Despite typically eating healthily, I put on a few pounds over Christmas and still haven’t lost them. I am a medium stocky build and could probably do with losing a bit of muscle. Is it better to get stronger, or lose weight? What’s your take?
—Tim Tucker | Fort Davis, Texas
Crash dieting is not the answer. Not only do hardcore diets take all the joy away from climbing (and life) but they make weight control more difficult by disrupting your metabolism. However, a sustainable, common-sense-based approach to weight control is just as important as a training program to anyone who is serious about improving their climbing. It is a sobering thought that you are better off doing no training for two weeks and losing three pounds than training while gaining a pound or two.
Take me as a case study. I have always shirked from weight control and focused on training, but last year I started training with a weight belt. When you climb wearing an extra five or six pounds, you understand immediately how much stronger you would climb if you lost an equivalent amount of weight. While I have never classed myself as overweight, I have always had a little excess to trim away. Though most of what I had to lose was muscle rather than fat, I decided simply to moderate things a little. I cut out deserts, stopped eating cakes with my coffee, and limited my portion sizes. Every time I put the usual amount of rice or pasta in the pan I simply tipped half a handful back. For breakfast I started having a slightly smaller bowl of cereal with one piece of toast instead of two. I also weighed myself every day to follow my progress. Surprisingly, I hardly noticed any difference in terms of how hungry I felt, and I realized that I had developed a habit of over-feeding myself. I lost six pounds over three months (most of which was probably muscle) and then went out to Kalymnos and climbed better than ever in my life. In retrospect, I would never have achieved the same results purely by tweaking my training and ignoring the issue of weight loss. If you only focus on training, then you can only improve by training harder and harder, and the penalty for that is often injury. But if you drop a few pounds (as well as training), not only should you improve more, but you may be less likely to get injured as you will be putting less strain on your tendons. Thus the weight-control assists the training and the training assists the weight control.
I know that sports nutrition is a complicated topic, but my tips for weight loss are basic. Just become aware of your food intake. Ask yourself if you really need it or if you are just comfort eating. Of course you must also make sure you are achieving the correct balance of nutrients, and not adversely affecting your health with an eating disorder, but this is another subject.
Even though this approach is infinitely easier, more sustainable and more effective than crash dieting, you still shouldn’t do it all the time. Make sure you build in recovery phases where you allow yourself a few pies and cakes as a reward.