Improving Body Composition for Mountaineering

improving body composition for mountaineering

by Maria Faires, RD

The strength-to-weight ratio is an important key performance indicator for mountain climbing athletes. Have you ever tried to hike up a steep trail with a heavy backpack?  The more you carry, the harder the effort. Weight matters. A mountaineer’s performance will be enhanced by being as close to their ideal body composition as possible so they are not carrying unnecessary weight up the mountain.

What is Body Composition?

Body composition refers to the percentages of fat, bone, water and muscle in the body. A healthy body composition is one that includes a higher percentage of healthy lean mass (muscle, bones, and organs) and a lower percentage of body fat. How much of a person’s weight is body fat is one of the most significant factors in evaluating a healthy weight goal. For the climber, excess body fat can be reduced to improve performance.

BMI or Body Composition Analysis?

Some people us BMI as an indicator of body composition but it is not a complete view. BMI alone can be deceptive. A lean muscular person may be overweight according to BMI and height and weight tables but may be within the ideal range of body fat percentage. A thin person may be within ideal body weight range but could be overfat because of inadequate muscle mass. Evaluating a healthy body weight is best assessed using a body composition analysis.

Body Composition Assessment

A more valuable tool in assessing health and fitness than BMI and height and weight tables is a body composition analysis (also called a body fat percentage test) because it distinguishes between the weight of fat and that of your lean body mass.

The best method to assess your body composition is a body fat test. The most accurate and available tests are an InBody, BodPod, DEXA analysis, or a professional skilled at performing Skinfold Tests but some home scales with body fat percentage capability will give you a fair estimate.

Your personal ideal body fat percentage target is best determined by a mountaineering fitness or nutrition professional, but in general 14% to 22% for a woman and 6% to 18% for a man is ideal depending on age. The ideal amount of body fat for YOU is the lowest amount at which you feel energetic and comfortable.

Achieving a More Ideal Body Composition

If your body fat percentage is too high, you may want to try to decrease it to improve athletic performance. The best way to lose excess body fat and improve your body composition is by reducing caloric intake, performing cardiovascular exercise and gaining lean body mass by building muscle with a strength training program.

Reduce Caloric Intake

You’ll want to reduce your caloric intake so that your body must draw on fat reserves for energy. In general, if you cut 500 to 1,000 calories a day from your caloric needs, you’ll lose about 1 pound a week. About 2 pounds a week is a reasonable weight loss goal. Losing weight at a faster rate could result in losing lean muscle mass in addition to stored fat.  Reducing caloric intake too much could impede your training ability. A registered dietitian who understands the mountaineer’s caloric demands of the sport can help you assess what your ideal caloric intake is. Periodically, have a body composition analysis to check the fat loss progress and to make sure you are losing fat and not muscle.

When reducing caloric intake, focus on eating healthy foods. Reach for whole grains, beans, nuts, vegetables, fruits, healthy fats, low-fat dairy and lean protein sources like seafood, poultry and egg whites that will provide more healthy nutrients than a diet comprised of refined carbohydrates, high fat meats and dairy.  You can find tasty and healthful recipes on Maria’s blog!

Strength Train

When you lose body weight by cutting calories, you will lose body fat, water, and may lose some precious lean muscle. Studies show that people are less likely to lose muscle mass when strength training is part of the weight loss plan. That’s why it is critical to do strength training to build up your lean mass and prevent loss as you are decreasing body fat. The American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM) recommends that a strength training program should be performed a minimum of two non-consecutive days each week, with one set of 8 to 12 repetitions for healthy adults.

Cardiovascular Exercise

In addition to strength training, perform cardiovascular exercise so that you burn more calories to use excess stored fat. Performing cardiovascular exercise 200-300 minutes per week is recommended for long-term weight loss by The American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM). As a mountaineering athlete in training, it should be easy to get this amount of calorie-burning exercise in.

Note from the Editor:  Maria Faires is based in Sammamish, WA and offers remote online coaching in fitness, nutrition, and weight loss counseling at her website

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