One minute off my 5km personal best. Four minutes off my 10km personal best. Five, six, seven minutes off my 10 mile personal best. Improved pace per mile. Improved recovery. 24 lbs fat loss. Increase in muscle mass. Easier breathing during maximum effort.
After being a runner for four years, running countless 10k’s, and a few half marathons in hopes of attaining a new personal best, the above statistics weren’t due to a change in my training regimen, but rather a change to my diet. My running improved drastically when I went Paleo.
Some might look at those stats and think that losing weight was the driving force in my improved performance, but weight loss was just a small part of it. Anyone that has been playing the Paleo game for a while now knows that losing weight is truly a by-product of this way of eating.
…while Paleo is lower in carbohydrate consumption than the standard British, grain-based, high-sugar diet, it isn’t necessarily ‘low carb’.
Once I started fuelling my body with real foods made with real ingredients and ditched the grains, the sugar, the chemically made vegetable oils, the fake food, this improved well being crossed over into my running. In a big way.
But wait, running on a lower carb diet? Is that even possible? Don’t runners need ample carbohydrates to perform well both in training and races? Isn’t a plate of spaghetti a typical pre-race meal? Once the terms ‘Paleo’ and ‘running’ meet, these questions based on long held mainstream assumptions about running start to arise. It all gets a bit confusing…. Until now. Is it possible to be a Paleo runner?
First, let’s state the obvious: while Paleo is lower in carbohydrate consumption than the standard British, grain-based, high-sugar diet, it isn’t necessarily ‘low carb’. This misnomer is too often used with regards to Paleo. While eating foods that we were evolved to eat; vegetables, fruit, protein from quality sources, and healthy fats is lower in overall carbohydrate content, it’s important to always keep in mind that Paleo isn’t a one-size-fits-all approach. We all go Paleo for different reasons and our individual health needs and physical activity demands dictate what we eat, when we eat it, and how often we eat. Runners can easily adopt the Paleo diet and adapt it to suit their training and recovery needs – all it takes is a bit of knowledge about food as fuel, time to transition, and a bit of faith.
Too many runners believe that the only foods that can be used as fuel for runs are grain-based carbohydrates like porridge, muesli, bagels, pasta, bread, etc. It doesn’t help that every big marathon also holds a pasta party the night before the race basically subconsciously telling you that pasta is the only food you can eat that will help you race well. The problem with these grain-based carbs is that they cause bloating, they don’t lead to lasting satiety, and they often make us feel tired after a big feed – completely ironic considering these foods are supposed to energise your run and your muscles.
Good news – grains aren’t the only option. There are other foods that will also fuel your muscles; sweet potatoes, white potatoes, varieties of squash, and white rice (if you’re #teamwhiterice Paleo). While these foods have a lower carbohydrate content than say, a bowl of pasta, they’re still a perfectly good source of carbohydrates to feed your muscles. They help fill you up, don’t cause bloating, and keep you feeling energised.
Paleo + running is a learning process which like a training programme will involve some trial and error. You just need to persevere, ‘trust the training,’ know which carbs to eat, and see what works for you.
When would you eat them? It really depends on the frequency and intensity at which you train. If most of your running sessions are high intensity (75% maximum effort or higher) you’re going to need to consume these Paleo-friendly complex carbs often throughout the week, possibly at one meal every day. If you run a lot of hills or do hill repeats as part of your training, again you’ll want to eat the carbs frequently in order to prevent that dreaded glycogen-void, heavy-leg feeling.
Can a runner just convert to Paleo and expect instantaneous results? No, but don’t let this discourage you. When you go Paleo whether part of a gradual phase-in/phase-out process, or cold turkey, your body goes through a period that some refer to as ‘low-carb flu.’ This is where you wean yourself off of your dependence on grains, sugar and other processed foods. It’s this process that discourages many wannabe Paleo runners, usually because people don’t know about transitioning and how you’re going to feel not-so-great to begin with. Going Paleo is like a marathon, it doesn’t just happen – you need to train and prepare for it.
Think of it as putting your physiology on a training programme. You’re training to become a better version of yourself through diet. Depending upon the person, transitioning can take weeks or up to a month, it just depends on how strict you are with your approach.
Once you’ve turned your body into a Paleo machine from all the nutrient dense meals you’re eating and you’ve coupled this with a consistent training approach you’ll start to see differences:
- Improved recovery due to a diet higher in protein, and therefore Branch Chain Amino Acids, which is necessary in muscle recovery.
- Muscle mass maintenance and gains.
- Improved immune functioning due to a more nutrient dense diet.
- Improved intestinal health, which can eradicate the upset stomach many runners get during a race.
- Efficient energy storage and use, resulting in less ‘bonking.’
Paleo + running is a learning process which like a training programme will involve some trial and error. You just need to persevere, ‘trust the training,’ know which carbs to eat, and see what works for you. Running a marathon or even an ultra marathon while Paleo is definitely possible and is the best step a runner can take for overall improved performance. It’s your competitive edge over other runners.
Don’t believe me? Check out these notable Paleo endurance athletes:
- Timothy Olson, champion ultra runner.
- Simon Whitfield, multiple Canadian triathlon champion, 2-time Olympic medalist.
- Dave Zabriskie, professional cyclist
- Cordain, L. and Friel, J,. (September, 2012). The Paleo Diet for Athletes. Rodale Inc.
- Kindler, D. (2013) Paleo’s Latest Converts, in Men’s Journal. Retrieved from http://www.mensjournal.com/health-fitness/nutrition/paleos-latest-converts-20130618