The Paleo Diet for Athletes
Athletes are always looking for any extra edge that will put them on top of the competition. All athletes know that how we fuel our bodies can make a big difference. Presently, there is a lot of excitement surrounding the Paleo diet. Is a Paleolithic diet right for athletes? According to the world’s leading expert on Paleolithic diets, Loren Cordain, PhD, the answer is yes. He teamed up with guru and author of several bestselling books on training for endurance athletes, Joe Friel, M.S., to tell us why in a book titled “The Paleo Diet for Athletes,” released in 2005.
In essence, the Paleo diet encourages people to get back to their roots as hunters and gatherers-eating the natural foods that our ancestors hunted, fished, and gathered since the beginning of time. In our day, this would mean lean cuts of meat, preferably wild game meats and grass-fed beef, which is higher in Omega-3 fatty acids and free of additives (compared with grain produced meats), as well as seasonal fruits and vegetables and healthy fats such as nuts, seeds, avocado, olive oil, and coconut oil. Cordain and Friel recognize however, that athletes have demands placed on the body today that were not normal for our stone-age ancestors. So, they put together a diet for athletes that allow the athlete to bend the rules of the Paleo plan a little bit.
Why is the “Regular” Paleo Diet Not Suitable for Athletes?
Athletes have a rigorous training schedule, sometimes working out several hours a day at a high energy output level. These unique demands placed on athletes, as opposed to those of the Paleolithic era, give need to quick and optimal recovery. Because of this, some leniency has been given, in consideration of the Paleo diet, to use non-optimal foods on a limited basis. Recovery is everything to an athlete. In order to be ready to practice and compete and then continue the cycle over and over again, a speedy and absolute recovery is essential. Research has shown that carbohydrates are the main fuel for muscles and directly affect the level of glycogen found in the muscle. By consuming high levels of carbs before, during, and after intense exercise, both by eating and drinking carbohydrates, athletes are able to replenish the glycogen stores in the muscles at a much faster rate, as fat and protein take a much longer time to digest and be usable for energy. Also, by replenishing glycogen stores as well as calories, protein is spared and able to be used for muscle repair and growth. In response to this scientific knowledge, Cordain and Friel came up with 5 stages of eating that relate to exercise, as a Paleo diet for athletes meal plan, that should help an athlete maintain the best of both worlds -all the benefits of eating Paleo, while still optimally recovering as an athlete.
The 5 Stages of Eating that Relate to Exercise (According to Cordain and Friel in “The Paleo Diet for Athletes”)
Stage 1: Eating Before Exercise: It is recommended that athletes eat a low to moderate glycemic index carbohydrates (fruits, vegetables, legumes, whole grains, nuts, fructose), at least 2 hours before a hard/long workout or race. There may also be some fat and protein in this meal, and it should be low in fiber. 200-300 calories for every hour you have remaining until your workout begins.
Stage 2: Eating During Exercise: During a workout, high glycemic carbs in the form of fluids should be consumed. Sports drinks! This is a great way to get carbohydrates in and working fast.
Stage 3: Eating Immediately After Exercise: In the first 30 minutes after exercise, the highest priority of the athlete should be consuming carbohydrates and protein in a 4-5:1 ratio. This is most easily done through a recovery drink, such as “UltraFit Recovery”, or by making your own recovery drink out of fruit juice, fruit, glucose (such as CarboPro) and protein powder.
Stage 4: Eating for Extended Recovery: For as long as the preceding exercise lasted, continue to focus on carbohydrates, especially moderate to high glycemic carbs along with protein at a 4-5:1 ratio. This is the lenient time to eat non-optimal foods like pasta, bread, bagels, rice, corn, and other foods rich in glucose as they contribute to recovery. Some ideal stage 4 foods, for Paleo diet followers, would be raisins, potatoes, sweet potatoes, and yams.
Stage 5: Eating for Long Term: Recovery for the remainder of the day or until the next Stage 1 should be the regular Paleo diet athlete’s need as well, which is rich in vitamins, minerals, healthy fats, etc. that focuses on optimal foods.
Yes, Paleo for athletes has definite advantages, and can reap major benefits for them, but more, in my opinion, for the ideology behind it than the actual diet itself. You can never go wrong telling people to get back to their natural ways of eating. Cutting out all the processed garbage in one’s diet is always going to be a major step in the right direction, especially an athlete’s. And by eating healthy cuts of meat and fruits and vegetables that are totally rich in the nutrients athlete’s need, to stay healthy, fit, and lean, they will, no doubt, see some results on the playing field.
But one cannot deny the power behind the science where carbohydrates are concerned. Evidence suggests that carbohydrates are an undeniably, valuable source of energy to us, especially for athletes. Critics do admit that the book “The Paleo Diet for Athletes,” was constructed largely around endurance athletes, who do have a much greater need for carbohydrate reloading following intense exercise than other types of athletes, but many of the principles still apply to all athletes, and that is that carbohydrates were meant to be consumed as a way to feed, replenish, and restore our muscles following exercise.
Research suggests that a standard Paleolithic diet can be ideal for many types of people, and has some obvious health benefits, but for athletes, and experts Cordain and Friel agree, that incorporating healthy carbohydrates and sports drinks before, during, immediately after exercise, and even in the next couple of hours after exercise, is the way to go to ensure complete and optimal recovery so that you are able to be the best you can be. If muscles feed on carbohydrates, it only makes sense that an athlete would make carbohydrates an integral part of their exercise plan, right?
Bayly, Fiona. (September 28, 2010). Are Carbs Good for Post Work-Out Nutrition? Retrieved on January 28, 2012 from http://www.livestrong.com/article/251301-are-carbs-good-for-post-workout-nutrition/
Cordain, Loren, PhD and Joe Friel, M.S. (2005) A Quick Guide to the Paleo Diet for Athletes. Retrieved on January 28, 2012 from http://home.trainingpeaks.com/articles/nutrition/quick-guide-the-paleo-diet-for-athletes.aspx
Paleolithic Diet. Retrieved on January 19, 2012 from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Paleolithic_diet#History
Wolf, Robb. Revolutionary Solutions to Modern Life: Paleo Overview. Retrieved on January 19, 2012 from http://robbwolf.com/faq/