Carb-loading is so deeply ingrained in endurance sports it may come as a shock to learn that the gluten-free, low-carb Paleo diet can help endurance athletes achieve peak performance.
Ironman triathlete Nell Stephenson is among the growing number of endurance athletes who are sold on the merits of the Paleo diet, she told Competitor. The Ironman triathlon consists of a 2.4-mile swim followed by a 112-mile bike ride and then a 26.2-mile marathon, done in that order without a break.
Stephenson switched to the gluten-free Paleo diet after contracting a parasite during an Ironman triathlon in 2004. 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,” said Stephenson, author of Paleoista: Gain Energy, Get Lean, and Feel Fabulous. “My body is functioning optimally."
NBA Superstars and Celebrities Go Paleo
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.
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, lowers blood pressure, and prevents cancer, diabetes, heart disease, depression, 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,” said Professor Loren Cordain, author of The Paleo Diet for Athletes.
Paleo Diet Enhances Weight Loss and Fat Oxidation
The weight-loss and health benefits of the Paleo diet aren't surprising to nutritionist Dr. John Briffa. "As the Paleo diet removes a lot of the foods that tend to cause spikes in insulin levels — particularly sugar and starchy carbohydrates — it aids fat loss," said Dr. Briffa.
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, author of the Triathlete's Training Bible.
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.