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. (resending with correct email for me) 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
  2. I like to ride off road motorcycle races, this weekend is a 6 hour event. I’d like to stay Primal but need some advice on what to eat the day before and what I could easily carry to eat during the event.
    Plus what would be good for recovery after the event.

    Charlie Williams wrote on April 11th, 2012
    • As a former moto racer, every fruit based carb you can get your hands on. OJ, dates, fruit leather, ripe bananas, grapes, coconut water etc… You’re burning through it at a lightning rate. Failure to do so will leave your arms, hands, and legs like noodles and six hours of people roosting in your face.

      After the event eat everything in sight! If you rode hard, your body will be begging for it. Then let yourself slip into the coma like sleep for 12 hours :)

      Resume your “primal” diet the next day.

      Grok wrote on April 12th, 2012
  3. My experience with a primal living came to be after living on LCHF (low carb high fat) diet. It helped me burn off a lot of body fat and my stamina and alertness peaked.

    When I went to grand canyon to hike down and up I also came face to face with the fact that once your body has depleted its fat reserves you do need some additional carbs for strenuous tasks.

    On my way hiking up I could feel myself coming closer to hitting the wall. My metabolism had been fat/protein/ketosisized(?) for several months (I did no carbs whatsoever) so I could literally tell when I became absolutely depleted.

    I had a some jam and other sweetened stuff and it was amazing to feel how it provided instant energy. It helped me keep a constant pace throughout the hike.

    I’m far from a pro athlete but I can totally relate to what Jonas says about how we need so much less carbs than what people normally eat. It is great when your metabolism improves to the point where you can tell what each food you eat does to your body in real time. No more feeling bloated.

    Karl wrote on August 14th, 2012
  4. I am an avid long distance runner. I would argue we are born to run but am nontheless interested in the paleo philosphy. I would find it hard to completely give up grains but NY resolution is to try to eat better; so that means complete elimination of junk food and sugar, much dairy cut out (am lactose intolerant), and might try to cut back on the carbs. Another thing is no more low-fat diet foods… family has lived on them for the last 25 years and it has done diddly squat.

    Richard wrote on December 31st, 2012
  5. I just did a NorthFace 50km race today here in sunny Singapore. I decided to remain Paleo throughout n before, during and after. I did not have breakfast except for black coffee without sugar. Through out the 8 hour event, I had four bananas, some boiled water chestnuts, a yoghurt nut bar. Was pleased that I didn’t bong or even felt hungry.

    However, I had more than usual cramps in my legs. Could this be due to low carb conditions? I read that causes of cramps are still debatable but one source said lack of carbohydrate being one reason, more probable than lack of sodium, magnesium, calcium and potassium.

    Appreciate any insights.

    Terence Ng wrote on October 11th, 2014
  6. Hi! I am a mountain biker looking to shed about 20 lbs. I ride technical/all mountain and ride 3 or 4 x a week and 4 hours would be my longest ride and 1 hour would be my shortest ride (it is more accurate to judge technical mountain biking in time as opposed to miles due to the extreme elevation, etc.) I am a 30 year old female and otherwise not sedentary but maybe… lightly or moderately active? I am scared to lower my carbs for some reason. I am not currently primal at all but am interested. I am an RN and I see it works for many people. Is there any benefit to staying “normal” on the days I workout then eating low carb primal on my off days? Thank you!

    Amanda wrote on August 4th, 2016

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