The requirements of athletes can vary based on the individual themselves, his or her sport, and the level of activity. A competitive CrossFitter will have different needs than that of a marathon runner or Power Lifter. However, there is a very similar foundation and despite these differences, all athletes share a couple things: optimizing performance and recovery.
It is often thought that the Paleo diet is only geared towards those who want to lose weight and improve longevity. But it is also great for athletes; it just needs to be adjusted accordingly. The Paleo diet is full of high-quality proteins which contain essential amino acids for recovery, complex carbohydrates to aid in energy stores and the recovery/building of muscles, healthy fats for energy, and tons of fresh vegetables. Athletes can customize the amounts of each of these based on sport and goals.
The Foundation: Protein
When looking to tweak your Paleo diet, you need to take into account the nature of your training. All athletes should start with a foundation of quality protein. Depending on the size of the athlete, most meals should contain about 3-8oz of protein. Athletes typically need ~1g of protein per pound of bodyweight. This amount of protein ensures you are getting enough to aid in recovery, but not too much to where you have no room left for essential carbohydrates and fats. The amount of protein typically stays around the same (give or take a little) most days, adjusting carbs and fats based on training intensity.
Next come the carbohydrates! This is where Paleo athletes have the biggest tweak. Carbohydrates are essential for athletes’ energy stores as well as helping muscles recover and rebuild. If you are an athlete, don’t be afraid to add these into your diet – they can significantly help performance and recovery. The amount of carbs will vary depending on the level and intensity of training. The best place to start is by adding Paleo friendly carbs post-training. Things like sweet potatoes (my favorite!), squash, or fruit are great options. Eating these within your optimal window (30-60 minutes after your training) will help repair muscle and glycogen stores. A general rule is at least a 1:1 protein to carbohydrate ration post training. However, some athletes and training sessions may require closer to a 1:2 ratio. For light to moderate training sessions, I typically keep my ratio at about 1:1. For long, high intensity training sessions I bump up those carbs to refuel my glycogen stores and optimal recovery.
Fats and Veggies
And you can’t forget about fats and veggies! Although they aren’t going to be pulled from for the primary source of fuel during high intensity training or muscle recovery, fats are key. They help provide long lasting energy, keep you full, and are essential for living. Don’t skip on those veggies either. They will provide fiber, fullness, and tons of vitamins and minerals. Add in more fats on the days you have lighter training and fewer carbs and try and keep them a bit lower in the meals around your training. Include ad many veggies as you can throughout the day, the more color the better! Different colors will help you get all the different vitamins and minerals your body needs, especially as an athlete.
Power versus Endurance Athletes
As we discussed above, depending on the type of training you are doing, adjusting macronutrients accordingly is key. This goes hand in hand with different types of athletes. Power athletes train differently than endurance athletes do – therefore having different nutritional needs.
- Power Athletes (Olympic/Power lifters, sprinters): Most meals should have a foundation of quality protein, building upon that with healthy fats and veggies. Paleo friendly carbs are great additions throughout the week, but within moderation. Most of these carbs should be added directly after the higher intensity training sessions.
- Endurance Athlete (long distance running, biking, swimming, etc.): Similar to power athletes, meals should be built upon quality protein, healthy fats, and veggies. What is different with endurance athletes is an increased quantity of Paleo friendly carbs, especially post training. In order to restore glycogen stores, 50-100g carbs post training is recommended for optimal recovery.
What Does This Look Like?
Here are a couple of examples of what I would eat in a day – one example from when I used to run marathons and the other from when I turned more of an Olympic lifting leaf.
- Meal 1 (pre-run): Veggie scramble with a piece of fruit
- Meal 2 (post-run): 1 scoop grass-fed protein with a large sweet potato
- Meal 3: Grilled chicken stir fry with broccoli, butternut squash, and bell peppers
- Meal 4: Small handful of jerky, almonds, and berries
- Meal 5: Ground beef, pasta sauce, and spinach over spaghetti squash
- Meal 1 (pre-training): 2 eggs with a small handful of berries
- Meal 2 (post-training): Grilled steak with greens and a small sweet potato
- Meal 3: Chicken salad with celery, onion, avocado, and mustard
- Meal 4: Sardines, raw veggies, and a handful of nuts
- Meal 5: Chicken skewers with avocado, tomato, cucumber salad
If you take a deeper look, when I used to train as an endurance athlete, my Paleo friendly carb intake was higher. I incorporated fruits, sweet potatoes, and squashes into my meals – with the biggest portion directly after training. As a power athlete my carb intake was limited to directly before and after training, focusing on proteins, fats, and veggies the rest of the day.
The Paleo diet has its place no matter who you are. With a few minor tweaks, it is great for anyone from the mom on-the-go to a CrossFit Games athlete. Sometimes it takes a little trial and error to find what works best for you. And as you can see from my examples at two different points in my life, training is ever changing which means so is nutrition. Don’t be afraid to play around and make it the perfect Pale-YOU diet!
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