This is an open article outlining the nutrition guidelines I provide to clients, and is the foundation from which I adjust depending on their specific goals and preferences. They are the 99% of best practice.
In subsequent articles I will discuss the underlying science behind these recommendations, various adaptations depending on need, and other topics such as perodisation, low-carbohydrate high-fat, intermittent fasting, time-restricted feeding, plant-based diets, etc.
This article currently does not specifically discuss fat-loss strategies, or supplementation, but these sections will follow shortly. If you are a client we will address these within your programme.
Though this article references climbing, these guidelines are applicable to almost anyone involved in a regular training or a sports program, and were drawn from current sports nutrition science with citations provided where applicable.
If you need somewhere to start, these guidelines are a good place.
- Core Ideas
- Fuel For the Work Required
- Focus on Maximising Recovery
- Consume Enough Protein
- Consume Fresh Whole Foods
- Time-Restricted Eating
- Quick Summary
- Related Articles
- Focus on improving performance and body-composition will follow. If your training performance metrics are improving, your body would have had to change to meet the increasing demands. If you are not currently tracking your training and measuring your performance, how do you know you are consistently doing more, and getting better? Buy a notebook.
- Don't diet during your training sessions, fuel for the most quality work possible. You should not be concerned about fat-loss during training, this happens the rest of time during recovery relative to your overall energy balance. If by eating sugary biscuits during your session you train with more focus, better, harder, and your workload increases, then those biscuits are the best training partner you could ever have.
- Focus on eating a large variety of whole unprocessed foods. By having the majority of your diet as whole fresh quality ingredients rather than packaged prepared foods, you will not only cover your essential fat, fiber, vitamin and mineral needs, but they will also provide other numerous beneficial nutrients (e.g. phytonutrients) that aid performance, recovery, growth, a diverse gut microbiome, and mental well-being. Eat more colourful vegetables.
- Consume the majority of your meals during daylight hours. Consuming your meals within the daylight (8-10 hour) window is eating inline with cellular circadian rhythm, and research data is accumulating on both circadian biology and the health benefits of extending the fasted period over night.
- Track your performance against your nutrition habits. I am not specifically talking about counting calories, but rather keeping a diary outlining even loosely what you ate, how you felt, and performed. This is useful in finding what foods and strategies work best for you. Everyone responds differently, and you may do better with more, less, or different foods choices.
- Have a plan, keep it, make an informed change. Create a dietary plan including your training, keep tracking, and then make an informed change from the data. Try not to change multiple things at once, you need to understand what works or doesn't. If you are a client, this is exactly what we are doing together.
Fuel For the Work Required
The goal of your training session is to drive physical adaptation, this requires you to progressively increase your workload over time, which requires you to fuel appropriately. Under-fuel and your ability to meet the demands of your session are compromised, workload often reduced, and the opportunity to drive progressive adaptation hampered impacting performance improvements over time.
Most climbers have experienced the effect of having a cup of coffee and a snack bar after failing to finish a problem, only to go back and finish it with more mental focus, muscular power and strength. This is basic sports nutrition.
Climbing is multiple bursts of muscular effort (concentric), static holding (isometric), and controlled lowering (eccentric). Glycogen is our storage form of carbohydrate and is composed of long branched chains of glucose, which are cleaved off and used locally in the muscle for energy, or in the case of the liver, released back into the blood stream to be used by other tissues.
No matter how exciting a low-carbohydrate diet sounds, at the end of the day the athlete with the greater muscle glycogen reserves will have the fastest available energy source for muscular contraction—maximal power output. This is not to rule out the periodic use of low-carbohydrate training sessions to drive endurance adaptations for utilising fat at higher intensities, but even so you will still want to restore glycogen levels for when maximal performance matters. There is no evidence to date that show athletes consuming a low-carbohydrate diet maintain their power output in comparison to consuming adequate carbohydrate. A carbohydrate based diet still remains the best evidence based choice for optimal performance.
It takes at least 20 hours post-training to restore muscle glycogen reserves depending on the glycogen cost of the session. It is then best to manage your carbohydrate consumption leading up to your session, during your session, and the time-period afterwards. Outside of specific training (alluded to earlier), it would not be optimal to eat a lower-carbohydrate meal post-session.
When we digest carbohydrates we break them down into their constituent simple sugars, specifically glucose, which is then absorbed across the gut into the bloodstream. When the pancreas detects elevated blood-glucose, it releases the hormone insulin which upon reaching the liver signals a halt in the release of glucose and the start of glycogen synthesis. Insulin has a similar effect on muscle tissue, where it signals for the translocation of glucose transporters (GLUT4) to move glucose into the cell. Muscle contraction also initiates the same transporters even without the presence of insulin, and thus glucose is most efficiently absorbed into muscle tissue after activity. Muscles cannot release glucose back into the bloodstream, and therefore glycogen reserves are kept in balance relative to muscular use and habitual dietary carbohydrate intake.
Therefore how much carbohydrate (CHO) you should consume daily is relative to your muscle mass, glycogen cost of day's activity, and dietary carbohydrate intake.
- 3g/kg of CHO per day with an additional ~30-60g immediately before climbing / training session, and ~30-60g every 1-2 hours during the session depending on work intensity. (~200g/day at 70kg + ~60-120g spread around the session)
- 3g/kg of CHO per day total on rest / recovery days. (~200g/day at 70kg) †
- For more detailed guidelines: Carbohydrate Strategies For Climbing Performance.
† I do not have a problem with having a low-carbohydrate (<3g/kg/day) and thus lower energy on rest or recovery days. I do think chronic low-carbohydrate (≤50g/day), moreso low energy, may lead to lower thyroid hormone levels, higher cortisol, suppressed circadian cortisol rhythm, and poor health outcomes.
Though it is not seemingly difficult to consume a lot of carbohydrate, strangely enough athletes often don't meet these recommendations. If you prefer to consume a lower-carbohydrate breakfast, be mindful of the meeting your intake goals in your subsequent meals.
The timing and type of carbohydrate tends to matter in regards to how quickly you need the glucose and somewhat how you feel. For example having a large bowl of porridge immediately before training probably wont feel so great, neither will having fast digesting carbohydrates (sugary snack) many hours away from your training or performance.
As a general rule, I find keeping slower digesting carbohydrates hours away from training, and consuming faster digesting carbohydrates immediately before you train, and within your training most beneficial. Track your performance and subjective feelings, and then make and informed decision on your meals.
However there is one caveat with faster digesting carbohydrates. Studies have shown that consumption of high glycemic meals impairs skeletal muscle microvascular blood flow which may limit glucose disposal into skeletal muscle. It has been demonstrated that glucose disposal by forearm skeletal muscle is greater after a mixed meal challenge (MMC) compared to an oral glucose challenge (OGC) when adjusted for arterial glucose levels.
This basically means, that you should not start (or end) your sessions with just a sugary drink or snack if you have not consumed a mixed (fat, protein, carbohydrate) meal within the last couple of hours.
Quite simply, if your session is >2 hours away from your last meal, then have a meal of protein, fat and carbohydrate, rather than just carbohydrate alone. E.g. A scoop protein powder, a few nuts, and 30-60g of carbohydrate (some fruit, museli bar).
Focus on Maximising Recovery
People tend to overeat when they least need to, and undereat when they most need to.
Understandably time is a constraint and you are most likely tired post-training, but as an athlete you are mitigating opportunities to augment your training adaptations—the repair and recovery of your body, which would improve your performance, not to mention prevent cumulative training fatigue and mitigate injury long-term.
One easy strategy is to be consistent with your nutrition immediately after training or performance.
- Protein - 30g-40g
- e.g. 1.5 scoops of whey protein or 300g (typical tub) cottage cheese
- Carbohydrate - 1g/kg
- e.g. 500ml sports drink plus fruit or sugary snacks
- Sodium - 0.25 teaspoon
- Sodium is lost in sweat, but easily replaced by salting foods
- Fluid - 500mls
- If a carbohydrate drink is not consumed
As you can imagine, this is all easily done by either a protein shake with a carbohydrate snack, or simply having an organised meal. Providing nutrition immediately after training moves you from the necessary catabolic "breakdown" processes of training, to the restored energy balance and anabolic "build-up" processes of repair, recovery and growth.
Though I recommend eating whole meals of whole ingredients instead of just supplements, if it's easier for you to build a post-session habit with supplements then do that. Consistency in context is powerful!
Consume Enough Protein
You probably ride the fine edge of "enough" protein, as I have never met an athlete outside of physique training who eats an optimal level of protein consistently.
The Recommended Daily Allowance (RDA) for protein is 0.8g/kg/day and represents the minimum level of protein required to avoid deficiency that would lead to a progressive loss of muscle in healthy adults. It is not set to support athletic performance, augment training adaptations and recovery.
There is no evidence that chronically high protein diets (>3g/kg/day) have any detrimental effect on health markers. In one study resistance training men consumed >250g/day for a year with no changes in health markers.
There is ample evidence that a total daily protein target of roughly 1.6g/kg/day favourably supports adaptations to training and improves body-composition. Protein also reduces ad libitum energy intake, aiding energy balance throughout the day.
Though in general many people eat less than these recommendations, eating more has not been shown to provide any benefit. A 2017 systematic review, meta-analysis and meta-regression of 49 studies with 1863 participants who were resistance exercise training (RET) showed that protein intakes at amounts greater than ~1.6 g/kg/day do not further contribute RET-induced gains in fat free mass (muscle mass).
Ideally your total daily protein intake is best spread over multiple meals of >20g and <50g. Roughly 25-45g of high quality protein per meal maximises the muscle recovery and growth response, and there is not a greater response if the dose exceeds that.
- Protein - ~1.6g/kg/day
- e.g. ~112g per day at 70kg body weight
- Splitting that into 30g-45g servings (4-5 meals) would be optimal
Combine protein sources to reach the 30-45g serving size, even using supplments alongside meals. For example, if you are vegan then you can simply consume some vegan protein powder alongside your typical meals to bring up protein content.
One of the easiest and most useful habits is, to purchase a protein powder supplement (i.e. whey or plant-based) and consume 1 scoop as soon as you wake-up, and 1 scoop immediately before bed. Personally I keep a glass, spoon, and bag of protein by the bathroom sink.
Our findings contradict the popular belief that it is advantageous to limit energy intake in the evening. In fact, protein consumption before sleep after an evening resistance exercise bout has been shown to increase muscle protein synthesis overnight in young healthy men, and the results of the present study suggest that regardless of the macronutrient type, energy intake of 586–628 kJ (140–150 kcal) before sleep is more beneficial than not eating. These results suggest a plausible synergistic benefit of resistance exercise and late evening protein consumption to increase both overnight muscle protein synthesis and REE [Resting Energy Expenditure]. In addition, it is convenient to hypothesise that the improvement in morning resting metabolism may further aid in the maintenance of and/or improvement in body composition and thereby provide a competitive advantage in healthy, physically active young men. (Madzima, 2014).
Consume Fresh Whole Foods
A fresh whole food diet is quite simply the most effective long-term strategy for health. You are meeting your nutrition targets whilst maximising the consumption of a myriad of beneficial compounds found in fresh whole foods. Not only are you getting vitamins, minerals, and phytonutrients, but you are also consuming different forms of fiber which favourably change your gut biome that impacts your immunity, performance, mental-health, and body-composition.
The so-called "Mediterranean diet" has been shown to reduce chronic disease burden (e.g. incidence of and/or mortality from cardiovascular disease, cancer, diabetes, hypertension, cognitive impairment, and kidney disease) and/or all-cause mortality.
The Mediterranean Diet generally involves:
- high consumption of fish
- high consumption of legumes
- high consumption of monounsaturated fat (olive oil/avocados)
- high consumption of fruits/vegetables
- high consumption of whole grains/cereals
- moderate consumption of red meat
- moderate consumption of dairy products
- moderate consumption of red wine
- low consumption of processed meat products
- low consumption of refined seed/vegetable oils (sunflower/safflower/corn/rapeseed)
In conclusion, an optimal intake of whole grains, vegetables, fruits, nuts, legumes, and fish, as well as reduced consumption of red and processed meats and sugar-sweetened beverages, can lead to an important decrease—by ∼80%—in the relative risk of premature death when compared with intakes always from the highest risk category. (Schwingshackl, 2017)
Quite simply do your best to consume a variety of fresh whole foods. When all possibly try and include some chopped fresh vegetables, spices, and herbs in your meals. I am not that keen on recommending "wheat based" foods (e.g. bread, pasta) make up a large percentage of your diet, use more nutrient dense vegetables as your carbohydrate sources instead.
Personally, with my last meal of the day (which also includes vegetables) I tend to make a fresh side salad with 2 tomatoes, 1 pepper, half cucumber, half red onion, 2 cloves chopped raw garlic, basil or coriander, and squeeze over half a lemon, and use lots of high quality olive oil.
There is enough data to suggest that reducing carbohydrate intake, particularly refined carbohydrates and sugar, have an anti-inflammatory effect and improve various blood markers related to good health.
Much of the mechanism is the reduction of basal blood insulin levels, improved insulin sensitivity, and reduction of body-fat which any energy restrictive diet achieves. This is most effectively brought about by intermittent or prolonged periods in the post-absorptive (fasted) state—the period where endogenous energy sources (rather than dietary sources) are metabolised for energy.
Numerous physiological indicators of health are improved in laboratory rats and mice maintained on IF diets including alternate day fasting and time-restricted feeding. Among such responses to IF are: reduced levels of insulin and leptin which parallel increases in insulin and leptin sensitivity; reduced body fat; elevated ketone levels; reduced resting heart rate and blood pressure, and increased heart rate variability (resulting from increased parasympathetic tone); reduced inflammation; increased resistance of the brain and heart to stress (e.g., reduced tissue damage and improved functional outcome in models of stroke and myocardial infarction); and resistance to diabetes. IF can delay onset and slow the progression of neuronal dysfunction and degeneration in animal models of Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s and Huntington’s diseases. Emerging findings are revealing cellular and molecular mechanisms by which IF increases the resistance of cells, tissues and organs to stress and common diseases associated with aging and sedentary, overindulgent lifestyles. The results of human studies in which various health indicators are measured at baseline and after periods of IF of 2–6 months or more, suggest that IF can protect against the metabolic syndrome and associated disorders including diabetes and cardio- vascular disease. Recent small trials of IF in patients with cancer (Safdie et al., 2009) or multiple sclerosis (Choi et al., 2016) have generated promising results that provide a strong rationale for moving forward with larger clinical trials in patients with a range of chronic age- and obesity-related disorders. (Mattson, 2017).
For those who are not specifically restricting energy, there is good evidence to suggest that merely restricting eating to a 8-10 hour window without dieting (no energy deficit) has a positive effect on health. I recommend that when possible, restrict your meals to a 10 hour window, with the majority of eating is during daylight hours.
This approach can be further optimised:
- Recovery / rest days: First large meal (e.g. 7:00-10:00), last large meal (e.g. 17:00-20:00).
- Climbing / training days: Everything depends on training or performance session times, whether multiple sessions undertaken.
- 1st Priority: Eat to support training or performance load for the day and to optimise recovery (pre- and post-session eating).
- 2nd Priority: Eat during daylight hours (8-12 hour window) facilitating circadian rhythm, sleep quality, overnight fasting.
This guidelines should provide you the foundation for your daily nutrition.
- Key points
- Focus on performance first
- Fuel for the work required
- Focus on maximising recovery
- Consume enough protein
- Consume fresh whole foods
- Eat during daylight hours (8-10 hour window)
- Track performance outcomes against your nutrition habits
- Daily carbohydrate intake - 3.0-7.0g/kg/day
- Slow digesting ≥ 2 hours before training
- Fast digesting ≤ 1 hour before or within training
- Experiment with ≤ 3.0g/kg/day on non-training days
- Daily protein intake - ~1.6g/kg/day
- 4-5 meals of 30-45g protein
- 1 meal / 30-45g protein immediately before bed
- Daily fat intake - mostly allow foods to provide
- Focus on fresh fish, meat, eggs, dairy, olive oil
- Avoid sunflower, safflower, corn, rapeseed oils
- Immediately after training
- 30-45g protein
- 50-100g carbohydrate
- 0.25g teaspoon salt
- 500mls fluid
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