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Paleo and ketogenic diets gain favor among triathletes and endurance athletes

Low Paleo and ketogenic diet can help triathletes and endurance athletes
Photo by Gareth Cattermole

The low-carb Paleo diet can help triathletes and other endurance competitors achieve peak performance.

While carb-loading is deeply ingrained in endurance sports, a growing number of long-distance runners, cyclists and triathletes are sold on the merits of the low-carb Paleo and ketogenic diets.

Ironman triathlete Nell Stephenson switched to the Paleo diet after contracting a parasite during a 2004 Ironman triathlon. After finding no relief with prescription drugs, Nell adopted the Paleo diet, which emphasizes high-quality animal proteins, healthy fats, vegetables, and excludes gluten, sugar, dairy, legumes, starches, alcohol and processed foods.

“I felt better in three days,” Stephenson told Competitor. “My body is functioning optimally."

The Paleo diet is already popular among professional athletes. It has been adopted by the Los Angeles Lakers (including superstar Kobe Bryant) and Miami Heat guard Ray Allen.

Similarly, pro cyclist Dave Zabriskie and ultra-marathoner Timothy Olson abandoned their high-carb, low-fat eating plans in favor of the high-fat, lower-carb Paleo diet, and experienced meaningful performance gains.

Olson told Runner's World his post-workout recovery improved after going Paleo. Olson set a new course record at the Western States 100-mile endurance run in 2012, a few months after going Paleo.

"My legs are less swollen after really long runs," said Timothy. "I can go hard again sooner than I did before I went Paleo."

Low-Carb Diets Stem Inflammation and Boost Fat Oxidation

Nutrition experts say the Paleo diet's emphasis on healthy fats helps the body shift from burning carbs for fuel to burning fat. Research indicates the Paleo diet accelerates weight loss, reduces blood pressure, and prevents cancer, diabetes, heart disease, and even Alzheimer's.

A two-year study recently conducted by scientists at Cambridge University and Umeå University in Sweden showed the Paleo diet is twice as effective for producing weight loss and melting body fat as low-fat diets.

“Clinical trials have shown the Paleo diet is the optimum diet that can lower the risk of cardiovascular disease, blood pressure, markers of inflammation, help with weight loss, reduce acne, promote optimum health and athletic performance,” professor Loren Cordain told the Huffington Post.

Joe Friel, a U.S. Olympic triathlon coach, said the Paleo diet works for triathletes because it helps with recovery. “[Paleo offers] better long-term recovery due to greater micronutrient content [than a standard high-starch, high-sugar diet], allowing the athlete to train with a greater stress load,” said Friel.

Friel said the Paleo menu provides more antioxidants and vitamins than the typical high-carb diet favored by most endurance athletes and boosts fat oxidation and weight loss — a major advantage for endurance athletes, because the less excess weight you carry, the faster you'll be.

Low-Carb, High-Fat Ketogenic Diet Used By Ironman Triathletes

Another interesting trend is the growing use of the high-fat, low-carb ketogenic diet among triathletes. Fitness expert Ben Greenfield trained for the 2013 Ironman Triathlon World Championships in Kona, Hawaii by following a high-fat, low-carb ketogenic diet and completed the epic endurance race in a blistering 9:59:26.

Ben, author of the bestseller "Beyond Training," detailed his ketogenic diet experiment on his blog. Greenfield's breakfast the morning of the Ironman was a half-stick of butter, two shots of MCT oil, and a cup of coffee — a stark contrast to the heaping plates of pasta most endurance athletes inhale before a race.

Similarly, Dr. Jay Lehr, a 78-year-old triathlete, said he has followed a low-carb, high-fat ketogenic-style diet his entire life and credits it for his excellent health. Jay has thrived on a diet of red meat, saturated fat, dairy, eggs, butter, and lard and has never felt better.

“I’ve never been inside a regular doctor’s office,” said Lehr. “I have lived my entire life on high fat — dairy, eggs, butter and lard.”

Jay recently completed his 13th Ironman triathlon.

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