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Eating For Endurance

By Nell Stephenson, B.S.
September 26, 2018
Eating For Endurance image

If you’re an endurance athlete and you’re reading this post on the Paleo Diet site, then you’re well aware of the misinformation that is still being spoon fed to us in terms of how we need to be eating to fuel those long hours in the water, on the bike or on the trails.

Just recently, I happened upon a notice from a local triathlon club announcing a dinner they were going to offer the night before a race:

“Reminder! Free pasta feed for local members this Friday night in Los Angeles. All are invited, along with family and friends, to chow down on house-made breads, pizza and pasta!”

Sounds like a recipe for disaster to me.

Yet it can also be tricky to navigate the whole idea of an endurance athlete not depending on a diet consisting of upwards of 70 percent of calories not only coming from carbs but coming from carbs that are refined, inflammatory and not nutritionally dense, which, unfortunately is what the recommendation of the USDA still are, to date (1).

Not only is the carb-loading approach of the seventies outdated and ineffective, but to make matters worse, communicating it as a feed likens it to an activity animals might partake in after landing their prey.

Mistakes made in the process of making the transition from a carb-based eating regime to one with more fat are plenty and I’ve made plenty myself.

Here’s the deal: when you create a circumstance in which the body has to rely on its own stored fat to tap into to use as its fuel, it does just that.

The brain is able to make the small amount of glucose it needs out of ketone bodies, but the body will not even begin these chemical reactions in the presence of too much carbohydrate (regardless of the source) or too much protein (2).

Despite what iteration of an authentic Paleo approach one might choose to implement as a foundation to the nutritional piece of their protocol, such as a Keto protocol (with carbs making up less than 10% of calories) or one closer to a macronutrient ratio like that of an actual caveman, with carbohydrates comprising 22 - 40 percent (3), the idea that we need grain-based carbs to fuel our fire is inaccurate, at best.

So what does a Paleo endurance athlete eat, if not grains, beans and their derivatives?

The short answer? Food.

I have found over the past twenty years as an Ironman triathlete, the first half which I followed the standard American healthy diet recommendations, and suffered from GI issues in every race I did, that streamlining things back to basics was what proved most effective.

Sadly, I am not in the minority and most athletes report that stomach distress, bonking or dehydrating have sabotaged an important day at the races on more than one occasion.

Yet the thought that by not eating grains and legumes, there is no possible way that one can train at a high level, for Ironman, or 100-mile running races, successfully still seems to be what most athletes remain convinced of.

They are uncomfortable with the idea that since they are not eating any fillers, which is all grains and legumes really are, they feel hungry more often and this puzzles them. "Why am I hungry after only two hours?" and "What should I do when I feel hungry earlier than I should?" are commonly asked questions.

Broadly speaking, the solution is to first remove all potentially inflammatory foods from one’s eating plan, while replacing those foods with nutrient dense options, while simultaneously increasing fat content and reducing carbohydrate.

Of course, eating is not one size fits all, but in my experience working with clients for the past two decades, this shift is often the first move in creating a new, strategic eating plan.

For me, making the shift to a Paleo protocol back in the early 2000s was what allowed me to go from a very average age group athlete to one who was able to train, compete and recover at a very high level, paving the way to eight qualifications to race at Ironman World Championships.

I raced Ironman distance for about four years before going Paleo.

Yes, I was 'fit', but I was twenty-five pounds heavier, I didn't recover properly, and I was constantly sidelined by GI issues so much so that I couldn’t comprehend not having to stop in those awful portapotties.

So what does my daily food intake actually look like?

Here is what my day looks like on a Friday when I’ve got an ironman race on Saturday, with comments next to foods not often eaten during an otherwise normal day.

Breakfast: Sauteed broccoli & spinach with garlic and coconut oil, soft boiled eggs, and roasted Japanese Purple Sweet Potatoes in oil (the first example on this day of adding a small amount of strategic starch to top off the muscle glycogen).

Snack: Banana (normally I wouldn't have a banana as a snack or even snack at all for that matter, but since the following day will consist of about ten hours on the course, smaller meals eaten throughout the day in order to maximize nutrient absorption is the key), sliced lean turkey, wild lettuce leaves, avocado

Lunch: Mixed green salad, avocado, grilled chicken, a small side of roasted purple sweet potatoes (same note here again on the starch added in)

Dinner: (I always have the same pre-race day dinner consisting of roasted chicken, salad, more Japanese sweet potatoes (or yams, when I'm home in CA), sauteed garlic spinach and a glass of wine (that’s more my idea of topping off the carb stores!)

Remember, we don’t need starch at every meal as we were told, growing up.

Athlete or not, we are all better served to cut the starch, sugar, and fruit with the exception of when we’re preparing our body to move for a long activity the next day, and even more so when getting race ready.

Unless, of course, you want to gain weight, not appear lean despite all the training, have unbalanced energy levels and bonk during your workouts.

If that’s the goal, then bring on the bagels, pasta and sports bars!

It takes time to adapt, but I’m not the only endurance athlete who’s finding all the benefits of it!

An authentic Paleo approach is undoubtedly suitable for everyone who happens to be human, including those of us who opt to go the endurance route.


(1) “Publications – Colorado State University Extension.” Colorado State University Extension. N.p., n.d. Web. 02 Sept. 2016

(2) Volek, Jeff, and Stephen D. Phinney. The Art and Science of Low Carbohydrate Performance: A Revolutionary Program to Extend Your Physical and Mental Performance Envelope. Lexington, KY: Beyond Obesity, 2012. Print.

(3) Cordain, Loren. The Paleo Diet. John Wiley & Sons Ltd, 2010, p 21

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