The Paleo diet for athletes is worth considering for anyone serious about triathlon or any endurance sports.
Nutrition is a key element to get right. Many triathletes suffer gastric distress on race day or run out of fuel and bonk-unable to continue.
Without great nutrition, you cannot produce your best performances in training and your race can very quickly become unstuck by a simple nutritional error despite months of hard work and incredible preparation.
Perhaps you have experienced either “running out of juice” on a long ride, suffering bloating and stomach cramps during a run, or you have noticed that you are taking longer and longer to recover after workouts.
Doesn’t the Paleo diet for athletes clash with traditional “pasta parties?”
Paleo diet for athletes has been growing in popularity in the athletic community but what about the serious endurance requirements of triathletes?
Do we actually need to be eating our body weight in carbs every day?
This culture of gorging on bread, pasta and rice in marathon running and triathlon is so ingrained on our collective soul that many big events host “pasta parties” the night before an event.
The advice is so mainstream, of course, that even non-athletes start spouting off advice about “eating plenty of pasta” bread, rice and potatoes and “carbo-loading” once they find out you have signed up to a marathon or triathlon.
These same “non-experts” refer to huge amounts of carbohydrates required for “energy”. However one of the biggest changes people who switch to Paleo diet for athletes talk about, is an incredible surge in energy and improved race performances by consuming less refined carbohydrate and more real food.
When you think about it, many of the hunter-gatherers were doing endurance events every day just for survival- walking for miles to find food and shelter or jogging all day to track game.
Lack of energy for them would result in death.
What do we actually mean when we say Paleo diet for athletes?
Unless you have been living under a rock for the last 15 years, you will have heard of the Paleo diet. In short, this diet advocates a return to the natural diet of our ancestors- hunters and gatherers.
It suggests that we should eat exclusively those foods that our ancient ancestors ate during the Paleolithic Age, which covers the entire span of our evolution from roughly 2.5 million years ago to about 10,000 years ago.
Despite the fact that the human genome has remained relatively unchanged since the agricultural revolution 10,000 years ago, our diet and lifestyle have become progressively more divergent from those of our ancient ancestors.
This mismatch between our modern diet and lifestyle and our Paleolithic genome is playing a substantial role in the growing epidemic of obesity, diabetes, heart disease and possibly even cancer.
Historical and anthropological studies show hunter-gathers generally were healthy, fit and largely free of ‘diseases of affluence’.
So what exactly does this Paleo diet for athletes consist of and is it adequate for the high performance training of triathletes?
Quite simply we are not designed to process foods with chemicals, additives, colors and E numbers. The Paleo diet for athletes advocates avoiding highly processed chemical laden foods and reducing our reliance on refined grains, dairy and sugars.
According to Robb Wolf, a former research biochemist and New York Times Best Selling author of The Paleo Solution, the latest research in biology, biochemistry, ophthalmology, dermatology and many other disciplines indicate it is our modern diet, full of refined foods, trans fats and sugar, that is at the root of degenerative diseases such as obesity, cancer, diabetes, heart disease, Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s, depression and infertility.
Think instead high quality protein, plenty of fresh fruits and vegetables.
Indeed if our current western diet is correct, why are we noticing a surge in “diseases of modern living”- chronic degenerative diseases. Of course there are many factors which explain this but nutrition is certainly one of them.
Yes, some people will point out that our life expectancy is now longer. Yes, many of our Paleolithic ancestors died early –but not from disease. They had to deal with tribal warfare, encounters with wild animals and infant mortality. Those who survived over 50 years old (20%) often lived healthy, disease-free lifestyles into their 60s and 70s. Equally those living now into later years often only do so with a cocktail of medications to keep them going.
But does the Paleo diet for athletes have a place in a triathlete’s diet?
I can already hear some of you shouting “That’s great but I’m a triathlete. I need my grains and sugars.”
In fact, the opposite appears to be true. The typical athletic diet (top-heavy with grains, starches, and refined sugars) is detrimental to recovery, performance, and health.
Joe Friel (world renowned triathlon coach) from Triathletes Training Bible has teamed up with Professor Loren Cordain PhD (who wrote The Paleo Diet in 2002) to co author The Paleo Diet For AthletesThe Paleo Diet for Athletes: The Ancient Nutritional Formula for Peak Athletic Performance. Friel says the Paleo diet is high in trace nutrients. Vitamins and minerals are necessary for optimal performance and longterm recovery from exercise. The most nutrient dense foods are vegetables and seafood.
Why no grains, legumes or dairy in the Paleo diet for athletes?
Fortunately, the Paleo diet has stood not only the test of time, but also the rigors of scientific scrutiny.
Professor Loren Cordain has found with a very simple shift, we not only remove the foods that are at odds with our health (grains, legumes, and dairy) but we also increase our intake of vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants.
There is good evidence that high consumption of grains tend to promote systemic inflammation, body fat storage and tissue acidity.
Inflammation and acidity can lead to increased ageing, joint problems and delayed exercise recovery. Also grains can create a gluten problem that afflicts many people (who are unaware of it but just feel tired all the time).
Grains and legumes also 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 and joint pain.
Dairy products are also acidic. While a serving of milk might be high in calcium, the net effect 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.
Other foods that contain more calcium than milk such as raw kale, broccoli and spinach. These green vegetables are also more alkaline-forming in the body.
Other health benefits of the Paleo diet for athletes way of eating include:
• Improved blood lipids
• Fat loss
• Reduced pain from autoimmunity
What else is left if I can’t eat pasta, cereal and rice?
This is one we all tend to struggle with in the beginning if we have come from the world of cereal and toast for breakfast, sandwiches for lunch and rice/potatoes in the evening.
It takes a little while to understand what you can eat on the Paleo diet for athletes but actually there is so much available, you will never get bored.
A generous amount of animal protein is recommended including meat, particularly game meat, poultry, fish and eggs. It is preferable to choose meat that is pasture-raised and grass-fed.
Eggs should be free-range, naturally fed and organic.
A good amount of vegetables ranging from green leafy vegetables to root vegetables (e.g. carrots, beets, sweet potatoes), plus squash and mushrooms should also be included.
Fruit and nuts in low to moderate amounts are encouraged, with a preference towards lower sugar fruits such as berries.
Fat is not discriminated against and is recommended in comparatively large amounts to other diets. Fats such as coconut oil, lard, ghee and duck fat are included on this list.
The only fats that need to be cut out are vegetable fats, particularly those that have been hydrogenated or partially hydrogenated. These include margarines, peanut oil, safflower and sunflower oils. Olive oil and avocado oil are fine. Use fresh and dried herbs and a variety of spices (ginger, garlic, chilli) to add to natural flavours.
All cereal grains and legumes i.e. NO wheat, rye, barley, oats, rice, corn, soy, peanuts, kidney beans
Sugar – in any size, shape or form
Dairy (except butter)
Many triathletes look fit but they are actually not healthy
Many athletes actually have terrible diets, devoid of high quality nutrition.
Many triathletes eat no vegetables or fruits and live on electrolyte drinks, burgers, fries, pizzas and sports nutrition bars around the clock.
We all know “that person” who brags that because they do so much exercise they can “eat what they want” and not put on weight.
Sure, people can survive on bars and gels, donuts and burgers for a while. And maybe they don’t get fat (while they are training).
It is guaranteed though that they will not be healthy.
They will also not be able to perform at their best.
To get the best out of your body, you need to be putting in high quality fuel.
So for these people, a switch to a structured Paleo diet for athletes will be a massive benefit.
More fruit and vegetables means more vitamins and antioxidants to create a strong immune system, increased fat oxidation, which helps provide energy for long endurance events, more alkaline body and better muscle recovery.
This will result in making you a faster athlete.
Myths of the Paleo Diet for athletes
When you tell friends or colleagues you are “going Paleo”- you will get a lot of advice/warnings and people trying to pull you back to their processed diet.
This is inevitable.
Keep in mind these people have done no research and are just trying to keep you like them. They will say things like:
“It’s a really extreme way of eating”
Not really, you are simple ditching a chemical laden non-nutritious diet for a massive intake of fresh fruit and vegetables and high quality protein.
“You will run out of energy on long events- you need to eat pasta”
To be honest, if you have not tried Paleo yourself, you are probably thinking this as well.
Actually you are NOT avoiding carbohydrates. Of course we need them as an athletes. But you are getting them from high quality sources like veggies and fruit (especially yams contain a lot of starch and are a great choice before a long training session or race).
You will actually notice that the Paleo diet for athletes offers better long-term recovery and much less DOMS due to greater micronutrient content.
Most of the processed junk foods have almost no nutritional content at all.
Though as a triathlete with a large training volume, some leeway is allowed. You may require extra carbs during high volume, long duration training sessions and events.
If you want some specific guidance, try Robb Wolf’s 30 days transformation program.
He provides recipes and guidelines to get you started. Try it for 30 days and see what you think for yourself.
Robb Wolf’s 30 Day Paleo Transformation is a complete guide to your first 30 days on the Paleo diet. Featuring a daily meal plan, shopping lists, exercise guide with videos and more, this guide will set you on the road to success. It also contains a 60-page interactive multimedia guide to your first 30 days on the Paleo diet.
If you want to lose weight, feel better, have more energy, reduce inflammation and pain, or even reverse diseases like rheumatoid arthritis, ulcerative colitis, lupus, autism, diabetes, and obesity, this guide is for you.
What about my gels and supplements?
A common sense approach is necessary with any change in diet.
If you choose to try Paleo diet for athletes, I suggest introducing it gradually and test how your body feels.
You may decide to apply the 80/20 rule- Paleo eating most of the time with the odd night off for “social” occasions.
Or you may decide to go all out. Whatever works for your level of sport and your personality.
During your race or training session, if it is over 90 minutes, most athletes will still benefit from a sports gel or drink- quickly-processed carbohydrates.
With time and discipline of a low-carbohydrate diet, of course you can train your body burn more fat and you may not need these extra quickly processed carbs.
Do I eat the Paleo diet for athletes?
Great question! I began following the Paleolithic eating plan five years ago after reading Professor Cordain’s and Robb Wolf’s books.
I limit all the processed stuff, eat as natural as possible and stick to proteins, fruits and vegetables. I would say I have adopted the 80/20 or when I am in training, the 90/10 rule. I do allow extra carbs for very long sessions.
In myself, I feel better, I am leaner and stronger as an athlete and can push out better performances than I could do 5 years ago. I have noticed much faster recovery from hard sessions, I sleep better and have much less incidence of Achilles problems and knee pain which had flared up from time time before then.
For me, it works and I continue to work with incredible athletes achieving amazing physical feats without relying on heavy diet of low quality, highly processed carbs.
Are there any cons to the Paleo diet for athletes?
You may find it more expensive initially to source organic, high quality produce. You will need to balance this decision for yourself. But if you can find some awesome local markets, it may save you money on all the junk food you may normally buy.
Robb has developed the The Paleo on a Budget Guide solution. It’s a 70-page interactive downloadable guide that shows you how to make healthy Paleo meals for yourself and your family while saving time and money. You can stick to your budget, find extra money, save time, and make Paleo work for you.
This is an interactive guide with links to custom-created videos, audio files, bonus reading, and more. This guide is like a home study course on eating Paleo on a budget!
Some find it time consuming sourcing the right foods and preparing proper meals. The best way is to batch these tasks. Think about your week ahead and prepare a few meals in bulk that you can freeze and pull out when you need them.
3) Anti social
This is a fear many have. “But I’ll be the weirdo at the dinner table being the difficult customer.”
No problem, no difficulty.
4) Adapt a bit for your events
Paleo purists, of course, would say there are enough carbs in yams, sweet potato for long events. However, I find many triathletes I work with do allow themselves extras carbs for their long workouts. Use common sense -test and measure and write your results in your training journal.
If you feel you need extra, it is better to have 80%-90% excellent diet than not bother at all because it is too difficult and revert to 90% bad diet.
Menu ideas for triathletes on Paleo diet for athletes
Here are some suggestions you can try for each meal.
Mix it up, keep it interesting and make up your own combinations
Test what works best for you on training days vs rest days.
Pre-workout Breakfast Smoothie: Banana, eggs whites, protein powder, almond butter and cup of coffee.
A bowl of mixed nuts and berries with coconut milk
A coconut smoothie (coconut milk, frozen berries, 1-2 raw whole eggs, 1-2 spoons of nut butter and a tsp of vanilla extract)
Tomato and egg stir-fry with spring onions
Dairy free omelette with tomatoes, onion and spinach
Poached cod on a bed of steamed spinach and fresh strawberries and blueberries
Tuna salad wrapped in lettuce leaves and almonds
A roast chicken salad with an olive oil and lemon juice vinaigrette
Smoked salmon and green vegetables (beans, kale, broccoli, salad as desired)
Steamed broccoli with hard boiled eggs.
Lean turkey breast as a wrap with avocado, sprouts, almond butter and salad inside
Grilled trout with butternut squash
Citrus beef salad stir fry (stir fried beef flavoured with onion, ginger, garlic, lemon and orange zest; served on a bed of orange and lemon segments with shredded spinach)
Poached wild salmon on a bed of steamed kale, mixed green salad, avocado & sliced strawberries, a squeeze of fresh lime juice and a splash of cold-pressed extra virgin oil; sliced oranges on top.
Grilled chicken breast with flex seed oil, sesame seeds, oil, apple
Lean meat(your choice) kebabs- skewered with red onion & yellow bell peppers, marinated over night in olive oil, lemon juice & your favorite herbs, then grilled. Serve with fresh spinach salad with tomato, walnut oil & a lime wedge.
Hard boiled egg
Bowl of berries with almonds
Raw veggies with an avocado dip
Cantaloupe, raisins, banana, cinnamon dusted sliced apples
Plenty of filtered water to keep hydrated.
On heavy training days- sports gels where required (not every session).
So let me know what you think- whether you are already an Paleo diet athlete, whether you tried it or whether you are on the fence for a while and not taken the plunge.
I welcome your comments,
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