How to Lose Weight for Climbing by Neely Quinn

I’ve been sort of dreading writing this blog post, even though I know it needs to be done. It’s funny because I used to write about how to lose weight on paleoplan.com all the time. I was the nutritionist/blogger over there, and every single day I answered people’s questions about how to lose fat. In fact, if you search that site for “lose weight”, exactly 13 pages of results come up – all articles I’ve written on the topic. Weight loss is a topic I know well from my education and my clients’, readers’, and my own experiences with it.

So enough about me – what about you? You’re a climber. You’re probably here because you’re an obsessed athlete who wants chiseled(er) muscles and visible(r) veins, and as little weight to carry up rock walls as possible. Because let’s face it: not having a bunch of extra weight on your body is helpful in rock climbing.

But that’s where this topic gets a little, uh, controversial.

Because you may not have a “bunch” of extra weight on your body. You may already be at a totally healthy weight – even slightly under a healthy weight – and I may therefore be aiding and abetting your departure into eating disorder land.

But whatever.

I’m going to trust that you can take care of yourself, and that if you stop getting your period, you’ll start eating more. Or that if you find that walking to the climbing gym from your car is a monumental effort, you’ll start eating more. And so on.

Having said that…

Do you need to lose weight?

Please go look up your BMI for me and then come back here. There’s a handy little calculator tool online here. No, the BMI isn’t a perfect analysis of weight, but it does generally tell you if someone is underweight.

Ok, what’s your BMI? Is it a normal or overweight BMI? Good. And what’s your goal weight? Now go see what that goal weight is on the BMI chart. Does it fall under “normal”? If it does, great. If it’s underweight, I’d reassess your goal weight unless you’re ready to do possibly permanent damage to your bones, hormones, and metabolism. I’m lookin’ at you, ladies.

If you could stand to lose a few pounds, here’s my advice to you.

#1. Stop eating so much.

Most of us eat too much food. So the simple equation is this: Just don’t put as much food in your food hole. And get used to being a little bit uncomfortable. As a very good friend once said, “Nothing tastes as good as sending feels.” Seriously, though, if you actually want to lose weight, you need to consume fewer calories.

So how much food should YOU eat?

Here’s where it gets tricky. Everyone needs a different amount of calories, depending on their height, weight, gender, age, and activity level. And some other things, but we’ll keep it simple. You need to figure out how many calories that is for you. I usually suggest that people use an online diet journal tool called myfitnesspal.com. I know – it’s a stupid name, but I’ve tried a lot of online calorie counting/nutrient analysis tools, and this one is the most user friendly.

If you sign up for a free account over there, the program will tell you how many calories you should be eating, depending on your goal weight and other stats. If you say you want to lose 5 pounds, losing 1 pound per week, it’ll spit out the number of calories you need to eat every day to get there. But don’t get too excited – it’s not an exact science.

Also, it usually sandbags you on the calorie count. So whatever it tells you to do, add a couple hundred calories and start there. See how you feel. Count your calories for a few days to a few weeks, learn how many calories and other nutrients are in the foods you’re eating, and get a feel for how much food you should be putting on your plate.

And then STOP counting calories.

Calorie counting can be a dangerous game to play, and it’s easy to get stuck in the weigh-yourself-every-morning-count-every-calorie cycle until you find yourself in the hospital being treated for anorexia. Or climbing like shit and crying on the way to the crag because hiking is just that hard for your malnourished body.

But temporarily keeping track of your intake and learning about what’s actually going into your body is a good exercise for everyone to go through. I’ve learned quite a bit from it. For instance, a cup of cashews contains approximately 1,000 calories, and therefore you should not eat 2 cups of cashews a day if you want to lose weight and you are child-sized. Learned that one the hard way…

Moving along.

#2. Eat Whole, Real Foods

Most of us adore food, and fortunately (unfortunately?) we have access to some really delicious stuff in the Western world. I mean, fast food and most processed food in general is designed to make us want to eat more of it so that food companies make more money off of us. It’s as simple as that. So you have to be smarter than them, and eat foods that don’t taste quite so much like… crack.

If the bulk of your diet consists of home-prepared, whole, real foods like these…

  • pasture raised meats and eggs
  • wild fish and seafood
  • good fats like the stuff off those healthy meats, olive oil, coconut oil, avocados, butter and ghee (if you can tolerate dairy)
  • veggies (all kinds)
  • fruits (all kinds)
  • honey
  • grains if your body tolerates them (we’ll talk about these a little later)
  • raw dairy from grass-fed cows (again, if your body tolerates it)
  • nuts and seeds
  • some beans (more on that later)
  • lots of filtered water

… then you’re going to have a much easier time controlling your appetite. You’ll feel more satisfied, less toxic, and you’ll have fewer cravings. Junk food, like I said, is designed to leave you wanting more. Plus, it comes in giant super-sized portions if you’re not careful. So make your own food, and don’t eat too much of it.

#3. Carbs (and Protein and Fat)

You knew it was coming, didn’t you!? Look, unused carbs get stored as fat – it’s as simple as that. They also naturally make you retain water, so most of the time when people stop eating so many carbs, they lose a bunch of water weight right off the bat. Our bodies are actually really good at using dietary fat as fuel, as opposed to just carbs.

So if you want to lose fat, you’ll have greater success if you eat less bread, pasta, sugary drinks, and sugary snacks (granola, sweetened yogurt, candy, pastries, cookies, cake, etc.). If you order a burger, take off the bun and eat it with a big fatty salad with lots of olive oil, instead. Eat fruit instead of candy. Eat spaghetti squash instead of spaghetti. Eat eggs and veggies and fruit instead of a bagel. If you need recipes for lower-carb meals, go to www.paleoplan.com/recipes.

I’m not saying go super low carb. Going super low carb is one way to lose weight really quickly, but it can make you really tired and make recovery pretty much impossible, especially in the beginning. So just cut down a bit on those foods I mentioned above, and eat more veggies, tubers, and fruits instead.

Also, know that protein is way more satiating than carbs, meaning that you will feel fuller if you eat 200 calories worth of protein as opposed to 200 calories worth of carbs. It’s science. So if you eat complete protein throughout the day (eggs, meat, fish, dairy), you will probably not have as many cravings as you would if you just ate carbs all day. I’ll talk more about protein in upcoming posts.

Fat’s the same way. If you eat enough fat, you won’t be so hungry all the time. “Low fat” is the devil’s work. You need (good) fats for your most important bodily functions, so don’t be afraid of it!

#4. Weed Out Food Sensitivities

I talked a little bit about this in my “2 Tips for Finding Your Own Optimal Climbing Diet” post, but basically, if you’re having any sort of immune response to a food (or many foods), your body may be holding onto water weight or having detrimental hormonal imbalances that can keep you from losing weight.

The day I gave up gluten in 2005, I weighed 120 pounds. Two months later, I weighed 105 pounds, and all I did was give up gluten because it was hurting my stomach and my skin. I am not the only person this has happened to. In fact, I hear about this craziness all the time at PaleoPlan.com, since one of the main tenets of Paleo is eating gluten-free.

It’s not just gluten, though. Dairy, soy, corn, and all other grains (rice, oats, wheat, quinoa, spelt, millet, etc) are common offenders for a lot of people. They can cause weight gain, intestinal problems (diarrhea, constipation, bloating), eczema, acne, brain fog, joint pain, fatigue, autoimmune symptoms, and menstrual issues, among other things. If you suspect you have a food sensitivity, try removing one or more of those foods from your diet and see how things go. You might be surprised, and you might get the added bonus of losing those last extra pounds.

#5. Don’t Exercise Too Much

I know that sounds counterintuitive. The “Biggest Loser” (and all government sanctioned weight loss programs) tell you the more you move, the smaller you will be – it’s science. Well, how’s that going for you? Because I can tell you that when I exercise too much, my body gets inflamed and puffy – I start retaining water and gaining weight. Those are signs of overtraining, and a lot of climbers do this.

When I have weight loss clients who work out all the time and rarely give themselves rest days, I tell them to stop exercising so much. When they can control themselves and actually listen to this advice, they lose weight almost every time. Part of it is that when you’re running or cycling a ton, your body wants to eat, eat, eat. So you end up eating all your calorie deficit away anyway, and then you’re exhausted on top of it.

If you’re feeling tired all the time or like your workouts are sucking, if you’re feeling depressed and lacking motivation, or if your joints are super achy, these are all signs of overtraining. If you want to climb well, then climb. There’s no need for all that running if you’re trying to be a good climber. If you want to grow muscles, maintain your lean body mass, and improve as a climber, you need adequate rest. You don’t need big quads.

Everyone’s needs for rest are different. I mean, Jonathan Siegrist can climb 6 days on and still just about onsight 5.14a. Whereas I give full effort on a project a few times and need 2 days off to really recover. Listen to your body. And try not to be so scared of gaining weight because you didn’t exhaust yourself for one whole day. Chill out a bit. Try truly resting more often and see what happens – you may be pleasantly surprised.

#6. Get Enough Sleep

Not sleeping enough is a major, major detriment to weight loss. First of all, have you ever noticed that when you don’t get enough sleep, you feel really binge-y? Like all you want is chocolate fudge all day? I just pulled an all-nighter a couple weeks ago for work and I literally ate fudge all day the next day. Well, it’s because lack of sleep affects your body’s ability to know when enough is enough food. Here’s a study on that.

Also, though, when you don’t sleep enough, it increases the amount of cortisol (a stress hormone) your body produces (study). And too much cortisol can keep fat on your body, especially in your belly (here’s a study on that).

So sleep is no joke. No amount of caffeine can make up for sleep deprivation. And a good amount of sleep is not 5 or 6 hours. It’s 8+ hours. And by the way, your caffeine also increases cortisol levels, but we’ll talk about caffeine another time…

#7. Drink Lots of Water

I just went through a fat-loss cycle when I was trying this really hard project (for me) in Vegas. I needed every ounce of body fat off of me that I could muster, so I stopped eating so much food, and started drinking a lot of water. Bubbly water, to be precise, with a little splash of organic lemonade or cherry juice. If I didn’t have that stuff all day, I would never have succeeded. And I did succeed – I lost 4 pounds in a couple of weeks. No, I didn’t send my project, but I got as close to sending as was possible and then we had to leave Vegas. In any case, I could feel the loss of those 4 pounds in my ability to make hard clips and recover on the route.

Often when we’re “hungry”, we’re actually just thirsty. Or, we’re just wanting something in our stomachs because we’re not used to the sensation of it being empty. So keep water or carbonated water (we ended up buying a Soda Stream) around you all the time and drink it liberally all day long. You could also drink hot water with lemon or herbal tea, or ice water with lemon or lime juice. You want to stay away from the super sugary beverages (Gatorade or other sports drinks, sodas, or juices – anything that isn’t mostly just water) because they’re full of calories.

So those are the basics! Don’t eat too much, don’t exercise too much (but exercise enough), eat whole foods that you prepare, don’t eat too many carbs, figure out if you have food sensitivities, don’t be a freak about how much you exercise, drink a lot of water, and get enough sleep. Simple, right? Ha! I know this is kind of a lot, but even if you work on one thing (not eating so much), I think you’ll have some success.

Also, Steve Bechtel of www.climbstrong.com wrote a really great article on this topic here. Check it out if your eyes aren’t too tired from reading all of this.

So how do YOU lose weight for climbing? And how has it affected your climbing? Less than you thought it would, or did you send something hard? I want to know about it so please use the comment section!

About The Author

neely quinnNeely Quinn is the owner and founder of TrainingBeta.com. She is a nutrition therapist, and helps climbers figure out the right diet for optimal body weight, recovery, and energy levels. She’s been a nutritionist since 2007 and a climber since 1997, and has redpointed up to 5.13c. She climbs almost exclusively on slightly overhanging limestone and sandstone sport climbs, since pretty much all other forms of climbing elude her. She lives in Boulder, Colorado with her husband, Seth Lytton (co-founder of TrainingBeta), and their dog, Zala.

 

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By | 2017-09-18T06:50:22+00:00 May 10th, 2014|15 Comments

15 Comments

  1. Gary Duke June 2, 2016 at 2:37 am - Reply

    Get the myfitnesspal app, count everything for a month, weigh yourself daily and use weekly averages for weight, if you loose great stick at. It until target weight then add 200 calories to your daily intake.
    Keep tracking and weighing with your new higher calorie intake. are you gaining weight? If sbbo reduce calories and track until you find the number of calories you need to stay the same weight.
    If you are still loosing weight increase your calorie intake by another 100 per day and weight and track until you find the number. Of calories per day you need to eat to maintain your goal weight.
    Take at least 0.8 grams of protein per pound of bodyweight. Have about 20% of your calorie intake from healthy fat sources, make up the rest with carbs.
    The bigger the calorie deficit the faster that you loose weight but the harder it is and potentially less healthy also large calorie deficit is unsustainable so I prefer a small deficit with slower weight loss.this is easier to sustain and manage and therefore more likely to work for me.
    Calorie partitioning advances the science allowing more of your calorie intake on the days your train to better fuel and repair the body so it gets the more food when it actually needs is. Splitting the required calorie deficit over the rest of the week instead. This takes a greater level of commitment and control and isn’t essential as the most important factor is staying in calorie deficit when you want to lose weight and staying at calorie maintenance when you want to stay the same. (Or calorie surplus for weight gain)

    The best thing I took from this article was the need to rest and listen to the body to avoid injury.

    Calorie deficit is hard to maintain if you have already got into the situation where you are over weight. That’s why dieting sucks!
    On the plus side loosing weight makes a huge difference to climbing so it has to be worth it.

  2. Kelly April 16, 2015 at 1:46 pm - Reply

    I’ve found personally people really need to get a grip on snacking and knowing when they are truly hungry. I know, even my sports nutrition school encouraged this, that people think eating 6 small meals a day is better, and having them based around grains, and while it may work for some, I disagree. . I think if you have 2-3 filling meals, with enough FAT in them, you will be full much longer and reduce the need to snack. I have also found increasing my fat content, greatly reduced my sugar cravings. I have eggs, berries, coffee with gelatin and grass fed cream, and then either half an avocado or 2oz of smoked salmon for breakfast and I am solid for a good 4-5 hours easy. Tracking calories TRUTHFULLY will show you how much the handful of chips here and the extra slice of cheese there really add up.

    Also, and I hate to say it, but alcohol is VERY calorie dense and not doing you any favors >.<

    And on one last note, a lot of people may be metabolically damaged, maybe not to the extent you see in body building, but if you have severely restricted your calories for too long, you will need to reverse diet out of it, to the point where you can eat enough to do your training and climb and not gain weight.

    Great article as usual Neely!

  3. Kelly O February 12, 2015 at 2:31 pm - Reply

    Hi Neely! Appreciated this article a lot. I am currently trying to lose a bit of weight (maybe 10-15 pounds) purely for climbing reasons, as I am not technically overweight, and it can be hard to find an article targeted towards goals like this. Of note is that I actually initially needed to gain weight in the form of muscle in order to get better at climbing – and I did that by adding meat back into my diet, where previously I had been vegan (it was actually a nice, unintended side effect – I added meat because I had developed iron deficiency anemia). I didn’t change my training, but my performance and muscle tone spiked. Obviously vegans climb hard – like Steph Davis! – but I was totally missing protein. And even then I might have told you, before I added that protein in, that I needed to lose weight to get better at climbing, even though my BMI was in the normal range then, too. So that’s something for folks to consider if they have plateaued and are turning their attention to their diet.

    I am curious, though, of your take on a good benchmark for what’s acceptable in terms of “discomfort.” Getting used to being uncomfortable is great advice, but it’s a fine line – I know I’ve gotten a little too used to being a little too uncomfortable in the past when it comes to eating less, and I’m not always sure of a good “sanity check” on that.

    • Neely Quinn February 16, 2015 at 12:16 pm - Reply

      Kelly O – A good benchmark is a really personal thing because we’re all different and our tolerances for being uncomfortable are all on a spectrum. I think it has to do with physiological cues, though. If your performance is consistently bad, if you lose your period, if you’re getting injured more, if you just feel tired all the time – these are things to look for as clues that you’re overdoing it (or underdoing it in this case). Then you just eat more. Your health isn’t worth it in my opinion.

  4. gert February 11, 2015 at 7:56 pm - Reply

    I echo Betty’s comment about bio individuality. Additionally, I’d really like to see more out there that attempts to address athletes that deal with autoimmune diseases that affect their metabolism, soft tissue, strength, and body composition….etc. Yeah, all of those things mentioned in the article are super important. But for some of us, even if we are absolutely perfect, those things just dont’t really cut it. I climbed hard (for me, and was able to progress), until my immune system decided to bitch slap me. Now what?

  5. Boulderdaz May 18, 2014 at 4:22 am - Reply

    Another good addition to training beta 🙂

    The fitness pal app splits carbs, fat and protein into 50, 30 and 20% respectively. Do you agree that’s a good split, or should protein be higher than fat for us climbers?

    Thanks
    Dazza

    • Neely Quinn May 18, 2014 at 9:53 pm - Reply

      Dazza – No, I don’t think that’s a good split. I think the carbs are too high and the protein is too low, unless you’re a distance runner or something, and even then… I’d start with about 40/30/30 and see how you feel with that. If you’re trying to lose weight and it’s not happening with these ratios and you’re not eating too many calories, then up the fat and lower the carbs by about 10% and see how that goes. Keep the protein at about 25-30%, but don’t go any higher than that.

      • Boulderdaz May 19, 2014 at 3:23 am - Reply

        Thanks for the swift reply. I’ll give it a go 🙂

  6. Michael May 16, 2014 at 2:04 pm - Reply

    I have found supplementing the “big three” meals with small little snacks like a piece of fruit, dried fruit (without added sugar), spoonful of almond butter, etc has helped reduce the size of my main meals and helped keep energy levels even through the day. Also, a big fan of H2O for the same. A protein shaker before a meal out also has helped me limit the urge to pig out. Oh, and cutting my alcohol intake to 1x per week or less made a big difference to me; wasted calories that impair recovery and cloud my mind/psyche.

  7. Anonymous May 13, 2014 at 6:14 pm - Reply

    stop counting your cals? strong ignorance here

    • Neely Quinn May 13, 2014 at 6:16 pm - Reply

      Anonymous – Not sure what you mean. I said to start counting, get used to portion sizes, then stop counting so as not to create neurosis. Please explain your terse comment.

    • Boulderdaz May 18, 2014 at 4:19 am - Reply

      I think the point being made is to learn about portion sizes, and to not obsess over calorie counting. Sounds like very sensible, real world, practical advise to me

  8. Jay May 12, 2014 at 3:48 pm - Reply

    Great advice — especially in sticking to a “paleo” like diet (it’s pretty tough to be hungry when eating loads of veggies all day…try that while eating carbs all day like most nutritionists recommend and good luck not becoming obsessed with food!) and chilling out on exercising too much. When I was cutting weight I realized the less I worked out the more weight I actually lost. Oh, and I and didn’t end up losing strength like I initially thought I would if I decreased training frequency.

  9. Jay May 12, 2014 at 3:47 pm - Reply

    Betty – try tracking calories on Myfitnesspal — I had a similar problem I am 31 and was at about 22% BF/224 lbs for most of my adult life (I’m a male). I only started seeing results when I tracked calories for 4 months, and then I stopped tracking calories when I realized exactly what I should be eating. Don’t get too huge of a deficit just enough to see a consistent weight reduction. I’m stable now for several months at 12% BF/180 lbs, which was my goal weight, and I attribute this completely to tracking everything just to get a sense of what was right for me (the sweet spot was 20% carb, 50% fat, 30% protein at 2200 calories/day — but it took a while to figure this out! now when I “track” I realize that I hit this pretty closely without even trying or obsessing about food – everyone will be different here). I also agree on “genetic potentials”, although I see that more affecting things like bone density and muscle mass than BF set-points.

  10. Betty May 12, 2014 at 1:42 pm - Reply

    Interesting article. I have a BMI of 25… and have wanted to take off a few pounds to improve my climbing for awhile now (like since I started climbing sixteen years ago!). Thankfully I’m a trad climber and not a sport climber because I mostly climb at grades where mental fitness, not physical, is the more limiting factor. I’ve been Paleo for 2+ years now, though just like everyone else, I struggle with cheats from time to time- like that post-climbing brewski. Generally, though, I am aware of my food sensitivities, watch my carb intake, get plenty of whole foods in my diet, sleep pretty well and though I am active, I am not an exercise-holic.

    I guess my point is that I feel like I am doing all of these things and yet it hasn’t really helped me lose any weight, certainly not anything significant. Furthermore, for me personally, I feel that the biggest improvement in my climbing has come from investment in mental training above anything else. Genetically speaking, I think there will always be those of us out there that love climbing but are never going to have the svelte, lithe bodies of pro climbers. I’d like to see this sort of nod to bioindividuality and different genetic potentials get more attention in discussion about body weight and climbing.

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