Medical Articles

How Your Diet Can Make You Into A Better Athlete

With the exception of those certain mutants among us who eat candy, smoke cigarettes, and drink soda (sorry, DIET soda) and coffee all day and then go ahead and send 5.15, all of our climbing abilities are affected by what we eat and when. This is unfortunate, since many of us would just love to subsist on cookies and Nutella sandwiches because they taste oh, so delicious.

There's a lot that goes into using diet to affect athletic performance and overall health, and it can be really confusing sometimes with all of the conflicting research and opinions we see everywhere. My job as a nutrition therapist is to make sense of it myself and relay that coherence to others. The science of nutrition is still in its infancy really, but there are some guidelines you can follow to help you feel energetic, strong and clear-headed - the overarching qualities of a successful person - not just a successful climber. What I am about to tell you has nothing to do with supplements that will make you stronger or super foods that will give you more endurance. There are no magic bullets to make you send your project. There aren't even clear cut rules about what will make you flail all over it - if there were, we'd all be climbing 5.14. So, sit back and prepare yourself for some eye-opening, jaw-dropping... common sense (with a little science to back it up).

There is one mundane, obvious and absolutely imperative topic that just might drastically change your life, and more importantly your scorecard. Breakfast.

How many of you eat some sort of baked good or cereal or other variation of sugar with (insert grain here) for breakfast? How many of you also drink coffee in the morning because your breakfast just doesn't do the job of keeping you awake until lunch, or for that matter 10am? If this is you - this is also most people, so don't feel too ashamed... How many of you, along with around 40% of the rest of the U.S., don't eat breakfast at all? The number one reason we have so many stressed out, tired, overweight people in this country is because we're not eating a good breakfast. That is a bold statement and I just made it - confidently. So, what's a good breakfast? It is NOT sugary cereal with skim milk, instant oatmeal with orange juice, a bagel with jelly, or a doughnut and coffee. These things may taste good, but they will sadly do you no good throughout your day or your life.

The epic story of what happens when you eat these foods begins with blood sugar. All of us have heard about blood sugar. It's the level of sugar, or glucose, in your blood at any given time. The sugar fuels our daily metabolic and athletic activities and what you want is enough sugar in your blood at all times to keep your mood and energy level stable. You've also all heard of adrenaline, especially as climbers. It's the stuff that pumps through your body (or, at least my body) when you're pumped out of your skull and about to take a giant whip and you're not sure if your belayer is watching you or giving some guy beta on a different route 30 feet away. You get sweaty, light-headed, tunnel vision so you can't even see the jug in front of your face, your legs start to tremble, your heart starts audibly beating, and you may have the sudden urge to puke all over your belayer, and maybe for good reason. This is generally described by us as intense fear.

Cut to 11am on Monday morning after a breakfast of jelly-filled doughnuts. When you eat super sugary foods without any fat, fiber and protein (i.e. oil, veggies and meat) to make the meal last longer, your blood sugar plummets quickly because you use up those simple sugars so easily after you've been fasting for hours overnight. If you'd eaten 2 eggs, some sausage, spinach, avocado and salsa instead of the doughnuts, the fat and fiber and protein would mitigate the steep rise and fall of your blood sugar and keep you full and energized for longer, keeping your blood sugar less erratic. This is what your body was meant to eat - fat, protein and fibrous carbohydrates. Not sugar that's taken from corn, heated to hellish temperatures and chemically denatured enough to happily sit on a shelf for years. Cavemen would have had a hard time finding that on the prairie. Think meat (we'll get to the vegetarians next), nuts, seeds, fruits and vegetables and that's what we evolutionarily grew up eating.

When you eat very sugary foods or skip meals instead of eating whole, nutrient dense foods, your body considers this a stressful event and gives you a small surge of adrenaline to get you through to your next meal. To a lesser degree your body experiences the same uncomfortable symptoms of adrenaline you felt on the climb you were about to pitch off of, but instead of intense fear it manifests as anxiety. You're also feeling the effects of low blood sugar - brain fog and muscle weakness. Weakness. I hope my point is surfacing.

There's more. Then imagine that once you finally get to lunch you're starving, so you eat a big, doughy sandwich, some cookies, a bag of chips and some sort of sparkly, sugary beverage. Even though this meal probably has ample protein, fat and maybe fiber in it, you're not in the clear. Your blood sugar is like a boat rocking back and forth in response to a big wave - the wave hits and the boat lurches to one side. It doesn't stop there - it pitches back the other way almost as forcefully as the first time. The swaying only subsides when the force of the wave dissipates. Or big waves keep hitting it and it continues to sway wildly. Your blood sugar's big wave is you eating a sugary breakfast or skipping it altogether. The violent swaying only subsides when you start your day with protein, fat and fiber and repeat every 3 to 5 hours. Every single day. I don't know about you, but I'd rather be on a boat in calm water than be capsized by a storm every day...

Coffee. You'll have to excuse the prolonged analogy, but imagine that coffee is a giant whale, hitting the side of your boat. Every cup of coffee is a blow to the boat's side. It's is called a stimulant because it stimulates your adrenals to spit out adrenaline, which is why you feel... er, shall we say, awake. Wouldn't we rather use our adrenaline stores for something important like an epic big wall rather than for dragging our asses through our morning every day?

Demanding so much of the adrenal glands for adrenaline takes its toll on the rest of the body - namely the thyroid gland. The thyroid is responsible for little things like body weight, temperature and metabolism. Part of its job is to make sure we have enough energy to get through our day, and if we don't, the pituitary gland sends a message to it telling it to get off its ass and make us more. Unfortunately, the pituitary is also responsible for sending the same kind of rallying messages to the adrenals. If the adrenals are overworked by our blood sugar and coffee "issues", not to mention our climbing addiction, the pituitary gets really tired and lags on its communication to the thyroid. This is why so many of us are constantly tired and depressed, not able to lose weight, cold all the time, and have poor digestion and sleep habits. It's also one big reason we get frequent headaches, muscle cramps, water retention, slow wound healing and why so many of us are sick much of the time. Read through all of those symptoms again and note how many of them you can assign to yourself or your significant other or the person sitting next to you.

So, how does a low functioning thyroid affect our climbing? Well, let's be honest - there's not one person who can climb their best when they're constipated all the time - oh yeah, that's another sign of thyroid dysfunction. No climber who is chronically depressed and anxious is going to be able to confidently lead climb at their limit - we've all witnessed that. And even if it's only 10 pounds that you are struggling to lose, those 10 pounds can make your project feel way harder than if you were at your optimal weight. And ladies, how many of you would like to have had better circulation in your numb fingers on a cold day outside? Yet another symptom of thyroid dysfunction. Water retention in our joints can lead to pain and inflammation - and just because your ankles aren't swollen like a pregnant woman, it doesn't mean you're not retaining water, guys. And finally, who can climb their best when they get sick all the time? We all know how drained and weak we get with the flu. What's the first thing I tell people who have thyroid dysfunction? Eat a good breakfast.

So, to you mutants out there climbing V15 fueled by sugar packets and sugar water - how hard do you think you could climb if you balanced your blood sugar?


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