Paleo Diet for Runners & Triathletes

We’ve all heard it: “Tomorrow’s race day, got to carbo-load!” *devours 9 bowls of pasta*.

We’ve all heard it so much, in fact, that when someone has the audacity to recommend something like a paleo diet for runners & triathletes, it’s generally laughed at.

Why? Well, let’s start with the basics:

What is the paleo diet?

At its core, paleo is a diet plan that bases itself around the foods that would have been available during the Paleolithic era, which ranges from approx. 2.5 million to 10,000 years ago.

The diet is made up of foods that could be obtained by hunting and gathering which include, but aren’t limited to: fruits, vegetables, nuts & seeds, fish and other lean meats.

While the diet is very inclusive of hunting and gathering foods, it’s equally as exclusive of ‘processed’ foods or otherwise foods that came to be when farming became more prevalent since 10,000 years ago. This would include things like dairy, legumes, grains, and most notably, processed sugar.

The paleo diet has a few other names (paleolithic diet, stone age diet, caveman diet, etc.), but they all generally talk about the same thing.

The most notable prohibited food group in the paleo diet, as it pertains to runners, triathletes and endurance athletes alike, is grains (i.e. bread, pasta, rice, etc.).

“Carbo-load guy” couldn’t imagine a world where an endurance athlete could survive without such complex carbs, and there is your main criticism of the diet for these types of athletes.

A paleo diet for runners can totally work

It just requires a little bit of thought and substitution.

First thing first, no matter what diet you’re following, there are a few boxes that a paleo diet checks off:

  • Eliminate processed sugar (we’ll talk about your gels here in a minute)
  • Focus on whole, unprocessed & natural foods/ingredients
  • Avoiding the ‘aisles’ of the grocery store and shop around the outside (fresh meat, produce, etc.)

Whether you are paleo, keto, vegetarian, vegan, or just health conscious in general, these are imperative rules to abide by. There have been numerous studies about the dangers of sugar (there’s even one claiming it’s more addictive than cocaine…) and an equal number touting the benefits consuming of whole, organic and unprocessed foods.

But what about the carbs?

The biggest complaint that runners and triathletes have about paleo is it’s lack of complex carbs (i.e. bread, rice, pasta, etc.).

So, how do you get your proper carb intake? Here is a list of paleo approved alternative carbohydrate sources that will fuel any athlete:

  • Plantains
  • Yams/sweet potatoes
  • Parsnips
  • Onion
  • Beets
  • Carrots
  • Butternut squash
  • Spaghetti squash
  • Turnips
  • Pumpkin

The most common of the list above, are the sweet potato (or yam) and squash (spaghetti or butternut). With dozens of ways to cook them (baked, pureed, roasted, boiled, sautéd…), they don’t have to be boring either! You can also substitute quinoa and cauliflower rice for grain rice, both of which come prepackaged/cut at most grocery stores for convenience.

There are also carbs hidden away in vegetables like broccoli, bell peppers, kale, tomatoes, cabbage, cucumbers, radishes, and dozens more.

While piling on the pasta and rice dishes might be a dense way to consume a high amount of carbs, your body also has a tough time processing them. Ever consider why your body goes into a ‘food coma’ after eating large amounts of these? Mainly because it has to divert so much energy to your digestive track to move things along, that it makes you (the one who’s supposed to have tons of energy for all this running, swimming and biking!) tired.

How much food do you eat?

The paleo diet for a normal person is going to be quite different from the paleo diet for runners and triathletes when it comes to volume.

Interestingly enough, paleo (unlike something like zone dieting) doesn’t put a restriction on the amount of food you can eat, so long as you avoid certain foods, and eat only others.

For an athlete working through something as intensive as an Ironman training plan, they’re going to likely need more food than even a casual runner.

The advice given here, whether you run 5k’s, marathons, or Ironman races, is essentially the same as the topics covered in our nutrition plan for triathletes, eat what your body needs to perform, and no more, no less.

Well, gee, that’s useless advice, how will I know what that is? 

Great question!

For most all athletes, it’s recommended to start with the standard 3-4 mid-sized meals a day. One as soon as you can to waking up, 2 in the middle of the day, and one at least 2-3 hours before you plan to go to bed.

As for the amount and composition of those meals, each can follow the plate method.

The plate method for athletes

A topic discussed at length in the first episode of our Ironman podcast (The Iron Journey), the plate method is a perfect place for most athletes to start when it comes to their Ironman nutrition.

When looking at a normal, round dinner plate, you can visually split up your food to know how much of what type of food you should be eating.

  • 1/2 plate of non-starchy veggies (broccoli, asparagus, otherwise known as your ‘greens’)
  • 1/4 plate of lean protein (things like chicken & fish)
  • 1/4 plate of grains and starch (like our sweet potatoes and squash mentioned above)

Organizing your plates in this manner not only assure you’re getting the proper ratio of nutrients, it also makes cooking pretty easy since you only need to think of a combination of 3 types of food to make a meal. We even offer a 1 week meal plan and breakdown using the plate method in our Ironman training bundle to help take the mystery out of the whole thing.

Wait a minute… what about energy gels?

Ok, here’s where you can cut some corners.

If you’re looking to qualify for Boston, or complete your first Ironman, or anything in between, you may be relying on energy gels to get a quick boost of carbs & sugar during extreme training sessions.

You know what, if a caveman was training for an Ironman, he might appreciate a gel too.

If you need such a supplement to keep you going during a 3-6 hour bike ride or a marathon? That’s fine! The key is to make sure your body responds to it well, and that you use it sparingly.

Extreme training session doesn’t mean a tough 1 mile run, that you can use existing nutrients from your every day diet. An extreme training session would be one involving multiple hours of non-stop movement/expenditure of energy where performance is paramount.

You’ll often hear of the 80/20 rule when it comes to dieting (80% dead on, and 20% little relaxed), gels and the like fall into the 20% (so do the occasional double cheeseburger, it’s ok, I won’t tell…). The key is moderation on all of that, and a devotion to real, whole foods the vast majority fo the time.

Does the paleo diet work for runners and endurance athletes?

It absolutely can.

The key is allowing yourself a little flexibility where needed and appropriate.

99% of the time you can find a fitting, paleo approved, substitute for just about anything that you’d think to cook for yourself, knowing that 1% of the time, you may choose to do otherwise.

Whether you’re looking to change your diet to paleo, keto, vegetarian, vegan or anything of the sort, remember:

  1. Severely limit processed sugar
  2. Focus on whole, organic and unprocessed foods
  3. Eat with the plate method to control macro portions

Even with those 3 simple tips, you’ll find yourself with more energy, better recovery, and you might even unlock higher performance too.