Eating small meals helps keep my energy level up but I'm drained by 4 p.m., while large meals keep me satisfied but sluggish. What are some of the best foods to eat at the crag to feel energized throughout the day?
—Amy Snyder | Blacksburg, Virginia
It is easy to be led astray by the hype surrounding the latest energy bar or drink, or to copy the strategy of a climber who cranks harder than you, but when it comes to nutrition at the crag there really is no better expert than yourself. For example, I have a high metabolism and need plenty of treats to get through a long day. In spite of what everyone knows about highs and lows from sugary foods, I simply can't face a day without a few chocolate bars. However, this could be disastrous for some and I know plenty of climbers who have to stick religiously to the rules. If you crave sugary foods but respond badly to them, go for things like fruit or nuts. Generally, it is best if your intake of carbohydrates comes mainly from cereal bars, high-quality energy bars, nuts and foods that are low in simple sugars but high in complex carbs. Foods such as bread, rice or pasta, consumed in small quantities every hour or two, will provide a steady release of energy. Many people find that white bread and pasta can make them feel bloated and sluggish and most understand this to be caused by the high glycemic index [See G. I. Yo! No. 167 for an explanation of glycemic index] associated with foods that are high in refined flour. Go for whole-grain products, or rice, which has a lower overall GI.
Though you are doing the right thing by snacking rather than eating a large meal in the middle of the day, I suspect that an intake of high GI foods could be responsible for your 4 p.m. fizzle. That said, another likely cause could be partial dehydration. Few of us consume sufficient water at the crag and it is vital to sip at regular intervals. If you use energy drinks, go for the products that offer only complex sugars, or better, try recovery drinks that consist of a mix of protein and carbohydrates.
Most of the information on sports nutrition is geared for activities where you need to sustain intense bursts of energy for no more than an hour or two. Crag climbing is fundamentally different in that you need to maintain a steady level for an entire day, with a few short bursts when you're on the rock.
A key, related issue (for me at least) is the intake of caffeine. We are told just to have one or two small cups of coffee at the start of the day (too much caffeine can cause dehydration and give you the jitters) but I have found no better way of preparing myself for that final redpoint in the conditions window at the end of the day than a quick hit of caramel cappuccino. Again, this works well for me but others may wreck their chances by too much caffeine at the wrong time. Study and experiment. The tips above will help, but ultimately you must find a formula that works for you.