Long Distance Triathlete Finds Success with Primal

It’s Friday, everyone! And that means another Primal Blueprint Real Life Story from a Mark’s Daily Apple reader. If you have your own success story and would like to share it with me and the Mark’s Daily Apple community please contact me here. I’ll continue to publish these each Friday as long as they keep coming in. Thank you for reading!

As a youngster growing up in Sydney, Australia, I had asthma that really limited what I could do. My mind wanted to do active sporty things, but physically I couldn’t follow through and as a result, was pretty unfit (and overweight).

My mum was a good healthy cook and we spent lots of time outdoors, but I would sneak lollies, chocolate, and chips when I could. It wasn’t emotional eating – I just loved the flavours and textures. There was also peer pressure about buying “the cool food” (aka junk) for lunch at school and then University.

Flash forward a couple of decades and I was still overweight and on the roller-coaster ride of fad diets that I would follow for a while, then fail as they left me starving and weak. I wanted to lose weight and be healthy, but I didn’t want to suffer so much. To me, mental health is an important part of physical health, and starving myself on restrictive “diets” left me mentally unhealthy. I found this unsustainable.

So what did I do? I exercised more (it helped that I found an asthma medication that worked). I was living in California now and really got into long distance cycling – which was great for being able to eat more. But again, this was unsustainable as work and other hobbies were bound to cut short my cycling hours! When I moved back home to Australia, the small town I moved to didn’t have much in the way of bike routes (or hills!) but they did have a triathlon club. So that’s what I took up next! Problem was, on a bike your weight is more forgiving than running. So I suffered. I was injured, I was tired, and I was slow.

I followed the conventional wisdom of high carb, low fat. I was still injured, tired, and slow. And it never seemed to get any easier, no matter how much I tried or trained. But I was also stubborn, so I kept going as I did actually enjoy the challenge. I followed the conventional wisdom of carb loading before a race and getting energy gels and sports drinks during. And I still suffered. I always had a stomach upset of some sort that began on the bike and manifested as multiple toilet stops on the run. After four half Ironman and four full Ironman triathlons, I finally started to ask some QUESTIONS rather than what I had been doing all these years – telling myself it was ME that had failed in some way. For so long I had followed CW around a “healthy diet” and what I needed to eat to do sports. And they weren’t working for me!!

My first port of call was a triathlon Internet community, where someone mentioned fructose intolerance. Being the scientist I am, I set up an n=1 study of different sugar solutions and tested myself. Lo and behold, fructose sent me to the bathroom. But I wasn’t done. I kept exploring the Internet around fructose, food issues, and exercise, and stumbled across Mark’s Daily Apple. THAT’S WHEN EVERYTHING CHANGED.

I read and read and read everything I could on the website that day (at work). And I started. Then and there. From the very next meal. I was so convinced that this had validity that I knew I needed to act straight away. I didn’t want to end up in that corner of “paralysis by analysis” or needing to know EVERYthing before I did ANYthing. I bought The Primal Blueprint book and read it cover to cover. Twice. I tweaked what I had been doing since that first day. I read more, and I tweaked more. I then started challenging my own long held beliefs (brainwashing) around the conventional wisdom of carbs for life and for sports.

I read some more and came across the concept of low carb/ketogenic diets for sports. The ketogenic concept seemed more suited to long endurance type efforts, which was perfect for me. The shortest race I do is six and a half hours, so I was hooked. I believed all my problems with race-day stomach issues were to be blamed on carbs – so if I could burn fat (and I had plenty to spare!) for fuel and avoid ingesting carbs, I could feel awesome! Talk about being excited!

So I followed a very low carb version of the PB, including copious amounts of dairy. I spoke to a sports nutritionist who has done work around fat adaptation in cyclists and he was on board. In fact, he thought I could do my next triathlon (a six hour event) totally carb-free if I was well enough adapted. I had three months to become keto-adapted before the race – and I was going to need those three months for some pretty decent training too. When I started, I was a bit skeptical and always carried carb gels on my training rides and runs. But the amazing thing was I could now head out for a four-hour ride or a three-hour run and not need any calories. I was AMAZED!! My training was going better than ever and I was recovering from my long workouts better. I wasn’t sore for days after a run, so I could back up sooner with another quality workout.

However, I remained skeptical that I could complete a six and a half hour race without ingesting calories, so I raced carrying a flask of “back-up” carbs for when I hit the wall. But I never did. I had steady energy and mental clarity through the whole event – something I have never experienced before. And, all this was on electrolytes and water for six and a half hours of effort.

This event really cemented in my mind that I was almost in a place where I had found an eating style that works for MY body. I explored more experts online, including listening to podcasts from Ben Greenfield, Abel James, Jonathon Bailor, Stephen Phinney, and Jeff Volek. I also found an awesome book by Dean Dwyer called Make Shi(f)t Happen. These sorts of folks really helped me explore ways to tweak MY lifestyle in conjunction with all the great info and MDA.

One of the things I did read on a bunch of websites were all the folks who said the weight literally fell off them when they started eating this way. I haven’t had those spectacular results. But I am slowly and steadily losing fat and getting stronger. So even though the weight isn’t falling off me, I’m getting better every day.

After Christmas I noticed I seemed to have stalled in any weight loss. So I began tweaking some more and using the PB as just that – a blueprint that could be moulded to suit my individual body. I made the decision to cut out dairy. It was a biggie for me, as I had come to rely on cheese and cream as a source of fat. I started to again lose small amounts of weight each week. My skin improved, as did my allergies and nose stuffiness. Coconut cream became my “go to” for creaminess, as well as cooking in coconut oil or duck fat.

My last tweak (care of MDA) was a version of Bulletproof coffee. The ingredients in this are a particular type of coffee, with butter and MCT oil. Well, I started just by blending some MCT oil in my regular coffee in the mornings. UNBELIEVABLE. I have really noticed more clarity and sharpness in my mind during the day and don’t crave carby things or rely on caffeine to get me though the workday.

I’m still not going to be winning any races. Frankly, I’m not much faster than I was. But my lack of speed really comes down to the amount of training I can do within all the other parts of my life. So what are the benefits then? I FEEL AWESOME!! My health has improved. I ENJOY my training and events more. I DON’T SUFFER from stomach problems or energy ups and downs during these events or in everyday life. I don’t suffer muscle soreness for days after a strenuous workout. I appreciate more the fitness and health that has come from my eating shift. And I’M NOT CONSTANTLY HUNGRY!!

So what’s a typical day for me? (While training 9-13 hours a week and an 8-5 job):

  • Coffee with unsweetened almond milk
  • 45–60min workout
  • 7:30am Breakfast – Bacon & egg yolks cooked in coconut oil
  • 10:30 – Decaf coffee with MCT oil
  • 2pm Lunch – Leafy greens with 125g meat/fish, avocado, olive oil
  • 4:30 – Walnut/macadamia mix
  • 5:30 – Afternoon workout – 60min
  • 7:30 Dinner – 125g meat, ½ cup low carb veg, cooked in duck fat

I also make myself some treats on long training weekends that consist of coconut oil, almond butter, cocoa, and desiccated coconut, frozen in ice cube trays. Talk about YUM!

I bought myself a blood ketone meter and have done a lot of measurements to see how different foods/volumes affect my ketosis. More than around 200g protein or two alcoholic drinks sets me down to around 0.5mmol. I normally sit around 1.5-2 mmol since giving up the dairy. That’s probably the only reason I monitor how much meat I consume. I do try and keep my carbs down below 40g/day, but I don’t measure – just eat small amounts and don’t go silly on the nuts! No starchy vegetables and absolutely no grains, sugars, or legumes.

So round two of ketogenic racing was another long triathlon – this time there were going to be some serious hills in the bike part. Since exploring MCT oil as a supplement on a normal day and listening to folks like Ben Greenfield (an ironman triathlete), I started blending some MCT oil into some amino acids and electrolytes for my planned race nutrition. My training and recovery improved EVEN MORE. My mood and mental clarity improved EVEN MORE. So I went into this race with this plan:

  • Pre race brekky – Bacon, egg yolks, coffee with MCT oil
  • Immediately pre-start – ¾ tbsp MCT oil, 5 g BCAA’s
  • During the bike and run – ¾ tbsp MCT oil and 5g BCAA’s per hour

Not your typical carb loading and carb fest that is usually long distance triathlon!

So how did I go?

I had some serious mechanical problems towards the end of the bike leg, and ended up being out there for around 40min longer than I planned. I only consumed less than half of the MCT oil/aminos that I had packed. BUT IT WAS AWESOME!! I felt great though the swim, strong and consistent through the bike (serious hills and long flats), and set a personal best (PB) for the run leg. Even though I had problems on the bike, my mental state was so much clearer and positive than any race I had previously done. Seven hours and 40 minutes on essentially just a few electrolytes.

And here’s the kicker: all those foods I thought I craved over the last few months? I let myself have them over the following couple of days – bread, milk, butter, cake, and chocolate. And guess what happened? I felt like crap. My skin and eyes were itchy, my face broke out in zits, my stomach was upset, I was bloated, had a headache, and puffed up 4kg in 3 days! And the best part? Nothing tasted good or gave me any satisfaction to eat. I won’t be doing that again!

So what are the biggest lessons I learned?

1. PB = Primal Blueprint. AND PB = Personal Best. BE YOURS!!

2. There is no one answer. Read, re-read, and experiment on yourself. Constantly tweak what you do. Dean Dwyer (in Make Shi(f)t Happen) talks about thinking in Beta (i.e., constantly tweaking yourself like multiple releases of a computer program) and not following prescriptions. Too many “solutions” out there just tell you what to do. Places like Mark’s Daily Apple and PB encourage exploration as to WHY you might want to try things and how to uncover what will work best for you. And that really sets them aside from all the CW out there.

And that’s my story. Thanks for reading, and all the best!


Cath before/after Primal

Before, Left. After, Right – A bit lighter, but a LOT healthier and happier
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55 thoughts on “Long Distance Triathlete Finds Success with Primal”

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  1. Great story! I did my first oly distance tri last year. I switched from a SAD to paleo diet halfway through and had a similar experience.

  2. Great job!

    BTW, judging by the before and after pics, the scale is being very deceptive. You have lost a LOT of fat, so if your weight hasn’t gone down much, you have just been gaining muscle. As far as I’m concerned, replacing fat with muscle is even better than just losing the fat.

    1. Yes, I agree with what Jim said. You may not have seen a lot of change on the scale but you look very different, much leaner in the After pic. Plus you FEEL better and aren’t hungry all the time. Way to go!

  3. Cath, Do you get to pick you #’s for each race? If not, wow!
    You look happy and content.
    More blessings are headed you way. Keep doing what you are doing.

  4. A great resource you may want to look into for triathlon training while on a primal/paleo diet is Brian MacKenzie’s Power, Speed, Endurance.

  5. Congratulations! As an athlete myself (though not an endurance athlete), I am always interested to hear about how athletes tweaked the PB to suit them. Could you describe what kind of tweaks you made/why you decided to make them? Thanks!

  6. Cath great story. Couldn’t agree more with your ending of the story, and testing on yourself till you figure out what works. Makes all the difference in the world.

  7. Very cool story. Always interesting to see how a primal-style diet affects performance and what tweaks are made to address individual needs/preferences.

  8. Well done Cate! Any person who has the tenacity to race for these many hours deserves a bow; and this is coming from an ex paratrooper.

    By the way, I too stick to egg yolks and throw away the whites; a real shame since free range eggs are expensive, but it’s better then paying the consequences. Any reason you don’t eat the egg whites?

      1. Mostly due to skin allergy that come and went (the yolk is wining hands down); and also very confusing info on the net vs-a-vis Hashimoto (and it’s side effects) and the consumption of eggs. There is a confusing paper trail that leads in opposite directions. One says that the yolk is bad for you, while another claim that the white is; so I am experimenting on myself. After all, Hashimoto is not something that can be cure. On the other hand, suppressing the side effects is attainable.

        If I learned something (I am sure other readers would share the same sentiment), it is that paper trail alone is not a proof to anything, and one should consider the source. Like the paper trail advocating grains and seed oils as a recipe for health… (-;

        1. Interesting you say Hashimotos cant be cured. I was diagnosed 5 years ago and it was that diagnosis which made me totally over haul my health and now every time I see my thyroid consultant he shakes his head in disbelief and says I cant find anything wrong with you 🙂

    1. I was focussing on getting my fat intake up, but without really increasing my protein intake – and egg whites are pure protein!

      1. Lottie, just because “TPO” is not showing in the blood test, doesn’t mean that you’re cured; nevertheless, I wish you nothing but health. Just make sure your Dr. retest you from time to time, for TSH, FT4 (free) and FT3 (free).

        Cath, that makes sense, but I was under the impression that the protein in egg whites behaves differently; and at any rate, your overall daily protein intake isn’t that high. Interestingly, 1 large yolk has 2.7 gram protein while the white has 3.6 or 6.3 altogether – not much to tip the scale. But you know better what’s good for you. If you want to very your routine and aren’t shy of raw yolks, put 2 yolk in a wine glass (any glass will do), squeeze fresh lemon/lime juice, little Himalayan salt and tsp. of coconut oil, swirl and drink. The glass wine makes it east to swallow one whole yolk at a time, without breaking it. By the way, around 10 years ego, I traveled through Australia in a retrofitted Toyota hiace, slept out doors whenever I could and had the time of my life. I found your country side to be most beautiful and the people hospitable and friendly; not to mention having excess to wonderful free range lamb and beef and good beer; beer is out but I’d welcome the meat any day. So here’s to Australia the great country down-under (-;

        1. Yep, good comment about the protein in the whites. At th end of the day, it might not have made much difference. But since I wasn’t trying to increase my protein, I was looking at fat/protein sources that came with additional nutritional benefits. And I love the yolks much more than the whites! I guess it’s a moot point now though, as I have eliminated the eggs altogether. I do miss them though.

  9. Wow, even your face seems thinnner!

    (but that menu looks a little nut-heavy. Nuts can stall weight loss…)

  10. hi, Cath,

    you seem to get a little more tanned too.

    you seems to snack often & eat a lot of nuts. is it for your heavy training?
    (i’m not an athlete, but prefer to exercise while fasting)


  11. Wow Cath, well done on your transformation but also for your determination to make it work for you and your sport. As others have said, the scales might not show much change but those photos do!

  12. Love it! Well done. And it’s great you found a nutritionist that was on board. Such a great resource.

    I too love the “not one size fits all” approach of MDA. Here’s some ideas, now go and figure out what works for you!

  13. Great inspirational story and cool lessons learned. Thanks for writing that up for everyone!

  14. Thinking in Beta – Yessss! I haven’t heard it put this way but it’s the constant tweaking to get better results that is the fun part of going Primal. I think it’s fun anyway. Good on ya Cath!

  15. I agree with another comment–I also think you changed your body composition rather dramatically. Your face and body have a much nicer shape and you look plain healthier in the right photo. Good job!

  16. Thanks Cath, such an interesting story. My friends husband is a carb-loading long distance cyclist, who is scared to stop riding in case he puts on weight like his friends. The fact that you feel better is the most important thing, although judging by your photos, your body composition has really changed. Well done!

  17. Me too! Aussie aussie aussie !!!!!!!!!! So inspiring….and.you look sooooooo happy 🙂

  18. Thanks Cathy, this is a great story. As another fructose reacting Aussie, how have you had to adapt PB to keep you healthy? I find honey, cauliflower, cabbage, too much avocado, dates……….. all problematic for me. Has your intolerance settled down over time and become less obvious?

    You do indeed look much leaner, fitter and healthier in the “after” photo. But more than that – you look happier! Well done.

  19. You look more athletic and fit. I think whatever you are doing, is working. Congrats on not giving up and finding what works best.

  20. Hi, Cath, thanks for your story! It’s great to know that one can run on ketones and feel and move GREAT! I’ve been managing my diabetes exclusively through diet, so I’ve been on a ketogenic diet for 2 years. I also eventually removed dairy from my diet–just seems better for me. I love coconut oil, and also take potato starch with every meal.

    A question for you–have you had any low-thyroid symptoms? I’ve sometimes had coldness, also have thinner hair all over, and don’t know if that’s just how I am, or if I have thyroid issues. I also haven’t gotten my period in 2 1/2 years, but that may be because I’m still breastfeeding, although pretty little. I’ve gotten more sleep and heavier exercise in the past month, and that seems to have helped. Overall, thought, I’d say I feel good, with more clarity and energy than before.

  21. Congratulations! I think that we Primal Blueprinters’ even fail to recognize the simplicity of food in terms of maximizing potential. Introduce refining by human processing that makes the food undistinguishable to our bodies, and disease occurs. Really quite simple; we just need to train our palettes to forgoe these poor food choices that we were raised to love. I see a monumental shift in dietary practices continuing long into the future.

  22. amazing story, and so inspirational! and another beautiful example that health and happiness come in all sizes. you go!

  23. Great story Cath. You you check out some of the discussions from Peter Attia (Eatingacademy.com) if you haven’t already. He writes some really interesting posts on Ketogenic long distance training. Peter has been referenced on MDA many times.

  24. Hi, Cath, thanks so much for your story! It’s so inspiring how you’ve figured out what works for you, and have had enhanced life and athletic performance! And great to hear again that running on ketones can be AWESOME!

    I’ve been ketogenic for a couple of years, because I’m using diet to control diabetes. However, I wonder if I have low thyroid symptoms, although more sleep and exercise seem to have helped. But sometimes, I’ve been cold, thinner hair all over, and no period for 2 1/2 years, although that may be due to breastfeeding. Have you had any low thyroid issues? You look great, so I’m guessing no, but I’m curious.

    1. Hi

      In some cases, a very strict ketogenic diet, seems to affect the thyroid. I have experienced this myself 🙁 In my case I think it was several things that together made my thyroid went low; extreme stress, fasting, excessive training, and a ketogenic diet. Now I am eating a sort of ketogenic cykling diet, and once a week or two weeks doing a carb refeed. This seems to fill my energi a lot more and also have taken care of my weight stall (went up ap. 4-5 kilos because of thyroid problems..) But In my case it wasn’t just a thyroid problem, but also all the stress had affected the adrenals.. It’s been a long way, and a lot of things to find out to get recovered.

      You can read more;


      1. Hi, Sarah, thanks for sharing your experience and the link. That’s helpful, and really interesting how abrupt low carb can trigger low thyroid. I’ve tried carb re feeds in the past, but often felt icky because my diabetic metabolism doesn’t handle the carbs well. So, I focus on sleep And exercise.

  25. Hi folks! Thanks for all the awesome responses. So many to answer, I’ll try and cover a few here.

    I’ve branched off into training for a 100km run, so my training is ramping up even more. I’m still eating low carb and recovering better than ever. I’m still feeling really good, and still slowly losing more fat – and weight, but I am putting on some muscle. I’m still tweaking where I think it might help, but the only big change is I’ve now cut out eggs. It seems that I have a bit of an intolerance of eggs which manifests as a skin condition that my doc just kept saying was an infection (kinda like acne).

    While I was eating the eggs though, I didn’t eat the white as I was trying to get my fat up without the extra protein – and the white was really just pure protein.

    I still eat a lot of nuts (mainly macadamias) so I possibly need to cut down on them! But they satisfy that “crunch” factor that love. And celery – with salt. Lotsa salt.

    I still have the fructose issue, but I’m not so sensitive I can’t tolerate things like cabbage, cauli and avo’s. Just fruits. So I stick away from them, and that’s about it! It helps that I’m going low carb anyway, so fruit isn’t really on the menu.

    I definitely haven’t had any symptoms of thyroid issues since eating this way – still feeling great!

    And still experimenting! I’m using nut butters for my long run training now -either almond or macadamia. Seems to work brilliantly!

    1. I’m a long distance triathlete too, i’d love to know how you carry the MCT oil and nut butters for your training rides/runs and on race day? I’d love to try this.

      1. It’s pretty easy actually! I just add the MCT oil to the (flavoured) amino acids in my drink bottle, and shake! Just before I have a sip I give it a quick shake and then slurp away!

        As for the nut butter, a company called Artisana (I think) do various nut butters in sachets that look like gel sachets. Almond, cashew, macadamia etc. about 180 cal in each. I buy from iherb as they ship to Aus. But you can probably get them a bunch more places

        1. Thanks so much for replying. Never thought to put the oil in my drinks bottle. I don’t have MCT but might try it with coconut oil on my long ride this weekend. How much would you add to 600ml?

          I’m in the UAE so I’ll try iherb to see if they deliver here. I’ve seen those sachets when I’ve been in the US, but never here. Another great tip, thanks so much!

      2. I don’t think coconut oil would work the same. Maybe you have a different product, but the stuff here is pretty solid except at pretty warm temps. I tried it in my drink bottles, but all it didi was solidify as a coating on the inside of the bottle – big fail!. At least MCT is liquid at room temp, even here at the moment where it’s 0 dec C.

        For MCT (and coconut if it works for you) I used around 1 tbsp per hour – so if a bottle lasts an hour, thats easy. On my long rides, I’d make one concentrated “nutrition” bottle though and just have plain water in the rest – it allows for easier refills during the ride.

        1. Coconut oil is usually liquid here (I’m in Abu Dhabi and even when we start cycling at 5am it’s already 35 degrees!), so I think it would work. If i do any races in cold climates it would be a different story of course. I shall look into buying some MCT online. Thanks so much for the tips, really excited to try this now!

  26. Great story Cath. Can you share your recipe for the treast you make with the coconut oil, almond butter, cocoa, and desiccated coconut? Thanks.

  27. Great story Cath. Can you share your treat recipe with the coconut oil, almond butter, cocoa, and desiccated coconut? Sounds great! Thanks.

    1. Simple, and pretty tasty!

      Basically, 1 tbsp almond butter, 1 tbsp coconut oil (you might have to melt it if it’s cold and solid), 1 tsp cocoa, dessicated coconut to taste (maybe 2 tbsp?). Sometimes I add a bit of vanilla essence or something. You can also dissolve some sort of sweetener if you like in a little water and add that. I then spoon into ice cube trays and freeze. In around 10 mins you have pretty good imitation chocolate! But be warned…… you can’t stop a 1!

  28. Great story Cath. Can you share your treat recipe with the coconut oil, almond butter, cocoa, and desiccated coconut? Thanks!

  29. Great to hear your story. I’m also a long distance triathlete. I’ve changed my diet too and look forward to my first races next year as a fat adapted athlete. Success from like minded is awesome 🙂

  30. Fantastic!

    Your journey to find what worked sounds a good deal like mine. I’ve never felt so good during ultramarathons, it’s like I don’t even HAVE a stomach, no more sloshing, bloating, nausea.
    Like you I’m not yet faster, so am still experimenting with carb use during a race.

    My stomach literally growls after about 3 hours and I get absolutley, distratctingly ravenous. Though my energy seems steady I always eat some sweet potato puree or similar. I also find I need protein and/or amino acids if I am running 50 miles or further, otherwise my legs start to cramp or ache severely.

    1. Interesting. I have evolved my long race nutrition plan somewhat, and in my latest ironman, I used mashed sweet potato (mashed with oil and salt) on the bike, with around 50cal/hr of maltodextrin.

      I’m currently training for my first ultra (a 100km trail run) and like you, keeping my amino acids topped up (shots at 25km checkpoints) and half a sandwich with almond butter and jam. Keeps the stomach growls at bay, and my muscles definately feel better.

      All the best!

  31. Great story. I just switch to primal from vegan 1/3 way into marathon training. i’m in ketosis but haven’t been performing as well as I was before the switch. It sounds like I need time to adapt and with 2 months left before the marathon, it sounds like I have time to adapt as well. Thank you very much for sharing.