Date: March 21st, 2018
About Sasha DiGiulian
Sometimes I think that my guests do a much better job of introducing themselves than I ever could. Here’s Sasha’s bio from her website at www.sasha-digiulian.com:
Sasha first began climbing at 6 years old, in 1998. She has won the World Championships for Female Overall, and has placed Silver in the Bouldering World Championships, as well as Bronze in the Duel. Sasha has been the undefeated panAmerican Champion 2004 to the present, and she is a three-time US National Champion.
Outdoors, Sasha is the first North American woman to climb the grade 9a, 5.14d, recognized as one of the hardest sport climbs achieved by a female. She has done two. Sasha was the third woman in the world to accomplish this grade. Additionally, she has onsighted multiple 8b+’s, 5.14a’s, ascended groundbreaking multipitch routes of up to 1000 feet of 8c climbing, and has accomplished multiple First Ascents and 28 First Female Ascents around the world, including a First Female Ascent on the North Face of the Eiger.
DiGiulian graduated from Columbia University in New York City, having studied Nonfiction Writing and Business. She is on the Board of the Women’s Sports Foundation and serves as a Global Athlete Ambassador for Right to Play, Up2Us Sports, and the American Alpine Club. She also has served as an Athlete Representative on the board of the International Federation of Sport Climbing. She has been the recipient of multiple prestigious awards, including GLAMOUR Magazine’s Top College Women of the Year, 2016, the Cutting Edge Athlete Award for 2014 performance, presented by the American Alpine Club, The Golden Piton Award, and the Arco Rock Legend Award for Outstanding Achievements in the Outdoors.
-From her website – www.sasha-digiulian/about
I’ve wanted to talk with Sasha for quite a while about her evolution as a climber, how she trains now, and her views on body weight and her nutrition. We recently began working together on her nutrition, and we talk a bit about that in the interview.
Sasha DiGiulian Interview Details
- What she’s up to right now (sending 14b’s)
- Her thoughts on FFA’s and why she likes doing them
- Why she stopped competing
- The effect on her when her weight was criticized at 90 pounds
- How she feels about her body now
- Her current training program
- Short and long-term goals (5.15?)
Sasha DiGiulian Links
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Neely Quinn: Welcome to the TrainingBeta podcast where I talk with climbers and trainers about how we can get a little better at our favorite sport. I’m your host, Neely Quinn, and today we’re on episode 99 of the podcast. I’m talking with Sasha DiGiulian.
I’ve wanted to talk to Sasha for a long time on the podcast and somehow I got through to her via email and we decided to not only do a podcast episode, but also to work together with her on her nutrition. Yesterday was my first meeting with her about trying to fuel her properly for her climbing and training, as well as when she’s out at the crag, and to get her at the body composition that she’s looking to get.
We’ll talk a little about that on this episode but also what we’re going to talk about is her evolution as a climber and a pro climber and why she doesn’t compete anymore, how she feels about body weight and how it’s changed over the years and some of the criticism that she’s gotten for it, as well as what things she needs to do differently now to gain strength and power in her climbing. We talk about some of her goals and just we get to know Sasha DiGiulian a little bit better, which I really appreciated.
Before I get into the interview I want to remind you that TrainingBeta does offer training programs for climbers just like you who want to get stronger and want to have a really structured plan when they go into the gym. If you go to www.trainingbeta.com there is a tab at the top that is called ‘Climbing Training Programs’ and in there you’re going to find two subscription programs, one for boulderers, one for route climbers. Each of them gives you three new workouts every week of every month of every year. We go through cycles of power endurance and strength and power and finger training, and everything you need to be a good boulderer or a good route climber as well as drills on the wall.
Again, if you go to www.trainingbeta.com and visit the tab that’s called ‘Climbing Training Programs’ you’ll find them all on there. Your support means a whole lot to us and we hope that those training programs help you reach your goals.
Without further adieu I’m going to get into this interview with Sasha. I hope you enjoy it and I’ll talk to you on the other side.
Neely Quinn: Welcome to the show, Sasha. Thanks very much for being with me today.
Sasha DiGiulian: Thanks so much for having me today, Neely. I’m excited to chat.
Neely Quinn: Yeah, I know. We’ve been spending a little bit of time together and I’m finding out about who you are, which is cool to talk with you in person. I think that everybody listening will appreciate actually being able to hear you and get to know you a little bit better.
Before I bombard you with a million questions, why don’t you tell me a little bit about yourself?
Sasha DiGiulian: Yeah, sure. I am a 25-year old professional climber. I graduated from Columbia University where I studied business and nonfiction writing. Now I’m currently living in Boulder, Colorado and think something cool for the listeners to know – hey everybody – is that this is true to the heart because I just started working with Neely on nutrition and it’s been a subject that’s kind of pervaded my career as a professional athlete. It’s super important to me and to learn more about it so I’m excited to be here
Neely Quinn: Yeah, cool. Maybe that will open the door a little bit more for us to talk about nutrition stuff. I’ll ask you about all of that later but first I want to talk to you about your climbing and sort of a history of your climbing career. I guess I’ll start with: what do you think are some of the highlights of your climbing career? We’ll go from there.
Sasha DiGiulian: Yeah, sure. I think first of all, I’m just super grateful for the opportunity each day to have what I really love to do most in this world be my profession. I mean, I don’t feel like there are many days of the year where I’m actually working and I know that that is an extreme privilege that I’ve been granted.
I think something that I’m really proud of is having gone to University and having completed that and still have maintained a career in my sport. I think that education is at the forefront of my belief system and what is very valuable.
Something else that I’m really proud of, I guess as a highlight of my career, is just all the places that I’ve been able to go and travel to and learn about. I think in addition to University being a educational vessel, I think that travel is probably one of the greatest teachers that I’ve ever had. Just experiencing the different communities around the world and having climbing as that conduit into these different landscapes has been a serious highlight for me.
Neely Quinn: So you really enjoy the travel as well as the climbing and probably meeting new people and all that.
Sasha DiGiulian: Oh totally. I think that something that really sets climbing apart from a lot of sports and a lot of experiences that we have is this common language that we globally share. The fact that you can be a climber and travel to somewhere on the other side of this planet and have something in common that unites you is really cool.
Neely Quinn: Yeah. What have been some of your favorite places?
Sasha DiGiulian: I would definitely have to say that, in the US, the Red River Gorge and Yosemite are at the top of my list. Then internationally, Spain. The whole Catalonia region of Spain is somewhere that I love to frequent, as well as South Africa, which is probably one of the most adventurous trips that I’ve had.
Indonesia I went to last summer before I went to Madagascar and I loved that whole landscape, the culture there, the people were so welcoming and friendly and there was so much potential. I think that, as I’ve started growing my career into different scopes of what climbing can signify, our trip to Indonesia was something of more of an ecotourism trip to bolster their economy there through climbing. Seeing the world in that light and seeing the change that climbing can bring to areas like where we were at in the rural islands was really neat.
Neely Quinn: Yeah, that sounds really exciting. I mean, it is really fun that you get to do this and call it your career. It’s amazing.
Sasha DiGiulian: [laughs] I know. I hope I never have to sit in a cubicle.
Neely Quinn: Yeah. So tell me a little bit more about your climbing and how do you feel like you’ve evolved over the years? You’ve been doing this for a long time. You’ve been climbing since you were what, six?
Sasha DiGiulian: Yeah, this is my twentieth year climbing which is kind of bizarre.
Neely Quinn: Yeah.
Sasha DiGiulian: I mean, I started in the gym. I started at my brother’s birthday party and when I started climbing I had no aspiration of what it would end up being to me, it was just literally something that I really enjoyed doing. I joined the junior team and program at the climbing gym and the next year I walked into a local regional championship and that was how I literally stumbled upon the competitive realm of rock climbing.
From when I was about seven until, I would say, about 22 or 23 I competed very frequently. I went through the youth ranks I guess up until I was aged-out but then at 16 I was eligible to compete for the US team so that was when I started doing the World Cups and National Championships and stuff like that.
I kind of see my climbing career as having taken these different chapters. I definitely would say that I’ve closed the chapter on competitive climbing. I closed that a few years ago as I entered more heavily into first, the sport climbing specific category of what climbing is and then starting to branch out into learning new skills, so big wall climbing and trad climbing. This year I’m kind of taking a bigger bite into ice climbing.
I think the way that I see climbing is that it has so many different facets and I don’t want to be held back by not having the capacity to have those skills to perform in the different facets that the sport offers. I think that each year I’m just trying to add a little bit more of a layer onto my knowledge base of what I am capable of doing so that I can expand further.
Neely Quinn: Yeah. So tell me a little bit about why you switched because that’s a pretty abrupt switch from comp climbing to then getting into big wall and trad and ice climbing. Why?
Sasha DiGiulian: I mean honestly, I think that I have so much respect for competitive climbers but there is this very tubular focus that you need to have that is a lot of hours climbing in the gym and going to competitions in order to really reach your maximum ability of what sort of performance you can yield for the competitions.
My ultimate goal always in competitions was: I would love to win the World Championships. I won the World Championships in 2011 in Arco and that was the beginning, I think, of this downward slope of my interest in competitions because it was like reaching the pinnacle of what I thought would be this amazing thing for me to realize and then feeling a little bit like, ‘Oh, okay. Now what?’
Neely Quinn: Huh.
Sasha DiGiulian: Not in any way to knock what I felt because I was really excited about that and I did continue to do some more competitions after that, but I think that my interest in it started to fizzle out a little bit. The more competitions I went to, a little bit more of the monotonous regime it felt and I started becoming just a lot more interested in focusing my attention on outdoor climbing.
When I would have school breaks during the time that I kind of made this transition I was a full-time student at Columbia and it was a lot about time prioritization and selectively choosing where it was that I put my energy. When I had breaks from school I didn’t want to be traveling to some competition. I wanted to be going on an outdoor climbing trip. Over my summer breaks it was kind of my window of a couple months to really maximize my time outdoors and so I think that really just trying to be climbing and, I guess, adventuring more often kind of pulled me away from this world of competitive climbing.
Now, I look back at competitions – and I still watch some competitions – and I feel a little bit of nostalgia sometimes. I watched sport climbing Nationals and I was like, ‘Man, I remember it like it was yesterday that I felt the nerves that I felt sitting in isolation before finals.’ I can relate a lot but I don’t feel like that’s where I see myself.
I think just on top of all of that, the only way in my belief system that you can do something well is if you really feel passionate about it. I don’t feel that passion that I should feel if it is something that I want to do with competing. Unless I feel that excitement again I wouldn’t enter another competition.
Neely Quinn: Yeah, that makes sense. I mean, you kind of retired at the peak of your competition career, it seems like, which makes sense that you’d go on to more different things. So you started going outside more and you had a lot of success. Can you tell me about how that felt?
Sasha DiGiulian: Yeah, I mean I think outdoor climbing was always something that I saw as this side thing that I was doing while I was competing and training and then, in I guess it was October 2011, I tried and accomplished my first – at the time it was a 9a – called Pure Imagination.
I didn’t really have any sort of scope of what my limits were and I just saw going out to try a hard rock climb as like: what’s the worst that happens? You fall or you don’t do it. That was just kind of my philosophy when I got in and went and tried this rock climb that I guess I did rather quickly in the whole scope of things. I think I did it my third day on it. That became kind of this big turning point in my career as a climber that I didn’t anticipate at all going into it.
All of a sudden I was a little bit more in the limelight and people started paying attention to more of what I was doing and what I would do next. With that came this tremendous amount of support that I received from sponsors that really kind of enabled me to really decide what path I wanted to take. I think I’m just so fortunate for the timing of all of it and the way that things panned-out because I was provided kind of this platform to choose my direction and grow into who I wanted to be with climbing.
That year I took off from school. It was before I went back to University and I really just poured all of my efforts into traveling and climbing outside and still doing some competitions. Then, I went back to school and it was kind of this four-year really difficult time for me. I think it took a lot of shape shifting and reflecting on what it was climbing meant to me and what kind of space I wanted it to occupy, and just letting go a little bit of that identity of just being a climber and seeing myself as I’d always kind of seen myself as a little more multidimensional than that, but accepting that it would take a toll on my performance directly in climbing. At the time it was just something that I had to learn to accept and try and make do with the best that I could and try and grow and evolve into whatever it was that I was capable of doing at the time while I was still really focused on school, and I wanted to be fully present in that realm as well.
Neely Quinn: Yeah, I’m sure that going to school full-time at a university that I’m assuming wasn’t easy to just whiz through.
Sasha DiGiulian: I think with that, I’m sure all universities are tough. Something that I experienced really quickly at Columbia was – actually I have this story where I had the Pan-American Championships in Venezuela and it was my first fall semester at Columbia. I was enrolled in the class called The Science of Psychology and it was one of the requirements that I had for my business career there. I told the teacher when we got the syllabus, “Hey, I’m not going to be here for this exam because I have the Pan-American Championships at the same time and the date is set. Is there any way I can take the test early or what should I do?” She was like, point blank, “I don’t care if you sleep through your alarm or you’re meeting the President of the United States, I don’t make exceptions.” [laughs] I was like, ‘So what do I do?’ She was like, ‘You’re either there or you take a zero on the exam.’
What ended up happening is there were four tests and I took the zero on that exam and then I just did really well on the other three in order to just get the best grade that I could possible without failing the class. That was a really stark contrast from what I was coming from, where I think school was – I mean, I wasn’t in school when I was just climbing before I went to Columbia and it seemed that teachers really put academia first, as they should, but without making many exceptions. It was hard to adjust sometimes.
Neely Quinn: Yeah. Was it also hard to – I’m assuming that you went to college and, like most college kids, decided to maybe party a little bit and have a lot of fun. Would you say that you partook in that kind of thing?
Sasha DiGiulian: Oh, absolutely. I was living in New York City and for the majority of it I had my own apartment in downtown Manhattan so I think that enjoying that experience was a really enriching part of me maturing and having another worldly experience than just being a little sheltered and a little objective-oriented. I loosened up a little bit and yeah, I fully enjoyed college. I think in a different scope of what the traditional route of college is because I was also living surrounded by a lot of my friends who, actually in Manhattan, weren’t necessarily at Columbia also. Other professional athletes or people that I met through professional events that I started going to.
My life in New York kind of opened a lot of doors and opportunities for me to grow beyond the really endemic sphere that climbing can be. There was a lot of contacts and networking opportunities for me to kind of expand more into, specifically, the women’s sports realm and I think just grow in a business sense, which was a really neat place for me to be at at the time that I was developing my career.
Neely Quinn: Of all the pro climbers that I know of, it seems like you really – I don’t know how to say this but you became sort of a star in several realms, not just among climbers. What do you think it did for you as a climber, compared with maybe other pro climbers?
Sasha DiGiulian: Yeah, I think that one fallacy that a lot of people assume is that to be a professional climber all you do is climb hard. To me, the duty of being a professional athlete is being a well-articulated individual that stands by what they believe in and does, to the best of their ability, inspire other people to follow what it is that they’re passionate about and to really align your core values with the partnerships that you develop. The companies that I work with, I work with them for a reason and that’s because I believe in what they do. I believe in their brand values and they align with mine.
To that regard, I think that just expanding beyond just a very core climbing niche is important for you to grow your athletic career but yeah, I guess ultimately something that I really aspired to do is to bring climbing to the forefront of more people’s minds. I know that I’m super biased but climbing is such an empowering sport. I think that when I was younger, I didn’t have nearly the amount of self confidence that I feel like climbing has brought to me. I’m certainly not always confident at all but when I’m climbing well is kind of when I feel the most confident and secure and I’ve always had a direction in my life because of it. I’ve never questioned who it is that I want to become, it’s been more of this journey of myself being involved in this process of who I am.
But also, I think that I have definitely become a lot more callous over my experience in climbing. I mean – no pun intended. [laughs] Having more attention and being a little bit more in the limelight definitely brought negativity where I didn’t anticipate and surely I don’t really aspire at all to be someone who’s some famous person. That’s not really my goal but whatever happens through what I do with climbing is, hopefully, what’s meant to be.
I think I’ve learned the importance of the close relationships that you have in your life. Like, my family and my friends are so important to me and just learning how to just brush other people’s opinions that don’t necessarily matter because not everyone does have the opportunity to know you on a personal level, and just accepting that and accepting that there will be people who disagree with what you’re doing for whatever reason and being okay with that. That was definitely a serious challenge and it sometimes still is, just realizing that you can’t please everyone and people will have opinions about you whether they’re sound ones or not.
Neely Quinn: Yeah. That must be really hard, seeing that these people around the world do have opinions about you that aren’t necessarily always positive. Would you be willing to talk about any certain topic that really bothered you?
Sasha DiGiulian: Oh yeah, I think when I was at the peak of my competition performance and had just done Pure Imagination, the Internet was littered with people saying, “Oh, if I was 90 pounds or 100 pounds I could do that, too.” People coming out of the woodwork to reattribute my success to some other meaning.
I think that that kind of brings us on to the topic of how important nutrition and taking care of your body is. Climbing is a strength-to-weight ratio sport and as much as adolescent girls already go through societal pressure and criticism and judgement, I think growing up with a career in this sort of high speculation of any sort of weight changes my body was going through, it was difficult. It made me really question at times what was good for me, what was – I mean, I remember walking into a gym in Austria and I was alone. I had flown to Europe and I guess I was 18 at the time. It was before I had gone back to University and my name was definitely bigger than it had been. All I could feel was people looking at me, judging me. It was the first time that I can really pinpoint in my life that I felt like people were looking at me in a negative light, that I could really feel and notice. Whether it was true or whether it was just in my head, that was my first experience and I kind of wanted to put my hood on and run away.
I think what I learned through that whole process was just a few years of me really shaking out my own relationship with nutrition, my body weight, accepting the changes that inevitably my body was going to experience as I kind of went through the natural transition from being a prepubescent girl to becoming more of a woman, and how that affected my climbing and feeling the way that I had to kind of re-engineer even the style in which I climbed and the focuses that I had on climbing. It was a process that I think I still deal with. I mean, there’s never a phase in my life where I’m like, ‘Okay, my body is perfect. This is exactly – I’m beautiful.’ I never really think that and I don’t know if I will, and I think just accepting that while still being comfortable and confident in who I am is okay.
Neely Quinn: Yeah. First of all, thank you for being so candid about this.
Sasha DiGiulian: Oh yeah.
Neely Quinn: I have a couple questions. Do you feel like when you were 90 pounds do you think that was just the natural progression that your body was going through, or were you trying to do that?
Sasha DiGiulian: No, I think that when I was really training with objectives like winning the World Championships, I had a really strict relationship with my caloric intake and my caloric output. I don’t think it was necessarily a healthy weight. I think that I put a lot of emphasis on the balance of how much I weighed and what my performance would come out of that that definitely strained some relationships even that I had in my life. Thankfully, I think the real bulk of this lasted a year where I was really strict with everything but then I really gradually started gaining more weight and then my body started changing.
Unfortunately, I think that what I went through is not uncommon. It’s something that I see and perhaps I’m more in tune with it because I went through it. Especially in the competition realm of our sport, it’s a really controlled environment versus, say when you’re doing a big wall there’s a lot of energy that you need to have preserved because you’re having really long days and doing thousands of feet of climbing and hiking. In a competition you’re literally warming up for, let’s say two hours and you know exactly what it is that you need to be maximally performing on and that’s going to be an eight-minute performance on a single route.
That kind of opens this door to being really hyper-scientific about what sort of input/output you allow your body. I think my body was deprived of having more calories than it needed. It wasn’t necessarily at a healthy weight. It was definitely, at times, advantageous. I mean, it goes without saying that the lighter you are in climbing, if you still have your strength and you still have an appropriate amount of energy – you don’t really see any overweight climbers really excelling. That’s for a reason and that’s quite scientific. I think it relates to a lot of sports but it’s a really significant balance to be aware of.
As soon as I started realizing that I was kind of getting a lot of attention and having young girls look up to me was when I recognized that I had this really significant responsibility to not steer people in the wrong direction and to encourage a healthy relationship with their bodies and with our sport. I kind of took a little bit of an active approach of checking in with myself, like: is this what you want to inspire other girls to be? Each generation lays the foundation for the next generation to grow upon and in that light I had a responsibility, I think, to show to young girls what it was that I should look like and what they should potentially aspire to. I don’t think that you can take that lightly at all.
Neely Quinn: So what happened once you realized that?
Sasha DiGiulian: I think that moving to New York City and having something like school coexisting with climbing enabled me to see that there is a lot to life beyond worrying about how much food you put into your body, what sort of expenditure you have, and I think that growing and maturing and being more comfortable with myself, doing more strength training as my body matured. I definitely took a different approach to the way that I trained.
Before and actually up until I was about 23 I never campused, really. I never hangboarded. I just climbed which really I think worked for me and it was what I enjoyed to do most, but I didn’t need to do/I wasn’t doing gym work like lifting weights or high intensity interval training whereas all of that is what I do now. I think it’s essential. I can’t rely just on elasticity and a pure love of climbing to really push my progression as much as I’d like to. I think that training is required.
Neely Quinn: So as you became a more healthy weight, you started – I assume you saw a difference in your performance.
Sasha DiGiulian: Yeah, I think that it’s definitely correlative, though, because as I was in school I was climbing less. I had a full-time student schedule where I think I would go to the gym and kind of be thinking about the assignment that I should be completing rather than the boulder session that I should be really concentrated on. That, my body changing, having stress, all of it kind of is a part of this correlative experience of me going through definitely some transitional years of me needing to find my newfound strength.
When I graduated from school it was kind of tough because I had a really bad back injury that kind of went on – I was probably fully recovered about six months after graduating from school. As I did that, I had already transitioned to climbing outside more but started performing at a level that I wanted to be performing at and accomplishing big wall feats that I hadn’t done before. It’s really difficult for me to do this direct comparison of what you achieve on something like a big wall to a single pitch sport climb. The preparation that you put your body through and the way that you are training is different.
Definitely, when I came back from Madagascar for instance, where we did Mora Mora, my body was a lot more slow moving. When I went to go bouldering after doing this long, technical, granite big wall, I definitely was way less powerful than I wanted to be but I feel a lot more comfortable and pleased with where my climbing is at now. Especially not being in school and having time to dedicate to really training my body. It’s by no means where I see my maximum level of performance being at but I feel pretty confident that it shouldn’t be that hard to reach or be prepared for the level that I need to be for the goals that I have.
Neely Quinn: Right. I mean you’ve been climbing 14b and doing all kinds of different climbing so you’re obviously getting really strong. I’m curious about what your goals are. Long term, short term?
Sasha DiGiulian: Yeah, this summer I have three big wall projects in Canada. Then I also have a goal of free climbing a route on El Capitan this year and I have trip in Venezuela this year where we’re going with a group of scientists and we’re basically using climbing more of as a vehicle to encourage climate change studies rather than some specific, core climbing objective there. That is something right up the alley of the direction I want to be taking with climbing.
I think that by nature, climbing is definitely a very self-centered endeavor. We climb because it’s what we love to do but there is a lot of meaning that you can bring from climbing to actually affect positive change as well.
I think my long term goals in climbing are to really expand myself into as many frontiers in the sport as possible and to go on different adventures where I really feel physical and mental challenge. I don’t know what my “legacy” in climbing may look like down the road. It’s really hard for me to anticipate. I do know that what I’m interested in right now is continuing this learning and growth process of just being as capable as I can be in whatever facet that I try and get into, so even just on a daily basis, learning how to trad climb better so that I can be prepared for goals that are trad climbing objectives. It’s kind of a day-by-day, week-by-week process
Neely Quinn: Do you have any specific goals with numbers on routes, or do you kind of take your projects on a route-by-route basis, what inspires you?
Sasha DiGiulian: It’s more of the latter, really. I guess I’ve been asked, ‘Are you going to try and climb 5.15?’ To that I don’t know. I see myself as 25 – Angela Eiter is 30 or 32 and has climbed the hardest route that a woman has ever climbed in the world, 5.15b, so that’s so inspiring to me. I don’t see that there’s a limit on what we’re capable of but I think that the limit is more on where it is that we’re passionate about exploring. Right now, I don’t know exactly. I know that that’s not this year’s plan but in a few years I don’t see why not.
I mean, I don’t see any sort of near end date to my climbing career. I definitely see that there are a lot of other things that I’m interested in and that I like to be involved in and that’s just because I think climbing has become this really great profession for me. I’m so thankful for the support that I have but I don’t necessarily just want to always be only climbing.
Neely Quinn: Do you have any idea about what else you would want to do?
Sasha DiGiulian: Yeah. It’s slightly confidential at this point, though. [laughs]
Neely Quinn: Not anymore.
Sasha DiGiulian: Definitely stay tuned because it will come out what we’re working on.
Neely Quinn: Alright, cool. I wanted to ask you about FFA stuff because you’ve been really inspirational to a lot of women out there, and a lot of men. Some people find FFAs to be a controversial subject. Can you tell me your opinions on that?
Sasha DiGiulian: Yeah, totally. I think that the controversy over first female ascents is whether there’s actually reason to give this label to a woman doing the first female ascent. Why not just say that she did the ascent of something? I can understand that counter argument but I think that a first female ascent is a historical landmark on a route. There’s no reason not to note that and to really reinforce and encourage this repetition of: this female did this amazing feat.
I think where first female ascents are not necessarily as significant to label is if I went and did a first female ascent of, let’s say some 5.13. That’s not necessarily the cutting edge of our sport. Obviously that’s relative because you could say a mid-grade 5.14 isn’t the cutting edge of our sport either so it’s a very relative scale. I think it really depends. In my opinion, the more we reinforce this significance of women going out there and accomplishing things, I’m personally inspired by that.
I mean, when I see that someone does something, like if it’s a woman at a crag who’s trying a really hard route or if I see her doing a really hard route, I feel a lot more inspired in my own capability of achieving it. I think it’s more relatable for me, for whatever reason it is, if a woman does something than if a man does something. I think that the way I see it is the more we break down these barriers of what women set out to and achieve and the more we encourage that, then the more barriers and progression will continue to be broken.
Neely Quinn: One follow-up question about that: would you say that that’s been a goal of yours? Do you seek out routes because you will be the first female to do them?
Sasha DiGiulian: There is something that becoming the first female to do something is inspiring. I mean, I can’t say that that’s not a factor in selecting routes but it can’t be the sole objective, if you know what I mean. You have to actually want to go to the area that you’re going to and you have to actually enjoy the climb that you’re doing.
What I think that I would say back to the note on first female ascents, too, is in any sport what’s first is kind of this purview of a professional athlete that becomes what’s achievable. When I was 18 and I climbed Pure Imagination, for instance, this then was some sort of benchmark climb that after became a route that has since been repeated by several women. Now I think more female climbers are advancing beyond the gym and there’s a streamline connection between what you can do in the gym and what you can dream of doing outside. It relates to a lot of different endeavors and sports science and personal breakthroughs.
There’s been a tremendous spike in women’s progression in climbing over the last decade. I think that we can attribute this to the fact that more women are climbing, and training has become more scientific and available, and it’s also been through the lead of other women.
Now, I mean, there’s a decently sized handful of women who have climbed routes of the 9-grade caliber. To follow, there will be other women who will climb this grade and perhaps 9b+ soon. I don’t really know where the benchmark of what’s – I don’t really think that there is any sort of limit or difference between what men and women are capable of achieving, but what happens each time when there’s a new benchmark that’s set is suddenly, this becomes a lot more feasible.
With a sport that’s so mental like climbing, you have to believe that something is possible in order to do something. As more women push their envelope of what’s possible, it opens this theoretical floodgate of a whole bunch of others to follow and to experience. This kind of progression envelope continues to expand.
To that note, that’s kind of where I see if you go out and you do the first female ascent, sure you’re getting this recognition of some historical significant achievement which is undoubtedly going to satisfy your sponsors. It’s something that is a title that you achieve the same as people set out to set new records, but it’s also reinforcing this significant feat of what women are capable of achieving so it kind of has two folds to it.
Neely Quinn: Yeah, I totally agree. I am with you on this and I know that, personally, when I heard of my first friend doing a 5.13c who was a woman, I was like, ‘Oh, that’s possible for me to do that,’ whereas before that it wasn’t quite as possible. I totally agree with you and I think it’s valuable to note FFAs.
The next thing I want to talk to you about is your current training. Would you mind telling me about what you’ve been doing and why?
Sasha DiGiulian: Yeah, sure. January I was ice climbing. [laughs] I normally take a month off in the winter from climbing and this was kind of the way that I started cross-training, skiing and ice climbing, but now I’ve been preparing for this goal that I have for this summer.
I’ve been doing cross-training so that’s strength and conditioning. I train with this guy, Dave Lee, at a workout facility doing standard weights and high intensity interval training. He kind of writes the program but it is stuff like working my leg muscles, which I don’t know if so many climbers actually see the emphasis on that but when you’re doing a big wall you’re spending a lot of time pressing off your feet and your legs are super important. Also, even in bouldering, exploding off of holds.
I’ve been training with Dave Wahl as well. I actually just started training with him but he’s been helping me a lot with injury prevention but also ability to do more performance on, say, the campus board and how that directly translates to climbing, so pushing and pulling simultaneously and really figuring out the mechanics of my body to get the maximum value out of it.
Then for climbing specific, Edu Marin wrote me a training plan which I was following up until as of late. The last few weeks I’ve just been mainly climbing outside because I think as much as training is important in progressing in climbing, enjoying it and getting outside and actually doing it is just as if not more important.
Lately I’ve had more of a balance of climbing outside about four days a week and then doing some gym stuff about 2-3 days a week. Coming up I’m going to Utah, actually in a few days, with Mathilda Söderlund. We’re going to go to southwest Utah and climb some routes around there and then I’ll go to Indian Creek and trad climb. Then I come back to Colorado and I’ll probably take advantage of the good weather here.
I’ve also been building out my garage with Didier and Tension Climbing so I’ve got a Tension board in it and a campus board set-up and a treadwall and one of those Airdyne bikes and a treadmill. I guess I’m also doing the New York City Marathon in November so [laughs] I’m doing a little side training with that as well.
Neely Quinn: Okay, wow. You’re doing a lot. So you’re climbing outside four days a week and you’re doing indoor stuff 2-3 days a week. Does that mean that you get one or zero days of rest?
Sasha DiGiulian: Yeah, normally my days off are just lighter workouts. I definitely have some days where I just need to do nothing but I don’t really like those days in general. If I’m having a day off I’ll probably go running or go to a yoga class or something.
I actually just started going to this place called Bulldog Yoga in Boulder which I really like. It’s hot yoga but it’s not too hot. It’s like 92° and they play really good music. They have a strength building class and also a more stretching-oriented class, and they have a more standard yoga class. I’m trying. I’m so bad at stretching, so actually developing a routine into it so I’m trying to get better at that. Yoga has kind of made me a little bit more concentrated and putting more energy towards it.
Neely Quinn: Yeah, and you said that you were doing HIIT classes or HIIT workouts?
Sasha DiGiulian: Yeah. I’m actually going to one in like 30 minutes.
Neely Quinn: So you’re doing those at a gym where they actually lead these classes?
Sasha DiGiulian: I do them with Dave Lee, my trainer, and then also I’ll go to classes for fun with friends. I kind of see it as the way in Boulder to be social. You go to fitness classes together. [laughs]
There’s this place called Mecca which I’ve enjoyed going to and kind of switch it up. I think it’s fun to go to classes sometimes instead of just working out alone or with a trainer because you get to experience – it’s definitely not this high grade professional facility. It’s a little bit more targeted towards an overall fitness level, like an overall fitness workout, but for less sports-specific workouts that’s what I’ll do, just for cross-training to get cardio in.
Neely Quinn: And you’ll do that how many days a week?
Sasha DiGiulian: It depends what climbing areas I’m going to. If I’m going up to somewhere like Seal Rock or with a larger hike then I don’t incorporate cardio into my routine that day, but if I go to somewhere like Clear Creek I’ll normally do some cardio cross-training afterwards.
Neely Quinn: Okay, so sometimes on the days that you go outside climbing you’ll go back and maybe go to the gym and train?
Sasha DiGiulian: Yeah, I think even if I go to the climbing gym and do some campusing afterwards or hangboarding, that’s kind of why I’m building it in my house. I don’t need to go to the gym. It can be really advantageous. Outdoor climbing, I definitely get totally worked but there are aspects of training that I could still incorporate like doing a little bit more campusing or finger work, just to really drive the training home.
Neely Quinn: About how many days would you say you campus and fingerboard?
Sasha DiGiulian: When I’m training and following Edu Marin’s program, four days a week.
Neely Quinn: Oh really?
Sasha DiGiulian: Yeah.
Neely Quinn: So you’re doing it on/you must be doing it on days when you go climbing, too.
Sasha DiGiulian: Yeah, exactly.
Neely Quinn: Do you feel like doing cardio and HIIT workouts has helped your climbing?
Sasha DiGiulian: I think it’s increased my overall cardio ability and aerobic fitness level, so being able to recover quicker on routes it’s definitely helped.
I think we all kind of experience that red zone when we’re pumped and you all of a sudden get tunnel vision or you’re breathing hard and you kind of think the next move is not going to lead you to any moves thereafter so you just kind of give up. I think that doing high intensity interval training enables you to mentally be in the zone of pushing past fatigue. I think just with overall body conditioning it helps.
With running, the only real reason I’m running now is because I’m doing this marathon, otherwise I don’t normally run. I’ll do hiking and stuff like that but that’s because I enjoy hiking. I think that high intensity interval training is probably better, more applicable, for climbing than just running in general.
The workouts that I’ve done with Dave Lee at CrossFit Roots, I find are helpful for climbing because it’s actually training strength as well. I’ve definitely increased my muscle mass over the years and that’s enabled me to be a more powerful, precise climber. I think that that is a really positive step for me to take.
Neely Quinn: Last question about your training: on climbing days when you’re in the gym, do you do specific drills on the wall?
Sasha DiGiulian: Sometimes, not really. I have some Moonboard things that I’ll do that are more like 3x3s or some circuits that I’ll have timed rests, like two minute rests in between a 35-move circuit, but nothing – I guess that would be a drill. I don’t really think of them as drills but yeah, kind of. [laughs]
Neely Quinn: So do you ever just go in and do routes?
Sasha DiGiulian: Yeah, totally. I think that if the weather is bad and I just go in to climb and it’s my ‘day of climbing,’ then I just go in and climb routes or just go in and boulder. I think that that’s important because it reminds you of why you’re climbing. It’s an enjoyable thing. You don’t always have to just be training.
Neely Quinn: Yeah, that’s good. Last topic is diet. I left it for the very end. Can you tell me – I think probably what people want to know is: what do you eat? People always want to know what other climbers eat to get them to be such a strong climber. Can you describe your diet?
Sasha DiGiulian: Yeah. Should I do it pre-Neely? [laughs]
Neely Quinn: Yeah, let’s do pre-Neely.
Sasha DiGiulian: I would say that each morning I have a routine of having toast and eggs and avocado, maybe some vegetables. I find that really incorporating protein in my breakfast really keeps me full longer. Then for lunch I typically have some form of carb and ideally some protein and vegetables. I eat a lot of vegetables. I tend to eat more wholesome ingredients, likewise for dinner, but I think that I definitely have a sweet tooth.
The way that I’ve always kind of seen it is everything in moderation. I don’t want to deprive myself of satisfying my sweet tooth. If it’s there then have a cookie. I think where people really kind of get down the wrong track is if you’re having five cookies after dinner. Then you’re consuming a lot more calories than your body actually needs. I typically don’t party that much [laughs] and I’m kind of like an old lady now but I definitely have nights where I like to go out for drinks with friends and that’s just a part of being human and social.
I would say, in general, I’m not so strict about what it is what I eat but how I see our bodies functioning is we are essentially like race cars and what you put into a race car is the best fuel to expect the optimal performance. Just really learning about what that optimal fuel is is part of why I’m so excited to work with you. Knowing and understanding how my body feels and what’s going to provide the most energy for a sustainable amount of time.
Neely Quinn: I know we only talked yesterday for the first time about your nutrition but is there anything that you feel like you’re going to change?
Sasha DiGiulian: Oh yeah. Well, first of all, having more protein. That is something I can totally understand and totally feel. The days that I have more protein I definitely feel like I have more energy.
I did a blood work test with Red Bull High Performance Center and something the test yielded back was vitamin deficiencies and analyzing my blood type and what sort of needs I have there.
I guess this week we’re trying out not having eggs. That was actually really difficult this morning because I’m so used to having eggs for breakfast. I don’t wake up and want chicken. It’s kind of hard to have so I was like, ‘Okay, what do I have?’ I had this bone broth collagen that PaleoPro sent me and I had some toast and one of those protein Fuel For Fire packs.
Neely Quinn: Well, people are probably like, ‘Why is she not eating eggs?’ Do you feel like – we’re trying to figure out if they’re giving you certain symptoms. That’s basically the reason. Do you want to expound upon that at all?
Sasha DiGiulian: Yeah, I have eczema and that’s – egg intolerance could be an indicator. We’re just testing out some on that. I think, as you said to me, a diet is very personal and what your body operates best on is going to be very individual, so we’re kind of finding out what my body operates optimally on. I think for a lot of people, a lot goes off of feel and the way that your body is feeling when you’re climbing or exercising. Are you hungry all the time? Just understanding that is a part of the process.
Neely Quinn: Right. Yes. You were listening. [laughs] This is all great to hear.
The last thing is about what you eat at the crag because I think a lot of people are confused about what to actually bring outside climbing with them. What were you bringing with you and what do you think you could change about that?
Sasha DiGiulian: I make a lot of my own energy bars. I’ll usually do a one-to-one ratio of oats and nuts and then hold together these ingredients with a conglomerate of honey or dates, and then add whatever I want to them like chia seeds or coconut, cranberries, different types of dried fruit. I think incorporating protein while at the crag – I work with a company called Perky Jerky which actually makes my favorite protein in a bag, which is turkey jerky and beef jerky. This year pork jerky is coming. That’s a really lean and protein fulfilling way to snack up at the crag. I’ll normally bring fruit as well in my bag and if I don’t have bars, I’ll usually make peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, to be honest.
I think that’s something that I need to get better at and that I would definitely encourage other people is to remember to actually fuel up at the crag. It can be easy to get distracted when you’re just climbing or if it’s cold you don’t really think to drink as much water or eat as much as you should, but you’re out there burning a lot of energy and expecting your body to perform so fuel it.
Neely Quinn: Yes. I love that. Any last thoughts? Anything else about your climbing, your training, your diet, anything?
Sasha DiGiulian: No, I think that’s about it. I think the only thing I would leave with is the most important thing is to really be true to you and that whatever it is that you want to see that success in should be what you’re most passionate about. That will yield the results that you want.
Neely Quinn: Yeah. It sounds like you really live by those words.
Sasha DiGiulian: I try to. I think that something I’ve been working on lately is really being a little bit more selective on opportunities that I say, “Yes,” to. I’m cutting back on a little bit of the travel that I tend to get myself involved in and just really staying core to who it is that I see myself as being and the relationships that I have in my life. Really just respecting those because at the end of the day, that is the most important, in my opinion – the love that we have with the people that we’re closest with.
Neely Quinn: I appreciate your time and your wisdom and your candor, so thank you very much for talking to me.
Sasha DiGiulian: Yeah, thank you, Neely. I’m excited to continue working with you.
Neely Quinn: Yeah, I’ll talk to you soon.
Sasha DiGiulian: Talk to you.
Neely Quinn: Alright, I hope you enjoyed that interview with Sasha. You can find her on Instagram @sashadigiulian and her website is www.sasha-digiulian.com. Like I said to her, I really appreciated her openness and willingness to share about some topics that are sensitive and probably were a little hurtful for her and hard.
I think that weight and weight loss and strict eating and disordered eating, they’re all topics that we all could be talking about a little bit more and being more educated because climbing and weight have so much to do with each other. I think that a lot of us take it too far and so I’m going to try to address that a little bit more.
Coming up next month I have an interview with a therapist named Kate Bennett. She specializes in eating disorders and athletes. She has especially worked with climbers and athletes around Boulder, who can sometimes really take things too far. Hopefully that will help and I can maybe address some of these things in blog posts, but also I do work with people who have strict eating behaviors and disordered eating behaviors in my practice as a nutritionist. I am taking clients for next month and starting – I can start scheduling for that now.
I think that’s all I’ve got for you today. Coming up on the podcast – I always say that I have people and then people flake out or their schedule gets too busy and they can’t end up doing the interview so I hate saying who I’m going to have on, but I am going to try to do an interview with Sean Bailey next week. I did try to do one with Michaela Kiersch but she got sick and now she’s off to Spain so I’m really sorry but that’s not happening right now. Then I’m going to do one with Meagan Martin and another one with Esther Smith is coming up, so we’ve got some good stuff coming up on the podcast. I appreciate you listening.
You can follow us on Facebook at TrainingBeta, on Instagram @trainingbeta, and I really appreciate your support and thanks for listening all the way to the end. I’ll talk to you next week.