Making the Paleo Diet Work for Athletes

Apr 8, 2015

You’re an athlete. That means performing your best and recovering from training or competition as quickly as possible is extremely important. The food that you consume on a daily basis will heavily dictate both performance and recovery times.

I can’t think of a better way to be at the top of your game, and repair your body effectively, than by consuming a diet full of lean proteins, high-quality fats, and carbohydrates from vegetable and fruit sources.

Maybe you’ve tried Paleo before, or maybe you’re completely new to it. Let’s stop right here and do a quick introduction; Paleo involves getting back to eating the natural foods your body was meant to eat. The goal is to eliminate eating processed foods on a daily basis, and instead consume high-quality foods in the form of vegetables, fruit, roots, nuts, and meat. Most meal plans tend to be lower on carbohydrates, as a lot of processed foods have high carb and sugar content that will be cut out.

Paleo for athletes is a little bit different than most conventional plans.

Questions you may have include: 

  • What are the benefits of Paleo for athletes?
  • How will it affect my performance?  
  • How many carbohydrates should I be consuming?

These are all really great questions that I hope to help you with. Keep in mind that the information presented here is general advice, and I encourage everyone who is new to Paleo to experiment and find out what works the best for you.

Integrating Paleo nutrition as an athlete

Every sport is different, and all of us participate at different levels of competition. Maybe you’re enrolled in co-ed or pickup sports, or you could be a high-performance athlete in your discipline. Either way, your caloric and macronutrient requirements will vary. When making the switch towards a more natural Paleo diet, it is important to keep your caloric intake consistent. You will need to replace your previous carbohydrate sources with mainly fruits and vegetables.

Paleo diet variation for different sports

If you participate in high-intensity aerobic sports like soccer, hockey, boxing, running, biking, or swimming, you will generally require more energy in the form of carbohydrates compared to fat. During intense aerobic activity, glycogen will be your main energy source. This means that you need to have consumed adequate amounts of carbohydrates throughout the day to sustain activity at your required level. Ensure you eat quality carbs specifically prior to your workout, and during your post-workout recovery window.

If your sport is more power based, such as; sprinting, weightlifting, powerlifting, football, track and field events like shot put, discus, or jumping events, your exertions will mainly be in an anaerobic state; performing powerful movements for short amounts of time with rest in between.

Anaerobic activities use a combination of energy from fat and carbohydrates, but are overall less taxing on your glycogen levels. Based on your personal preferences, this means that you may find optimal performance at varying levels of pre-workout carbohydrate intakes. Start at carb intake levels that you know work for you, and deviate at a reasonable rate to find that sweet spot for peak performance.  

Carbohydrates in the post-workout recovery window are a must for all athletes. Eat Paleo friendly carbs paired with protein immediately after training to ensure muscle tissues are repaired, and glycogen is restored.

Adjusting your paleo diet

During especially difficult training periods, or during competition times, be sure to adjust your food intake properly. Tracking your calories and macronutrient intake alongside a performance journal is an excellent idea to track your progress as a Paleo athlete. Use this historical information for meal planning and adjusting when your training or competition schedule changes.

Making Paleo work for you

Since we are all made up of different genetic material, tap into our energy sources differently, and have varying training schedules, you will need to work towards building a Paleo diet plan that works for you.

Maybe this means consuming 100g of carbohydrates two hours before your workout, and having two post workout meals consisting of 50g carbohydrates and a protein serving for optimal recovery. You could even find that you’re a top performer with lower carbohydrate intakes throughout the day, and utilizing the post-workout recovery window to consume almost all of your daily carbs.

Your main goal as a Paleo athlete is to consume real, natural foods that will supply your body with the energy to perform your sport of choice, at all levels of competition.

Eat the foods that we were meant to eat, make meals based on a portion of lean protein, vegetables, healthy fats, and adding in fruits and nuts throughout the day appropriately.

The Paleo diet plan is the perfect solution for performance and recovery. Utilize the high-nutritional content of fruits and vegetables, healthy fats necessary for energy extraction, and the BCAA (Branched chain amino acid) content of lean proteins, which are essential for optimal recovery for all kinds of athletes, to perform better than ever.

About the author
Scott Wolowich is an advocate of the natural lifestyle, and anything to do with a barbell. He went to the University of Guelph in Canada, and was a competitor on the varsity wrestling team during his time there. In recent days, he focuses on strength training, olympic lifting, and tweaking his diet for max performance. He writes about foam rolling and mobility at Follow Scott's posts for a dose of real experiences mixed with scientific evidence for optimizing the Paleo lifestyle for athletic performance and everyday life.

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