i thought I’d write a quick piece about body composition this week, following the recent tragic story of a student who died after taking diet pills she bought online. Now I know that nobody reading this would be dumb enough to do that type of thing but climbers have been known to worry about their weight. So I thought it worthwhile to visit the topic and give my perspective on healthy ways to think about weight and body composition as well as some suggestions on how to control it. There’s not much rocket science here and that is maybe my biggest point: there is a multi-billion industry selling you workout plans, diet plans and funny little pills to give you the physique you always wanted. Some of these methods work while some will only lighten your wallet. Some are healthy and some are downright dangerous. Not only can some online diet pills kill you (some use a pesticide called DNP that raises metabolic rate)(but is toxic) but some of the “natural” supplements can also be almost as dangerous. For example, some companies sell Aloe Vera as a diet aid. When used in the skin aloe is safe but ingesting Aloe latex has been linked with kidney failure, hepatitis and cancer. Some years ago, the FDA in the U.S. banned the use of aloe latex in laxatives due to health risks. Buyer beware!!!!
But before we get into how to optimise body composition, we need to understand why you might want to do this and what this means. Your optimum body composition for climbing is the weight and body fat percentage you climb best at. This means that potentially you may need to adjust your target body composition depending on your goal. I know personally that my ideal weight for long routes is a few pounds more than my best bouldering weight. If I get too thin I lose stamina.
So to make a point: THERE IS NO MAGIC BODY FAT PERCENTAGE (that I can tell you) THAT WILL MAKE YOU CLIMB HARDER.
It is personal to you and you can only find out by trial and error. If you’re carrying excess weight, that could hold you back, if too thin you may lack the power or stamina to perform. In the book “Racing Weight” the author Matt Fitzgerald explains this in more depth. The days of all top climbers being super skinny seem to be over with the top athletes now possessing a more powerful physique. Power to weight ratio is important in climbing, but don’t lose the power by overdoing the weight loss!
So how do you manage your weight to reach your climbing goals?
There are no shortcuts, and it is firstly about diet, secondly about exercise. You can’t outrun bad food.
Just as there are a multitude of diet pills of varying efficacy and safety, so too are there a wide range of diets. Some work (briefly) and others are a more long term change. And again different things suit different people. The approach I favour is to try to avoid processed foods and refined carbohydrate. If you can’t pronounce or recognise the things on the ingredient list, don’t eat it. This is trending towards a clean eating/paleo viewpoint, if you want to give it a label. Our metabolism has evolved over millions of years but the wide availability of sugar has been with us for a few centuries at most;our body can’t process this healthily. The resultant blood glucose and insulin spikes not only drive fat deposition but more importantly will lead you into type 2 diabetes in later life. What about fat? Some fat in the diet is necessary and the current received wisdom over low fat diets is being challenged. My view on this is that eating fat does not make you fat, but eating a shedload of calories (fat is very calorie dense) will make you fat. Which brings us to the idea of calorie balance.
If you eat more calories than you burn you will store fat and gain weight, if you eat less than you burn you will lose body fat. This is a good strategy for a species that had intermittent access to plentiful food when hunter gatherers but causes problems in the era of 24 hour drive throughs! So to lose body fat you need to create a calorie deficit. The accepted recommended figure to aim for is 500kCal a day, any more than this and you’re making life harder for yourself in terms of willpower and day to day energy. You also run the risk of slowing your metabolism down- too big a deficit and your body starts acting as if there’s a famine and stats saving and storing every calorie it can. You can prevent this by exercise. Exercise raises the metabolic rate and maintains it. The fitness world seems intent on arguing about HIIT vs cardio as a means of burning calories. The evidence is probably that both work (and as someone who spends his day job begging people to do some exercise at all, stop arguing). It’s always good to mix up your training to stop the body adapting too much, but if you’re looking at hit or cardio think what your longer term aim is. Are you training for bouldering or alpine climbing. If the former, HIIT training will develop metabolic pathways suited to short intense bursts of activity whereas if you aim to climb long alpine routes then long hours of cardio are for you.
The final macro-nutrient to mention is protein. You need sufficient protein in your diet to allow your muscles to recover from training sessions and preserve muscle. If you are looking to build muscle you need more protein but be aware than losing fat and building muscle at the same time is not recommended, for the simple reason that building muscle needs a calorie surplus while losing fat needs a deficit. I’d always recommend trying to get adequate protein from real food but in a busy schedule, given the recommendation to ingest protein within 20minutes of the end of a session to aid recovery, supplements are useful. I use a plant based protein supplement instead of whey for reasons I outline here and it’s working for me. No stomach side effects, easy to use and effective. I have arranged a discount on this product (and the rest of the range). If you want to take advantage of this, please contact us here.
Finally, to return to the original starting point of this article; diet pills. Most are best avoided. There are some supplements that do seem to aid the loss of body fat and are safe. Green tea extract has some good evidence and green coffee is also marketed for this. Chilli and other hot spices in fact do raise your metabolic rate by up to 15% and aid weight loss. But really do your homework and check every ingredient. Some of the proprietary “fat burners” available on the high street use huge amounts of caffeine to increase metabolic rate and would be inadvisable with certain health issues. Another option is conjugated linoleic acid (CLA) that appears to help fat increase fat metabolism. All these products have a marginal effect and can only ever be a very small adjunct to a well thought out plan.
So is a dodgy online diet pill worth the risk for such a small margin?
If you need any advice surrounding this, email me. I can recommend “Racing Weight” as a good resource for performance sports nutition and although not pitched at climbers, it’s ethos transfers very easily.