“Oh so you were a trail runner and now you’re climbing?” The middle aged Italian man laughed a little “Most people, like me, go the other way” he continued to explain. It wasn’t something I had considered before this passing conversation but I had often joked about all the middle aged men in Lycra (Mamil’s) I was normally surrounded by in races. Trail running in the words of Brendan Leonard, from semi-rad.com, is all the suffering of alpinism but none of the risk. It makes sense then, in their later years when commitments such as family and jobs take priority, many alpinist/climbers turn to trail running to get their fix of efficient and safe endorphins.
Although as I got deeper in to the dark art of climbing, I couldn’t help to think these guys were missing a trick or two. Their hydration and nutrition techniques seemed to be stuck in the middle ages, not to mention their training. Sure there a books, like ‘Training for New Alpinism’ which cover these concepts but to me it seems like very few real life climbers apply these principals to their chosen pursuit. Alpinism is a historic sport, drenched in folklore, and while the new elite breed of alpinist like Kilian Jornet or big wall climbers like Tommy Caldwell have used modern training and nutrition to take the sport to new levels, recreational level climbers seem to be stuck in traditional routines, caught up in the stories of their forefathers.
Many climbers seem to be in the habit of lugging bread, cheese, and maybe some chocolate up 300 to 1000m of rock, ice, or snow. They suffer for anywhere between 3 and 8 hours, without food, maybe even without water, until they reach the top. I must say there is something nice about having a picnic with a view and for ‘plaisir’ climbs of less than three hours I don’t see this tactic is a problem. However, I wouldn’t sit at an office chair for more than 4 hours without food or water and expect my brain to function correctly. Let alone my mind and body in a mentally and physically stressful situation.
There is a joke among ultra-runners, races are not running but eating races. The more calories you can get and keep down the better. The same applies for hydration. Although, over hydration and stomach distress are important considerations, in most cases, you will be living in the red during an ultra-distance race. You cannot take on enough calories to what you’re are expending, you cannot take in enough fluids to what you sweating out. Luckily in ultra-races then danger of being malnourished and underhydrated is normally just a bonking. You run out of energy, you crash, you burn, your races goals are out the window. What scares me in multipitch climbing or alpine routes is it is more than your race goals at stake, it is your life.
I think there is a theory of living on your fat stores when climbing, slow repetitive movements that don’t require anything but stored energy. However, I feel like that is a poor representation of what climbing actually entails, from the 2 hour approach dragging yourself uphill to the running over easy pitches arriving at the belay gasping for air or hauling through crux moves using every muscle fibre you have to move another 10cm upwards. There are plenty on instances where you will be using carbohydrates for fuel while climbing. A good rule of thumb is if you are breathing heavy, enough that a conversation is difficult, you will be burning a significant amount of carbohydrates, more so than fat.
Simply put carbohydrates are your high octane fuel. They are molecules which are quickly and easily broken down into energy. They are the fuel the caveman-you relied upon to sprint away from danger. The more complex the carbohydrate, think whole unprocessed grains, the longer the process of breaking them down and releasing the energy stored within. Simple carbohydrates, like sugar, provide a more instant energy hit. Unlike fat your body can only store a finite amount of carbohydrate, in your muscles, liver and blood, once this is used up you have to either replace them or force your body into a more complicated process of turning fat into sugar. Additionally, its not only your muscles which require sugar to perform strenuous exercise, your brain is powered by glucose, one of the simplest carbohydrate molecules (table sugar is the combination of one glucose and one fructose molecule). If you starve your brain of glucose, your ability to think and remember can be impaired.
Now perhaps you start to understand my concern, if you are climbing for 3 hours or more without food and it is strenuous enough that you use up your stored carbohydrate but you don’t replace it you are going to be forcing your body to carry out a more complicated process to provide you with the energy you need for you brain and muscles to continue functioning. Thus, not only making your climbing feel harder but your decision making worse, maybe you miss the line of the route, maybe you have trouble with the rope, all things that can lead to a long day becoming even longer, a risky activity becoming even riskier.
So what to do about it? It’s as simple as having small amounts of carbohydrate regularly. Think dried fruit, chocolate, biscuits, muesli bars, creamed rice. If you are really concerned about weight vs. energy look in to sports gels. Electrolyte powder is a great way of making sure you stay hydrated and providing energy at the same time. There are plenty of options to experiment with and they don’t have to be expensive. I have even made my own gels by blending rice and baby food together. The next step is to make a routine of eating, whether it is every hour, every 3rd pitch or however you want to remind yourself. Even after you eat the most simple of sugars it will take approximately 30 minutes to be delivered to your muscles. However, researchers have found there are receptors in your mouth that tell your brain it will soon be receiving energy and perceived effort is therefore reduced. Hence, eating before crux pitches could also be beneficial.
If you are concerned about time, remember you don’t have to stop to eat, when you’re top belaying you should have ample time to inhale half a snickers bar while your partner makes it to the top or eat on the move in easier sections that don’t require all of your limbs. There are many ways to manage your intake and hopefully improve your experience on the wall. I know I haven’t even begun to cover nutrition for recovery or what role protein plays, let alone hydration and training. However, I think for now that’s enough ranting from this little nerdy trail runner. I hope you badass climbers out there have learnt a thing or two, or at least you will be better prepared for your future life as trail bashing mamils.