Back in 2011, famous Primal Blueprint guru Mark Sisson wrote a post about how he’d train for a marathon. Mark’s no novice when it comes to distance running: He is in fact a former marathoner! Mark’s conversion to his lower-carb, paleo-style “Primal” approach to eating and lifestyle is in no small part a byproduct of his experience and life lessons from training to race the longest run.
Sisson of course generally discourages any sort of endurance training, prefering a more biologically natural sprint-and-saunter approach to outdoor activity akin to our prehistorical ancestors. Like many paleo-minded humans he’s more into occasional high intensity low duration activity surrounded by lots of regular but very low intensity activity.
This level of activity is of course a better fit for a lower carb Primal style diet, as endurance training traditionally requires a very high carb intake… intake that Sisson’s experience and research taught him can be damaging to your long term health.
However, a lack of carbohydrates can compromise the quality of your endurance workouts, let alone your race performances, since your body typically utilizes glycogen for extended endurance activity.
Sisson historically has preferred to avoid endurance training entirely and focus instead on what he’s found to be a more long-term sustainable lifestyle. His 2011 piece was more of a hypothetical, ‘If I had to train as a Primal disciple to run a marathon this is how I would approach it.’ Sisson’s piece definitely hinted that he had far more intel behind it, and that there was probably a book in him on the subject.
Well, eventually he did write that book. Primal Endurance by he and Brad Kearns spelled out the ideal combination of the Primal diet and lifestyle with the ideal training approach to maximize your performance in a marathon without the usage of carbohydrates and their glycogen.
I’ve given the book a gradual read over time. While a lot of it reads like sales-letter filler for the Primal Blueprint (which seems superfluous since you probably aren’t reading the book unless you already own, have read and believe in the Primal Blueprint), the deeper material is a compelling and well-written approach to training as a Primal endurance athlete.
Sisson and Kearns of course are hardly the only believers that endurance athletes can succeed with a lower-carb approach. Many ultra-runners have sworn by training low-carb to train their bodies to maximize fat usage in their excessively long races. Other non-ultra runners have sworn by training low-carb as well (I even know a few!).
I’ve long since argued (as many do) that accepting this lifestyle and swearing off most carbohydrates does to some degree limit your capability as a distance runner. In principle, I still find that to be true.
But there’s no denying that long term the traditional endurance diet and lifestyle does take a toll on your hormones and to an accordant degree your health. I recall half marathon champ Ryan Hall being forced to retire in his early 30’s due to wanting to start a family and his training lifestyle compromising his body’s ability to do so. Sure enough, once Hall stopped running, his health rebounded.
I do think there’s a middle ground, mostly that you train in cycles and that you take breaks from training and the diet it demands. However, Sisson and Kearns argue that their recommended lifestyle can be practiced year round, in and out of training, without damaging your race performance.
You can follow the Primal Endurance tome to the letter and probably find success. But it’s also somewhat restrictive. Sisson makes it clear you’re expected to eat clean, virtually all the time. And sure, ideally, we should. But that’s also very hard for most of us to do for all sorts of reasons I won’t get into now.
However, on a more general level, I want to illustrate that you can in fact succeed at endurance training on a lower-carb diet, rather than suffer or crash. While not as specific and restrictive as the Primal Blueprint, it does require adherence to some general principles. I want to go into those:
– Low carb rather than no carb. Presuming you count calories, you should give yourself permission to consume 100-150g in a day, especially on hard training days. That’s still less than most people consume, and certainly way less than the 400-500+ grams per day that endurance athletes consume. But this at least ensures your glycogen stores aren’t cold-turkey tapped as you slowly convert to endurance training in a low-carb lifestyle. This also allows for key vitamin-rich tubers like potatoes (which BTW are conditionally approved Primal foods per Sisson).
– It’s important before training to undergo a preliminary detoxification/conversion period where your diet shifts to the desired food. If you’re considering switching to a Paleo-style or lower-carb diet, you’re best off training regularly but easy during a couple of months while you get accustomed to the diet. Combine it with some brief, high intensity exercise a couple times a week, e.g. one full strength training session and one brief speedwork session. Only after you’ve gotten comfortable with the diet on that basic level should you begin serious training.
– The lower your carb intake, the cleaner your diet needs to be. If you eat 100-150g as I recommend, you probably have a lot of latitude on processed food. However, if the goal is fat-adaption, and you want to go full keto/Paleo and reduce to 50g a day or similar… then it becomes paramount that you eliminate all processed meals. The additives in processed food make adherence very difficult, and they can mess even further with your hormonal processes and reactions than the reduction in carbs already will. If you’re eating nothing but meat and greens, you pretty much need to go all-in on unprocessed meat and unprocessed greens. Frozen Stouffer’s salisbury steaks won’t cut it.
– If you are ever going to cheat on the plan and eat processed anything… any exceptions or cheat meals on that front must be buffered by clean snacks/meals. The meal before and the meal after must be clean. It’s also important that any cheat meals never be the first or last meal of the day.
The key reason to care about this is sleep, both heading into bedtime and coming out of sleep. The first meal of the day sets your hormonal tone for the day, so this meal should be clean. The final meal of the day affects how you sleep. Any interference from additives or a lack of important vitamins interferes with your ability to get important sleep.
– Regardless of your chosen plan’s criteria, you need to eat a minimum of 1.0 g/lb (2.2g/kg) protein per day. Granted, on these diets, that’s usually easy to do since most of your allowable foods are protein-rich meat.
– Sleep. Everyone says sleep is important, of course. But for Primal Endurance to work, you absolutely need to get 8+ hours of sleep every night. Nap when applicable. You really can’t do this kind of diet AND endurance-train without good sleep.
– You also need to drink a healthy quantity of clean water, whether filtered or distilled. You need at least 32+ oz per day, not including water from any other food or drink. Yes, many would recommend 64 or more ounces, but in my experience you’re okay with at least 32oz (if you eat a lot of vegetables, don’t forget that many of them contain water as well!). A good rule of thumb is to start and end the day with a glass of water, then however much water you want to drink in-between is up to you.
– Two vitamins you absolutely need enough of: Potassium and magnesium. Among other effects, these have a substantial effect on your ability to sleep, which again is a paramount key to this approach’s success.
Potassium: You pretty much get these from vegetables and avocados. If you’re allowing yourself tubers, potatoes are a marvelous source. One key: Only get potassium from food. Potassium supplements and drinks are mostly garbage.
Magnesium: If you’re eating meat and vegetables you’re getting a decent quality of magnesium, though to be honest you should take a citrate supplement to ensure you get enough every day. A Calcium-Magnesium Citrate combo supplement is usually your best bet (citrate digests well; magnesium oxide is basically glorified sand and your digestive tract will treat it accordingly… ditto calcium carbonate).
– The only fats you should ingest are healthy fats: Coconut/olive oil, butter, fat from unprocessed meat, avocados, or nuts. Any other cooking oil is basically poison that undoes the positive effects of everything else you eat.
– Do virtually all of your aerobic training at easy intensity. Sisson and Kearns swear by the teachings of Phil Maffetone, who recommends the extreme of doing virtually all your training at no more than 75% of your maximum heart rate, a low-moderate aerobic effort.
The idea is to accustom your body to utilizing more fat by training at a lower intensity, and gradually get faster at that lower intensity. That will eventually become your marathon pace. It also prevents burnout by avoiding the training stress of moderate to high aerobic efforts. You still do some high-intensity anaerobic training in brief bursts at times, but they want you to do any extended training at low intensity.
– Regular, moderated, high intensity strength training. Along with maintaining your anaerobic power, the occasional bursts of high intensity training also kick start hormonal production that is supposed to improve your strength, recovery, and other functions over the long run.
– Focused, periodic consumption of clean carbohydrates. Brolifters practice this approach: You eat more carbohydrates before and after your most intense periods of exercise when you need them most, then restrict them otherwise when you’re not as intensely active. So perhaps you eat your tubers, or possibly even some fruit, right before those intense lifting sessions, or before/during/after your longest runs. Your body utilizes the infusion of glycogen when it’s needed. You avoid taking in much else otherwise, leaving the body to utilize fat and whatever ketones are incidentally produced during lower-intensity activity or rest.
– Follow a very long training cycle, with a gradual buildup in training to the desired distance. If you read Primal Endurance you will see a very long training cycle lasting months, with an extended buildup period and shorter cycles of high intensity buildup training built around your desired races. I think this is a sound approach to training with such a diet. You want to get used to and be fully accustomed to training on a higher fat, lower carb approach, then ramp up the intensity in shorter training bursts. This also allows you to take in more carbohydrate during a shorter term, if you find you ultimately need them to maximize performance.
– If running a marathon or 50K you absolutely must cover the goal distance during a single workout in training. I think it’s important to see for yourself in training if in fact you can cover the needed distance relying mostly on fat. You’ll find out the hard way if you can’t, before a race, and can adjust your intake accordingly. And since you’ll be training at a low intensity all the way, I think covering the full distance is do-able. Obviously, on these longest training runs, you want to bring snacks and consume after no more than 2 hours, every hour until finished. Your hunger and other nutritional needs during long runs will inform how you need to fuel during races.
Any race of marathon distance or longer requires a special diet pattern similar to workouts. Some short and basic tips (since this is already getting kind of long for what was a basic primer):
– Hydrate well (40-80 oz/day) in the week leading up to the race. One glass of water before bed the night before the race.
– You want to eat an easily digestible snack and a cup of water within 3 hours before the race. Get up early to do it if you have to.
– Carbs are fair game within 2 hours of the start/end of the race, before and after. Of course, it’s up to you how much to consume, and again a longest run in training should show you how much you’ll need.
– Don’t drink more than a cup of water in the 1-2 hours before the race. This is more general advice than anything: You don’t want to be in line for the toilets right before the race.
– Consume something once every hour you are racing. Have a reserve digesting in your stomach, just in case your available fat and glycogen isn’t quite enough down the stretch.
– Eat a protein rich snack within 30 minutes of the race, to hasten recovery. Again, this is largely general advice, but it’s super important for a lower-carb athlete.
– Eat a full protein rich meal within 2 hours after the race, to hasten recovery. Again, this is largely general advice, but it’s super important for a lower-carb athlete.
– In all post-race meals, emphasize beta carotene rich vegetables. Tomatoes and carrots are the best. Beta carotene fights inflammation and in turn hastens recovery from the damage of the longest run.
Hopefully, this advice can serve anyone who insists on training low-carb as an endurance athlete. And of course if interested you should check out a copy of Primal Endurance. The physical copy is rather pricey, so I do recommend the Kindle version.