If you’re an endurance runner or athlete, chances are your diet is a key aspect of your training. The food you eat affects your energy, both in terms of how quickly you can extract it and how quickly you can expend it. Although a traditional athlete’s diet likely includes plenty of whole grains and starches, the Paleo diet eschews those foods in favor of foods it claims were available prior to the agricultural revolution, during the Paleolithic period.
A Paleo diet for endurance athletes is composed primarily of unprocessed meats, nuts, leafy vegetables, eggs and berries. All fats except polyunsaturated fats are encouraged, and the diet advocates a switch to pure water, coffee without additives and other natural drinks without artificial sweeteners, processed sugars or artificial flavorings.
Benefits for endurance athletes
Carboloading is considered a traditional part of an endurance runner’s diet, but the Paleo diet advocates abandoning most carbohydrate sources in favor of fats and proteins.
According to Joe Friel, a U.S. Olympic triathlon coach, the Paleo diet offers “better long-term recovery, due to greater micronutrient content, allowing the athlete to train with a greater stress load.”
A primary component of the Paleo diet, fat is a better source of energy for endurance runners than carbohydrates, because it can be stored in the body for longer periods of time without requiring immediate use, in contrast to carbohydrates.
Low intensity running, toward which endurance runners err, also pulls fat more readily than carbs as an energy source, making Paleo a more efficient diet for an endurance runner’s body. In addition, the diet allows for healthy carbs such as potatoes, which the body can digest readily for post-workout meals, when a carbohydrate load can replenish an athlete best.
What the diet allows
The Paleo diet sounds complicated, and many trainers and guides who try it add complicated details, steps or foods that aren’t necessary. In truth, the diet should be relatively simple, different from the standard American diet.
The diet focuses entirely on natural foods that come from plants and animals. Grains are not allowed, and many starches are excluded. Potatoes, however, are part of the diet and serve as an excellent source of energy and micronutrients.
Lean meats, including seafood, chicken, pork and leaner cuts of beef, are recommended at every meal. Supplement it with vegetables, ideally dark, green leafy vegetables. Use natural oils, butter, lard and other natural fats. Avoid vegetable oil or canola oil, as they are post-agricultural revolution foods with unhealthy fats. Nuts and berries are also part of the diet.
Not welcome in the diet: cereals, grains, salt, processed foods, artificial foods, legumes, rice, refined sugar and milk. “Wild animals cannot be milked,” says Dr. Loren Cordain,a professor of Health Sciences at Colorado State University.
How to start a Paleo diet
Most diet guides recommend thoroughly educating yourself about where your food comes from. This means becoming acquainted with your local butcher, any nearby farmer’s markets and any other businesses that sell food directly from local farmers. If it doesn’t come from a farmer, it’s not part of the diet.
A standard shopping list should include plenty of vegetables such as lettuce, onions, peppers, celery, sweet potatoes and herbs, as well as healthy cuts of meats. It’s important to learn how to name and identify cuts from different animals and how to identify the lean and good quality cuts. Fruits such as pears, grapes, and lemons are also welcome. Wild fish, rather than farmed fish, are also crucial to the diet.
By sticking to natural foods and cutting out preservatives, additives and grains, the Paleo diet frequently brings followers a host of health benefits. For athletes, the most important benefit is enhanced energy from the nutrient-rich, gut-friendly diet. Although Paleo is not for everyone, any endurance athlete should give it a try.