Some thoughts about climbing, body weight and diet
[Content note: weight loss. This is experience not advice! I’m also talking about weight management for performance and not necessarily for optimal health, which may differ depending on individual considerations.]
It feels like I’ve been making some real progress with my climbing recently, and loving it. Back in January, I set myself a goal of climbing 7a this year. At the time, I was pretty out of practice, so it seemed a stretch.
One of the things that’s really helped has been reconfiguring my body shape – ie, mostly losing some weight. The average female 7a climber apparently has a BMI of 21.5*. Although that’s only an average, not an absolute requirement, it’s true that on harder climbs strength to weight ratio is a huge factor. My BMI was around 24 at the start of the year – so the easiest way to make some quick gains was obviously going to be losing a few kilos.
Over a decade in a weight class sport has left me with a pretty good working knowledge of weight management (as well as an irrational fear of saunas), but climbing is different from MMA. Not having to worry about weight classes is a game changer – but ideal weight distribution and body composition are also different. Then there’s the added factor of having to maintain the lighter weight, rather than just making it for a weigh in.
Overall, I’ve come to the conclusion that successful weight loss depends mostly on limiting calorie intake whilst managing appetite. The success of any given diet plan largely comes down to how well it helps you achieve this. The golden rule is that however good your plan, if you’re so hungry you want to chew your own arm off – then you’ll eventually reach for the snickers. I’m not suggesting that’s the only factor: there are other considerations, such as making sure you’re getting enough of the right kinds of nutrients. Sufficient protein content helps both to feel fuller, and to stop your body burning too much muscle tissue for energy. But beyond the basics there’s a lot to be said for focusing on something that’s straightforward to stick to and doesn’t make you sad.
I’m going to talk about a few things I’ve found useful, but with the caveat that this is just my experience, and other people’s mileage may vary. Personally, I find that changing habits works better for me than counting calories or having a rigid diet plan – although I know others who swear by them.
(1) The easiest gains have come from replacing breakfast and lunch with lower calorie, higher protein options (including protein shakes). I’ve kept eating a normal dinner, and that’s made the whole thing much more sustainable.
(2) I’m a snacker. Having things around that I can snack on during the day is really helpful. I’m lucky that I like vegetables – carrots, celery, radishes all work. Sugar free jelly can be surprisingly filling. Fruit makes a nice treat. Cutting out crisps / biscuits / sugary snacks or drinks definitely goes a long way.
(3) Increasing exercise helps, but not always as much as you might think – as the saying goes “you can’t out-run a bad diet”. (Overcompensating for the calories burnt during exercise is a common reason for weight-loss plans not working).
At the moment, I’m walking around at 56kgs, which is lighter than at any time since my early 20s. I reckon 54-55 is probably my healthy lower limit. I’m climbing better (I climbed my first outdoor 6c a few weeks ago), and it’s also meant that I’ve been able to do more climbing in a session – which means more time to improve technically too. I’m also feeling better for it generally, which has been a nice bonus!
*On Facebook, someone asked why I was referencing BMI and pointed out that for athletes BMI is not generally a helpful measurement, as it doesn’t differentiate between fat and muscle weight. This is a fair point, but I find that in some contexts it’s still useful. In particular it’s interesting to look at average BMIs of different sports, as that can give an indication of where the optimal relationship between body weight and height lies for that activity. It’s no coincidence that weightlifters tend to have a higher BMI than climbers; and taekwon-do athletes a lower BMI than wrestlers.