If you’re serious about climbing (and performance), then you must be serious about nutrition and getting enough protein. Amino acids derived from the foods you consume are the building blocks of muscles, tendons and ligaments, vital organs, and your skin. Strenuous exercise increases protein turnover and, hence, dietary protein requirements are higher for hard-training athletes. This article offers evidence-based guidance on protein needs and sources of supplemental protein for climbers.
How Much Protein Do You Need?
While the daily protein requirement for a sedentary person is modest (0.8 gram per kilogram of body weight), the American College of Sports Medicine recommends 1.2 to 2.0 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight for athletes. Given the slight build and moderate training volume of the average climber, I recommend a target amount near the low end of this range (1.2 to 1.5 grams/kg/day)—that’s approximately 70 grams of protein per day for a 115 lb female and 100 grams per day for a 165 lb male. You can easily consume this amount with a few servings of animal-based protein (skim milk, eggs, chicken, fish, lean red meat, or protein powder) along with several servings of nuts, seeds, and legumes.
But the story doesn’t end there, because not all proteins are created equal. Getting enough high-quality protein—with specific the amino acids needed to support muscle and collagen protein synthesis—takes a bit more knowledge and disciplined food choices.
Amino Acids Are the Building Blocks of YOUR “Climbing Machine”
The protein in the food you eat is digested into 20 different amino acids used to synthesize structural proteins throughout your body. Amino acids are the building blocks of your organs, muscles, tendons, ligaments, cartilage, skin, and myriad other tissues. Amino acids also provide energy, support digestion, and are involved in numerous enzymatic reactions, including vital hormonal and neurotransmitter signaling.
Different amino acids play different roles in the body, however, so the unique amino acid profile (the relative amount of each amino acid) of different foods is a critical matter. For example, the amino acid profile of red meat is significantly different than that of eggs or milk, and vastly different from the amino acid profile of vegetables, beans, soy, and other common vegan protein sources.
Each amino acid (or combination of AAs) is linked to different functions in your body, and so individual differences (lifestyle, stress, exercise, etc.) can make for unique amino acids requirements. For example, leucine is important for signaling muscle protein synthesis, and so hard-training athletes can likely benefit from high amounts of leucine (and other BCAAs). Tryptophan is needed to create serotonin, perhaps benefiting individuals under mental and emotional stress. Glycine is essential for collagen synthesis in your connective tissues, muscle matrix, cartilage, skin, bones, and more.
3 Types of Amino Acids
It’s helpful to consider three types of amino acids:
- Essential Amino Acids (*BCAA): Histidine, Lysine, Methionine, Phenylalanine, Threonine, Tryptophan, Isoleucine*, Leucine*, and Valine*.
- Nonessential Amino Acids: Alanine, Asparagine, Aspartic Acid, Glutamic Acid
- Conditionally Essential Amino Acids: Arginine (essential in children, not in adults), Cysteine, Glutamine, Glycine, Proline, Serine, and Tyrosine
Nine of the 20 amino acids cannot be made by your body—these essential amino acids must be consumed daily in significant amounts. Three of the essential amino acids, called branch chain amino acids (*BCAAs), are most rapidly available to your muscles and, hence, important for athletes. Conversely, non-essential amino acids are readily synthesized in your body.
Then there are the seven conditionally essential amino acids. In times of injury, growth, physical stress, and illness your need for these conditionally essential amino acids may exceed the amount your body can produce. In fact, emerging research has revealed that glycine deficiency is more common than previously thought and that this is a significant limiting factor in collagen production throughout the body. One recent study indicates that the human body makes about 2.5 grams of glycine per day, while the amount needed is at least 10 grams…and perhaps as much as 20 – 40 grams is seriously ill or injured individuals. Consuming anywhere near this amount is virtually impossible in a typical diet.
Do You Need to Consume Supplemental Protein?
If you live a low-stress life and you are able to prepare three well-designed meals per day, each containing a high-quality protein (animal protein or a combination of vegan protein sources), then you may be able to meet all your amino acids needs. If this is you, congrats!
Then there’s the rest of us—enamored to the physical stress of sport and exercise, faced with frequent episodes of mental and emotional stress, and unable to prepare and consume the perfect diet of complementary foods to provide an optimal amino acid profile. If this sounds like you, then consuming supplemental protein will be beneficial to your health, well-being, and performance.
Five Common Protein Supplements
Consuming supplemental dietary protein is easy with a high-quality powdered protein mixed into your favorite beverage. A morning whey protein shake or supercharged collagen coffee is a great way to begin your day. Similarly, a post-workout or bedtime protein shake (whey, casein, or pea protein) will help support muscle protein synthesis and recovering while you sleep. Here’s a brief look at the five most popular supplemental protein sources.
A byproduct of the cheese-making process, whey is high in essential amino acids most notably leucine (11%), which is associated with the stimulation of muscle protein synthesis. This makes whey an ideal post-workout protein source. Easily digested and well-tolerated by most, whey yields a rapid rise in amino acids in the bloodstream. Whey is available as “concentrate”, “isolate”, or blend of both concentrate and isolate. Whey isolate is the purest (and expensive) form whey, thus containing less carbs, lactose, and fat—this makes whey isolate the ideal choice for power/strength-to-weight athletes like climbers desiring a supplemental protein source without extra “empty” calories.
Like whey, casein is derived from milk, and like other animal protein sources, it is a complete protein. One possible advantage of casein (over whey) is that it’s slowly digested—this provides a sort of time-release of amino acids into the bloodstream. Consequently, many athletes consume casein (or a big glass of skim milk, which is 80% casein) as their bedtime protein feeding. A whey isolate and casein blend offer both fast- and slow-release proteins making it an excellent post-workout and bedtime protein source.
Hydrolyzed collagen is another animal-based protein, but with an amino acid profile that’s distinctly different from other protein sources. Collagen hydrolysate is rich in the amino-acids: glycine, proline, hydroxyproline, and arginine, all of which are essential for your body’s connective tissues. Recent research has shown that consuming vitamin C-enriched collagen pre-workout can double collagen synthesis in the tendons and ligaments targeted by exercise. Furthermore, several studies have shown reduced joint pain and faster recovery from exercise as a result of daily supplementation with collagen powder. These potential benefits should make pre-workout and/or daily Supercharged Collagen consumption an essential part of every serious climber’s nutritional program.
Soy is the darling of many vegans and vegetarians, often consume in significant amounts—as tofu, soy milk, or soy powder—to meet daily protein requirements. Consuming soy protein powder post-workout will provide all the amino acids needed for recovery. It’s important to note, however, that soy is lower in leucine than whey and, therefore, it may underperform in terms of muscle protein synthesis and rate of recovery (compared to whey).
Pea protein powder has gained popularity among vegans, and rightfully so. It’s rich in the important branched-chain amino acids—ideal for hard-training athletes! Interestingly, pea protein is a good source of iron, although it lacks absorbability without the addition of vitamin C (via supplement or serving of fruit).
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