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Spending the day with performance dietitian Rebecca Dent

30 Apr 2015

Some time ago I saw an advert on facebook for a competition.  I quite often enter things to win a Rab jacket or £2000 to spend at John Lewis but it always ends up the same way.  I was really surprised when I won!  Rebecca Dent, performance dietician was looking to spend the day with three ‘elite’ adventure ‘athletes’.  Since I am 40, potentially (but hopefully not) past my prime and have no time and don’t feel particularly elite or athletic I wasn’t quite sure I fitted the bill.  But Rebecca immediately emailed back the next day.  Rebecca is a widely respected performance dietician, who has worked with athletes up to Olympic level, I couldn't wait to hear what she had to say.

Rebecca Dent

Rebecca and I at the Foundry, Sheffield

If you’ve read this blog over time you’ll know that I’ve had a lot of poor health in the last 3 years (many chest infections), too many antibiotics and explored many avenues from acupuncture to herbal medicine, allergy testing and getting a mercury filling removed.  Each added something (but took a lot from my bank balance) but nothing resolved, and so, each time I’d come back to the conclusion that what you eat is going to have the biggest bearing on your health (apart from stress etc).  But being ill is stressful, so you go round in circles.

I’ve spent hours on the internet and speaking to people researching diet.  I’ve tried gluten free, sugar free, dairy free, yeast free and grain free.  Only gluten free made a noticeable difference and the rest I wasn't able to stick to.  Now I eat a massively reduced gluten diet and only gluten products that are not at all processed (i.e. will go stale in 2 days).  For me eating is about enjoyment and not having cakes or chocolate simply cannot be a feature.  One thing that definitely did work was high doses of vitamin C and D.

And so, I am well, and have been off antibiotics for 5.5 months.  This is great – but I am looking for more than just not being ill.  I get really tired (this is aside from work and being a parent) and my recovery from training has always been poor.  My gut is also a mess from all the antibiotics and I needed to find a sensible non-faddy way to deal with this.  There’s a torrent of info on the internet, which I’ve dabbled with but have been unsure about what I need to do.

Sports nutrition can be tailored right down to the types of training you are doing and when you are peaking.  I’m not even at that stage; simply feeling healthy all the time means I can climb regularly and that is my aim.  For me that is more important than anything.

Rebecca wanted to see me ‘in action’ as well as have a good discussion about the demands of my life, training and climbing.  I really felt she just wanted to understand ‘me’, not just me as a generic climber.  I came away with a whole load of stuff to work on that I hadn’t expected and she blew away the cobwebs on some long held beliefs of mine that were perhaps not ideal.

Revelation number 1

Climbers in general do not eat enough

I have always wondered why it is that I always need to eat so much, when many climbers around me eat seemingly very little, even skipping meals altogether.  Over the years, at sport crags in particular, I hardly see people eating, and if I see them eating at the wall, it’s usually cake.  Without realising it, I’ve been swept along with the dieting culture, without meaning to, leaving me constantly with a sense questioning what I am doing wrong (which is rather sad for someone whose body is in good shape).  Actually Rebecca told me that I was doing an awful lot right.  This was really good to hear.  I took along my list of what I ate at Malham the other day:

  • 2 spelt bread sandwiches with ham, cheese, homemade chutney
  • Some rice with a can of fish, avocado, tomatoes
  • 2 boiled eggs
  • 2 corgette chocolate muffins (homemade)
  • A banana
  • Some dark chocolate
  • 2 cadburys cream eggs (it was Easter)

And when I got home I had a roast dinner.  You have to bear in mind it takes me 2 hours to drive to and from Malham, plus time spent at the crag: it's a long day.  Somehow had it in my head that this was a lot of food (it did take up half of my rucksack) and somehow too much, purely based on the fact it was at least double that of what I was seeing anyone else eat.  In fact Rebecca said it was exactly what I needed, in fact more wouldn’t have been a bad idea.  But isn’t it crazy how skewed my head has become?  There is in fact no way I can cut down on my food intake since I get starving at the drop of a hat but Rebecca said I did hold back at times, which accounts for why I get even hungrier than I should.  But we have a very confusing sport where many of the top athletes simply do not look healthy.  They are extremely thin.

We had a long discussion on the topic and she agreed that weight in climbing is vitally important, but NOT ALL YEAR ROUND.  And this is the key point that is missing from articles like this http://www.rockandice.com/lates-news/training-beta-how-to-lose-weight-for-climbing.  It doesn’t mention does it that you should only lose weight for very specific, planned periods of the year. Not to mention that sentences like "Just don’t put as much food in your food hole. And get used to being a little bit uncomfortable. As a very good friend once said, “Nothing tastes as good as sending feels.”  are plain wrong - and can be quite harmful to some readers.  There is no escaping that the strength to weight ratio in climbing is critical, but this needs to be managed. This is where people like Rebecca can help.

Revelation number 2

Every meal should include protein, fat and carbs

Perhaps this is obvious to you?  But it wasn’t to me.  A breakfast of cereal and toast simply doesn’t cut it.  I have always wondered why I get so hungry by 10am, bearing in mind I have oats, seeds, fruit and milk for breakfast (pretty health I thought).  I was lacking the protein.  Instead it’s 2 eggs/banana pancake with maple syrup and then a bowl of oats/seeds with yogurt.  Now I can last till 11am!  But it’s a whole load better.  And the same goes for every meal now.

Revelation number 3

The importance of healthy fats

Check this out:  fat makes testosterone and testosterone makes muscle.  Also recovery is poor if you don’t have enough fat.  Rebecca measured my skin folds and she found a disturbingly low level of fat (despite a healthy and normal body mass index BMI).  Here (I think this is where it happened), not meaning to, by replacing dairy with soya and almond milk (which hardly has any almonds in it) my daily intake of fats was not nearly enough.  I’m on whole fat milk now and an omega oils supplement.  Of course it’s healthy fats like fish, avocado, olives etc that I’m after.

And so, healthy eating really is, as they always say, a good balanced diet.  She did give me a few useful tips:

  • Before climbing go for a carb+protein snack such as banana/yoghurt, homemade cereal bar inc oats an whey protein for example.
  • During training/climbing eat the same as above.  An egg or meat sandwich would do the trick.  Drip feed the food in small chunks throughout the day.  For my size I should  have approximately the volume of one cereal bar per hour.
  • Immediately after climbing the simplest recovery fuel is a pint of milk and a banana.

I was excited when Rebecca sent me my nutrition plan detailing my nutrition aims, figures relating to how much protein, carbs and fats I should be eating (for my bodyweight) what to eat before, during and after climbing and lots of recipe ideas (particularly breakfast, which is so important).