vrijdag 22 augustus 2014

Food for vegetarian climbers part 1: is climbing an endurance sport?

I've been eating almost exclusively vegetarian food for quite a while. About a year before I started my effort to become good at climbing (in 2010), I became a vegetarian. To be very precise (and unnecessarily complicated), I am what is called an 'ovo-lacto vegetarian'. In normal language that means I refrain from eating meat and fish, but I do consume eggs and dairy products. I've been reasonably conscious about ingesting enough iron, proteins and vitamins B (B12 in particular). Failing to do so is a common pitfall for veggies, especially for those who refuse to eat eggs and/or dairy as well. Through the years, I've drawn comfort from a wealth of online articles reassuring me that a sports diet without meat is very well possible and according to many even a lot healthier than a diet that includes meat. I can recommend a visit to the 'No Meat Athlete' blog to anyone who considers cutting down on meat. My steady progress through the grades seemed to confirm I was eating well enough to fuel my climbing efforts.


Nevertheless I've started doubting the completeness of my diet after subjecting myself to a more strength and power oriented training schedule at the beginning of this year, without seeing significant performance gains  (either in or outside the trainings) or body composition changes for months. Instead I often started feeling tired, fatigued, sometimes even unmotivated and I experienced more bad days than good days when I had the chance to hit the crag. Within my limited understanding of sports science, there were two plausible explanations for my 'problem': either I was overtraining or I wasn't eating well enough to enable good recovery from my trainings. Most of the symptoms seemed to fit the former. I refused to accept it: the step up in training was small and my training load wasn't unreasonably high for a climber who has done several years of fairly consequent training. And I couldn't imagine that both explanations were unrelated: in both cases the real problem is that the body fails to recover well enough from a training before the next one starts. With better food, faster recovery is possible and overtraining is harder to achieve. So once again I started reading, hoping to reassure myself that my diet was just fine.

Climbing is not an endurance sport
This time I noticed a subtlety that I missed previously: all articles explaining how carefully picking your ingredients (enough spinach, broccoli, nuts, legumes etc.) can result in a complete sports diet that has many health benefits over a diet including meat, are aimed at endurance athletes. And although sports climbers talk a lot about 'endurance' and target this in their trainings, I'd like to make a case here that climbing (and not just bouldering) isn't an endurance sport at all. Let me explain. The term 'endurance sport' usually refers to aerobic activities, such as long distance running, cycling etc. Hard sports climbing and bouldering are almost exclusively anaerobic activities. Aerobic and anaerobic activities rely on completely different energy supplies. The 'fuel' in our muscle cells is called ATP: adenosine triphosphate. Whenever a cell needs energy, it starts breaking down ATP. A phosphate complex splits off, releasing a lot of energy from the bond and leaving adenosine diphosphate (APD) behind. After about three seconds of very hard work, the cell runs out of ATP. When that happens, the cell needs to restore ADP to ATP to continue delivering work. There are three systems that are able to do this, but at very different rates and durations:

  1. Aerobic respiration (slow). In the presence of oxygen (supplied via the blood flow), glucose (stored in the form of glycogen - chains of glucose molecules - in muscles) is broken down completely into carbon dioxide and water and the energy released is used to form ATP. The mechanism is slow, but as long as the blood flow can supply enough oxygen, it can accommodate moderate activity continuously for hours.
  2. Glycogen lactic acid system (fast). When a higher demand is placed on ATP levels and there's insufficient oxygen, glucose gets only partly broken down. It provides enough energy to synthesize ATP, but lactid acid is created, causing the acidity in the muscles to skyrocket quickly. The lactid acid causes temporal muscular fatigue and is the cause of the all familiar 'pump' that hits us in what we like to call 'endurance' climbs. Once relying on the glycogen lactic acid system for energy, we have about two minutes of exercise left.
  3. Phosphagen system (very fast). For very fast ATP replenishment, muscle cells contain the compound creatine phosphate. When the bond between the phosphate group and creatine breaks, a lot of energy is released and binds the phosphate group with ADP to form ATP. This mechanism supplies ATP extremely fast and can facilitate very high intensity activities. The catch is that it can only do so for a short time: after about ten seconds the creatine phosphate storage is depleted.


The first system involves oxygen and is called aerobic, the other two don't involve oxygen and are therefore called anaerobic (the term 'anaerobic system' is also often used to describe just the glycogen lactic acid system). Although easy parts of sports climbing routes may require only the aerobic respiration to deliver energy, sports routes typically consists of hard, sustained sections that mainly rely on the (anaerobic) glycogen lactid acid system. Crux sections and bouldering will even be in the phosphagen system regime. So let's be very careful in calling climbing an endurance sport and applying knowledge, customs, diets etc from other endurance activities to climbing. On a cellular level, they are very different. That means they have different nutritional requirements as well.

Additionally, when doing very tough, powerful exercises (like hard bouldering or redpointing) the muscles get damaged. Many small ruptures occur (called 'microtrauma') and in the subsequent recovery process the muscles regenerate. When the exercises were hard enough, the muscles will grow in this process: 'hypertrophy'. This can only happen when all the necessary nutrients are present. Obviously, activity that results in hypertrophy has a different nutritional requirement than typical aerobic endurance activities.

So what's the message?
This is where I'd like to end the first of three posts on food for climbing from the viewpoint of a vegetarian. My aim was to outline how hard sports climbing and bouldering are different from what we usually call endurance sports. They rely on different biochemical systems supplying the required energy and put a heavy demand on muscle regeneration. For all athletic activities, independent of their nature, great supplies of glycogen and an abundance of red blood cells are desirable. In red blood cells, oxygen is bound to the iron atoms in hemaglobin molecules and transported to the muscles. Obviously, failing to consume enough iron (a common pitfall for vegetarians who are sloppy about their diet) will limit the capacity to transport oxygen and decrease your athletic performance dramatically. But in hard climbing - as in all other anaerobic activities - there are some additional food dependancies, particularly on proteins to regenerate muscle tissue and on creatine to supply the phosphagen system with a proper storage of creatine phosphate. Both are abundant in meat and can be tricky to consume in large quantities in a vegetarian diet.

While reading about all this food stuff I started linking the lack of training results and my symptoms of unexpected overtraining to a lack of protein and creatine (I've safeguarded my iron consumption with a glass of Roosvicee Ferro daily ever since I cut down on the meat). Parts 2 and 3 of this series of food posts will deal with these two nutrients specifically. This summer I started supplementing them a bit and in the upcoming posts I will describe the first results I've got from them and why it will probably be completely different for you, even if you are a vegetarian too. Stay tuned!

woensdag 13 augustus 2014

Holiday recap

Just a few more days and the summer holidays are over. Due to several reasons I didn't get to climbing outdoors nearly as much as I'd wanted, but other things in life sometimes get in the way of our desires... On the bright side, I'm paving the way to a nearby future that gives me the flexibility to climb more and achieve my goals. If that means a little less rock climbing now, I consider it a good investment. That said, I did get out a bit and in particular two days in Berdorf with Frans stand out. I finally climbed an old Nemesis that somehow slipped through my fingers on a few occasions when I tried it at the end of previous visits: the beautiful 'Kaffisdous'. It's the final 7a+ I hadn't yet climbed in Berdorf and with an easy start and a hard 12 move power endurance finish it should be right up my alley, but long story short it turned out to be a real pain in the neck to climb it. Consequently, I was very happy to do it now with Frans. Followed by an unexpectedly quick ascent of the vertical 'Tapis Roulant' 7b+ with a very fingery boulder crux on my second attempt (while putting up the quickdraws...) and an ascent of the vertical technotour 'Superschlup' 7b (generously graded 7b+ in the guide with an ambiguous definition) on my first attempt, the results of this trip are the highlights of the holiday. Other short excursions to rock unfortunately didn't give the desired results. I've been puzzled by a bit of a summer dip similar to the one I experienced last year and started to suspect that food and sleep could play a big role in it. So I made some alterations in my diet and I'll write more on that soon! Additionally I'm implementing changes in the way I train, with more attention for general fitness, injury prevention and flexibility. Also more on that soon... Now, I'll set my mind to the next year of work, getting back behind the school desks myself and I'll dream about the places I'd like to visit while saving for a van that can get me there with the dogs. Meanwhile, I'll be training my ass off to shine whenever it's time again.

donderdag 19 juni 2014

Teuto again

Here's a video of a few boulders I climbed during two visits to Teuto in the past weeks, ranging from approximately 6B to 7B. The most interesting ascent was that of 'Quicky' for sure, which was anything but quick. I tried this heinous sitstart from two terrible sidepulls quite a few times in the past two years, but never managed to even get my butt off the ground. This time I found the way to do it and it took only a few more attempts to catch the next hold. After that the climbing is much easier, about 6C boulder. I also made good progress in a very cool - archetypal Teuto - traverse project, not shown in the video. It's long, steep, crimpy and very sustained. I hope to get back on it soon and I'll try to make a video of it! First I'll be in Berdorf this weekend though. I hope it hasn't gotten too crowded there, but I fear the worst... On the other hand: enough hard potential projects left there, one must be free for sure!

donderdag 5 juni 2014

Woody upgrade

I've been off the radar for a while. Honestly I've only climbed once in two weeks time... I spent my evenings correcting exams and snacking calories rather then burning them away. But that should change now, most of the work is done! To fuel my motivation, an amazing treat arrived yesterday: a great selection of Core climbing holds hand picked for a steep woody by Core co-owner Leo himself. When I told Matt (from Flow climbing) I was quite passively looking for a good set of slopers and pinches a while ago, he immediately contacted the guys at Core Climbing. I wasn't too confident he would succeed in meeting my quite unreasonable list of demands: slopers and pinches happen to be big, heavy and therefore expensive holds and I had quite a limited budget to offer. On top of that, it isn't easy to find a suitable set of sloping holds for an over 40 degrees overhanging board. Nevertheless, Matt was very confident. And he was right: a few e-mails and photos later a hand picked selection of pinches, slopers, small footholds and shiny new allen bolts - all selected for the purpose of setting roughly seventh grade boulders on my steep woody - was sent out. So today I unpacked a huge box stuffed with brightly coloured resin, happy as a child. A big thank you to Matt and Core is in place for their great help, outstanding service and seemingly endless patience in dealing with all my wishes and questions!

The goodies packed and unpacked, plastic-junky Coen giving them a first inspection.
About the holds then. I gave them a quick try in the afternoon and I am very pleased! Some are just good enough for big powerful moves, others are barely good enough to move from at all. Leo from Core has done a superb job selecting exactly the right holds. The texture of the holds is great too, they have a very rough and natural feel. The selection consist mostly of holds from the 'geometric' range: relatively simply shaped, ergonomic training holds. The 'geometric pinches' are awesome, the 'geometric mini wedges' (the red triangles, which aren't anything near 'mini') are brilliantly awkward and the 'geometric domes' are downright terrible to hold on to, as are the 'mini slopers' from the 'core' range. They target some of my weaker grip positions perfectly: I am mostly good at pulling hard from positive edges and none of these new holds come close to being positive. This upgrade of my woody has painfully reminded my of how much I suck at climbing on slopers and amped up my motivation for training hard again. It will draw me out of my comfort zone for sure and has dramatically increased the versatility of my board (and not to mention its colourfulness). Time to lock myself in the attic again, get my butt kicked by those horrible slopers and hopefully come out a stronger climber!

And ready to use!