The Paleo Diet For Athletes

Yes, I know that there is already a book with this very name, by none other than the esteemed Dr. Loren Cordain (arguably the Paleo Diet Godfather), but this is an important topic, and my desire to write this article stemmed from some very frequently asked questions from clients and friends.

What about the Paleo Diet for Athletes? How does a lower-carb lifestyle work for people with demanding athletic lives?

The answer here is not really a simple one to be honest, so of course I’ll pull from the writings of Dr. Cordain and maybe some other gurus to help me illustrate this explanation.

Training for endurance sports such as running, cycling, triathlon, rowing, swimming, and cross­country skiing places great demands on the body, and the athlete is in some stage of recovery almost continuously during periods of heavy training. The keys to optimum recovery are sleep and diet. Even though we recommend that everyone eat a diet similar to what our Stone Age ancestors ate, we realize that nutritional concessions must be made for the athlete who is training at a high volume in the range of 10 to 35 or more hours per week of rigorous exercise. Rapid recovery is the biggest issue facing such an athlete. While it’s not impossible to recover from such training loads on a strict Paleo Diet, it is somewhat more difficult to recover quickly. By modifying the diet before, during, and immediately following challenging workouts, the Paleo Diet provides two benefits sought by all athletes: quick recovery for the next workout, and superior health for the rest of your life.” - Loren Cordain

Cavemen Do It Better!

Most runners and endurance athletes will argue that carbohydrates are absolutely necessary for the sustained energy required to cover long distances, and that their performance will suffer terribly if this intake is not maintained. The majority of competitive runners still practice-using carbohydrates as their main fuel source, but several famous athletes have been very successful ignoring this conventional wisdom, and utilizing a low-carb, high-fat approach to power their bodies during endurance events. One such athlete is the Swedish Ultraman World Class Champion, Jonas Colting. You can listen to a Jimmy Moore interview with Jonas, here.

Even though the “average” highly trained runner may look very lean and healthy, the large amounts of carbohydrates they consume, which later become sugar (glucose) in their bodies, still silently causes significant amounts of cellular damage and oxidative stress. This is the reason that runners still often suffer with painful joint inflammation, and can ultimately die of cancer, stroke, or heart attacks. The chronic inflammation caused by large amounts of glucose in the blood, takes its toll on even the most apparently physically fit people.

Inflammation is obviously something that needs to be avoided for human health and longevity. Even in the short term, if a runner’s performance is negatively affected by joint inflammation from the over-consumption of carbohydrates, this seems like something that a runner should seek to avoid, if they desire to operate at a truly optimal level.


Health and fitness are not synonymous. Unfortunately, many athletes are fit but unhealthy. Frequent illness, injury and overtraining reduce performance potential. The Paleo Diet for Athletes significantly improves health long term. Compared with the commonly accepted athlete’s diet, the Paleo Diet:

● Increases intake of branched chain amino acids (BCAA). Benefits muscle development and anabolic function. Also counteracts immunosuppression common in endurance athletes following extensive exercise.

● Decreases omega­6:omega­3 ratio. Reduces tissue inflammations common to athletes while promoting healing. This may include asthmatic conditions common in athletes.

● Lowers body acidity. Reduces the catabolic effect of acidosis on bone and muscle while stimulating muscle protein synthesis. This is increasingly important with aging.

● Is high in trace nutrients. Vitamins and minerals are necessary for optimal health and long­term recovery from exercise. The most nutrient­dense foods are vegetables and seafood. On average, vegetables have nearly twice the nutrient density of grains.” – Loren Cordain

In a nut-shell, the carbohydrate foods, and the associated windows of opportunity as recommended by Cordain are as follows:


Serious athletes, however, when it comes to immediately before, during, and directly after workouts, need to bend the rules of the Paleo Diet a bit since we’re placing demands on the body that were not normal for our Stone Age ancestors. Hour after hour of sustained high energy output and the need for quick recovery are the serious athlete’s unique demands. This requires some latitude to use non­optimal foods on a limited basis. The exceptions may best be described by explaining the athlete’s 5 stages of daily eating relative to exercise.

Stage I: Eating Before Exercise

In brief, we recommend that athletes eat low to moderate glycemic index carbohydrates at least two hours prior to a hard or long workout or race. There may also be some fat and protein in this meal. All foods should be low in fiber. Take in 200 to 300 calories for every hour remaining until exercise begins. If eating two hours prior is not possible, then take in 200 or so calories 10 minutes before the workout or race begins.

Stage II: Eating During Exercise

During long or hard workouts and races you will need to take in high glycemic index carbohydrates mostly in the form of fluids. Sports drinks are fine for this. Find one that you like the taste of and will drink willingly. Realize that events lasting less than about an hour (including warm­up) don’t require any carbohydrate. Water will suffice for these. A starting point for deciding how much to take in is 200 to 400 calories per hour modified according to body size, experience and the nature of the exercise (longer events require more calories than short).

Stage III: Eating Immediately After

In the first 30 minutes post-­workout (but only after long and/or highly intense exercise) and post­-race use a recovery drink that contains both carbohydrate and protein in a 4­5:1 ratio. You can buy a commercial product such as Ultrafit RecoveryTM ( for this. Or you can make your own by blending 16 ounces of fruit juice with a banana, 3 to 5 tablespoons of glucose (such as Carbo­ Pro) depending on body size, about 3 tablespoons of protein powder, especially from egg or whey sources and two pinches of salt. This 30­minute window is critical for recovery. It should be your highest priority after a hard workout or race.

Stage IV: Eating for Extended Recovery

For the next few hours (as long as the preceding challenging exercise lasted) continue to focus your diet on carbohydrates, especially moderate to high glycemic load carbohydrates along with protein at a 4­5:1 carb­-protein ratio. Now is the time to eat non­optimal foods such as pasta, bread, bagels, rice, corn and other foods rich in glucose as they contribute to the necessary carbohydrate recovery process. Perhaps the perfect Stage IV foods are raisins, potatoes, sweet potatoes and yams.

Stage V: Eating for Long ­Term Recovery

For the remainder of your day, or until your next Stage I, return to eating a Paleo Diet by focusing on optimal foods. For more information on the Paleo Diet go to or read The Paleo Diet by Loren Cordain, Ph.D.” – Loren Cordain

I have to be honest here; I personally don’t buy the idea that consuming that much sub-optimal food is good at almost anytime. Some of those items are very high in fructose, and all are very high on the glycemic index, which means that they will result in huge blood sugar spikes, and large amounts of insulin floating around in the blood. This still seems like a lot of potential inflammation to me.

I actually like Robb Wolf’s recommendations on this a lot better:

Low-CARB Reality Check

If you are a strength oriented athlete you might thrive on this regime. Low carb in general, one or two higher carb meals per week (or maybe not). You will NOT however win the CrossFit Games or optimize performance in longer Met-con oriented activities. Several of the folks in the comments section were a little startled by the protein+fat PWO meal which seems completely at odds with what I talk about in 42 Ways to Skin the Zone. It is simply a different tool for a different situation. If one is overweight or showing signs of insulin resistance, a low carb PWO meal is the way to go. Solid food is just fine and likely even better.

Can’t everything be Fat Fueled?

This is a sub-category of low-carb reality check. In general, I think there are activities/work outputs that just run better with SOME glycogen. I have noticed in myself and in some other people a surprising level of work output while in ketosis…but I still think there is a bit more to be had from a properly glycogen fueled athlete. This article from the Journal of  Nutrition and Metabolism sheds some light on the opportunities and possible limits of a fat-fueled existence. Keep in mind, even if you do not EAT carbs, your body makes some. This might be a natural way to structure training…what hepatic (liver) glycogen production can support…”

“High Carb PWO-Why

In the LCPWO scenario we are concerned just with the anabolic/muscle growth aspects of recovery. This MAY play towards performance if our game is strength oriented but it will likely NOT do us many favors if we desire to be the CrossFit Kid or some other glycogen dependant athlete. The HC-PWO meal becomes appealing when we need to replenish not only damaged muscle tissue but also the glycogen stores that fire intense activity. We can do this a dumb way (perfectly balanced protein/carb/fat meals the same proportion, every day, all the time) or we can be smart and take advantage of heightened insulin sensitivity PWO to fly protein and carbs into our muscles with less of a hit from insulin. In this scenario we should see not only solid muscular recovery due to our protein intake, but also rapid glycogen repletion due to the smart carbs we throw into the PWO meal. How much carb/protein is a great question and I honestly do not have a perfect answer.  If you have followed OPT’s Blog you will have noticed that he scales the amount of carbs and protein based on volume/intensity of an effort and percent body fat.”

“PWO Meal

The idea of a PWO meal containing carbs (and protein) is to take advantage of a period of time in which the muscles are particularly insulin sensitiveve. We can fly nutrients into the muscle “under the radar” via a mechanism called “non insulin mediated glucose transport”. Amino acids are also taken in during this time and may play a synergistic role in both glycogen repletion but also decreasing inflammation that accompanies hard training. Said another way, you recover from exertion faster. So, what should ya eat? We actually want a starchy carb as our primary carb. Yams and sweet potatoes are great options as they are also highly nutritious. Fruit should be used sparingly in this meal if one is focused on optimized glycogen repletion as fructose refills liver glycogen first, and once liver glycogen is full we up-regulate the lipogenic activity of the liver and start down the road towards fat gain and insulin resistance.

I know James Fitzgerald (OPT) has used a mixture of mashed sweet potato and apple sauce for PWO meal…getting just a bit of hepatic (liver) glycogen repletion with the lions share going to the muscles. Sprinkle some cinnamon on top to enhance insulin sensitivity and you are set. Why do the mixture? Perhaps James will chime in on this but for me a simple answer would be palatability and taste. If you just received an ass-kicking, stuffing food down your pie-hole may not be that appealing. Something yummy could certainly make that easier.

Why not shakes? I’ve not found them to be superior to solid food, I have noticed they make people fat. A new paper just came out comparing milk & cereal (shitty food) to a PWO shake (also shitty food) and the milk+cereal beat the shake with regards to glycogen repletion. Go figure. I’d wager salmon and sweet potatoes would be even better…not likely to see that study!

The PWO window is most potent immediately after a WO and drops off to about 50% efficacy by 30 min, and pretty much back to baseline by an hour. If you train at night, just try to get that meal in immediately after training and keep an eye out for fat gain around the mid-section. If this happens, dial back your carbs.” – Robb Wolf

I’m a big fan of Robb Wolf, and I feel like he has a firm handle on the more cutting edge science and application there-of, when it comes to such applied Paleo-Athletic performance. Robb has been in the trenches, working with clients for a while now, and I feel like he probably knows what actually works better than almost anyone else in the field.

Train Low, Race High

Train low, race high is the catchy name for a semi-new strategy that I’ve noticed is being kicked around the internet recently. As far as I can tell, it does not mean “Eat a low-carb diet day-to-day life, and also during training sessions, and then ‘carb-up’ before and after a race.” The accepted meaning for this term, it seems, is to eat Standard American Diet foods normally, go low-carb for training sessions, and then carb-up for athletic events. It all sounds pretty logical to me (aside from the S.A.D food part), because if you train in a low-carb, glycogen depleted state, your body will become used to switching to using stored fat for fuel, which will make you a more efficient fat-burner. Then, the jolt of large amounts of “fast” carbs on race day should turn you into a human rocket! Then, when all of the available carbohydrates are exhausted, your body will naturally resort back to burning fat, with greater efficiency than someone who is not at all fat adapted. Check out this PDF brochure that covers the basics of the theory.

I think an improvement to this plan, would be to maintain a lower-carb Paleo lifestyle approach during day-to-life, conduct training sessions in a completely fasted state, and then utilize the higher-quality Paleo carbohydrate based foods like the “Safe Starches”, to supercharge any competitive events.

Any one of these approaches could easily be the perfect example of the Paleo Diet for Athletes, but like I always say, the only way that you will know for sure which way is ideal for you, is try them all for yourself. Let me know what you figure out, I’d love to know.

And don’t forget, if you absolutely insist on running, make sure that you do so wearing some Vibram Fivefingers!


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Barry Cripps is a Paleo-based Nutrition and Wellness Consultant, who operates out of Bowling Green, Kentucky.

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