Dietary supplements

Is there a place for supplements in climbing? Photo: Daniel Brosam

The world of high-performance athletes in the twenty-first century has seen a remarkable uptick in nutritional supplement usage. In any gym across the country, you can find meaty guys in tank tops guzzling down half their annual income in increasingly complex powders, pills, and bars. However, supplements are still rarely found in the climbing community.

There are several reasons for this disparity; and while some are logical and genuine, many are based on incomplete information and widespread myths about their usage.

Intro to supplements

It is worth noting that none of the substances listed below are required for being a good climber. It is possible to maximize your training just by maintaining a strictly balanced diet, consistent stretching, active recovery programs and lots of sleep.

Yet most of us have lives outside of the walls and that’s where supplements come in. Supplements can correct certain nutritional imbalances quickly and effectively to increase the gains you see from a training program and decrease your risk of injury.

When purchasing nutritional supplements, you should seek out pure single ingredient compounds that you can combine on your own. Most of the massive bottles of “pre-workout” and “recovery formulas” sold in bodybuilding stores have tons of unproven additives and filler ingredients that do nothing but raise the price tag.

Of course, no supplement is a substitute for being well hydrated and thoroughly warmed up. Consult your physician if you have any specific concerns regarding your personal health before adding supplements into your diet.

Whey protein

Just the thought of consuming a protein powder is enough to send many climbers running for the door.

In a sport that is so uniquely dependent on the strength-to-weight ratio, there is a widespread (and irrational) fear of instantly building up an enormous muscle mass with any sort of protein supplement. However, to the dismay of frat boys across the nation, this is simply not how protein works.

Whey is absorbed quicker than other forms of protein, such as casein, and is vital for your body to regenerate muscular tissue [source]. The nature of climbing fatigue does not lend itself to high volume muscular growth but rather functional endurance in the slow twitch muscles.

A strict high protein diet can provide an adequate amount for some, but many just don’t have the time or the budget to be consuming mass amounts of lean meats and dairy products throughout the day. Whey protein powder is as versatile as it is easy to find and therefore a very practical addition to a climbers training program.

Proper protein, coupled with adequate sleep and proper hydration, can substantially decrease recovery time between hard training sessions and increase strength gains. For people with dietary restrictions, hemp protein and pea protein are reliable alternatives to whey.

Related: Review — Gnarly Nutrition Whey & Vegan Protein Powder



With over 90% of American adults reporting daily caffeine intake and well over half the population having a varying degree of dependence, this one probably isn’t a stranger. However, few people have an understanding of how to use it to maximize athletic performance.

Numerous studies have linked proper caffeine usage to substantial improvements in endurance and power as well as reducing perceived exhaustion and mental fatigue [source].

But how do you reap the full benefits of this miracle drug?

Timing and dosage are the two most important factors for performance enhancement in regards to caffeine. Proper dosage varies depending on individual tolerance, but general guidelines dictate an average adult should not be consuming more than 400 milligrams per day.

To see the highest improvements during your training sessions, you should seek to reduce or eliminate all other caffeine from your diet. The effects of caffeine can sometimes be felt in just a few minutes and generally reach their peak an hour after consumption. The effects will fade after approximately 4-6 hours, which should be considered if you are a late evening climber. Cutting out caffeine entirely for a week is normally enough to reboot its impact before a competition or if you feel that it is losing potency.

The best part of caffeine is the wide array of consumption methods available. Caffeine pills are the most precise way of monitoring intake and ensuring optimum effect. Strong coffee or tea with ginseng are also reliable sources of caffeine although they are harder to measure accurately. Energy drinks such as Redbull also provide a reliable, measured dose but are accompanied with enough sugar and additives to kill a small animal making the other forms better in terms of overall long-term health.


Omega-3 fatty acids such as those found in fish oil pills are another thing most people have heard of without a real understanding of their benefits.

Omega-3s reduce joint stiffness and pain and increase natural lubrication to prevent swelling and inhibit the degradation of cartilage (the cause osteoarthritis). They also increase blood flow during exercise and enable swifter recovery times in most athletes [source].

Climbing hard can take a serious toll on your joints, especially your fingers and elbows. A comprehensive warm-up remains the best way to protect your joints, but adding in regular omega-3s can speed up recovery and help prevent more serious problems down the road.

As fish oils have become more popular they have also become more sophisticated and less expensive. Different brands have differing levels of purity and enhancement, so it is wise to do some research to determine the best match to fit your individual needs and budget.


Another well-known supplement in the weightlifting world, creatine has a much smaller niche among climbers.

Creatine hydrates your muscles and increases blood flow to muscles, which produces the swelling effect most commonly associated with it. Apart from making you look more jacked than you are, it also has been shown to increase strength and speed as well as substantially reduce muscular fatigue.

The downside for climbers is that the hydration of muscular tissue causes the average user to gain around five pounds of water weight [source]. Additionally, it is one of the most expensive supplements listed and requires a set routine and specific dosages causing many climbers to lose interest.

Creatine is best suited for high power and strength projects or climbers looking to accelerate their gains quickly.

Glucosamine and chondroitin

Glucosamine (often paired with chondroitin) supplements the body’s natural cartilage production and regeneration processes. It also increases lubrication of the joints resulting in reduced pain and stiffness [source].

It is primarily suited to middle-aged climbers and people with more arthritis prone joints. In trials, young and healthy people did not see a substantial improvement over placebos, whereas older people saw multiple benefits.

Introducing glucosamine into your diet has measured benefits and has been proven to help ward off osteoarthritis. Although, if you are under 40, making sure you warm up your extremities properly before each training session and adding a fish oil supplement to your diet would probably be enough.

Brian Long is an avid rock climber currently in the United States Navy, where he assists in developing training procedures based off the most current research in the field of sports nutrition and human performance.

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