By Nell Stephenson
Author of Paleoista
There are so many diets out there, some based on science, others on religion or ethical beliefs, and more than I can count based on nothing other than anecdotal experiments or strange food combinations. But what’s the best for physical endurance sports like marathon running and triathlon racing?
Having experimented with my own diet over the years, I feel well versed in providing an overview from a personal standpoint as an endurance athlete who’s followed several different types of eating plans, all while training for and racing triathlon. Two in particular that stand out are a vegan diet and the Paleo Diet.
Keep in mind that this describes my own personal experience of how the two diets apply to my training and performance. It is not an attempt to stimulate argument or controversy over the animal rights issues that were the very reason I followed a vegan diet for two years, about a decade ago. When I followed a vegan diet, I felt quite strong and able to sustain my training and racing, but when I began racing longer course distances and Ironman, I did not feel as though I was getting enough protein. In fact, I began dreaming about eating fish. Because of my ethical beliefs at the time, I opted not to have any animal products for months and months, but I grew more and more hungry for fish and ultimately added it back into my diet.
Between that time and the subsequent several years, I learned I was gluten intolerant (ironic, given the fact that I’d been consuming lots of wheat-gluten heavy and texturized veg protein “fake meat” products) and as such, removed grain from my diet. When I researched a bit and learned about the Paleo Diet, I adopted its principles and removed all other grains, legumes and dairy from my diet as well. I felt incredible and continue to have amazing amounts of energy, rarely get sick, recover from strenuous training quite quickly and have arrived at a lean bodyweight and a fast racing ability that I never dreamed possible!
When we start to get more detailed, however, about what an athlete might want to eat pre-performance, there’s definitely a difference between the morning’s pre-race meal versus what a typical meal during a non-training day might look like.
My favorite meal to have on race day (well in advance of the start) is baked yams, and/or a really ripe banana with soft-boiled eggs, coconut oil, salt, and pepper (I use salt on days with long or intense training volume, when I’ll be sweating out lots of electrolytes). It’s always trial and error as to how much one can consume during the pre-race meal so that one is adequately fueled, but not overly so (which might cause unwanted, unplanned trips to the loo mid-race—not an ideal scenario!). I choose the meal above because it’s high in easily digestible carbohydrates and has a nice balance of protein via the egg and healthy fat from the coconut oil. I personally would not opt for meat right before a race, as it takes too long to clear the GI tract; my stomach tends to be jittery enough due to pre-race adrenaline so I’d prefer not to add to that the additional worry of indigestion.
Most athletes I’ve worked with tend to under eat calorically before, during, and after training. Granted, there is a time and place to incorporate some fasted training into one’s training regime, which can help the body become better at burning fat as its fuel source. But that isn’t to say one should head out for a three-hour run on empty.
Keep in mind that many of the theories we all hear, such as the concepts of “bonking” or “hitting the wall,” are easily avoided and needn’t be an expected part of your training. If you fuel correctly, you should be soaring ahead from an energy standpoint, despite how hard you might be pushing.
Keep on top of hydrating, too: Once you’re feeling thirsty, you’re already slightly dehydrated and it’s hard to catch up the longer you go without drinking water with electrolytes (as discussed above).
Ultimately, one has to be open-minded to begin to follow the Paleo Diet, whether coming from a vegan background, or the traditional athlete’s diet, high in processed, grain-based carbohydrates. It does seem difficult to follow at first, and there is a period which many (including myself) go through, of feeling low energy and thus questioning whether it’s the right diet for you or not. Fortunately, this typically lasts only a week or two, and while they are a tough couple of weeks, if you see it through you’ll feel fantastic!
If someone had told me a decade ago that I’d be following a diet without grains and legumes (and dairy, which I obviously didn’t eat as a vegan), and consuming fish, poultry and red meat, I would not likely have believed them! However, I’ve found my way to a method of eating which has proven to be the best fit for me, my husband, several of my clients, and virtually everyone I’ve known who has given it a fair try.
I encourage you to do the same, at least for a period of a couple of months. Chances are quite high that you’ll find yourself fitter, faster, and leaner than you could ever imagine!
If you’re questioning whether the Paleo way of life really supports endurance training, check out my race history and see for yourself how my Paleo lifestyle over the last seven years has not only supported my training and racing, but has proved to be one of the main facets of my transformation from a middle–of-the-pack age grouper to podium finishes.
This is not to brag, but rather, to prove that with dedication, commitment, and a well thought-out nutrition plan (ahem, Paleo!), there’s no reason not to set high athletic goals for yourself… and then go achieve them.
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