Is The Paleo Diet Right For Triathletes?

It lacks grains, processed sugars and starches, but the paleo diet has its advantages for athletes.

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It lacks grains, processed sugars and starches, but the paleo diet has its advantages for athletes.

After Nell Stephenson contracted a parasite during an Ironman race in 2004, she took the medication prescribed, but for months continued to feel worse. Though Stephenson had always eaten healthy foods, it turned out she had developed a gluten-intolerance and stomach problems.

Stephenson decided to try the Paleo diet—a diet that mimics what people would have eaten naturally during the Paleolithic Period, before the Agricultural Revolution.

“I felt better in three days,” says Stephenson, a trainer and nutritional coach who now runs a popular Paleo informational blog, Paleoista, and has come out with a book of the same name.

Paleo has been growing in popularity among the general community. But its basic tenets seemed to counter to the traditional carbo-loading of runners and endurance athletes. Paleo prescribes a diet of just lean protein, healthy fat, and fresh fruits and vegetables. Dairy, grains, legumes, and refined and processed food are completely avoided.

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While most athletes eat lean protein and fresh fruits and vegetables (or, at least, they know they should), many still rely heavily on grains, processed sugars and lots of starches.

But athletes can benefit from a Paleo diet with just a few simple adjustments, says Joe Friel, a U.S. Olympic triathlon coach and author the seminal Cyclists’ Training Bible and Triathletes’ Training Bible.

“[Paleo offers] better long-term recovery, due to greater micronutrient content [than a standard high-starch and sugar diet], allowing the athlete to train with a greater stress load,” Friel said.

Friel and Loren Cordain, PhD, authored the authoritative book on the subject, The Paleo Diet for Athletes, which outlines a couple changes athletes should make to the basic Paleo diet.

The key, said Friel, is dividing an athlete’s diet into stages. During most of an athlete’s meals the basic Paleo diet should be followed, but before, during and immediately after workouts some adjustments could be needed.

About two hours prior to a long or hard workout or race, an athlete should eat food with a low to moderate glycemic index and low fiber content.

During an extended athletic event or race, most athletes will still need quickly-processed carbohydrates in the form of sports drink or gels. Even Stephenson, who eats 100 percent Paleo otherwise, acknowledges that she has to use carbohydrate gels during Ironman races and her husband uses them during ultramarathons. During short events less than an hour, though, an athlete can drink just water.

Eventually, an athlete eating a low-carbohydrate diet will teach their working muscles to utilize more fat stores, which is more efficient and can level out blood sugar fluxuations. Friel reportedly experienced this body change about six to eight weeks after adopting the Paleo diet.

Immediately after an intense or long workout, an athlete should have a recovery drink with carbohydrates and protein in a 4-5:1 ratio. Eating in the short window after a workout is important to ensure that an athlete is recovering and rebuilding muscles.

The few hours after hard exercise is the time to focus on carbohydrates and to possibly eat non-Paleo—starchy foods like bagels or pasta—because the high glucose is needed for the recovery process. The perfect recovery foods in this period, said Friel, are raisins, potatoes and yams.

A lot of problems that athletes have with Paleo come from either not understanding the diet, not planning, or not listening to their bodies. Most importantly, Paleo is not a low-calorie or calorie-restrictive diet — a mistake Stephenson said she’s seen top athletes make.

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Nate Helming, a CrossFit and triathlon coach in San Francisco, tried Paleo for about eight months, but had a hard time eating appropriately for sustained endurance. He was focusing on sweet potatoes, applesauce and dates for energy, but while training 10-15 hours a week, “you have to hit a lot of dates,” he said.

While it’s possible to plan your food intake appropriately, it simply takes more work. Additionally, Helming said, because he was already eating relatively healthy and close to Paleo before, except for some grains and legumes, “I didn’t see a big change.”

But, two of his athletes who tried Paleo lost large amounts of weight—one of them dropping 26 pounds in seven months.

Stephenson also had some athletes who were eating no vegetables and living on electrolyte drinks and sports nutrition bars around the clock come to her for help. For these people, Paleo provides a structure to a healthy diet.

Friel says that most importantly, a Paleo diet—as opposed to a high-starch and sugar diet, like many athletes eat—can have the following effects: more vitamins and antioxidants to keep a strong immune system; increased fat oxidation, which helps long-event endurance; balanced pH levels; and better retained and recovered muscles. All of which makes you faster in the long run.

“My body is functioning optimally,” noted Stephenson.


About The Author:

Kelly O’Mara is a journalist/reporter and recovering professional triathlete. She lives in the San Francisco Bay Area and writes for a number of magazines, newspapers, and online news sites. And, she eats a lot of brownies.

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