Dear Mark: Advice for Athletes

This question came from speedingwaif in the comment boards last week. We thought it was something everyone might enjoy.

Dear Mark,

I’d be very interested in reading about the different nutritional needs of average folk versus athletes. For instance do we need more protein or just more calories overall? Are there foods or nutrients that are especially beneficial to the athlete? What is a good pre-training or pre-competition meal? Should the diet of a female athlete differ greatly from the diet of a male athlete?

Thanks for the question. I really enjoy the post discussions that get going and appreciate the questions. As you may have noticed, Dear Mark has become a weekly post now, so feel free to drop me a line in the comment boards. I’ll try to answer as many questions as possible in future Dear Mark posts.

My advice, indeed, is different for intensive-training athletes than it is for regular folks. Let me first say that my athlete-directed advice will seem like a compromise compared to the rest of what I talk about on the blog, and that’s because, well, it is. As I mentioned in the Chronic Cardio post a couple weeks ago, I certainly understand the drive toward athletic competition and the intensive training that goes into it. That said, I also see it as a compromise – a compromise in which passion wins out over nature, so to speak. Our cavemen/women friends didn’t evolve with this kind of taxing routine; consequently, it takes some rather “unnatural” conditions to support this training model.

Because intensive athletic training typically exhausts the body’s glycogen stores, it needs a supplementary (albeit inferior fuel), which likely requires carbohydrate calories. (Yes, take a moment, if you need to.) The image of a runner loading up on carbs before a race isn’t for nothing. Unfortunately, getting these from veggies just won’t do the job this time. Ideally, you should look to natural starchy carbs first (yams, squash, etc.) and then to whole grains like wild rice or quinoa. The whole grains are, admittedly, a lesser second choice, but they’re better than just downing simple sugars. Try to keep the extra carb calories limited to pre-training and pre-competition times as much as possible. The primal diet still can (and should) be the center of your nutrition.

A rigorous athletic training regimen also requires more protein. You’ll inevitably incur inflammation as well as muscle damage. Make sure you get plenty of omega-3s and antioxidants. Because intensive training will deplete vitamins and minerals faster than a regular fitness routine, a high potency formula is imperative.

You ask about differences in diet for women versus men athletes. Other than the differences between men’s and women’s basic nutritional needs (additional iron for premenopausal women, for example), I don’t believe male and female athletes require different nutrition. I think an athlete’s dietary needs vary more based on the energy requirements of their particular training and competition regimen.

dominikgolenia Flickr Photo (CC)

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About the Author

Mark Sisson is the founder of Mark’s Daily Apple, godfather to the Primal food and lifestyle movement, and the New York Times bestselling author of The Keto Reset Diet. His latest book is Keto for Life, where he discusses how he combines the keto diet with a Primal lifestyle for optimal health and longevity. Mark is the author of numerous other books as well, including The Primal Blueprint, which was credited with turbocharging the growth of the primal/paleo movement back in 2009. After spending three decades researching and educating folks on why food is the key component to achieving and maintaining optimal wellness, Mark launched Primal Kitchen, a real-food company that creates Primal/paleo, keto, and Whole30-friendly kitchen staples.

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4 thoughts on “Dear Mark: Advice for Athletes”

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  1. Nice article Mark. I have a problem staying on a hunter gather diet when cyclocross season shows up. I can really feel the fatigue set in training and racing. I think this season I will up the good carbs and include a good sports recovery drink. Let me know what you think. Great site by the way.

  2. Mark,

    What about afterward or during? I’ve read some stuff from people that even recommend low-carb/paleo the rest of the time but not during, after and sometimes before a intense cardio or weight lifting session. I’ve commented on Dr. Eades’ blog about this and he seems to think its correct also.

    You only have so much reserve glycogen, enough for about an hour(?) of a workout. After that the body can’t convert fat fast enough so it starts uses muscle (I believe). So basically you want to get sugar into the body to be used as energy instead. Supposedly this doesn’t cause an insulin spike and get used directly as fuel. Also the same afterwards to replenish the glycogen stores and then the body can concentrate on building muscle and repairing damage with a good meal of fat and protein.

    I’ve been trying this a little bit by adding straight table sugar to my low-carb protein shakes after riding at least 20 miles or a weight session. I’m just afraid to add too much. I’ve been only adding a tablespoon. I would really think this is nowhere where it would need to be. Since 12g (if I remember correctly) would be nothing when I’m 265# with 186# of muscle. I know its a lot of fat too. Still working on that, that’s why the weight and less cardio now. I don’t see how 12g could replace what’s got to be a lot more glycogen burned.

    How much sugar should one consume afterward, if you support this theory? Should I be eating more sugar after my workouts? Not necessarily table sugar, but timing a meal after with carbs is hard to do during the week for me and I think you’re supposed to use sugar that gets processed quickly because you only have a certain window.