For many people, when getting seriously into climbing, the question of weight to power ratio crops up and some conclude that weight loss will lead to increase in performance. It can especially be a concern around this time of year, when the mince pies and the mulled wine are on tap!
While this can sometimes be the case, of course, it’s very important to be careful about any sort of “weight manipulation”, as Dave MacLeod points out in his book ‘9 of out 10 climbers make the same mistakes’, and more often than not, weight loss is not the answer.
His book is one of our favourites on climbing training because it addresses the key issues holding many climbers back from improvement. But crucially, he differentiates between male and female climbers and gives female specific advice where appropriate. And when it comes to weight control, this is more relevant than ever.
Women are different to men in terms of their body composition (of course, we all know that!), and this means the percentage of body fat we need to function properly is also different, i.e. much higher. According to MacLeod, a safe fat percentage for a man to avoid running into health problems is 8%-10%. For a woman, it’s around 22%! Although, he notes, many top performance climbers sit at staggeringly low body fat percentages for long periods of time (as low a 4% for men and 10%-12% for women) this is not something even they can do indefinitely, and women in particular need to be careful if they want to avoid health implications.
Below 17% body fat, a large proportion of women will see disruptions to their menstrual cycles, with 22% generally recognised as necessary to ensure normal cycles. It is also important to remember that climbing training puts the body under serious physiological stress, so your body needs to be strong and healthy to withstand that! Very low fat percentage can also lead to bone loss (osteoporosis), and MacLeod warns that evidence suggests that chronic calorie restriction can cause “irreversible” bone loss in distance runners, for example. So the consequences can be severe.
What’s the takeaway from this information?
Well, firstly, do your research prior to embarking on any plans to restricting your calorie intake to lose weight as this may not be the key to whatever barriers you might be facing in your climbing. There are probably many areas of climbing you can focus on without changing your weight at all – confidence training, technique coaching, strength training are all key.
Dave MacLeod says it’s important to maintain a sense of perspective and listen to your body as you develop as a climber. He also notes that excess weight is very rarely the main weakness for female climbers. If anything, he says women should focus on growing their upper body muscles by doing powerful, overhanging routes.
That is not to say, of course, that we should all gorge ourselves this Christmas! But a few mince pies will not undo months of training. For all other times of the year, there are plenty of healthy recipes out there (like our healthy chocolate cake recipe, link below!) that also taste great, so there’s no need to stick to celery and carrots for all your pre – and post-climbing snacks!
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