The Caveman Diet and High Intensity Athletics

Tom Davis

Last updated: November 21, 2005

New: I've just discovered a great book on this. The information below is true, but sketchy. The book goes into detail on everything. The title is: The Paleo Diet for Athletes, by Loren Cordain and Joe Friel. If the stuff below interests you, you'll probably like the book.

The caveman did not own running shoes or a bicycle and just staying alive probably provided all the exercise he needed.

On the other hand, other than sprinting away from the sabre-tooth tiger, he probably didn't sprint much, and never did 20 mile runs for time.

Thus if you insist on engaging in such stupid activities, there's no reason to believe that the caveman diet is the right thing, and I have convinced myself that it is not. I was training for a marathon after a pretty decent caveman breakfast and I totally crashed after about only an hour of running.

So I did some research and experiments on myself and have a method that seems to work well. It's my "Doctor Atkins and Mister Hyde" approach. When I am exercising heavily, I do almost the exact opposite of what I've recommended on all these pages. I eat stuff with the highest possible glycemic index and load and I eat as much as I can digest for a lot of the bicycle ride or run.

This only applies to relatively long workouts of at least an hour. Also, for very long workouts, consider taking in some protein with the sugar. There are some sports drinks like "Accelerade" that provide carbs:protein in a 4:1 ratio.

When I return from a long workout, I also usually eat some high glycemic food during the twenty minutes afterwards to help rebuild any glycogen stores that were burned during the run. It's also a good idea to consume some lean protein at this time, particularly protein with lots of branched-chain amino acids (BCAAs). Egg white and whey protein are great sources of these. What's going on is that after a workout, you've damaged your muscles, and during recovery, they are repaired and even improved. They need protein for building/repair, and worse, just after a workout when your body's short of fuel, it may burn additional protein from your muscles in that first half hour or so.

Apparently, there's some experimental evidence to indicate that this is a good idea. If you put a guy on a treadmill and while he's running, feed him pure glucose and take regular samples of of his blood to test insulin levels, they stay rock solid during the effort. If you put the same guy on a couch in front of a TV with a remote control and feed him pure glucose his insulin will spike like crazy, just as you'd expect.

There must be two different pathways for sugar metabolism, one mediated by insulin and the other not. I suspect that the one that's not is less energetically efficient, but is more efficient in terms of the time it takes to make the sugar energy available.

I've heard of people with such bad diabetes that they wear insulin pumps that throughout the day slowly infuse insulin into their bloodstreams, and some of them are crazy enough to run marathons. But a standard technique, apparently, is to turn off the pump at the starting gun and then to turn it back on as you cross the finish line. During the race, the sugar you eat requires no insulin to use.

My favorite foods for this change all the time, but I currently like the Clif shots, Gu, Gatorade (or other sports drinks), and medjool dates. The dates are the best -- little dried fruits that taste great and have a glycemic index that's off the charts! Some people love the little boiled red potatoes. These also have a huge glycemic index and load.

Remember also that for long, high-intensity effort, you will sweat out a lot of salt, so if you do a lot of this, you probably don't need to worry as much about general salt intake as non-athletes do. Also remember that sodium is easy to get, but take care that you get the potassium, too. A lot of the sports drinks have almost no potassium, and that's because it doesn't taste all that good.

So the bottom line of what works for me is this. I eat two or three dates just before I start to run/ride. As I run/ride, I drink Gatorade, eat Clif shots or Gu for the entire race. At the end, I may eat some more dates, or anything else that's got a lot of sugar, but only in the first ten minutes after the workout. And this only applies to long workouts of over an hour.

Another interesting tidbit about the caveman diet and sports is that after being on the diet for about six months, I took one of the VO2 Max tests to see the relationships between my oxygen use, heart rate, and effort. From the data gathered, it is possible to look at various graphs and determine at what point my body begins to obtain most of its power from carbohydrates instead of fats as the wattage I put out was gradually increased.

The guy who administered the test said that he'd never seen anyone who burned fats for such a long time before switching to carbs for power. He tests mostly serious athletes, most of whom do not use a caveman diet, so he certainly hadn't seen many people like me. Of course I don't know if this is a good thing or a bad thing, but at least it's a thing.

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