Can You Run on a Paleo Diet?

by Dave Reid

[The following post is part of a series on runners and their diets. Dave Reid is a Toronto-based ultra runner who follows the Paleo diet. You may remember him from his recent guest post on how to successfully run an ultra. You can also check out Patrick Sweeney’s post on how to run vegan and Brendan Brazier’s post on Top 8 Vegan-Friendly Foods for Runners, also part of this series.]

The “Paleo Lifestyle” has been gaining a lot of traction lately. Adherents are finding they lose weight quickly as well as generally feel better once their bodies adjust to it.

So what exactly is the Paleo or Primal Lifestyle?

A PALEOLITHIC LIFESTYLE

In a nutshell, Paleo Living consists of two parts.

1. Diet

The Paleo dieter’s goal is to eat like our ancestors, and I don’t mean your grandparents. I’m talking about the kind of food Homo Sapiens survived on for millions of years before a relatively recent event, the agricultural revolution, completely changed the way we humans eat.

For Paleo types, that means no grains, no bread, no pasta, no rice, no potatoes, and especially no sugar or processed carbs. Nothing that comes out of a box, and no vegetable oils. Nothing labeled “low fat” or “light”, because when they remove the fat they are generally adding processed carbs like sugar.

What can you eat?

The primal diet should be high fat, medium protein, and low carb. Under 100 grams of carbs per day, if you’re keeping score. Lots of meat (hopefully organic, grass fed), eggs (free range), fish (not farmed), non starchy vegetables, berries and nuts. Think Modified Atkins diet. Or South Beach. Or Zone.

Hardcore primal foodies also avoid dairy. I eat dairy, but I’ve never had any trouble with lactose. Dairy is kind of a grey area; you have to decide for yourself whether you want to include it or not. Certainly Homo Sapiens haven’t evolved to eat dairy products, but full fat dairy products are perfect for this diet. If you can handle it, why not?

The dietary emphasis is on eating fats of all kinds, except polyunsaturated fats (PUFA’s), which are mainly found in processed vegetable oils like canola oil. Primal cooking means using tallow, lard, butter and coconut oil if you’re frying anything.


2. Exercise

Primal people believe in working out like a caveman, and that does not include running very long distances while eating gels and drinking Gatorade. Most primal living advocates are in fact dead set against ultra running, preferring rather to sprint short distances or walk long distances. Despite this, I am definitely noticing more and more primal eating ultrarunners around, both at races and on the Internet.

So the question is, can ultrarunning be compatible with a Paleo lifestyle? My answer would be a very clear . . .

Yes. And no. Not 100%.

The premise of the primal diet is that it teaches your body to burn fat for fuel, since there are little or no carbs readily available for energy. I have found my maximum running effort is about 90 minutes before I need to supplement with “quick acting carbs” like gels or a sports drink. My body just can’t burn fat fast enough to keep up with my energy needs after that. I know there are others who have trained their bodies to go longer without carbs, I’ve just never been able to do it.

Since going primal two and a half years ago, one of the more notable changes (other than losing 35 lbs) has been my run routine. Previously, before a run I used to eat breakfast, usually a bagel with peanut butter or jam, and drink a bottle of Gatorade before heading out. Then, after a half-hour, I’d start popping the gels, one every 30 minutes or so.

Since going primal, I start my run in a “fasted” state. My pre-run breakfast is a cup of coffee with whipping cream and a bottle of water with electrolytes (I use Nuun tablets because they don’t have any sugar). Then I head out. After 90 minutes I start consuming gels, one every 30 minutes or so, but I occasionally forget and no harm done. Obviously gels are not primal, but they are necessary for me if I’m going be competitive in a 50K or longer. I don’t feel guilty, as I am immediately burning off the 100 or so calories each gel provides.

For training, I don’t carbo-load the night before like I used to. However, when racing I do. Again, that’s just me. I’m sure there are other primal ultra runners who don’t carbo load before a race. There is a theory that if you starve your body of carbs in the week before a race, then load up a day or two before, your body is much more efficient at storing those carbs for energy. Training and racing are two different things in my mind, so my compromise is to “Train Low Carb, Race High Carb”. It works for me.

One example of an elite paleo ultrarunner is Rob Evans, who is running better as a masters runner than he did when he was younger. He credits his success to going primal. You can read about his diet transformation here.

Another facet of working out the primal way is running in minimal shoes. Hunter/gatherers didn’t wear padded running shoes, and neither should we. I am currently using the New Balance Minimus. I know Vanessa likes the Vibram Five Fingers and her friend Lou actually runs barefoot.

The thinking here is that the more you interfere with the foot’s natural movement (i.e. the more you support, cushion the foot) as well as inhibit pronation, the more chance of injury you have. Orthotics are also very anti-primal.

Think of the arch of your foot being like a bridge. How do you weaken an arched  bridge? You push it upwards from the middle, just like an orthotic does. And those raised heels on most running shoes? They don’t allow your Achilles tendon to stretch out and cause you to land heel first, which can cause jarring and lead to knee and hip pain.

If you are going to change shoes to a minimal type shoe (or go barefoot), do it slowly, or you could damage your Achilles as it finally is allowed to fully lengthen. You will naturally begin to land on the ball of your foot instead of the heel. And remember, cavemen ran trails, not roads.

So that’s it. If you want more information about living primal, you can start at Mark’s Daily Apple. This is my must-read blog about primal living. You could spend days reading; there’s so much information. I also have lots of links to the “Primal Ultrarunning Lifestyle” and other primal athletes (like Simon Whitfield) on my blog.

The primal diet is forgiving, I use the 80/20 rule, which means eat primal food 80% of the time and you’re golden. If I feel like eating a burger (with the bun) and fries, no big deal. Just not too often. One reason I look forward to race day is I know I’m going to be eating a guilt free dinner the night before. There will always be a beer or two involved as well!

Have fun out there! See you on the trails.

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