Eat This, Not That: 7 Easy Paleo Alternatives for Runners

While training is important to reach your potential and run fast, a sound diet is necessary in order to provide your body with the fuel it needs to run high-quality workouts and to recover.

After eating whatever I wanted for years, I have slowly transitioned my diet into a healthier version that I think works well for me. Last February and March, I almost exclusively ate paleo, but my long runs and workouts were sometimes difficult to complete. Now I think a modified paleo approach is best.

If you’re not sure what type of eating plan this is all about, David Csonka at Naturally Engineered summarized the paleo diet well:

The main premise of the Paleo Diet centers around the idea that the average human body has not yet sufficiently adapted to eating foods that have become available since the invention of agriculture 10,000 years ago. This includes seemingly benign foods like grains and beans, to the more obvious culprits like industrially processed junk food.

I don’t think a 100% paleo diet is sufficient for distance runners who are exercising for more than 60 minutes at a time. But you can adapt its principles to work in your favor, much like Loren Cordain and Joe Friel explain in their book The Paleo Diet for Athletes.

You may also be considering a vegetarian diet. While I’m a proud carnivore and think that’s the optimal diet for runners (and every human), you may choose otherwise for certain health or moral reasons. That’s fine! Just make sure you cover your bases – a good resource is The Vegetarian Guide to Conquering Your First Marathon which makes sure you eat right on a plant-based diet as you’re training.

Eating paleo isn’t necessarily giving up on certain foods. You can make smart substitutions for standard foods that you probably eat fairly often. Here are some of my favorites that I eat often.

Eat red quinoa instead of bread. While quinoa is still a grain, its carbohydrates are absorbed slowly into the blood stream and contains more nutrients than other types of grains. It can be hard to find in a regular grocery store so you may have to find it at a Whole Foods, Trader Joe’s, or even on Amazon. If you can’t find it, the next best thing is wild rice.

Eat yams or sweet potatoes instead of white potatoes. The sugars in white potatoes are absorbed quickly and can spike your blood glucose. Yams and sweet potatoes are less likely to do this as quickly and offer more nutrients than their white potato cousins. Besides, they taste a lot better too.

Eat spaghetti squash instead of spaghetti. Replacing a staple like spaghetti with a vegetable is about as paleo as you can get! Spaghetti squash can easily be cooked in the microwave and I find it very fun to eat. Top it with tomato sauce and some chicken or ground beef and you have a fantastic plate of “pasta” for dinner.

Eat plantain chips instead of tortilla chips. You can actually make plantain chips at home if you have a food dehydrator or you want to cook them in the oven. I think they taste better and can be eaten with salsa, guacamole, or a home-made meat sauce. They’re a staple in Latin America so I’m sure many of you are familiar with them.

Eat coconut pancakes instead of regular pancakes or waffles. You have to be a coconut person to like this recipe, but if you are then this will rock your world. There is a great recipe and do-it-yourself video at Mark’s Daily Apple that lays out exactly how to make coconut pancakes if you want to try these out. Highly recommended.

Eat nut butters (almond, cashew, or sunflower seed butter) instead of peanut butter. I don’t strictly adhere to this rule because I buy natural peanut butter that doesn’t have added vegetable oil in it. Many paleo advocates point out that peanuts are actually legumes, so if you want to replace peanut butter there are a lot of options. My favorite is sunbutter, which is made from sunflower seeds. You can easily buy it at Trader Joe’s or Whole Foods.

Eat big salads instead of lunch sandwiches. This is another idea from Mark’s Daily Apple, where he calls it his “big ass salad.” Instead of your typical lunch meat sandwich, take a big Tupperware bowl and fill it with lettuce, chopped vegetables, olive oil, small pieces of leftover meat, olives, and anything else you can throw in there from your fridge. I do this a lot and it keeps me full for a lot longer than just a turkey sandwich.

Making a few easy changes in your diet like these suggestions will help you transition to a paleo diet without too many cravings for carbohydrates. As a runner, I know I can’t be 100% paleo so I like to have a bowl of oatmeal in the morning if I know my lunch and snacks are primarily paleo-focused. Eaten after my morning run, it gives me enough carbs to refuel after my workout without spiking my blood sugar too high.

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Are there any Strength Runners out there who run on a 100% paleo or primal diet? How do you make it work? Leave your suggestions in the comments!

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  1. Right on Fitz, having enough energy to get through long runs is definitely an issue for a lot of runners trying Paleo. I think there is a nifty theory that hunter-gatherers who were more able to secure high-yielding carbohydrate sources (through intelligence/fitness) were probably better able to survive and reproduce.

    Some of the super strict paleo types get up in arms about potatos, but they are so much better than just eating pizza, and work well for athletes who burn through their glycogen stores daily.

    On a competition day for CrossFit style stuff, I try to stay mostly liquid to keep heavy digestion from making me feel sluggish. Coconut water is what I use to hydrate and get some carbs back into me after a workout – when I have another hard one a few hours later.

    • Right on about the potatoes. I’m not sure why paleo eaters get so upset about them – they do provide a good amount of nutrients and they’re an edible plant! If you run a lot and eat them with other foods then the sugar response won’t even be that extreme.

      I love coconut water!

  2. Hey Fitz,

    Good article. Although I don’t adhere to any form of paleo diet in a strict sense, all of your suggestions are something I do on a regular basis. My basic principle: eat foods in/ that are in their most natural state. However, I must say that I often struggle with significant GI issues in my afternoon workouts. At first I thought it was too much veg/salad during the day or eating too close to my evening sessions, but altering this doesn’t seem to change things. Just wondering if you have experienced this or have any suggestions?!? It is frustrating and often can put a serious damper on an evening session even though the legs are feeling solid.

    Thanks. Keep up the blog. Great stuff. Just came across it recently and have really enjoyed some of your posts.


    • Hey Adam – thanks for coming by and I’m glad you like the site! I’ve never had bad GI issues (besides the normal things that runners go through every once in awhile) in the afternoon. There was a period about 3 years ago when I was running at 5:30am every day where I had to take a lot of pit stops…. I couldn’t figure it out, although I suspect I was getting used to the early morning running time, but after about 5-6 weeks I think my body adjusted. Try experimenting with getting on a schedule where you’re going in the morning – what helps is having a lot of water as soon as you wake up and coffee or tea if you’re into that. Cheers!

    • I would consider eliminating potentially suspect foods from your diet for a few weeks and see if the symptoms of GI discomfort disappear. It’s really the easiest and most sure fire why to find out if you have issues with certain foods.

      The tough part is really sticking to the plan and seeing it through. Some food intolerances can present symptoms for a week or two after consuming the guilty food.

  3. For me the important thing is to just eat healthy when I can.
    Number one energy food for runners in my book is Oat porridge [has been found in the stomachs of 5,000 year old Neolithic bog bodies in Central Europe and Scandinavia.]
    Also after hard training I’ve greatly improved recovery time by taking a protein drink soon after my run!
    I try to eat plenty of fruit and veg, but I’m never going to stress out about not following what could be a BAD science diet :]

    • The premise of the paleo diet is that it dates back hundreds of thousands of years (millions?) and is therefore what we evolved to eat. Only since the agricultural revolution 10,000 years ago did we start to eat grains and we have not been able to 100% adapt to them yet. Still, as runners, I think we need some carbohydrates in our diet to fuel our lifestyle but it’s not as much as many think. Thanks for your thoughts Rick!

    • Not sure if serious… news interpretations of research studies are rarely representational of the actual study or even accurate about the results. The journalists probably don’t even read the results, they just get a few blurbs from fame-seeking scientists and then blow up the context to make it more sensational for headlines.

      Either way, pushing back the timeline for bread use by 10,000 years, which this study does not do – since eating ground up tubers is hardly bread making – is just a blink of an eye in the context of the entirety of the paleolithic which spanned 2-3 million years of human evolution.

  4. The average age of early man was 25 years old!
    This means it’s impossible to tell if their diet was any good for stopping many of our modern day problems.
    Early man had to adapt to what ever food was available!
    Thats why we are still here today!
    Are you saying we should not use GELS, SPORTS DRINKS when we run Marathons?
    I would love to see a group of runners tested using both a healthly diet containing at least 60% carbs with a paleo diet, doing hard workouts on a treadmill, truth is early man would never run at near Marathon pace for long!

  5. Oh bye the way, maybe I’m winding you up a bit David, I can see some good in a paleo diet!
    Found this website of great interest
    Healthy eating :]

  6. Ok you win, I’ll buy you a pint and a bag of chips!
    Sorry, only kidding!
    Keeping an open mind is one of the most important things in life , BUT can a Marathon runner or even a 10K runner perform at their best on a Paleo diet?

    • I think it would be tough to do so on strict Paleo – but you could look at Cordain’s Paleo Diet for Athletes, which Fitz mentioned. Cordain made concessions geared towards endurance athletes owing to their need for more dense carbohydrate fuel.

  7. I realize that understanding history helps to ensure that we aren’t doomed to repeat mistakes, and taking the best practices of our predecessors aids us in growth, intelligence, and evolution. However, when it comes to food (especially when used for performance) just figure out what makes you feel the best. Right?
    I like alternatives to processed food. I like fresh vs. canned because I know what I’m taking in. I I am not gonna stress on what people several thousand years ago did. I don’t have to fight dinosaurs to get home, and those ppl didn’t have to meet deadlines while not being allowed overtime….
    Forums are fun. Thanks!
    -Let the CHAOS Reign!


  1. […] meat, veggies, fruit, nuts, and some healthy starches like sweet potatoes or yams.  Check out Jason’s article here and Dr. Cordain’s “The Paleo Diet for Athletes” for more info.  Personally, […]

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