Last year, I sent out a research survey to rock climbing gyms all across North America. I added one question to that survey to help me with topics for this blog. The question was “If you could ask a nutrition professional anything, what would you ask?” I got a lot of great questions, and found out most climbers want to know, what should I eat before, during and after climbing.
From that survey, I also found out that a lot of climbers are cross-training with weight training, running, yoga and biking.
This blog post is for every type of sports, exercise, or climbing enthusiast. No matter what you’re training for, how you’re training, or when you’re training, one of the most useful topics in sport nutrition is WHAT to eat WHEN.
Below are links to 2 tables I created (in pdf format) summarizing all the information. I suggest you download these tables to follow along with the written post. One of the tables lists numbers – grams of carbohydrate and millilitres of fluids recommended per kilogram body weight. These amounts are known in research for intense training, and were calculated looking mostly at endurance athletes. If you were to calculate these for yourself, without the help of a Sports Dietitian, you may think the amounts recommended are impractical for your training. I don’t want you to get caught up in these calculations – I simply provided them to you as a reference. However, the WHAT and WHEN to eat are still practical for every level of training, competitive or recreational.
What and when to eat BEFORE training or competition
As we go through what to eat before, during and after training or competition, we’re not just talking about FOOD. We’re also talking about FLUIDS, which play a pivotal role in performance.
Your nutrition goals before starting your training session or competition are:
1. Prevent thirst.
2. Maximize your muscle and liver carbohydrate stores.
Drinking FLUID hours before helps prevent dehydration during your training or competition. This is very important; just a little dehydration causes poor performance (##insert hyperlink here). If you’re the type of person who is too busy, or forgets to drink fluids throughout the day, then make a conscience effort to start drinking fluids at least 4 hours before your session. Drink fluids slowly with food or a salty snack – this helps keep fluid in the body so that you’re not spending your time running to the bathroom!
In terms of FOOD, when you arrive at your training session or competition, you shouldn’t be hungry nor should you have undigested food in your stomach. Just like hydration, if you’re in for an intense training session, your nutrition plan starts 4 to 8 hours before! This is to make sure your muscles are fueled so that they can work at intense levels for longer periods of time.
Eat carbohydrate-rich foods 3 to 4 hours before exercise – this increases the level of energy stored in your muscles and liver. By having a full meal with carbohydrate-rich foods 3 to 4 hours before your session, you will help increase your endurance.
As time before your training session gets shorter, have smaller meals and snacks, but still rich in carbohydrates to keep your blood sugar up – this is important to prevent fatigue during exercise. With less then 2 hours before your training session, have some crackers and cheese, pita and hummus, or a peanut butter and jam sandwich with some vegetable sticks. These snacks are generally lower in fat and fibre, high in carbohydrate and moderate in protein.
Fat, fibre and high amounts of protein empty from the stomach slowly so tend to leave a heavy feeling in the stomach when training. Carbohydrate empties from your stomach more quickly. The carbohydrate snacks mentioned above allow you to arrive at your session energized without a heavy feeling in your stomach.
Putting it into practice:
If your training or competition is in the MORNING:
Night before: High carb dinner + extra fluid. Example, pasta with chickpea marinara sauce + ¾ cup yogurt + ½ cup fruit + water, tea or 100% fruit juice.
Morning of: Eat light breakfast/large snack + extra fluid. Example, low fibre breakfast cereal + ½ cup fruit + milk, water, tea or 100% fruit juice.
If your training or competition is in the EVENING:
Morning of: Eat a carbohydrate rich breakfast. Example, pancakes with yogurt or cottage cheese + ½ cup fruit + water, tea or 100% fruit juice.
Afternoon of: Eat a carbohydrate-rich lunch. Example, turkey sandwich + crackers and cheese + ½ cup vegetable sticks + milk, water, tea or 100% fruit juice.
Evening of: Have a large or small snack at dinner before training or competition. Example, granola bar and juice box with extra water or toast with jam and peanut butter.
What and when to eat DURING training or competition
Your nutrition goals during your training session or competition are:
1. Stay hydrated.
2. Maintain blood sugar levels so you don’t fatigue.
Make sure you frequently drink FLUIDS. Staying hydrated is the most important factor for maintaining performance during training or competition. Don’t wait until you are thirsty. Physical activity delays thirst. If you are thirsty, you are already dehydrated.
The amount of fluid you need largely varies on your training climate and intensity; if it is hotter and you are working harder, then you will need more fluids. As a benchmark, aim to drink fluid at least every 10 to 20 minutes during training or competition, ½ cup to 1 cup of fluid.
You do not need any extra FOOD if you are training or competing for less then 60 minutes. For the first hour of training, hydrating with water is all you need.
After one hour, have a carbohydrate source to keep blood sugars up. This improves performance, and prevents you and your muscles from fatiguing. Thirty to 70 g of carbohydrate per hour is suggested when training for longer sessions. This can be taken in the form of a sport drink, sport gel, or carbohydrate-rich foods such as fig bars, dried fruit, date squares or crackers.
Take small amounts of carbohydrate every 10 to 20 minutes. Taking a large portion of carbohydrate at the end of one hour is not as effective as eating smaller portions frequently throughout the hour. You can do this easily by pairing it with your fluid intake: drink ½ cup to 1 cup of sport drink every 10 to 20 minutes OR use the same amount of water to wash down some raisins, a fig bar or a cracker.
If your training or competition lasts longer then 3 to 4 hours, consider taking a short break to get in a small or large snack. At any point before, during, or after your training/competition, you don’t want to go more then 3 to 4 hours without refueling your body with food.
r If you are thirsty, you are already dehydrated.
r Aim to drink some fluids every 10 to 20 minutes during training and competition.
r After 60 minutes of training, your muscles fatigue and need refueling. Every 10 to 20 minutes, take a source of carbohydrate, either in the form of sport drink, or snack food.
r Avoid going 3 to 4 hours without a large snack or meal.
Putting it into practice:
If you are training for less then 60 minutes: All you need is water. Drink frequently, every 10 to 20 minutes. Keep your water bottle or hydration pack with you at all times.
If you are training for more then 60 minutes: You need some carbohydrate, every 10 to 20 minutes. Switch from water to a sport drink, or have some dried fruit, crackers, or a sport gel when you take your water every 10 to 20 minutes.
If you are training for more then 3 to 4 hours: Take a break to refuel with a small to large snack. If training in a gym, bring a cooler packed with your favourite snacks and light meals. If outdoors, pack granola bars, fruit, crackers, jam packets, nuts and seeds, or return to camp and make a sandwich with some veggie sticks or soup with bread.
What and when to eat AFTER training or competition
Eating after training or competition is to recover from the intense exercise. Recovery nutrition allows you to train at a higher level without risk of illness, injury or overtraining. Getting recovery foods after your training session allows your body to recover quicker. This reduces the rest time your body needs between sessions and improves the quality of your next session. Therefore, recovery nutrition is even more important if you plan on training hard again in the next 24 hours.
Your nutrition goals after your training session or competition are:
1. Start recovery immediately.
2. Take carbohydrate to refuel muscle and liver stores.
3. Take a little protein to repair muscle.
Intense training actually causes damage to the body. Intense training causes tiny tears in muscle protein fibres. This damage is a good thing, because recovering from it makes you and your muscles stronger. When you don’t recover, such as when you overtrain, don’t take rest days, and avoid getting in the proper recovery foods, the damage builds up and can lead to overuse injuries.
The best recovery happens just 15 to 30 minutes after your training! Right after exercise, the muscle cells have used up all their carbohydrate stores and are very sensitive to refueling and repairing. If you feed your muscles a little carbohydrate and protein at this time, you will maximize your recovery.
Once again, carbohydrate is the most important for muscle recovery. Eating carbohydrate allows your muscles to restock their energy stores, and can support muscle protein synthesis (muscle strengthening and building).
Protein is also important for maximizing your post-training recovery. Right after exercise (15 to 30 minutes) your muscles are most receptive to absorbing the building blocks of their protein fibres. Eating protein allows for more muscle building and repairing. Recent research shows that only a little bit of protein is needed to do this – it seems that no more then 20 grams of protein after intense training is needed to maximize muscle protein synthesis. You can get at least 20 grams of protein by eating:
- ½ cup cottage cheese + 1 hard cooked egg
- 1 cup of milk + ¼ cup nuts
- Fruit smoothie made with ¾ cup yogurt + 2 Tbsp peanut butter
- 60 g cheddar cheese on toast
- Tuna wrap with 1 can of tuna
- Club sandwich with 75 g of turkey or chicken breast
Having any of these foods post-training will help your muscles recover.
By 2 hours after your training session, you need to have a full meal. Make sure this meal is balanced with both carbohydrate and protein sources. Carbohydrates should come from an abundance of vegetables or fruit and some grain products, such as breads, pastas, couscous, rice, oatmeal, etc. Foods that contain both carbohydrate and protein are milk, cheeses, yogurt, beans, lentils, chickpeas, seeds, etc. Meats such as turkey, chicken, beef and fish have very little carbohydrate but are good sources of protein. A balanced meal is 50% vegetables and fruit, 25% grains, 25% meat or meat alternative.
r Take advantage of the 15 to 30 minutes after your training session and by eating recovery foods. Most important is carbohydrate, but a little protein is needed for muscle recovery.
r Only about 20 grams of protein is needed right after training to optimize your muscle recovery. You can easily get this through food.
Putting it into practice:
15 to 30 minutes after training or competition: Have at least a small recovery snack that provides both carbohydrate and protein. Pack these snacks in your gym bag or keep some stored at the gym. For at the crag, make sure you pack some in your rope bag or crash pad when at the crag.
2 hours after training or competition: Have a full balanced meal. Make sure this has carbohydrate in the form of grains, cereals and vegetables and fruit, and protein in the form of meat, fish, poultry, tofu, soy, beans, lentils or chickpeas.
There’s a lot of information here to take in. Remember at least these few key messages:
r Don’t go more then 3 to 4 hours without refueling your body.
r Carbohydrate food and fluid sources are important before, during and after training or competition.
r If you’re training for only 60 minutes, all you need is water, but make sure you are drinking water frequently.
r If you’re training more then 60 minutes, you need small but frequent amounts of carbohydrate foods or fluids.
r Take carbohydrate-rich and protein-rich snacks within the 15 to 30 minutes after training.
r Only 20 grams of protein is needed after training, but is important for muscle strengthening and building.
r Balanced meals including vegetables and fruit are important for health and recovery.
Finally, I will leave you with one last but very important rule:
Don’t try anything new the day it counts!
Whether it’s competition day, or whether it’s your last day in Squamish and you want to send that five-star project, don’t try any new food! It has happened to many athletes – on the day that it counts, they see another athlete drinking an energy drink, or they are offered some spicy creamy dish they have never heard of before. If you have never tried a food or drink before, then don’t try it on the day it counts. You don’t know how well you tolerate that food or drink, and you may spend the rest of the day in the bathroom!
Joint Position Paper: Nutrition and Athletic Performance (2008). Dietitians of Canada, American College of Sports Medicine, American Dietetic Association.
Position Stand: Exercise and Fluid Replacement (2007). American College of Sports Medicine.
Tang, J. E. & Phillips, S. M. (2009). Maximizing muscle protein anabolism: the role of protein quality. Current Opinion in Clinical Nutrition and Metabolic Care. 12:66-71.
Mansfield, B. (2009). Nutrition and Athletic Performance (presentation slides). www.peakperformance.on.ca.