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

Dear Mark: Primal Compromises for Athletes

I’ve been getting a slew of emails lately from marathon runners and other endurance athletes among our group, many in response to our 30-Day Primal Health Challenge. Questions have run the gamut but generally get at how to combine endurance training and Primal Blueprint methodology:

How do I combine a low carb diet with marathon training? (Hint: you generally can’t)

What would you recommend for carb refueling post-race?

Can I even do the PB challenge if I have to adapt the diet for training purposes?

As most of you know, I can relate to these folks’ stories. Elite athletes, commonly seen as the epitome of health, actually face pretty strenuous challenges balancing the moderation required for wellness and the extreme demands of their sport. My own marathon years were among the best of my life, but the physical strain and progressive damage of my training – and the diet – eventually resulted in my serious change of heart and lifestyle (as well as the origination of my Primal Blueprint philosophy).

As I’ve said in the past, the Primal Blueprint is an overarching, synergistic design for living that encompasses all the major aspects of basic health: diet, exercise, sleep, and stress management. Optimum well-being results from healthy practices in each area. Our genes literally want us to be healthy, so we look for behaviors that support that. Nonetheless, many of us choose to make compromises to accommodate various needs/goals we have. While the Primal Blueprint doesn’t encourage or endorse endurance training, I recognize that a number of our readers find fulfillment in that kind of training. I consider it a conscious compromise that people can make as they live out their own adaptation of the Primal Blueprint. Additionally, I appreciate readers’ interest in staying as true to the rest of the PB as possible while they pursue their athletic goals. Modifying one critical aspect of the PB methodology (such as including regular and intensive endurance training) will inevitably change your results. If you eat a hot fudge sundae or only get 5 hours of sleep every day but go 100% primal in every other aspect, the end picture isn’t going to be the same. Nonetheless, the more you can do to maximize your efforts in the other aspects (diet, sleep, stress relief), the more advantage you’ll gain in terms of long-term health and overall well-being. You might even race faster.


So, how does an endurance athlete go as “primal as possible”? Here’s my take. When you go for endurance training, you face (among other physical strains) the necessity of increased carb intake and all its negative results (e.g. inflammation, AGEs, impaired immune function, etc.). Myself, I had a half-gallon of ice cream, loaf of bread and cereal habit going to refuel every day for years. At the time, I didn’t see an obvious impact on my performance, but I later realized I was causing long term damage. A better, more Primal approach to a training diet includes meals full of veggies (universal recommendation, yes) as well as the judicious use of fruits and tubers for added “healthier than grains” carb sources. (Of course, your diet should include a hefty supply of protein and natural fats.)

On a PB-style low carb diet, with PB-style low training time, the body makes 200 grams of glycogen each day from fats and protein (and then we figure another 100 or so from your veggies and fruits). That gives you enough glycogen to fuel your brain, cruise through an average day and to be able to do a short hard workout – and then do it again the next day. However, when you train long every day (over an hour), your carb needs will increase. The key is discovering EXACTLY how many additional carb grams you need each day to refuel muscles, but also to keep insulin and fat storage to a minimum. Too few and you won’t recover from day-to-day. Too many and you’ll set yourself up for inflammation and unnecessary weight-gain.

Post Race Beer

Right after a long training session or race, you’re in a critical period for glycogen refueling. That first hour offers the most efficient opportunity for glycogen storage, and it’s fine to refuel initially with simpler (faster uptake) sugars. Take it slow and go for drinks first until you think you can safely move onto solid food. When you’re ready, try some fruits or yogurt with honey to get both carbs and protein in that initial window. As you move past that first hour, tubers and more complex carb sources are good to include. As I tell everyone, try to avoid grain-products as much as possible when increasing carbs. Depending on the length and intensity of your workouts (and races) you’ll need anywhere between 60-100 extra grams of carbs (beyond what we discuss above on a low carb plan) each day per hour of intense endurance work. It’s well worth the trial and error efforts to gauge your personal need and dial it in precisely.

I’d also suggest redirecting your training toward long and slow stuff with occasional fast and intense interspersed. Doing so will allow you to keep building endurance capacity while better “training” your body in fat burning efficiency.

Races or any intensive training session lasting over 90 minutes often call for added carb refueling on the fly, too. Over the years coaching athletes, I’ve found that drinking 10-20 grams of sugars every 15 minutes after the first 60-90 minutes helps keep glucose in the bloodstream and thereby spares muscle glycogen. Any more than that and you run the risk of stomach upset. Once again, sports drinks are probably the most efficient source for carb energy, electrolytes and hydration. Though a piece of fruit might work for borderline training days, eating solid foods during a race generally backfires. Additionally, sport drinks have some advantages over straight juices. There’s a reason these drinks have been around for a while. I’d do some comparison shopping and personal trials to find one you prefer.

Finally, wise (i.e. comprehensive and potent) supplementation is an absolute must. In comparison with the average Joe or Jane, endurance training inevitably depletes the body. You’re doing more than the body was naturally designed to do. Moreover, the amount of oxidation (and free-radical damage) taking place during that time is tens or hundreds of times greater than what you experience at resting metabolic rates. Consequently, your nutrition needs will be higher – especially the need for extra antioxidants. It’s critical you refuel all nutrient stores and take in higher levels of anti-oxidants that can help repair the damage training (in addition to everyday living) causes. (Disclaimer here: that’s why I developed the Damage Control Master Formula, the most impressive collection of antioxidants in any sports recovery formula anywhere in the world).

As always, thanks for your questions, and keep ‘em coming. I’ll look forward to hearing more of your stories and experiences.

Photocapy, lanier67, Trina Ritchie Flickr Photos (CC)

Further Reading:

What Happens to Your Body When… You CARB BINGE?

A Case Against Cardio

Chronic Cardio 1, 2

Sprint for Health

What Happens to Your Body When… You Haven’t Properly Trained for Your Marathon?

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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. I enjoy running in 5K’s which I think fit well within the primal blueprint – its simply around a 20-25 minute run.

    I may do a few 10K’s this year but I am not sure on ever doing a 25K as it is just too much and our bodies were not “meant” to run that far for that long.

    Sure, I can do a 25K if I run, walk, run, walk…. but would I really do that in a race?

    Primal Toad wrote on June 10th, 2010
  2. Let’s not forget our Primal principles:
    We are all the descendants of successful hunters.

    Grok would spend a morning stalking an animal. Two or three hours of walking, sprinting, hiding, sprinting again.

    Once the animal was killed, he would rip it open and eat the liver raw. That was his “post workout replenishment window”

    Glenn wrote on September 16th, 2010
    • Oh, I agree!!! I’ve been thinking a lot about the best primal recovery meal and liver is what they would eat…. I’ve just started using liver now as my post training meal. I’m hoping to recover faster and gain a lot more strength than SAD diet people.

      Jena wrote on January 8th, 2012
  3. Hi all,

    Any wrestlers or judokas/bjjrs on this site?

    I’m having a hard time sticking to my training regime of twice a day 5 days a week with the primal diet.

    I have not measured what I eat but I eat something similar to what Mark usually eats. I seem to last a week at training then have a day when I feel completely depleted and feel like I need to load up on rice or a bunch of sports drinks if I need to keep training. Usually I need to take 2 days off because I am completely exhausted. I understand this is also caused by overtraining but the big decrease in carbs seems to be having a negative effect on energy levels and training ability.

    Any advice on what I should be eating if training twice a day for approx 1.5 hours each. Training is usually fairly intense with periods of rest and very high level activity.


    Andrei wrote on November 2nd, 2010
    • Andrei, easy… eat more carbs. You’re going to be glycogen depleted after a 90 minute hard workout. You need them… and you might need a few hundred of them.

      Sweet potatoes and yams are approved pretty much across the board. Decent portion of fruit and berries post-workout will get you fueled back up. Very satisfying as well :)

      Stay away from grains and sports drinks. Those are crap fuel.

      If you need a sports drink blend up some dates or bananas with water.

      Grok wrote on November 3rd, 2010
  4. Hi
    I am 5 ft 3 inch middle aged woman, who needs to lose weight (weight at present >170lb aaahhh!), but I am also someone who cycles 10 miles a day ( at an easy pace, but uphill all the way home!) commuting to work and walks 10-20 miles with 3+ k feet ascent up mountains at the weekends. I can keep to LC and see weight reduction if I don’t do these activities, but struggle to keep to LC and exercise. Last year I followed a protein sparing modified fast which was basically the same as the low carb end of Marks programme aimed at rapid weight loss. I did maintain long distance walking on the flat okay, but as soon as I hit a hill….it was like walking through treacle and sore. Same outcome with my daily commute. Not pleasant. So having pushed through and transitioned to fat burning in the past, I am happy enough to do that again, but I find it really had to get my head round the addition of carbs for endurance exercise, which seems to be the message I get if I am to maintain my current activity level. Any advice? I have been reading the Paleo for athletes which just seems way too obsessive Does anyone have any strategies for a non competitive athlete who just enjoys activity?

    Jen wrote on November 18th, 2010
    • I would suggest adding some weight training. You will find you can actually get through it all easier if you add some muscle. Other people can tell you the science but personal experience has been if the cardio portion of your exercise leaves you sore, it is because you have not built up enough muscle to buffer the experience.

      Linda wrote on October 13th, 2011
    • Sounds like you may need to eat a lot more fat.

      Jena wrote on January 8th, 2012
  5. Hey all; excellent thread on a great site.

    Time trialing cyclist here. The experience I’ve had with my training, which at 4-6 hrs/week is very low volume compared to what is considered “normal” for the discipline, is that going low carb makes for hit-and-miss training sessions. Unless I train right after rising.

    Here may be a valuable observation. Workouts are almost always great early in the morning, before breakfast. Unfortunately it is dangerous to train that early this time of year with roads dark and often icy, but I can usually do it on weekends if I sleep in just a bit. If I wait too long after rising, even an hour, then I won’t be able to hit the pedals hard unless I down a good set of carbs and wait for them to be assimilated.

    I strive to do all of my training close to, at or above AT – basically as hard as I can go for the distance, which is 40 minutes-1 hour per session unless commuting – and generally succeed as long as daily carb intake is sufficient. Even after almost a year of reduced carb intake I cannot go out and hammer without a steady source of carbs in the diet (unless I start my training ride almost immediately after rising in the morning.)

    This made it very difficult for me to kick my former breakfast habit of 8-12 pieces of Silver Hills sprouted grain bread toast with almond butter. Without that, I didn’t have the energy to get through the most weekdays, as my 20-minute ride to and from work is usually a hammerfest as hard as I can go, right from the start, no warmup. However, I am making the transition to (hopefully) 100% grain and legume free and seem to be having success with high-carb veggies such as sweet potatoes, parsnips and carrots. I find I have to have a decent shot of carbs at every meal except dinner.

    So for athletes who require high octane fuel for sustained high power output, try loading up on those sugary veggies, plus some fruit, not just pre/post exercise but regularly.

    Don wrote on November 20th, 2010
  6. One of my fitness goals is to be able to run a marathon. I am glad you covered some guildlines here. Thanks once again Mark.

    B Sexton wrote on September 4th, 2011
  7. I think if you’ve done the research and keep an open mind then you’ll discover that carbs are not needed for performance. Fat is a far superior energy source, 9 cals per gram as opposed to 4 with carbs. Your body can produce all the glycogen it needs from protien and fat. Carbs are simply preffered by the body because they are easier to break down. Once your body gets used to using fat for fuel you won’t hit “the wall” or feel “the burn” because your body won’t be producing lactate. Unfortunately it can take your body months to transition and actually be proficient in burning fat. This is where people go wrong giving up after a week or two when they feel like crap. You have to work through it and this will pay dividends.

    J-Bird wrote on March 4th, 2012
  8. Shorty Clark a New Zealand paleo agegroup triathlete (60-64) just came second in the Worlds in London. He has got his diet tweaked with bananas and root veg, plus some gels during racing. He also takes bone broth daily to keep his joint pain away.

    julianne wrote on September 21st, 2013
  9. I see that picture with the guy drinking about of amstel beer. Am I suppose to drink beer after a hard workout. I see this at alot of Spartan races. Where they offer beer after a long run.

    Ray Eng wrote on October 31st, 2013
  10. Just out of curiosity, any recommendations for a milnitary 26.2 mile road march? Essentially 35-40 pound pack, 3-4imph pace or better?

    Try to do some light training to toughen up my feet a little, but I am concerned with bonking and what not? Any thoughts?

    Dave wrote on March 2nd, 2014
  11. If you split up your training into 2-1 hour sessions, 1 in the AM and 1 in the PM do you still need the additional carbs or is it only necessary for a straight endurance workout?

    Vicki wrote on April 25th, 2014
  12. Great post with lots of information in endurance training. I just started to do my running on top of my bodybuilding. I agreed that one must control our training diet and to have good discipline in our workouts.

    Steve wrote on July 1st, 2014
  13. Good post on endurance training. I am trying to get myself to lose weight. Beside having the supplement, I am doing some exercises. But, to have good discipline is not easy.

    Stephenie wrote on July 13th, 2014
  14. I dance for about 2hrs a day (5-6days a week). Since going primal I feel I have barley any energy left, my body feels exhausted and my mind foggy. When I was doing weights 3x per week for 1.5 hrs as well as dancing and eating more carbs (grains includes) I had more energy…i wana be lean, toned, strong and energetic and continue to dance as much as I do as I love it and live for it. So what should I do? I desperately want to lose the fat around my waist and have defined muscles, I don’t want to count calories though but that’s the only way I’ve ever leaned out..but I think it was skinny fat (1200cal per day). Not sure if I’m getting enough protein either. Where do I go to calculate body fat percentage and lean body mass so I can get this right?! Thanks!

    Anzju wrote on February 26th, 2015

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