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Paleolithic Eating for the Endurance Athlete

By Nell Stephenson

Looking for every last competitive edge to get you through your next race? If so, what’s your nutrition like?

So many of us endurance athletes have found ourselves sidelined during our A-race of the year with gastric distress, not enough fuel in the tank leading to an awful bonk or just not quite feeling that we’ve gone as hard as we could’ve.

It’s not just race day when proper nutrition plays a huge role; on the contrary, correctly fueling each and every workout, before, during and after can make or break one’s season.

You may be thinking that this all sounds way too familiar, similar to what you’ve read on any given sports nutrition’s product site.  It’s what I’m about to say that can be the difference between getting that slot to Kona versus trudging through another race that didn’t go according to plan.

Enter the Paleo diet.

What’s the Paleo diet? In a nutshell, it’s a simple way of eating how we were genetically meant to be eating. It’s how our ancestors, the Paleolithic people ate. Nothing processed.  No grains. No legumes. No dairy. Tons of fresh vegetables and fruit. Healthy, unprocessed fats, like avocado, olive oil and fish oil. Clean protein, like wild fish, free range poultry and grass fed meat.

Why no grains, legumes or dairy?

All three are negatively indicated for various reasons.

Grains and legumes both contain anti-nutrients, which bind to food, prohibiting your body from properly absorbing all the nutrients. They also may contribute to intestinal permeability (leaky gut) in which partially digested bits of proteins can leak out into the blood stream, over time leading to a host of maladies, including but not limited to: IBS, Crohn’s disease, exacerbation of auto immune disease, acne, chronic fatigue, joint pain; the list goes on.

Dairy products are acidic — while a serving of milk might be high in calcium, the net affect it has on the body is acidic. If there is no alkaline-forming food to balance it out, the body may move to calcium in our bones in an attempt to find a balance. There are other foods that contain the calcium you need for your diet; the net take-home is that you’re better off eating a cup of raw kale with 94 mg calcium than a cup of milk with 300, since the kale is more alkaline-forming in the body.

Dr. Loren Cordain, PhD, has conducted years of research in order to provide the public with this tomb of knowledge, “The Paleo Diet,” as well as “The Paleo Diet for Athletes,” which he co-authored with Joe Friel.

I began following the Paleolithic eating plan five years ago after discovering I had a latent allergy to gluten. Out the door went nearly everything that I’d included in my training regime: pasta, bagels, many of the nutrition bars. While I felt much better after cutting gluten, and subsequently omitting all of the non-foods in order to be strictly paleo, which include all grains, legumes and dairy, I felt a little challenged about what on earth I’d eat to live, let alone to support my Ironman and ultra-running training.  At that point, I’d only read “The Paleo Diet”.  I picked up a copy of “The Paleo Diet for Athletes” and everything became quite clear.

It described how Joe Friel tried, albeit skeptically, to follow this diet and found to his surprise that not only did it sustain his training, but he was able to conduct more intense sessions and recovery more quickly and properly.

I gave it a try myself and after a few false starts, it was smooth sailing and there was no going back. I can’t remember the last time I had any stomach issues in training or in a race. I never bonk. My times have improved tremendously. My recovery is phenomenal. My sleep is fantastic. I’m rarely sick or injured. I could go on and on.

“So, what do you eat, then?” is a question I’m quite commonly asked. Lots of clients, friends, family and readers of my blog have the misconception that

  • it’s a really extreme way of eating and
  • they can grasp that a sedentary person might be able to get away with it, but cannot fathom that it could support endurance training due to lack of carb intake, the latter of which is obviously not true, as I’m eating lots of carbs via veggies and fruit, and with yam, my starch of choice, when prepping for a longer session or race.

The Paleo diet means you eat food —real, whole food — and nothing from a mix or preserved with any number of chemicals. Aside from pre- and post-training meals, all dining is a balance of healthy complex carbs from fruits and vegetables, lean proteins and healthy fats. Closer to the time of a workout, the shift is toward a 4:1 ratio of carbohydrate; protein, such as a fresh banana with some hard-boiled egg whites, for example.

Are you ready to try it?

Perhaps you’re thinking about it, but a bit hesitant! Following are a few helpful tips to follow when deciding when and if to make the transition:

  • Don’t do it right before a big race. Many of us follow the “nothing new before a race” rule, and if your Ironman is next week, right now is not the time to implement a completely new eating regime.
  • Similarly, don’t do it if you’re in the midst of moving, marriage, a new baby or the first day at a new job.  Pick a time when there are the least external stressors so that you can allocate as much time and energy as possible to make eating this way the priority.
  • Do clean out your kitchen and remove everything that’s not Paleo friendly.
  • Do learn how to shop healthfully at the grocery store, health food shop and/or farmer’s market at least once or twice per week.
  • Do allocate time twice a week to simply prep your proteins, veggies, fruits so as to have everything cooked and ready to eat, never leaving yourself in a pinch without healthy options at your finger tips.
  • Ideally, your spouse, roommate, kids, parents, whomever you live with, will be on board, but if they’re not, don’t let that be the reason not to do this yourself. Remember, it’s your body that you’re asking to perform at high levels, and you deserve to fuel it with the cleanest option possible.

Clients often ask if they can wean themselves off non -Paleo foods slowly. While it’s certainly one way to approach it, I always recommend just doing it at the 100 percent commitment level. Give it six weeks and see how great you feel. Even if you’re not necessarily feeling poorly, you’ll never know how much better you may feel still!

Ultimately, there really is no down-side to following this type of eating regime, regardless of whether you’re an athlete or not. Some find it easy to adapt at home, and then get challenged when eating out. This is all doable and sustainable, and I say this based on personal experience.

Give it a try! There’s nothing to lose… except maybe those last couple of pounds you may have been toting around!

yam fries Nell’s Paleo Baked Yam Fries
For Paleo endurance athletes, the choices of sports nutrition products on the market leave a lot to be desired. Yams are an excellent choice to help fuel the body for training and racing, and the addition of a pinch of salt helps to prepare for the electrolytes that will be lost through sweat.  Easy, tasty and without the saponins you’d find in potato-derived French Fries.

Not sure of the difference between yams and sweet potatoes? Find the answer here.

Serves 4

  • Two large, 8 – 10 oz yams
  • 2 Tablespoons cold-pressed, extra-virgin olive oil
  • Salt & Pepper to taste

Preheat oven to broil. Wash, then slice the yams into ½” thick, by ½” wide by 3-4” long strips (depending on the size of the yam). Most importantly, keep the size of all the slices the same to ensure even cooking. Toss well with the oil to ensure the yam pieces are evenly coated.

Place on rimmed baking sheet, lined with a piece of parchment paper (makes for an easy clean-up). Broil for 10 minutes on one side, then turn over and broil 10 minutes more. The yams are done when easily pierced with a fork. Remove from oven, then sprinkle salt and pepper on top. Let cool 5 minutes before eating.

These will store quite well in the refrigerator and are perfect for right before or after your endurance workout.

Nell holds a bachelor’s degree in exercise science from USC in Los Angeles and is ACSM-certified. Collectively, her fitness, nutrition and culinary knowledge provide the basis of her current professional services offer, which includes both custom and pre- written nutritional plans. With over fifteen years of experience, her practice now serves nutritional clients around the globe, in addition to local clients in Los Angeles. Nell herself is an endurance athlete and has qualified for the Hawaii Ironman World Championship four times, and is a competitive marathon runner with a PR of 3:02. She recently co-authored “The Paleo Diet Cookbook.” Learn more at www.nellstephenson.com

The views expressed in this article are the opinion of the author and not necessarily the practices of USA Triathlon. Before starting any new diet or exercise program, you should check with your physician and/or coach.

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