by Micah Elconin
Long before my career coaching rock climbers, I worked as a private chef. My niche was healthy cooking and menu planning for those on restricted diets. I worked with all sorts of clients. From those battling cancer to the rich and famous, I developed and prepared menus that fit the specific wants, needs and tastes of the client.
We all have an emotional relationship with food, but my clients were often borderline obsessed with their diets. Feeding people day in and day out I got a very raw perspective on the ways people related to their eating habits. I saw the ways that many either ignored or obsessed over the details of their diets. I also spent a good deal of time educating myself about nutrition and alternative diets including 18 months of study at Bauman College focused on natural foods cooking and nutrition.
After years of working in food and nutrition I can say with absolute certainty that nutrition and healthy eating does not need to be complicated.
A quality diet incorporates a large variety of high quality real foods enjoyed in moderation.
Yes, there are exceptions for certain people under certain circumstances, but for the vast majority of us a balanced approach is best. And here’s the thing. Balance, moderation, and joy are also hallmarks of a well crafted training plan. They’re also arguably the hallmarks of a happy and fulfilling life, but let’s stick to climbing. That’s what you’re here for.
Far too many climbers allow themselves to be suckered into fads, obsessive habits, and overtraining. Others choose to ignore the details of what they are doing in the gym or at the crag, preferring to “eat whatever’s in front of them”.
When I was a chef, people often asked me “what the best diet was” or how I preferred to eat. Now as a climbing coach, I am often asked for training advice or for some basic guidance on how to structure training for climbing. My answer time and time again is almost exactly the same as my chef days.
Not sure where to begin?
We have training plans available for any level athlete!
At Climb Strong we often advocate for a non linear training strategy. For most climbers, the most effective training plan is one that includes a little bit of every major type of training. The first step is to get things back into balance and then slowly tweak things from there. Are you bouldering v8 in the gym, but unable to redpoint your 5.11 project? Do you hangboard three times a week and never spend more than a few minutes on the wall at a time? I’m gonna go out on a limb and suggest that you might be missing a critical category or training… and no, it’s not the campus board.
Even though many climbers have a relatively large amount of exposure to training techniques and some understanding of how to create specific adaptations, the vast majority are often missing the mark because they ignore or avoid the areas that they don’t like. Watching this day in and day out I’m struck by how similar this is to the eating habits of so many people.
Yet, many of us seem to understand that a balanced diet is a good thing. So perhaps it would be helpful to organize training in a way similar to how we organize our eating habits? Again, without overcomplicating things, let me lay out a high quality diet for you. A healthy diet should include a decent amount of high quality foods from each of these categories.
And a high quality training plan should contain some amount of all of these categories:
- Practice and Performance
Humor me here, because this isn’t meant to be perfect, but for the most part I think there’s some helpful insights to be gained from comparing the overview of a generally healthy diet with a generally productive training program.
A high quality training plan should contain some amount of all of these categories
Protein | Strength
Protein is the building block for new tissue in the body. Even without the impacts of climbing and training, the body needs a regular supply of protein to support the nonstop work of repair. Everyone should strive to eat some protein every day, if not every meal. Strength training is much the same for rock climbers and other athletes. Every athlete should, at the very least, be looking to maintain their current strength, if not improving it during certain times of the year. Strength takes a long time to build and as climbers we often don’t see the benefits of strength training until months or years in the future. Building climbing specific strength makes moves easier (which has trickle down effects on endurance etc). More importantly, general strength helps mitigate injury - perhaps its most important benefit. With few exceptions, all climbers benefit from doing some amount of strength work at least once a week.
Fat | Capacity
There’s a lot of different types of fat out there and fat consumption has gone in and out of vogue in pop nutrition circles for decades. Some of you were alive in the 80s and remember the low fat craze. More recently fat has become “cool again” with the rise of keto diets etc. Regardless of where you land on the fat consumption spectrum, know that fat is an important part of every diet. Quality fats help regulate hormones, promote healthy brain chemistry, and help manage inflammation. Capacity training comes in all shapes and sizes with each having more specific benefits. The common theme in all this training is that it increases the amount of work your body can do in a given amount of time. Greater capacity also translates to better ability to recover both on and off the wall. Everyone benefits from some amount of capacity training. Aerobic vs anaerobic could be compared to saturated vs unsaturated fats, but often the low hanging fruit is just making sure that you’re including something capacity based in your training. Just like fat consumption suggestions, the amount and style will depend on your specific goals and needs. If you’re not doing any capacity training, try adding some in once a week and get back to me in 6-8 weeks.
Carbohydrates | Performance/Practice
This is where I’m probably going to upset a few people because people seem to get emotional when carbs come up. Yes, carbs provide the body with energy and are especially useful in powering the anaerobic lactic energy system (the one you’re probably accessing when you’re really trying hard). We get mixed messages about if/how/when to eat carbohydrates, but the truth is just about all of us benefit from some amount of carbohydrates in our diet. I would argue that the timing and choice of carbs is where most people miss the boat.
Carbs can be simple or complex. The former provides almost immediate energy to the body, while the latter requires a bit more digestion to unlock the energy potential. People get into problems with carbs primarily when they overeat simple carbs (sugar) or their diet consists of an abundance of complex carbs at the expense of protein and fat.
Performance is sugar and practice is complex carbohydrates. The problem I see most often in people’s climbing (and eating) is the inclusion of far too much performance (sugar). The average gym session of “try to climb all the new hard problems” is a performance session. You’re going full tilt trying to send at all costs. Many people do this a few days each week and then spend their weekends doing the same out on real rock. The end result at some point for most of these folks is stagnation or injury.
Practice is a far more beneficial use of our climbing time. Whether it be skill work, repeating and perfecting problems, or strategically linking sections of hard routes/problems, these climbing sessions will yield far better results in the long run. Furthermore, unlike performance focused sessions, practice as described above, can/should be included on a regular basis - just about every time you train/climb.
Vegetables | Mobility
You either love them or you hate them, but there’s no way around eating your vegetables. Vegetables provide essential vitamins, minerals, enzymes and numerous other micronutrients that allow the body to thrive. Sure, you can try and supplement your way past eating your veggies, but I’m here to tell you that one of the best things you can do for your health is eating more veggies. Like vegetables, mobility work is often seen as boring and irrelevant, and because of this is often the low hanging fruit that most people are missing in their training. Mobility can be slipped into workouts in a variety of ways. At Climb Strong we’ve figured out some tricky ways to “hide” mobility inside other workouts much the same as my mom used to mash cauliflower into our potatoes. For most, mobility is a welcomed activity when used as active rest from other activities. Very few climbers will ever do too much mobility work, so please enjoy in abundance.
Water | Rest
Just about every nutrition expert I know starts here. Do you drink water? How much? Most people don’t drink enough water. Period. Upping water intake on its own often creates incredible results for those looking to improve their health and wellness. People drop weight, gain energy, and feel relief from a variety of symptoms simply from drinking more water. Just as nutritionists start with water, smart performance climbing coaches start with rest. Do you take rest days? How often? All of our training is worthless if the body does not have proper time to recover and adapt. Often enthusiastic athletes will see huge performance gains from training less and resting more. If you’re consuming all the appropriate training methods described above and still feel like you’re missing the mark, it may be that you just need to include more recovery time.
Training does not, and often should not, be complicated. Just like the food you eat, quality is always more important than quantity, and balance is far more important than any specific detail. There’s no perfect diet and there’s no perfect training plan. Give some attention to all the categories above and you’ll be well on your way.
ABOUT MICAH ELCONIN
Micah has cultivated his climbing practice for more than twenty years. Based in Eugene, Oregon he coaches local athletes through his business Good Stone, and offers remote coaching as a part of the team at Climb Strong. Micah has climbed all over the world including dozens of first ascents on the Central Coast of California and Oregon’s Willamette Valley. Despite entering his fourth decade in 2021, he continues to slowly, yet steadily, improve.
As a coach, Micah draws on a variety of experiences to support his athletes. He is well versed in climbing specific training modalities and holds multiple Performance Climbing Coach Certificates. He spent the first half of his twenties deeply committed to Ashtanga yoga practicing under the guidance of Steve Dwelley and Michele Nichols. He also spent 3 months at Shri K. Pattabhi Jois Ashtanga Yoga Institute in Mysore, India. As a former professional chef, Micah has extensive culinary experience and holds Nutrition Educator and Natural Chef’s certificates from Bauman College. He’s also earned an MBA in Entrepreneurship from University of Oregon and a BA in Philosophy from University of California at Santa Barbara.