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