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!