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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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 more than three decades 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 flavorful and delicious kitchen staples crafted with premium ingredients like avocado oil. With over 70 condiments, sauces, oils, and dressings in their lineup, Primal Kitchen makes it easy to prep mouthwatering meals that fit into your lifestyle.

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