Paleo Athletes: A Climber’s Diet


DSC00144-300x225.jpgI’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.