Does the Paleo Diet favor endurance athletics?


I hit another milestone yesterday - a training ride on my road bike that easily stretched to 100 miles.

I hadn't ridden my bikes since my race last Saturday but I have been thinking about it quite a bit. As I continue on the path of the Paleo Diet, I have been examining how my body has been responding. I wrote that the symptoms that had been plaguing me (fatigue, stomach issues, throat soreness, sinus infections) have all but disappeared, but the most constant measure I use to evaluate my overall health is how well I am cycling. Am I able to ride several times a week? Am I able to keep pace with other riders? Am I comfortable on the bike and free from too much soreness or discomfort after rides? As I increased my training mileage up to last weekend's event, I have been feeling good on the bike again. Not quite ready to ride with the fastest riders on local group rides but handling distance well and able to stick with guys I used to be as fast as. Last week's race was was a test of sorts, to see what I could accomplish, to see where my cycling body is three months into Paleo. I came away with a couple of observations that surprised me.

First, I survived the race eating only paleo food - nuts, dried fruit, cut whole fruit, smoked turkey breast and vegetables. Without replenishment, your body uses up all it short-term stored energy in a couple of hours. If you feed while you put out an endurance effort (relatively low-load physical efforts longer than two hours), your system can metabolize food fast enough to keep your muscles firing until they fatigue too far and need recovery time to repair and rebuild. In years past, I would have gotten through long endurance rides by refueling with Power Bar energy bars, Gatorade, and sugary treats like Fig Newtons or pastries. Common wisdom was that I needed to continuously take in carbohydrates that my body can quickly convert to glucose to fuel my muscles and there are all kinds of products I can buy supposedly optimized so I can ride longer than the couple of hours our natural energy stores are built to handle. Most of these products contain wheat, rice, and simple sugars. At the race, I rode seven hours on a diet of natural foods and (devoid of all wheat, rice, or simple sugars). And I was perfectly fine. Better than fine.

In fact, secondly, I felt I could have gone longer. What stopped me after seven hours of mountain-biking wasn't that I was nutritionally depleted, but that my muscles were not adapted to the effort. I had some cramping at the six-hour mark and had simply overtaxed my hamstrings on the fifth, fifteen-mile lap. Overall, my body felt fine. My lungs were good. I was still handling the bike well. I was keeping up a reasonable speed. But for the shutdown of my hamstrings, I could have continued to race. Maybe even until the twelve-hour mark (when the race officially ended, longer than I have ever ridden a mountain-bike in my life).

Third, the next day, I was fine. Normally, after a herculean ride, fueled by the factory food from Big Sugar, I would be wiped out, completely depleted. I would expect a raging headache. I would certainly have complete muscle soreness in every part of my body. After most epic rides, I would need a week or so to recover. I would often get sick during that off week. I always thought this was because I really wasn't built for endurance and I was asking too much of my body. Now, I think the truth is that I was just not feeding my body properly and those effects were the inevitable byproduct of forcing my system to handle a large workload fueled with poison.

Something very fundamental is changing in my physiology. Being able to handle the distance of that race without destroying my body on what conventional wisdom says is the wrong fuel was a revelation, a sign that I may just be designed for endurance after all. I needed to test whether the race was fluke.

A friend from the West Valley Cycle Club organized a Thanksgiving Day group ride from (Lifetime Fitness in Goodyear, AZ, an eight-mile ride from my house). A 7:30am start (enough time to ride and be home for Thanksgiving), he planned a 50-mile route. Another friend posted that he was organizing a 5:30 start-time ride to add some mileage to the second ride. If I combined both, as well as the ride to and from my house, I would get in about 80-miles, a good test of my endurance. So I set my alarm, packed a paleo bag of nuts, raisins and a couple of gluten-free Oreo cookies (not paleo but wheat and dairy free, my only concession to the idea I need some simple sugar) and set off early.

The ride was peppy; fast but not too hard. I ate a small handful of the nuts/raisins mix every hour or so starting about fifteen miles in. I drank plenty of water. I rode strong but avoided going crazy hard by riding at the very front of the group. I paid attention to my body and it kept giving me green lights. Halfway through the ride, I started doing the math in my head; by the time I finished the second ride, with the eight miles still left to go home, I would have ridden eighty-five miles or so. So close to one hundred.

A hundred miles is a milestone for most cyclists. Cyclists celebrate the first time they ride over 100 miles in one day as a major accomplishment. Kind of like a marathon is for a runner. For me, a Century attempt (as a one-hundred-mile ride is called) was out sized effort I'd carefully plan and prepare for, out of reach unless I had trained (built up my mileage) specifically. Yet here I was on a Thursday group ride thinking about stretching it beyond the hundred-mile threshold. Crazy right?

On any Century I had ever ridden, the last fifteen miles were akin to physical torture. I remember being so physically exhausted and so nutritionally depleted that it took all i had to just finish the Sea Otter Granfondo, the Tour de Tucson, the Echelon Granfondo Seattle. Yesterday, after riding all day in groups, I braced for a slog in the final miles but amazingly, I felt great in the last fifteen solo miles; as smooth and strong as I had ridden all day.

I made it home with 100.4 miles on my bike computer in five hours and fifteen minutes of ride time (a respectable pace for a cycling Century). I showered and changed and had a normal Thanksgiving; a little sore but free to live a normal life for the day. No headache. No physical debilitation. No energy crash. Amazing.

So why? Why am I suddenly able to handle endurance rides in a way I never have or never thought I would be able to? Why am I now thinking of myself as built for endurance instead of believing I had limits to how long or how far I could ride?

What I think is happening is that the way my body processed energy has greatly improved. I know there is a much more scientific way to explain that the human body has more than one way to metabolize energy to fuel your body but the essence of what I am experiencing tells me that since I am not supplying my body with highly processed sugary, starchy carbs, it is more efficient at the converting long-burn fat energy into fuel. My body is able to use the carb-deficient foods I feed it along with stored fats to produce cleaner-burning energy. Since I'm burning cleaner fuel, my system is not getting clogged up and breaking down. I can sustain endurance efforts longer.

What the Paleo Diet has done for me is to remove what I believed was a physical limitation. I may be capable of longer and more challenging endurance efforts than I previously believed. I want to continue to test myself as a cyclist. I'll take it slow but I am looking ahead to the challenges - the races, the rides, the milestones to be achieved - and I am excited about accomplishing personal growth through cycling. Thank you Paleo Diet.

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