GOAL: To give rock climbers practical sport nutrition for at the gym or at the crag.


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Feb 27, 2010


Carbohydrates, protein and fat – what are they, why do I need them, and what foods are they in?

When we talk about food and sports nutrition, we often talk about the 3 macronutrients: carbohydrate, protein and fat.  All of these are important for our health and for athletic performance.  The goal of this blog post is to make you understand why our bodies need these macronutrients, and what foods are good sources of each macronutrient.


Macronutrients – what are they?


Macronutrients are the main components that make up food.  They are carbohydrate, protein and fat.  All three of these macronutrients provide calories, meaning they all give your body the energy it needs to keep working, whether that is sitting at a desk or climbing pitch after pitch all day.

Each macronutrient also gives you more then just energy.  The macronutrients come in many different forms that also have special functions in the body that can benefit your climbing training and performance.


Carbohydrates – your body’s favourite source of energy


Even though all macronutrients give your body energy, your body prefers carbohydrate to the others for energy.  You’re body needs lots of fuel when you are training at high volumes and high intensity.  Just as a car runs better on a full tank of premium gasoline, your body performs better when you are fully fuelled with healthful carbohydrate foods.


What are carbohydrates?

Carbohydrates are sugar molecules and chains of sugar molecules.  Sugar, starch and fibre are all different types of carbohydrate.  Although fibre does not give your body energy (it provides almost no calories), it is important for your digestive system, helps regulate cholesterol, has a role in preventing certain diseases (such as cancer), and is used by bacteria in your gut to give you vitamins.


Why do I need carbohydrates?

All the cells in the body – from brain to muscle to immune system cells – prefer carbohydrate for energy.  Without the energy from carbohydrates, your brain may not be able to focus as well, your immune system may not be able to fight off colds and flu, and your muscles will not have enough energy to train or compete for long hours or at high levels.  Symptoms of low energy levels due to not getting enough energy through food are:

·      Poor strength

·      Poor endurance

·      Fatigue

·      Injury

·      Illness

·      Longer recovery time needed after training

·      Poor bone growth, menstrual problems and muscle loss in severe cases


When we eat carbohydrate foods, the carbohydrate is broken down in our body, and then put back together and stored in a form our body can use.  The body stores carbohydrate in the muscles and liver, but muscles store the most.  The stored carbohydrate is released during training to allow the muscles to work and to maintain blood sugar levels and delay fatigue.  Therefore, if you don’t eat carbohydrate foods, you will have low stores of carbohydrate in your liver and muscles – you will not be able to train as long or as hard.

You need carbohydrates because:

·      They are your body’s preferred source of energy.

·      Your muscles store a lot for training and competition.

·      Your muscles use a lot during training and competition.

·      Carbohydrates fuel your brain to help your focus and mental attitude (especially important in the sport of rock climbing).

·      Not getting enough carbohydrate increases your risk of illness and injury.


What foods are good sources of carbohydrate?

Carbohydrates come from foods such as vegetables, fruit, milk products and grain products.  Following Canada’s Food Guide, these are the first 3 food groups.  The best sources of carbohydrates are generally grain products such as breads, crackers, cereals, rices and pastas.  Vegetables such as potatoes, sweet potatoes, corn and squash are starchy and contain a lot of carbohydrate.  Meat alternatives such as beans, lentils and chickpeas are also great sources of carbohydrate.


Protein – repairing your muscle after intense training


What is protein?

Proteins are made up of chains of smaller molecules called amino acids.  There are both plant and animal sources of protein, made up of different combinations of the amino acids.  Whether your protein comes from plant or animal sources, all can be beneficial for athletic performance.


Why do I need protein?

Although protein can provide your body with energy, it is better used for giving you a sense of fullness after meals and repairing muscle after intense training.

Protein takes longer to empty from the stomach, and therefore sits in the stomach longer then carbohydrate.  This can be useful for a person who is trying to maintain a certain body weight – spreading out protein intake throughout the day by having a little bit of protein at each meal will help a person feel full for longer after meals.  A “little bit” of protein is only one serving – only 75 g or ½ cup of meat or ¾ cup of beans, lentils, tofu, etc.  For an athlete, a large amount of protein just before training will sit in the stomach and may cause nausea or unpleasant fullness during training.

When we train and exert our muscles, we are actually causing small tears in the muscle.  These tears are not bad because when they are repaired, the muscle grows bigger and stronger.  For the muscle to repair, it needs both carbohydrate and protein.  When we eat protein foods, the protein is broken down into its amino acids.  The amino acids travel to the torn muscle fibres, and help repair them while the carbohydrate slows down further breakdown of the muscle fibres.  This recovery of the muscle by team carbohydrate and protein is what strengthens the muscle after exercise.


You need protein because:

·      Protein helps keep you feeling full for longer, which may help on long outdoor trips when meals may be spread apart.

·      Protein along with carbohydrate rebuilds and repairs muscles after intense training.

·      Without protein and carbohydrate after training, muscles may not fully recover, and next day training may be impaired.


What foods are good sources of protein?

There are both animal and plant sources of protein.  Following Canada’s Food Guide, the last 2 food groups, milk and alternatives and meat and alternatives provide the most good quality protein.  Some breads and pastas also contribute protein.


Animal sources:

·      Beef

·      Poultry

·      Fish

·      Eggs

·      Cheese, milk, yogurt


Plant sources:

·      Chickpeas

·      Beans

·      Lentils

·      Soybeans, tofu

·      Peanuts, almonds, nut butters

·      Seeds


Fat – important for the normal functioning of your body and reducing risk of injury


What is fat?

Fat as a macronutrient is a group of more complex molecules.  Generally, fats are made up of long chains of carbons that house a lot of energy.  The number of carbons in the chain and the types of links between the carbons make up the different types of fats.  These types can be variations of saturated, polyunsaturated, monounsaturated, trans, omega-3, omega-6, etc.


Why do I need fat?

Fats have a lot of functions in the body.  When most people think of fat, they think of its storage form – the type of fat that is stored in the body under the skin.  But fats in food are very important.  All the cell membranes in our body are made up of fat – they protect the cell and help regulate what gets in and out.  This also helps cells in the body communicate, especially cells in the nervous system.  Fat molecules in our food carry and allow us to absorb important vitamins such as vitamins A, D, E and K.  Special fats, such as omega-3 fats also lower inflammation in the body – this not only decreases risk of heart disease, but also lowers risk of injury related to inflammation.

Remember how when we train, small tears form in the muscle?  Although this damage helps us build stronger muscle, it also causes some inflammation.  With overtraining (which happens when we put repeated burns on the same problem) this causes extra damage and leads to overuse injuries (those sore pulleys and tendons that never seem to heal).  Having some healthful omega-3 fats in the diet help to prevent this extra damage, and therefore help us recover better, and prevent injury.


You need fat because:

·      All your cells in your body are wrapped in an envelop of fat molecules.

·      Fat molecules help your cells in your body communicate.

·      Important vitamins are found in the fat portion of foods.  These vitamins need that fat to help them be transported into your body.

·      Omega-3 fats reduce inflammation, which helps you recover from training, and reduce the risk of injury.


What foods are good sources of healthful fats?

Because fats give us more energy then the other macronutrients (are higher in calories) we generally don’t need a lot of added fats in our diet.  So we need to make sure that the foods we are choosing are good sources of healthful fats.

Healthful fats contain lower levels of saturated and industry-produced trans fats, and higher levels of polyunsaturated, monounsaturated and omega-3 fats.  Cold-water fatty fish are great sources of healthful omega-3 fats.  If you are able to eat fish, aim for 2 to 3 meals with fish per week.


Good sources of healthful fats:

·      Fatty fish (cold water)

·      Flaxseed (must be ground up)

·      Walnuts

·      Canola and olive oils

·      Omega-3 enriched products, such as enriched eggs, milk and margarine


Cold-water fatty fish to have 2-3 times per week:

·      Mackerel

·      Chunk light tuna

·      Salmon

·      Atlantic herring

·      Lake trout

·      Sardines



·      Carbohydrate is the most important macronutrient for athletic performance.

·      Your body prefers carbohydrate to other macronutrients for fuel.

·      Vegetables, fruit, milk and alternatives and meat alternatives are great sources of carbohydrates.

·      Protein stays in your stomach longer (is digested slower) so keeps you fuller for longer.

·      Protein right after a training sessions helps build and repair muscle, so that muscles grow stronger and you perform better in your next training session.  Get this protein from food from milk and alternatives or meat and alternatives.

·      Fats are important!  Your body needs them to absorb and transport certain vitamins, and your cells need them to communicate with the rest of you body.

·      Choose foods that are lower in saturated and industry-produced trans fats.  Regularly have sources of healthful fats such as cold-water fish, canola and olive oils, and nuts and seeds.  These are low in saturated fat and sources of omega-3 fats that help reduce inflammation and therefore risk of injury.



All of the macronutrients are important for your health and for your performance.  How much you need of each depends on your gender, body weight, how often you train, at what intensity, medical history, etc.  It’s important to get a variety of each macronutrient through food, and to choose healthful choices.  For more information and to help you figure out your exact needs and how these can fit into your everyday life, find a Sports Dietitian close to you.  In Canada, you can find one here:

·      Coaching Association of Canada

·      Dietitian’s of Canada




Your body’s favourite source of energy

Repairing your muscle after intense training

Important for the normal functioning of your body and reducing risk of injury

·      Whole wheat, whole grain or enriched breads, crackers, cereals and pastas

·      Rice

·      Buckwheat

·      Vegetables such as potatoes, sweet potatoes, corn and squash

·      Meat alternatives such as beans, lentils and chickpeas

Animal sources:

·      Lean cuts of beef

·      Chicken and turkey

·      Cold-water fish

·      Eggs

·      Cheese, milk, yogurt


Plant sources:

·      Chickpeas

·      Beans

·      Lentils

·      Soybeans, tofu

·      Peanuts, almonds, nut butters

·      Seeds

·      Ground up flaxseed

·      Walnuts

·      Canola and olive oils

·      Omega-3 enriched products, such as enriched eggs, milk and margarine

·      Mackerel

·      Chunk light tuna

·      Salmon

·      Atlantic herring

·      Lake trout

·      Sardines


Stay tuned!

The next blog post will be up shortly discussing what to eat before, during, and after training, sending or competition!