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Why We Should Rest: The Benefits of Nutrition, Sleep & Taking it Easy

By Kitty Calhoun

Colette McInerney looking rested for <em>Happy Face</em> (5.11b), Redstein, Crystal River Valley, Colorado.

As someone with more muscle than brains, more stubbornness than talent, I figured that if I tried day after day, I’d eventually send my project. Rest days weren’t part of that plan. My background is trad and alpine climbing, and when the weather is good, you go. Same with a big wall or a vacation rock-climbing trip.

Then my friend Lisa Hathaway saw me climb four days in a row.

“Today is supposed to be your rest day,” she said.

“Well,” I said, “I figured if I didn’t climb harder than 5.10, today would count as rest.”

Lisa shook her head. “When are you going to get it?”

That was when I learned that resting is as important as training or climbing, because the rest phase is when your muscles repair themselves. But while the resting needs of men are well documented, only recently have studies on female exercise physiology shown the differences between the genders.


The primary difference between men and women in performance and recovery is related to hormones. Men have more testosterone, which accounts for greater muscle strength and mass. However, many studies have shown that women have a greater resistance to fatigue. Women are more efficient at burning fat for energy, creating better endurance, because their higher levels of estrogen may increase the body’s sensitivity to catecholamines, which contribute to burning more fat, and a decrease in dependence on glycogen from the liver. To compensate for the amount of fat burned, females also show an increased rate of fat synthesis (replenishing supplies) after exercise, which is why it is sometimes more difficult for women to lose unwanted fat even while exercising, according to Sports Medicine magazine (2011). Even so, an athletic woman’s diet should be 20 to 30 percent fats, especially essential fats, as they are a greater source of energy for her than for men.

For post-workout recovery drinks, both genders have the same glycogen-replacement needs. If you climbed intensely for 60 minutes or more, a recovery drink or protein smoothie benefits recovery, especially during the 30- to 45-minute period after exercise. If your climb was primarily aerobic, i.e. an alpine route where you kept your heart rate up for 20 minutes or more, you have depleted your energy stores and can best kick-start glycogen replenishment with a simple 4:1 carb/ protein recovery drink. The least expensive option is chocolate milk. If your climb was mostly strenuous, a protein smoothie aids in rebuilding muscle. Alternatively, you could eat a tuna sandwich and aim for 20 to 30g of protein (See Rock Climbing Nutrition: Eating Your Way to Better Climbing,

Micro-nutrients are important, too, especially iron (used in the formation of hemoglobin, the oxygencarrying pigment in red blood cells) for menstruating women. Stray- Gunderson et al in Sports Exercise indicated that 40 percent of men and women athletes tested were irondeficient and that iron is lost through sweat, particularly at altitude. Women need more iron than men, and it is hard for a climber to get enough from food alone. For most, taking 10- 25mg as part of a complete vitamin supplement is recommended. Beware of ingesting too much iron, which can create toxicity. In addition, women’s diets tend to be lower in calcium, needed for bone health. Consuming a dairy-based recovery drink immediately post-workout maximizes bone remodeling.

Last, many athletes want to be light and may eschew an adequate caloric intake; as Dr. Ben Levine of the Institute for Exercise and Environmental Medicine notes, women are more prone to this error.


Most athletes require 7.5-9.5 hours a night. Deep sleep is crucial to recovery because it is when your pituitary gland releases growth hormones that are essential for muscle development. During sleep, muscles relax, blood supply to the muscles increases, and tissue growth and repair occur. Women, perhaps due to hormonal shifts, are two to three times more likely than men to suffer from insomnia. To help promote deep sleep, try dimming the lights or putting a mask over your eyes to trigger melatonin, which prepares your body for sleep. Production of this hormone decreases with age, so taking supplemental melatonin at the same time every night will help. Some foods such as milk and oats are high in tryptophan, used in producing melatonin, and some such as tart cherry juice contain natural melatonin. Exercise also aids sleep.


A low-intensity workout speeds recovery because it stimulates circulation and flushes the muscles of lactic acid. Start that flush with a cool-down route at the end of any hard climbing session, a slow jog or brisk walk, stretching and massage. Low-intensity postclimbing activity works equally well on men and women. Rest better, climb harder.


KITTY CALHOUN is one of the new owners of Chicks Climbing and Skiing and is an ambassador for Patagonia.


This article was published in Rock and Ice issue 230 (November 2015).

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