From big pasta dinners, to carbohydrate dense prepackaged bars, and electrolyte beverages, endurance athletes are notorious for relying on carbohydrates as their main source of fuel. Many endurance athletes believe that they cannot live a Paleo lifestyle and still effectively train or compete for their event. However, there are athletes out there who are living a Paleo lifestyle and running marathons, doing Ironman Triathalons and even doing 3+ CrossFit WODs a day like in the recent CrossFit Games. One of my CrossFit clients, Leah Isaacson, who I have given the nickname of “Mighty Mouse”, is one of them. Leah is under 5 feet tall and weighs about 115 pounds and is one of the strongest athletes in our gym. She can do at least 40 strict consecutive pullups and then do another set of about 37 after resting. The girl is strong. She also completed the 2011 Seattle to Portland (STP) 200 mile bike race in one day while following a Paleo diet. Hopefully, my interview with her will give you some confidence to enhance the way you perform by trying to follow a primal way of eating. Special thanks to Leah for sharing her story with me.
What motivated you to try the Paleo diet while training for the STP (200 mile) bike race?
Leah: I started eating Paleo a year ago in February as a challenge for 30 days. I expected to do it and return to my “normal” diet. But after 30 days, I had absolutely no desire to reintroduce the non-paleo foods especially grains and sugars. I started training for the STP mid-March. The first long ride I did I thought I needed to have some “carbs” like bread, so I did. The next day I felt disgusting. Even just a little toast made me feel sick. I couldn’t imagine what a “gu” would do to me. So decided I would do all my training on eating a clean-unprocessed diet aka paleo. I did A LOT of research on what I needed nutrient wise for endurance training and just tweaked my food to make it work. It does take a little more time, but it is totally worth it!
What advice would you have for endurance athletes who rely on the traditional diet higher in carbohydrates and grains?
Leah: My advice would be to try to eat whole, real foods. Rather than getting your carbs from processed bars/drinks, try to change the paradigm. Dates, sweet potatoes and yams are great sources of carbs. You would be surprised how much better you feel when you’re not loading yourself up with processed carbs. After cutting my carb intake, especially grains, I felt a drastic difference in what I need energy wise for training. Because my diet is naturally lower in carbs, when I do eat carbs, I am really able to use them. Before long rides I will have some sweet potatoes or yams. I have really found that I crave more fat- as it is longer lasting energy. I always give the kindling (carbs) and log (fat) example that I heard you give one day in the gym.
Can you describe what you eat while racing or training?
Leah: Pre-training/racing I will have a couple servings of sweet potatoes or yams the day before and maybe the morning of, along with lean protein and fat. While riding (anywhere from 50-200 miles), I will eat a trail mix made of raisins/walnuts/beef jerky
(in a ratio of 40/30/30). I also carry fruit & veggie pouches or homemade date bars for an easy way to get some energy without having to get off the bike. Dates give a lot of quick sugar (like a “gu” would). Coconut water is also a good source of carbs.
Have you noticed any difference in how your body feels since you have eliminated grains?
Leah: I feel immensely better having cut out grains. I don’t feel as sluggish and hungry all the time. I have had grains, gluten specifically, a few times and the next day I do not feel well with a headache and just slow! In addition, I have noticed I don’t need as many carbs pre-workout/training – because my body has adjusted to burning fat AND because I don’t eat as many carbs my body can actually use them when I do eat them pre-training.
I definitely feel like I recover faster!