Paleo Athletes: A Climber’s Diet

I’ve decided that what this blog needs is more talk about sports nutrition and Paleo athletes. A lot of you are athletes, and whether or not I want to believe it, I am, too. I say that because when I was asked as a kid what sports I played, I actually replied “I play piano.” The first team sports I ever endured were in high school, the age at which most kids, having started playing soccer at age 3, have developed into practically pros. I thought it’d be fun to try soccer and field hockey. It wasn’t fun at all and I sucked. I tried horseback riding from a young age, but I had a knack for falling out of the saddle onto my head, so I gave it up. I’ve also attempted being a runner, but I can’t say I’ve ever run faster than a 9 minute mile. And that might be pushing it.

Enter Climbing

But THEN I lived in Sequoia National Park when I was 19, the summer after my first year at college. I met a man there, and that man holds a special place in my heart for introducing me to rock climbing. Yes, I cried my way up my first climbs, terrified. And yes, I was overweight and wore all the wrong clothes when I first started climbing (the too short shorts that give everyone too much to look at when you’re 20 feet above them on a rock face). I was weak and uncoordinated. How could I not have been? All I’d ever done was try and fail at other sports and occasionally go for a mind numbing run.

14 years later I’m still rock climbing, but my skills have improved. Moreover, I wear more appropriate clothing when I climb and I don’t cry every time I go up the wall. Just sometimes. Rock climbing has actually had a lot to do with shaping who I am, who my friends are, what I spend my time doing, how I eat, and even who my fiancé is (we met at a climbing gym).

I’m a sport climber, meaning I go to areas outside where the protection is permanently placed in the wall. I climb up with a rope attached to me, put removable gear into the permanent bolt hangers and clip my rope into them as I go up. The other end of the rope is attached to my partner on the ground, who will hopefully catch me if I fall.

See my belayer at the bottom? She caught me about 20 times when I fell off this route.

Sport climbers climb for difficulty, not speed or height as some people think. We try to  hold onto the smallest and worst grips at the steepest angles possible, and if we can get to the top of a route without falling (onto the rope for safety, of course), we’ve succeeded. Climbs are rated by difficulty, starting at 5.5 (an easy ladder type climb) to 5.15c, which only the elitest of the elite have ever done. My hardest climb to date is 5.13c, if you’re wondering. The rating system is all pretty arbitrary nonsense, but I will say that when I did my hardest climb I almost peed in my pants I was so excited. A lot of ‘sends’, as we call them, are like that: overwhelmingly gratifying. It takes strength, balance, coordination and mental toughness to stay on the wall and not fall off. The immense reward is what keeps me coming back for more, even though I get scared and frustrated by it sometimes.

Eating for Climbing

Anyway, the point of this post is to tell you about the misconceptions of fueling up for climbing and other sports. It’s totally possible to eat paleo and climb well. In fact, I think it’s the optimal diet for climbing. Well, I think it’s the optimal diet period, so of course I would say that.

I once wrote an article in a climbing magazine about how eating meat will help build muscle, maintain blood sugar and help keep you feeling full for a big day out climbing. I had a doctor write back, irate, saying that what I’d suggested about eating meat was ridiculous. How could you climb with a big brick of meat sitting in your stomach? He said he “crushes it” (meaning he thinks he’s really strong) on a purely vegetarian diet. My questions are these: does he really crush it fueled by beans and mac ‘n cheese? Or does he actually suck and he’s missing out on his full potential? Because in my experience, mac ‘n cheese creates a heavy, painful brick in my stomach – not a nice slab of beef. You’ll regularly see me chowing down on pure meat minutes before an attempt on a climb and I do just fine. Of course I could be stronger, but it’s definitely not because of my diet. The summer I did my hardest climbing was the year I started eating Paleo – same with my fiancé. I blame genetics for my climbing shortcomings. Thanks, Mom.

I don’t think Paleo eaters need to eat much differently than they normally do on a hard day of climbing (or CrossFit or weight lifting or other power sports). The only alterations are that you should eat a little more food, and if there’s a hike involved you’ll want to eat more carbs. But other than that, lots of protein, veggies, fruits and nuts are all you need.

I climb 3 to 5 days a week. Here’s what a typical climbing day looks like for me on the weekends. We usually go to our favorite climbing area in Rifle, CO, where we camp Friday and Saturday nights and live out of our car. We climb around 5-10 routes each day, all about 70 or so feet long. We’re probably expending  around 400-700 calories a day climbing, plus any walking around we do (which isn’t much). So you could take this information and extrapolate it to a weight lifting or CrossFit session, or even a wrestling match, since that’s often what climbing feels like.

One Day Diet for a Climber

For reference, I’m 5’0″ weighing in at around 100 lbs. If you’re bigger than my midget frame, eat more.


A big scramble:

  • 2 eggs cooked in a little coconut oil
  • 4 oz salmon or turkey sausage
  • 1 cup  veggies (broccoli, greens, peppers, whatever we have)
  • 1/4 avocado
  • small piece of fruit
  • lots o’ water
  • 4 g L-glutamine (it helps sugar cravings, recovery and gut health and I love it)

If I get hungry for a snack, which I usually do, it’s about 2 hours after breakfast after I’ve done about 3 climbs.

1 oz pemmican or about 2 oz jerky and a handful of berries

As Mark Sisson likes to call it, a Big Ass Salad. Even though we’re camping, we have a giant, fully stocked cooler at our disposal all day, so I bring plenty of veggies. Spinach, kale, cabbage, cucumbers, squash, or zucchini, sliced turkey or ham, lemon juice and avocado.

Or I’ll get lazy and just eat about 5 oz of meat, a bit of avocado, and a piece of fruit.

Lately it’s been a Paleo carrot banana muffin, which are quick to cook in batches and take out in the wild without having to keep them refrigerated.

Last weekend this is what we made.

I ate about 1/3 of it and he ate the rest. This was all just cooked up in a pan and served in bowls. Really satisfying.

So you can see there’s no high quantities of carbs in there. We eat like this on both days just about every weekend. Every day of the week looks a lot the same for me, just with a little less food, since I’m not usually burning as many calories, even in a gym session.

If I were to climb more than 2 days in a row, I’d need more food for sure. I’d probably add more fat and more carbs just to get through the pain of climbing 3 days on and to get the energy I need. But I don’t generally do that to myself. When I’m tired I rest, and when I don’t rest I feel like crap.

I should add that sometimes I’ll eat more carbs the day or two before the weekend. So, for instance, tonight is Thursday and I just ate an extra muffin (or sometimes I’ll eat some sweet potatoes) and tomorrow I’ll do the same to prepare for Saturday and Sunday. But it’s definitely not a carb loading session by any means. So there you have it: the diet of this Paleo sport climber. If you’re following Paleo Plan, it will work perfectly. You just might need to add some sweet potatoes and an extra snack to the plan.

We’ll get to endurance training soon, where more carbs are definitely necessary. Anyone have anything to add about what they eat for their sport of choice? We’d love to hear about it in the comments.

Next week we’re having Max Shippee from CrossFit HAX do a couple guest posts on eating Paleo as a CrossFit athlete. Here’s a picture of him below – I met this amazing guy at the Ancestral Health Symposium and I’m super psyched to have his knowledge available to you all.


  1. Neely –
    Awesome!! I am just starting out with Rock Climbing. I’m starting at a Rock gym with the goal of migrating to the outdoors. I’ve been looking at the Paleo diet. I am a Type I diabetic. I was diagnosed at the age of 8 and am currently using an insulin pump for better management. As I get older I want to be on a solid diet that wil keep me healthy & active to do & compete in these new personal interest of rock climbing & cross-fit. So I just wanted to say thanks to you for an inspiring blog & some great meal plans! Hope to run into you & the mister someday climbing somewhere, though I’m a looooooooong way off from a 5.13c climb – lol:)


  2. Hey Neely,

    Good article. I was just checking on some ideas for diets climbers are on via google and ran into this article. I do most of my climbing indoors @ SF PG. I’ve been out about 4 times…once a crash course in lead climbing in Brasil…which was terrifying and amazing (only when we were resting and finished!).

    I really love climbing but I’m 6’1″ & 210. I’ve never weighted less that 190 since I was 18. I’m 32 now. It seems like a real pain in the ass to do this diet which is why I’ve chosen to just try and work harder via cardio training off days from climbing until recently I hurt my knee so I haven’t ran in about 5 weeks.

    I’ve noticed that creatine helps me. I have a trainer friend who says it’s all BS placebo but it has seemed to work for me. I notice more strength while I’m taking it. For vegetarians/vegans, I imagine it would be a good supplement since it’s what’s in meat.

    I’ve been climbing on and off for about 3 years but more on over the past year. I’ve top roped an 11.c w/ no falls and done a few V4s.

    In the end, I know what I need to do but do I have the discipline to do it?

    Eat less dairy, drink less alcohol, no sugary desserts or morning pastries, do cardio while in recovery mode and strength train when I’m not climbing….man I can’t wait to have a drink later! lol. JK….going climbing ;)

  3. Neely I have been looking at eating paleo for the last couple days. Will it really help my climbing though? Protein is definitely an undervalued food source by many in the climbing community but I am concerned about the lack of carbohydrates affecting the muscles’ glycogen stores. Correct me if I am wrong but doesn’t it take a substantial amount of carbs to refuel glycogen stores after a training or a tough climb outdoors? Or is it not a big deal and my body would just have to make the switch to using a new food source?

    1. @Nathan – I believe your muscles and liver can hold about 300 gm of glucose, so if you were to deplete it completely, then yes, it takes quite a bit to replenish. However, as a sport climber (and rare boulderer), I’m not depleting all my reserves. And it’s easy to eat in between climbs – I do it all the time. I can really only speak for myself, my boyfriend, and the few climbing friends of mine who’ve gone Paleo, but all of us have seen benefits. Whether it’s energy levels that translate into more energy to climb, strength gains, or joint pain relief – or all of the above – we’ve all seen improvements in our climbing. Unless you’re doing Everest, or doing like 30 pitches every day plus massive hikes, you should be fine. The only people I worry about with carb intake are super enduro athletes, and we are not that. Hope it helps. I encourage you to give it a try. Know that I eat a lot of fruit and a lot of sweet potatoes, though, and if you climb 3 or more days a week like I do (plus some other exercise) I suggest you do the same. If you want some help, I’m available for private coaching. Good luck!

  4. Neely,

    Its great to see an article about paleo as it pertains to climbing. I am just starting out going paleo, and I have a few q’s for you.
    -I have always relied on dairy in the past, my body has no toleration issues, what is the big advantages of ditching it when I go paleo?
    -do you find your compensation of carbs through fruits and sweet potatoes etc something that messes with you body going into ketosis?
    -I am a climber, mostly boulderer, and usually train 3-5 days a week. I am 5’11, 160ish lbs. I have always typically eaten a lot before starting this diet(high metabolism). I am wondering how hard it must be for a guy like me who requires so many calories to attain it all with such a low carb diet, because I understand that if I go higher on carbs I will lose ketosis. I basically want to do the diet but not lose any weight, and I’m still at a point of deciding whether or not I should ditch grain only to start, and then work into ditching dairy, legumes etc as I go? I know i have much to gain from doing this I just want to have some bases covered so i dont dwindle in strength/energy. Thanks for your article and all your input!

    1. Matt – Ok, that’s a lot of questions and I’ll try to answer them as well as I can with the info I have from you. I don’t think I’m in ketosis most of the time. I don’t feel good when I eat a very low carb diet, even if there’s a ton of fat in it (which would help bring me into ketosis) because I, too, train 3-5 days a week. I actually keep a steady supply of banana tapioca crepes around (search the blog for the recipe), which contain around 70 grams of carbs per crepe. I don’t think you should go low carb. I can almost guarantee you’ll feel terrible and your performance will dwindle. That’s one of the reasons Paleo isn’t catching on in the athletic world as much as it should because athletes are going too low carb and too low calorie so they feel awful and proclaim that Paleo doesn’t work. Anyway, a lot of people keep dairy in their diets, and I think if you can really tolerate it, keep it. It’s a relatively cheap source of dense calories. Just try to eat full fat dairy, especially fermented dairy, made from raw and/or pastured cows milk. Otherwise dairy is kind of gross. I always recommend that people take out dairy in the first month of going Paleo so that they can really find out if it bothers them. You’d be surprised what people find out about it when they don’t have it in their system all the time. Maybe try at least a two week period without it.

      When you first start out, yes, taking just grains out would be a fantastic first step if you don’t want to do it all at once. Keep the sweet potatoes, potatoes (yes, they’re fine), tapioca flour (see the tapioca recipes on here), and lots of fruit. My husband, who is 5’7″ and 135 pounds and climbs v11 and 5.14 does great with just those sources of carbs. If he eats too low carb and too high protein he gets huge and gains weight – not what you want, I know. So don’t do that :) Aim for like 100-150 grams of carbs a day, which means you’ll need to get to know how many carbs are in the foods you eat. Go to like or for all of that info.

      When you first start, don’t expect much from yourself in your climbing, so do it during a rest period or something. The first couple weeks are usually detox time for people, which means you might feel tired, grumpy, etc. But you can do it.

      Let me know if you need more help and good luck!


  5. Hi Neely,

    I am starting back on Paleo. I was on for a good 6 months and then went to Patagonia to go climbing ( Paleo is not an option there!!) and was off for about 6 weeks. Anyway I was wondering what supplements you take ? Do you take L-glucosamine everyday or only when working out?

    Thanks and I love your site!


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