If you're following the Paleo -- or Paleolithic -- diet, odds are you're exceedingly familiar with the rules: no grains, dairy or legumes. If you're an endurance athlete, this goes against everything you've ever learned about pre-event nutrition. While most athletes load up on bread and pasta on the eve of an event to ensure adequate glycogen stores for maximum performance, Paleo athletes achieve the same energy-storing effect, only from carbohydrate sources that their primal ancestors ate.
Since athletes are more active and use more energy on a daily basis, they need to eat more than the average Pilates devotee. They require a high-calorie diet to sustain energy levels during training and events. As luck has it, some of the best high-calorie foods on the planet also fit into the Paleo lifestyle. Dried fruits, nuts and coconut are very high in calories and are great sources of event-day fuel.
Paleo athletes need carbs just as much as non-Paleo athletes; they just have to think outside the pasta box. The best Paleo carb sources for endurance training are fruits and vegetables, particularly sugary and starchy ones like bananas and sweet potatoes. One large banana contains 30 grams of carbohydrate, the same amount as in two slices of bread. As for starches, a large sweet potato contains 37 grams of carbohydrate, the same amount as in 1 cup of cooked pasta. If you're looking for a much-needed, fast-acting sugar source, a handful of prunes contains around 225 calories and 54 grams of carbohydrate, 27 of which are sugar.
Endurance events induce a lot of sweating, which causes the body to lose fluid containing the electrolytes sodium and potassium. Athletes should replace lost sodium to prevent dangerously low serum levels, or hyponatremia. While coconut water is an effective and delicious option for rehydration and repletion of potassium levels, athletes need sodium mainly after a long event. A surprisingly great sodium-filled liquid is broth. It may not be the most obvious choice, but it'll get the job done in a few quick gulps, and you can easily tote it in a sports bottle during events. A few other quick and easy sodium sources include beef jerky, olives and nitrate-free cold cuts -- kept in a cooler, of course.
Homemade trail mix has to be the most perfect high-calorie Paleo snack. Include a variety of dried fruits such as banana chips, apple rings, prunes, dates, raisins and cranberries mixed with nuts, chocolate chips and coconut flakes for a salty-sweet snack that'll perfectly fuel any endurance event. Adding a bit of beef jerky will make for a heartier, higher protein and sodium mix. Since many Paleo followers prefer to make food at home versus buying commercially made products, a snack bar recipe would be a good one to keep on hand. Bars can be kept at room temperature and ingredients are easily customizable to your nutritional needs and preferences.
While avoiding the obvious pre-event grain-fest poses a bit of a challenge for Paleo athletes, it's a minor roadblock. Choosing a mix of sweet, salty and satisfying snacks before, during and after events will keep your energy levels up and prevent dangerous low-sodium levels that can sneak up on you without adequate sodium intake. Speak with a registered dietitian familiar with the Paleo lifestyle prior to the start of training to plan meals, snacks and beverages tailored to the demands of the sport -- and the athlete.
- Clinical Journal of the American Society of Nephrology: Exercise-Associated Hyponatremia
- The Mayo Clinic: Carbohydrate-Loading Diet
Based in New York City, Jenny Champion is a registered dietitian, certified personal trainer and certified diabetes educator. She owns a nutrition party company in Manhattan and has been coaching clients on nutrition and wellness for more than six years. Champion studied nutrition and food writing at New York University.