Performance rock climbing is all about strength-to-weight ratio. We tend to fixate on the “strength” side while ignoring the “weight”. Perhaps because the strength side of the equation seems actionable, and the weight side is all about restraint. The reality is that losing weight is probably the easiest thing a climber can do to improve. Unlike strength and technique, body weight can be improved substantially in a matter of weeks. However, many people just feel powerless to affect their body type. There is also now a bizzare element of social pressure to discourage any form of dieting, or even any interest in healthy eating.
There’s a story circulating right now about former NFL Offensive Lineman Matt Birk. Birk recently retired from football and sought a lifestyle change for the sake of his health. He dropped 75 pounds over the course of eight months. I found the before and after photos pretty inspiring; he looks like a totally different person:
I didn’t start paying attention to my weight until 2011, and that is probably the single biggest training mistake I’ve made in my career. I would weigh myself before hangboard workouts, but that was just to better understand my training intensity for that day’s workout. I never weighed myself during my performance phase. And I used to eat garbage, mostly. When I first got out of college, I would routinely consume an entire 12-pack of Dr. Pepper cans over the course of 2-day weekend trip to the Utah dessert. My staples were pizza (usually frozen/cardboard) and spaghetti. At the time I felt I was pretty fit and healthy (amazingly), because I excercised all the time. While exercise certainly can help, its very easy to wipe out hours of exercise in a few minutes of over-eating. Furthermore, often excercise increases your appetite, making dieting much more difficult (these days, when I’m trying to get lean, I limit my exercise to a few brisk walks throughout the day. I save the intense cardio work for the months when I’m not concerned about my weight).
Any serious climber should have good muscle definition throughout their body. If you don’t, you could probably stand to lose some weight, and the amount may surprise you. For me, the difference between my mom thinking I’m skinny and actually being skinny is about 10 pounds. Anyone with hangboard experience knows that’s a huge amount of weight to your fingers, and so, a tremendous variable in climbing performance (obviously the amount will vary from climber to climber).
If you’re already lean, you may be able to trim a significant number of pounds by shedding un-needed mass in your lower body. If that sounds like you, see this post.
The rest of us just need to go on a diet! It’s easy to adopt a fatalistic attitude, but the fact is we have a great deal of control over our destiny. The human body is amazingly “plastic”, meaning it can adapt and change to suit different needs. Even for those at the advanced age of 37, like Matt Birk ;).
There are many healthy and reliable ways to lose weight, but I think the biggest barrier facing most climbers is simply that they don’t believe its possible, or important. A lot of people think that weight loss can only be accomplished through copious amounts of suffering and self-denial, but making a few simple substitutions in your diet can go a long way. Our upcoming book has an extensive and thoroughly researched chapter on Weight Management, so I won’t go into too much detail, but here are a few quick tips:
- Get a scale and use it daily; it can be very motivating
- Eat lots of veggies, and most fruits are ok too
- Protein and Fiber are your friends; eat a reasonable amount of LEAN protein each day (not a full rack of pork ribs), and eat as much fiber as you can stand
- Avoid eating foods high in carbohydrates (basically anything that tastes good when you’re already full)
- Don’t drink anything but water
For example, instead of whatever you normally eat for lunch, try a salad of spinach, bell peppers, cucumbers, tomatoes and tuna, dressed in a modest amount of balsamic vinagrette. You could eat these foods until your stomach is on the verge of exploding and still loose weight. For dinner, eat a lean piece of grilled chicken breast or grilled fish, with sides of steamed vegetables (like brocolli or sparagus). Skip the rice, potatoes, bread, etc. If you crave lots of sweets like me, load up on fruits (watermelon is king, but canteloupe, grapes, apples and pears are good options too).
If you choose to go on a diet, remember there is a point of diminishing returns. Your body needs energy to perform well, and constantly starving yourself will inhibit your performance more than an extra pound of lost weight will help. Experiment with different healthy weights until you find that “sweet spot” where you perform at your best. For me, I’ve gotten down to 139 pounds in recent years, but I find I perform the best around 143-145 lb. At that weight I’m more energetic, I have a better attitude, and I’m still resistant to illness and injury.
Excessive, persistent dieting can lead to injury and illness. Most serious athletes will “cycle” their weight management on and off, as with physical training. That’s great news for people like me who love food! That means you can have periods of enjoying life’s many treats, and periods where you buckle down and send (that said, “yo-yo dieting” can wreak havoc on your metabolism, making weight loss extremely difficult, so keep your variations within reason).
When I’m ARCing and hangboarding, I eat pretty much whatever I want within reason (although I have a fairly healthy diet now, even when I’m not on a diet). I aim to stay within 10 lbs of my goal weight, but otherwise I will eat (and drink) whatever I please. During my power phase I begin adjusting my eating habits, with the goal of reaching my ideal sending weight near the end of my performance phase.
Weight is a tremendous factor in performance–as important as strength. Fortunately its actually pretty easy to manage once you learn how. If you have any other tips for healthy weight loss, please post them in a comment below.