Marks Daily Apple
Serving up health and fitness insights (daily, of course) with a side of irreverence.
24 Feb

Can You Be an Endurance Athlete and Primal?

Jonas ColtingBy now you know I have a biased point of view that rigorous endurance training is antithetical to health. Yes, I competed and loved it for 20 years, so I get the appeal it has for so many, but these days my personal focus is on maintaining the highest level of fitness and health on the least amount of work and sacrifice. I want to play and have fun. Still, I get asked a lot by endurance athletes whether there’s any chance they can continue to compete at a high level while eating and training Primally. I used to think it probably wasn’t feasible if you wanted to be world class, assuming as I did (erroneously) that you just couldn’t overcome the need for copious amounts of carbs on a daily basis without crashing and burning. However, recent research into the concept of “train low-race high” (vis a vis glycogen) and modified approaches to low level aerobic training that focus largely on reprogramming genes to more preferentially burn fat AS WELL AS the use of techniques like HIIT and barefoot training now all seem to show that training and eating Primal could not only maximize performance, but extend your career. If that’s your choice and if you approach it carefully (like Gold and Silver Olympic medalist Simon Whitfield). Since the book came out last June, I have heard from several elite athletes who have not only adopted Primal styles but have improved their performances (and reduced injury, and decreased body fat). Today I thought you might be interested in this “testimonial” from my good friend Jonas Colting (of last week’s Cocoa and Coconut Snacks), a long-time professional triathlete who has gradually incorporated Primal techniques into his training style.


As to the main question I would say that I’m living as primal as I can, given my profession. I’ve always been a huge advocate for developing health along with fitness but I’ve also accepted that professional endurance athletics (triathlon) is not a health contest per se. In its rawest form pro triathlon is a contest in resilience, pain and fatigue with a lot of stress on body and mind.

Naturally, my training load is way and beyond what’s recommended in the “Primal Blueprint” and I’m surely guilty of being a chronic cardio participant. However, a big part of my distance training would be on the intensity level of that which a normal person would have on a hike or similar. I’m not spending an inordinate amount of time in a carbo burning or lactic acid laden state which so often is the case among many endurance athletes. Rather, after 25 years of endurance training my fat burning capacity enables me to stay primal even at relatively high efforts and speeds.

I’m from a swimming background and now favor rather intense sprint- and stroke challenging workouts to get the most from time in the water. Running is otherwise my favorite discipline of the three and especially in the forest and on the trails with an asymmetric and varied stride that promotes overall strength and a stride with a full range of motion, hence not requiring as much stretching post running.

Over the years I’ve been working a lot on functional strength and posture through various programs and have over the recent years taken this a step further by developing the “Primal Walk”, done in the forest with a mix of barefoot walking in the Vibram shoes and primal strength exercises such as lifting, pulling, pushing, squatting, throwing, hitting, sprinting and so forth.

Jonas Colting Jonas Colting Jonas Colting
(click to enlarge)

I always run in very thin shoes and low to the ground and will increase my barefoot running even more with regular runs in the Vibrams, besides doing the Primal Walks.

Nutrition wise I do eat some carefully chosen processed carbs, which is inevitable given the high amount of exercise I’m doing. However, it’s a far cry from the standard among Swedish nutritionist that recommend athletes to eat 10 grams of carb per kilo of bodyweight which for me would mean amounts in excess over 800 grams per day, levels that could be described as downright toxic in my estimation!

I eat loads of eggs (I love the banana-almond butter-egg pancakes featured on MDA), red meat, salmon, avocados, leafy greens, nuts and seeds. I eat sparingly with dairy but I´m generous with butter and drink some whole fat milk as well as some occasional yoghurt. I´m a big fruit eater with my favourites now being pomegrenate, blueberries, mango, citrus and bananas.

I also eat a fair bit of raw foods as in red meat, eggs, fish, milk straight from the farm. I eat some bread, mostly because I’m not really sensitive to gluten and bread is quite easy for me to digest. I can have a bowl of pasta sometimes as well as veggies like potatoes, carrots, red beats and turnips. I love sweets and pastries but mostly refrain from eating them but I’m weak for temptation so I’m terrible at hotel buffets and parties but I’m not into making life hard for myself. I’ll use self control when it’s necessary but I also know when to relax and purely enjoy the taste and feel of a savory dessert or treat.

I stay way clear from the typical athletes’ addiction to sports nutrition like bars, powders, gels and drinks which in most cases really is just candy in a more sophisticated package. I do use some electrolyte drinks on long and hot sessions and obviously for races all rules are off. When applying a “train low-race high” philosophy it would be foolish not to maximize both fat burning and carb utilization. For really long sessions or on the run portion of triathlons I find that Red Bull or soft drinks works wonders with the simple formula of sugar and caffeine.

I work closely with Organic Food Bar, and their products are a great option for athletes to use while training or racing.

I use the Damage Control Master Formula and take two capsules of Quercetin/Vitamin C every day and no other supplements.

My first influence that showed me the right way was the books of Phil Maffetone which I read during the mid-90´s, and they promoted the use of good fats and the dangers of sugars, stress and exercising too hard. Following MDA has further widened my knowledge and added to what I believe is the right way to approach eating and exercising and the framework of these philosophies is what I believe is the answer to having a +15 year pro triathlon career without hardly any injuries or illness and a continued improvement and enjoyment.

This is the message I talk, lecture and write about in Sweden.

Jonas Colting, Sweden
37 years old

2 medals, ITU World Championships, Long Distance
2 medals, ITU European Championships, Long Distance
2 times winner of Ultraman World Championships, Hawaii
Several times Swedish Champion Triathlon
Swedish Champion, Open Water Swimming
2 times winner of Island to Island, hardest one-day race in Sweden
Only person ever to complete the Swedish Classic nonstop in 25 hrs (3 k swim, 90 k roller-skiis, 300 k cycling, 30 k cross country run) including transports between venues.


I’d love to hear from all the endurance junkies out there. Is it possible to be both Primal and a triathlete? Share your thoughts and stories in the comment board. Thanks everyone and Grok on!

You want comments? We got comments:

Imagine you’re George Clooney. Take a moment to admire your grooming and wit. Okay, now imagine someone walks up to you and asks, “What’s your name?” You say, “I’m George Clooney.” Or maybe you say, “I’m the Clooninator!” You don’t say “I’m George of George Clooney Sells Movies Blog” and you certainly don’t say, “I’m Clooney Weight Loss Plan”. So while spam is technically meat, it ain’t anywhere near Primal. Please nickname yourself something your friends would call you.

  1. Just have to say that the swedish gold medal winner, Björn Ferry, in sprint 12,5km biathlon race in Vancouver won on a low carb hi fat diet.

    Håkan Ericson wrote on February 25th, 2010
  2. I use coconut water in fruit smoothie for electrolyte replenishment. You can also make your own sports drinks healthfully. I got my recipe from “Thrive” by Brendan Brazier. I am not vegan but still found his book very helpful for endurance training.

    Tracy wrote on February 25th, 2010
  3. I haven’t tried the primal diet yet, but I’ve tried low-carb diets in the past, such as the CKG and I didn’t like the lack of carbs when running long distance or playing rugby. I’ve now adjusted my diet to include wholesome carbs and it sounds like a lot of people here will agree with me – like anything else, each person has his own formula for success and what works for him. I think I’ve figured mine out for now at least.

    Hugh wrote on February 25th, 2010
  4. Do you think Jonas’ performance would improve more if he eliminated bread, pasta, lots of fruit, or is it needed for the activity he is training and competing? Could he get through a triathlon on jerky and nuts, or does he need copious amounts of fruit and other carbs?

    bfaber87 wrote on February 25th, 2010
  5. And this guy just won an olympic gold medal. In biathlon. And he says he is “low-carbing”.

    He said in an interview. We celebrated with eating “semlor”. I ate the cream…

    fred wrote on February 26th, 2010
  6. Great post — I’ve been WAITING for this exact topic to be addressed at length, as (before I was better educated) I simultaneously decided to train for a marathon and go low-carb. Initially, it looked like I’d chosen two conflicting goals, and I’ve been tearing my hair trying to decide which goal to go for first! With some additional research, I’m proceeding with both in a balanced, realistic way. So thanks for the post — hopefully this is just the beginning of more to come on this revolutionary topic. Thanks!

    Megan wrote on February 26th, 2010
  7. After eating a more primal diet, I have increased my speed dramatically for evening runs. However, I’m having trouble with morning runs. I just run out of gas. Should I eat a higher carb meal the night before or eat some right before the run? I usually eat meat and veggies the night before. During the day it’s doesn’t seem to matter too much. I can go for a run after eating some eggs or have similar results if I haven’t eaten for 2-3 hours. Any suggestions?

    colie wrote on February 27th, 2010
    • I am also curious about this. How do you keep from crashing the following morning without getting up super early for a plentiful meal.

      celder wrote on March 10th, 2010
      • Every Saturday morning I get up at 6.30am so that I can get the fuel I need before my long run (usually banana and maybe porridge – not perfectly primal but its my endurance compromise :)

        However for my short runs to work in the week, I get up have a black coffee and feel very alive for the full 5 miles. I suppose any further and I would start struggling but going for an intense run in this fasted state I find effective. We all work differently so maybe you have to phase this in slowly/reprogram your genes as Mark would say.

        I’ve learnt from marathon training not to overeat the night before a long run…just fuelling sensibly and often the days leading up to the run causes the cells to become turgid with energy and fluid!

        Luke M-Davies wrote on March 10th, 2010
      • I carbo-loaded with mashed potatoes, steak and a green veggie for dinner the night before. The morning of the long run, I ate (45min prior): a heaping tablespoon of almond butter, cottage cheese, 3/4 of a banana, coffee and a teaspoon of chia seeds. This was definitely a great combo and I felt great at mile 11!
        I also drank lots of water.
        The week prior, I ate zero carbs and had to stop and walk twice on a 9.5 mile run.

        colie wrote on March 10th, 2010
        • Thanks for sharing your experience. Interesting food choices. I would usually stay away from red meat the night before due to slow digestion and you also took quite a lot of hit fat food on the day. It shows though that it is each to their own – know what works best for your own digestive system :)

          Luke M-Davies wrote on March 10th, 2010
  8. Very grateful for bringing the primal compromise issue for endurance athletes back to MDA – so thanks Mark!
    ‘m currently preparing for the London Marathon 2010 and am stil keeping a relatively healthy diet. Though it has been a bit of a shock to get used to using faster digesting carbs and other energy sources I would typically stay clear of. Even pasta has snuck back in on the odd occasion. So after reading so much support for primal endurance eating…I’m not so sure that it is ok to loosen up your diet when you are burning an unusually large number of calories. But yesterday I ran a 20 mile plod through bogs, rivers, and huge hills. The drinks stations had jelly babies and I don’t think I could have got through without that sugar! I have trained whilst fasting for 5k runs and 45 minute gym sessions and I agree these workouts go very well. So I think I have ‘reprogrammed’ my genes to some extent but need to work a bit mor eat the long distances. In light of all that has been said above, I will try to minimise the sports drinks etc to use on race day alone.

    Luke M-Davies wrote on February 28th, 2010
  9. I don’t get it. I am a training for my first sprint triathlon and have been eating paleo since day one. I get plenty of carbs from fresh & dried fruit esp. cherries & raisins. I can’t live w/o my pistachio/cherry/walnut/raisin trail mix combo. there is even a primal-ish sports gel called Stinger that is a honey base. isn’t honey paleo? I have super duper energy all the time, even while training. Aren’t we referring to, more specifically COMPLEX carbs here? are they that necessary to endurance sports? please give me some references

    keegan wrote on June 6th, 2010
  10. oh, i forgot to add that i drink coconut water to replace gatorade. it’s better anyways.

    keegan wrote on June 6th, 2010
  11. Thanks for sharing your primal preferences Keegan. I would like to start using coconut water myself.

    Luke M-Davies wrote on June 7th, 2010
  12. I LOVE to run. No more 30, 40, 50 (at one point 80) mile weeks for me since being paleo, but I will do 3 and 4 milers a few times a week. I was sluggish at first–still am, since I have very little carbs each day and no fruit–but am getting fast again, so it still falls under chronic cardio I believe.

    It does makes you hungrier too — hopefully dumping down meat and fat is okay!

    Cat wrote on January 29th, 2011
    • I’m sure that your body will adapt and become very efficient as burning fat for fuel – which is great!

      In training for my second London Marathon right now and the high mileage is taking its toll on the joints. I must be mor disciplined about getting offroad!
      As for fuel, I am using carbs in and around my training but try to stick to less refined sources such as porridge / brown rice. I will have to make the clean break for my next marathon I think though and put faith in protein and fat too…

      Luke M-Davies wrote on February 1st, 2011
  13. I’m interested in how primal diet affects fighters, especialy MMA – can’t seem to find much consistent info. Seems like a slightly modified primal diet is quite common in the fighter community though.

    Does anyone have any expirience? Being that fighting demands endurance, ability to sustain strenght effort and the ability to explode with maximum effort, how would going all primal affect such performance ?

    Perun wrote on February 21st, 2011
    • That’s a good question Perun –
      I can only really speak from weights/endurance experience, in which I find that primal living only helps in my performance.There is a period of transition though, and I have found that now my body is an effective fat burning unit – it is happier to look to other sources than processed carbs for its energy.

      Fights can be stop-start I suppose but very tiring so tricky to say that your body would have time to tap into its fat reserves for energy..I guess you would have to experiment a bit.

      Luke M-Davies wrote on February 21st, 2011
  14. A technique I have been working with is to do about half my training sessions in ketosis condition. The idea is that the muscles adapt to using fatty acids then glucose for competition, if available is like rocket fuel. This has worked for some folks doing inter-island paddling and other endurance activities, but I have not found out yet if it is effective for the very different demands of a fight.

    jonw wrote on February 21st, 2011
  15. HI guys, really enjoyed reading all the posts. After several years of hard sport, mainly tri and cycling without losing any weight, I decided just around Christmas 2010 to go low carb and see what happened, adding to my diet 1000mg of carnitine as my blood results showed a minor deficiency. Well, I lost 10kg (that’s approx 22 pounds) in 2 months, while truly enjoying my food! I am now with a BMI of 22 and really happy about it. For breakfast I have mostly that thick Greek yoghurt with fresh fruits like mango, strawberries and a decent helping of nuts. With the “excuse” of no carbs and free proteins at lunchtimes I simply go for 2 pieces of chicken breast or salmon steaks etc etc with green salad. For dinners I make mostly soups featuring cabbage, onion and only occasionally some broccoli.
    With the start of the spring I have also started longish weekend rides (4 to 5 hours). Most rides have climbs, and the only thing I am changing is to have some porridge before these rides and if I do back to back days I include a small pasta after the first ride but not the last. I find this is working very well. I guess is not a full paleo diet, but generalising a bit I tend to be monday to friday full paleo and weekends only I have some carbs

    Lorenzo wrote on March 21st, 2011
    • Lorenzo, the tri season is soon to kick off for me too and I agree with using porridge as an exception to the paleo rule for fuelling long runs and bike rides. The sugary, processed energy market is flooded with fake products which probably do the job but I feel bad if I use them. It is more natural to go for a banana and peanut butter :)

      Luke M-Davies wrote on March 22nd, 2011
  16. I replaced the old oatmeal breakfast standby with a banana-coconut custard. Recipe is here:

    It seems to be the perfect way to get a some carbs, protein, and good fats. I have just taken to adding some chia seeds, nutmeg, and cinnamon to it as well. I can make it up the night before a morning when I’ll have an early/long training session and it holds me through the entire time. I did a 3+ mile lake swim yesterday morning and a 10.5 mile run this morning, both of them fueled by nothing more than a serving of this custard. Yumm!

    Robin wrote on July 31st, 2011
  17. Thank you for this thoughtful post. As a cyclist who recently discovered Paleo, I’ve thought a lot about the natural dissonance between the two paradigms and have started a blog specifically dedicated to cycling and Paleo/Primal.

    Jim Vajda wrote on September 17th, 2011
  18. hi mark
    i have been living on the paleo diet for a while now im a road cyclist here in n.ireland the biggest thing i can say about the paleo would be is since i have adopted this diet.
    i recover faster without alot of carbs i eat alot of fat for the reason of its now my energy source i sleep better i know longer have the shaky feeling you get after long rides but for me the biggest positive is the lack of lactic acid in my legs even at over 90% max effort its incredible as soon as the body gets used to burning fat as fuel.i would point out its really important to never limit fat from any source including animal fat i eat loads of eggs butter coconut oil beef pork venicen i find on this diet i never run out of energy.

    john wrote on November 27th, 2011
  19. Thanks Mark. Here’s a question for you and any others: I’m adopted a low carb, hi protein diet over the past few months, have trimmed down and feel fine. I’ve always been athletic (hockey, weights, skiing, biking), but have never really been an “endurance” athlete. Well, I’m climbing Mount Ranier in June, which will be one helluva endurance test. We’ve been training in earnest for months and are knocking ourselves into good shape (for 40-somethings). Here’s the question: I suspect I’m going to need some carb loads on my way up the mountain. Any thoughts on that? Should I resume a high-carb diet the day before, until I get back down? Just load as-needed on the way up? Thanks for any help!

    RobertS wrote on March 12th, 2012

Leave a Reply

If you'd like to add an avatar to all of your comments click here!

© 2016 Mark's Daily Apple

Subscribe to the Newsletter and Get a Free Copy
of Mark Sisson's Fitness eBook and more!