want to improve your relationship with diet, fitness, and climbing? Looking for 1:1 support and coaching in your intuitive eating and training practice? Schedule a free 30 minute call with me where we can discuss your experiences, my nutrition coaching program, and create a roadmap to reach your goals.
Have questions? Let me know your opinion in the comments below!