on endurance and paleo*

I traveled back to Syracuse last weekend to deliver Hannah to Syracuse University’s summer dance intensive, and when I was there I managed to visit, briefly, a group of my running buds from my old running life. They are still running regularly; in fact, they all ran the Mind the Ducks Ultra last May in Rochester, and most of them are training for Syracuse’s Empire State Marathon in October.

While I was there, I got a couple short runs in with some of them. During one of those runs, the topic of my “caveman eating*” came up, which was met with the incredulity that I now expect from distance runners, who cannot understand how I could possibly run more than 5 miles without a bagel or pasta to fortify me. (In addition, I recently had a query from Emily Zebel, who asked a similar question).

And this morning I finally sat down and compiled the training schedule for the Philadelphia Half that a (growing) handful of friends and I are running in September. The schedule (which you can download as a docx if you’re inclined) is mostly cribbed from CrossFit Endurance workouts and is very different from the Hal Higdon training schedules I used to follow. First, we’re only running 3 days a week: 1 long-ish run on the weekends (and they’re not really all that long), and then 1 short interval and 1 long interval during the week. However, the schedule also assumes that I’m doing a CrossFit WOD at least 5 X a week. What that means is that on Tuesdays and Thursdays, I’ll be running AND wodding.

So, the question is: does my diet of mostly vegetables and proteins sustain this kind of rigorous training schedule?

For me, it has. Since May, I’ve been following a similar run/WOD schedule, where I’ve been running about 3 times a week and wodding 5-6 days. And while I have had a couple weekends of pizza-eating, I’ve mostly been (automatically, without really thinking about it) eating paleo-ish. I think, though, that it’s important to remember that eliminating simple or refined carbohydrates doesn’t mean I’m eliminating carbs altogether. I eat at least one apple and one banana a day, and I do eat some dried fruit and nuts (probably the equivalent of one Larabar a day). I eat sweet potatoes. I haven’t cut out carbs; I just eat them in whole form.

As for not eating that oatmeal in the morning, my body hasn’t missed it. As others have reported, grains in the morning (bagels, toast, cereal, oatmeal) can spike your blood sugar and result in mid-morning hunger.

In fact, in my own personal experience, when I eat a more “paleo” diet, I rarely feel that ravenous hunger I used to when I was eating bagels. It may be that I eat more now (I do not count calories), or that I eat more fat (I used to avoid fat because I’m a product of the 1990s low-fat regime). Whatever the cause, the result is that I have plenty of energy to run as far as I’d like to. I’m faster now (maybe because I have more muscle; maybe because I’m slightly lighter), and I am conditioned, from enduring high-intensity CrossFit workouts, to push myself significantly harder than when I was just running. Therefore, I think my improved performance as a runner is a product of BOTH my diet and the CrossFit programming.

Other benefits I’ve noticed from the elimination of grains, legumes, and (most) dairy: I used to have significant heart burn 4-5 times a week at bedtime; I haven’t experienced that in months. I used to suffer with IBS (I know, lovely — sorry for the TMI); I now only have symptoms if I eat wheat (though corn and beans don’t seem to bother me). I used to eat fast food; now I don’t (save for the occasional Chick-fil-a nugget) simply because there’s nothing edible they serve. I haven’t had my quarterly crying jags. I sleep soundly. My body recovers from workouts more quickly.

Now, I’m not training for a full marathon. And I probably won’t ever again, just because my focus has shifted from exercising to stay “skinny,” which I never really was when I was running 40+ miles a week, to training for strength, power, and speed. But for the amount of working out I do, which is admittedly quite a bit, my 80-20 paleo diet serves me really really well.

Some disagree with me:
Will the Paleo Diet Hurt My Endurance?

But there are success stories as well:
Nell Stephenson, of Paleoista. She runs a 3:01 marathon and has competed in Kona Iron Man. She is totally paleo.

An interview with Stephenson, specifically about eating paleo and training for endurance events.

An interview with Leah Isaacson, endurance athlete, on paleo and training.

And then there are more “middle-of-the-road” takes:
Tammy at Modern Paleo advocates for using homemade endurance supplements (like Gu) to help replace glycogen stores during long runs/races. Her homemade supplements include syrup; she says small portions of starches the night before a race are good as long as your stomach can handle it. [However, I often wonder if the “carb load” pasta dinners we used to eat the night before marathons contributed to my mid-race port-o-john stops. I bet they did.]

I think the most important thing to remember, though, is that paleo doesn’t mean calorie restriction. It means eating whole foods that do not create GI distress, leaning heavily on proteins and vegetables to fuel your muscles, and drinking water instead of anything else (except for coffee, *ahem*).

It’s worked for me, but I have been a digestive mess for most of my life. I was a dysfunctional eater in high school, and I had my gallbladder out on my 24th birthday. My gut is a big jerk. But I am more fit and more happy than I have ever been in my entire life. No hyperbole.

* I’m beginning to think about paleo more in the terms that Jo (of The Wandering Jomad) has defined it: really, it’s not a diet that replicates paleolithic eating at all. Our paleolithic ancestors didn’t drink coconut water if they lived in Pennsylvania, like we do. Instead, it’s a diet that attempts to eliminate foods that tend to inflame the digestive tract, which doesn’t really have anything to do with cavemen at all.

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3 thoughts on “on endurance and paleo*

  1. Ha! Thanks for the link. I agree. I think paleo tends to run into problems when people conceive of it as a restrictive diet (restricting calories, restricting carbs, etc). But it’s actually much more flexible than that. It can adapt to any macronutrient needs; it just does so with the most gut-friendly foods.

  2. Dwight calls me a weirdo because I didn’t have energy problems while eating a low-carb diet. My body became pretty efficient at getting its glycogen from sources other than carbohydrates. I toying with a lower-carbohydrate vegan diet right now (lots of nuts, coconut oil, veggies, and tofu [verboten, I know, on a Paleo plan] — trying to keep the net carbs to 10% of my total calories with an occasional higher-carb day tossed in there for variety.

    It is amazing how much diet can affect the body. When I ate a strict low-carb diet, I never had headaches, my skin was clear, I swear my hair was thicker, I had steady energy, etc. I just can’t do the animal-based thing now, but I’m curious to see if my new experiment yields similar results.

    1. Dwight doesn’t have a lot of space to be calling other people “weirdo.” Haha!! Fortunately, weird is wonderful. I am not careful enough (or even able, I don’t think) to calculate percentage of calories. I do still eat small bits of honey, and I eat fruit and sweet potatoes, which of course have a significant number of carbs. So, in some ways, I don’t think I’m eating “low-carb” at all. But I am eating whole, unprocessed food, and I think for me, that’s what makes the biggest difference. I’m with you; diet really changes your body. Which, if you think about it, makes perfect sense. Garbage in; garbage out. XO

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