Climbing & Body Image: Losing Weight to Win at Climbing

The rise of climbing gyms may be one reason for an increase in eating disorders amongst climbers.

The increase in climbing gyms and competitive climbing teams is one hypothesis for why so many survey respondents reported taking drastic measures in weight management.

Today’s post continues our analysis of the 2,014 responses to our climber body image survey

The longer we climb and the more climbers we meet, the more we realize that like any other sports’ athletes there are climbers willing to take drastic measures to lose weight to perform better. In fact, 28% of our 2,014 survey respondents know someone who has taken drastic measures or personally have taken drastic measures to improve their climbing performance. While the term “drastic measures” can be interpreted in many ways, including dieting, excessive exercise, and taking muscle-promoting supplements, nearly all of the respondents described it in terms of dramatic weight loss.

When we first started climbing, we naively believed climbing was immune to the body weight issues that many other sports’ athletes fall prey. From our view, most people begin climbing through a community or “just for fun” rather than on a competitive team where weight management may be encouraged. However, recently the number of climbing gyms, teams, and competitions across the United States has skyrocketed. For example, over the last two years in the Boston Metro area the number of climbing gyms more than doubled from four gyms to nine and along with it the number of climbers and competitive teams. As is evidenced in the graph below, the more serious one becomes in climbing, the more likely one is to have taken, or know someone who has taken, drastic measures in weight management to climb harder.

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Myself and every pro female climber I know have gone through a stage of drastic measures, including a significant cut in calories and cutting out all fat and sugar from your diet in order to drop weight,” shared one pro climber, “I cannot think of a single pro female who hasn’t done this at one point or another.” Of the 61 pro climbers who responded to our survey, the majority (64%) had personally taken drastic measures to climb harder or knew someone who had done so. Based upon survey responses, dropping weight to compete was perceived as an acceptable practice amongst pros. As one male pro stated matter-of-factly, “If you are motivated to become a better climber, then you want to lose excess weight to reach your goals by default.” The “climbing lighter, climbing harder” view is shared by many in the climbing training world. As Neely Quinn wrote on her Training Beta site, “Weight does have some bearing on how well we climb, whether we like it or not.” This view is shared and advocated for by many on the training side of the climbing world such as the Anderson brothers who wrote The Rock Climber’s Manuel and Mike Doyle, who “made a conscious decision to drop weight” to send Necessary Evil, (5.14c). As these climbers and trainers have shown, weight management can be achieved in a healthy manner. 

Mike Doyle shed 15 lbs while training to send Necessary Evil (5.14c)

Mike Doyle shed 15 lbs while training to send Necessary Evil (5.14c)

Yet, many survey respondents pointed out that in climbing, as compared with some other sports, the issue is not about “body image” but about “weight management” for performance. One 19-year old female pro detailed this distinction, “many climbers are not dropping weight to look good, but [are doing so] in the interest of being in best form for their project or competition…That doesn’t necessarily mean they are dissatisfied with their appearance, but more so that they want to be the proper tool for the job; whatever they think that might be.” She went on to further distinguish climbing from other sports, “I do not feel that climbing, unlike some other sports such as gymnastics or cheerleading, creates pressure on the athlete to be aesthetically pleasing.” Another climber, male, who climbs 3-4 times per week, confirmed this distinction validating weight loss, “My climbing and body relationship is not necessarily because of my external image. I am trying to lose a bit of weight to improve as a climber, not as a “model”.”  For climbers, losing weight clearly isn’t about “looking good.” However, at what point can the pursuit of an ideal strength-to-weight ratio lead to disordered views about body image and eating habits?

Nearly 3/4 of professional climbers have personally or know someone who has taken drastic measures to lower their weight for climbing. Photo credit: Caroline Treadway

Nearly 3/4 of professional climbers have personally or know someone who has taken drastic measures to lower their weight for climbing. Photo credit: Caroline Treadway

Eating disorders and the stigma associated with them are a difficult topic to address, especially in the context of athletic performance. Yet, as results from our survey have suggested, these are important issues on the minds of men and women in the climbing community. “I’ve never had an eating disorder before climbing. Since I started climbing, I started struggling with dieting and bulimia,” shared one 20-something serious male climber. Another young pro climber honestly reflected, “I’ve struggled with anorexia for the last 6 years — 2 of which were before I started climbing. In some ways climbing has given me a greater appreciation for what my body is capable of, but the more serious I become about performance, the more dangerous it becomes for my body image. It’s important to be light, but how light is too light? Will I climb harder at 85 lbs than I do at 100? It’s a slippery slope, and the reason I don’t own a scale. I’d rather just climb, and try to get stronger.” 

To be clear, we don’t have any evidence to suggest that there is a higher rate of eating disorders among climbers than the general population. That data is beyond the scope of our survey. The DSM-V (the manual that diagnoses major mental health issues, of which eating disorders is one) says that Anorexia will affect 0.4% of females in a year and Bulimia will affect up to 1.5% of females in a year and that the disorder has a 10 to 1 female to male ratio. This means that there will be climbers who are coming into climbing with a history of, or vulnerability for developing such a disorder. One could see how climbing, especially when done at a serious level as shown in the graph above, could provide the context in which the disorder could develop. While we do not want to oversimplify the complexity of eating disorders, we can say is that this topic was of concern for many respondents, and we think it is an important area for further study.

You may be able to climb harder, lighter, but how light is too light? Photo credit: The Monkey Club

Healthy weight management in climbing can allow you to climb harder, but how light is too light? Photo by The Monkey Club

For better or worse, many of us idolize the pros of our sport, and it was clear from the answers we received from our pro climber respondents that they take and see people take significantly more extreme measures when it comes weight loss. A 19-year old respondent pointed out,  “When [anonymous pro climber] lost a lot of weight, she started climbing extraordinarily. I’ve heard many people criticize her lately for being at what appears to be a more normal weight, and credit her weight to her recent decline in performance.” As with any celebrity, people in the community strive to emulate those flaws and perfections. The question of how this affects our community members has been raised, and in particular the question of how this affects our youngest climbers, who are perhaps more susceptible to the influence of older or more experienced climbers they strive to emulate. This is of course concerning because, according to studies cited by The National Eating Disorder Association younger women are more likely to develop eating disorders, and the mortality rate from eating disorders is much higher in women ages 15-24.

While there may be more pressure on pro climbers to maximize their athletic performance, the expansion of climbing gyms and competitions may be one reason weight management is becoming an issue for the climbing community at large. One thirty-something regular male climber shared, “Several of my friends at the gym are uber strict about their diets, weighing themselves constantly, and are depressed when they are 2-3lbs over what they consider their ideal weight. It’s sad, really, considering every single one of them cranks v12 and 5.14, even though they feel fat.” Casual discussions about weight management seem to be common in climbing gyms and at the crag. As one survey respondent wrote, “Generally I think climbers are pretty accepting” and then added nonchalantly, “but if you want to be good or bump up a grade, you need to be in better shape i.e. drop a few pounds, or so I’ve been told.” The balance that one must demonstrate in climbing also must be struck in weight management for climbing.

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Many of our survey respondents voiced concerns about the effects on the youth climbing community. Photo by Garrick Kwan.

So where do we go from here? Many respondents asked for pros to take on more of a role in discussing the issue and promoting positive healthy weight management among new climbers. Giving credit to the pros, many were ecstatic to share their story and have an opportunity to discuss unhealthy weight management among climbers. Charlotte Durif recently released an apology for staying silent on this subject and called out professional climbers to tackle this problem. According to Durif, “anorexia is like doping” (8a.nu). Although Durif is not the only professional climber to speak publicly about her experience with overcoming unhealthy weight management, she is one of few.

However, the responsibility cannot fall solely on professional climbers. It is clear that unhealthy weight management is an issue in the climbing community, as it is in nearly every other competitive sport. The IFSC, climbing gyms, climbing media sites like Crux Crush, and climbing federations must step up. One such example is Austria, who has been a leader in attempting to safeguard against unhealthy weight loss in climbing by instituting a BMI regulation for climbers several years ago. To our knowledge, no other countries have followed suit. At Crux Crush, we were inspired to openly address the issue as a result of our readers’ strong and passionate responses. What gives us hope, as evidenced by the incredible survey response, is that the climbing community cares enough for one another that they are not afraid to step up and share their thoughts, stories, experiences, and concerns around body weight and climbing. We understand that this is a controversial topic and have the utmost respect and empathy for any climber who has had difficulty navigating healthy weight management. We encourage you to share your comments and perspectives on how the climbing community can better support youth, novice, and pro climbers alike. It is through our willingness to be vulnerable and share our challenges and triumphs that we will be able to keep our community climbing strong and healthy.

Climb on! ~Cate

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12 thoughts on “Climbing & Body Image: Losing Weight to Win at Climbing

  1. Jess says:

    Thank you for this well researched series on such an important topic ladies. The more we encourage an open conversation of these topics, the easier it will be for us all to stay healthy and happy.

    I have found that is important to keep proper perspective when it comes to body weight. Remember that food is fuel! You can’t climb to your full potential or recovery quickly if you don’t have the proper nutrient and energy supply!

    On a more personal note, while following the Anderson brothers’ training I considered losing a few pounds during the performance phase. However, when I stepped back it was immediately obvious to me that what is holding me back from sends is not my little love handles, but my fear of falling on lead.

  2. Lorena says:

    Great article! I’m not part of the climber community, but i’m thinking of doing it. While I read your research I was amazed of all that we “not climbers” do not perceive.

    This article has helped understand what climbing is about.

    Regards from Guatemala.

  3. Thanks for addressing this in such a thoughtful way. After everyone was starving themselves to send in the 90’s, it seems we went through a period where people got away from it, at least publicly, but it’s now a topic back on the scene, probably because so many people are “training” and trying to reach personal bests. And anyone who has spent time on a hangboard can tell you the massive difference 5 pounds can make. But like you mentioned, it’s such a slippery slope. Personally I have plenty of other things to work on, so while I keep an eye on my weight, I don’t stress about it. Hopefully that’s the message we can get out to others, especially the youth.

  4. Kay says:

    Just to clarify a point: the IFSC introduced BMI testing in 2014, despite recognizing the imperfection of this method of determining health in professional athletes. But, unlike Austria, it will not immediately lead to a “ban”. Instead, those falling under a certain BMI are asked to see a doctor, and create a plan to fix this. I prefer this approach, as it recognizes that the solutions include education and awareness, and not increased pressure and public shaming. Thanks for writing about this, and thanks for not making the problem worse by attempting to “out” competitors. 🙂

  5. […] Climbing & Body Image: Losing Weight to Win at Climbing […]

  6. Linda says:

    I enjoy Crux Crush and your articles, but I’m rather taken aback at your choice of using the Youth Nationals Female A category podium picture from 2013 for the Facebook share link, taken when the girls were 16/17. I know this group of teens rather well, because my daughter is in the middle of that picture. There’s a variety of heights and builds in this group, showing a healthy range of body types, and a group of girls at a happy moment. What was the intent of using this as the cover photo?

    • Emily says:

      Hi Linda–thanks for your feedback. Our intent on including the photo in the post was to reflect survey responses that voiced concerns about the effects on youth climbers and body image. However, one of the issues we ran into was that Facebook randomly chooses a photo from the post to be used as the image when the link is shared. Based on your concerns, we’ve changed the photo to a more generic image that conveys the same idea. Please let us know if you have any further concerns, and thank you for reading and sharing!

      • Linda says:

        Emily, thanks for updating the photo. It seems that it was inadvertent, but to me, the way the share came up gave the impression that the article meant to make an implication about that group of youth climbers. If anything, I feel that group of climbers are role models for the positive side of competition. They’re a group of girls who have known each other for years, made friendships across the country, and manage to combine climbing with school and many other activities and friendships. They can teach us something about how to climb hard in a healthy way!

  7. Taylor Reed says:

    Hi Emily/Cate,

    I don’t want to put you on the defensive because I appreciate the fact that you’re trying to shed light on what could be a potential issue. However, I’d like to ask a couple of questions:

    (1) You say that nearly all of your respondents defined “drastic measures” as “drastic weight loss.” How many of your respondents defined what “drastic weight loss” means? What were their definitions? Did they follow any trends?

    (2) Can you explain why you chose to combine the following two questions rather than separate them: “Have you personally taken drastic measures to climb harder or kn[ow] someone who ha[s] done so?”

    Thank you in advance,

    Taylor

    • Mary says:

      Hi Taylor,

      Mary here, one of the CXC team and heavily involved in the design and analysis of this survey. I will be the first to say that our survey has some flaws, for sure. It received way more attention than any of us expected and in retrospect we would definitely have done some things differently. Your 2 points are perfect examples of these things. Here are my thoughts on each:

      1) They weren’t asked to define “drastic measures” but they could comment on whether or not the had or knew someone who had taken them. In these comments, people overwhelmingly mentioned weight loss. I didn’t quantify the percentage of comments that mentioned this, but by far the majority did.

      2) To be honest, I’m not sure why we didn’t make this 2 questions. I guess we just wanted a general idea of how pervasive this was in the community and didn’t think too far beyond that. We could definitely have asked it as 2 questions though.

      Either way we learned a lot in this process and if we ever do another survey of this kind we will take what we learned into account.

      Thanks for reading!
      Mary

  8. […] weight for climbing and a vast majority said they knew someone who had, or had done so themselves. You can see their thoughts and results here. What really surprises me is the fact that people are surprised by […]

  9. Sam Roberts says:

    This interview with Mathilde Becerra talks about weight loss and eating for professional women climbers, and I think is well worth listening to. It talks about her drift to lower body fat percentages, realization that it was harming her climbing (and health), and how she eats/trains now.

    https://www.trainingbeta.com/the-trainingbeta-podcast/

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