We all know that there is no shortage of diets or eating plans in the world today – there is even a Cookie Diet! The options are especially plentiful when it comes to fitness and active lifestyles. Virtually every diet and nutrition regimen boasts a variety of benefits for athletes and active individuals. Increased energy, improved focus, toning, shaping, sculpting, muscle mass – many diets claim to do it all. There are even diets tailored to specific sports and activities.
But what eating plan is best for mountain biking? What diet should avid riders follow to meet mountain biking’s unique challenges and energy requirements and ensure they’re providing their active bodies with sustained energy throughout the ride? No, it’s not the Cookie Diet. It’s the paleo diet.
In this article, we will examine the paleo diet – what it is, what it entails, and the benefits of this unique eating plan for active mountain bikers. You’ll be surprised to learn that going paleo is not a significant or difficult undertaking, but it is a life-changing one. In fact, you may already be incorporating some paleo principles into your current everyday diet and routines. Here we’ll help you take the leap and the first step toward habits that will enhance your riding and overall health.
What is Paleo?
To answer this question, let’s go back in time…
The Paleolithic diet – most commonly shortened to the “paleo diet” and also known as the caveman diet or stone-age diet – is a diet that consists largely of vegetables, fruits, nuts, roots, meat, and organ meats while omitting grain, dairy and legumes. The diet is based on the foods that early humans ate prior to the Neolithic Revolution, or the period in which humans transitioned from a society based on hunting and gathering to one centered on agriculture.
Grant Hill – NBA All-Star, Olympic gold medalist and paleo follower – sums it up well when he says, “As a rule of thumb, if it was here a million years ago, then I tend to eat it. If it wasn’t, then I try to stay away from it.”
Those on the paleo diet eat lots of fats for energy, protein to build muscle and maintain health, and limited amounts of carbohydrates for vitamins and minerals.
The paleo diet works to “switch your body from burning carbohydrates to stored body fat as fuel.” It is important to note that paleo is generally not a carb-counting or calorie-counting eating plan. Rather, it is a primal and methodical approach to nutrition.
So where does the term “Paleo” come from?
Well as the aliases “caveman” and “stone-age” suggest, the Paleolithic diet is based mainly on foods presumed to have been available to Paleolithic humans – again, think cavemen. The Paleolithic period of human history “extends from the earliest known use of stone tools…initially, 2.6 million years ago, to the end of the Pleistocene around 10,000 BP.” So, a really long time ago.
Why is it better to eat like a caveman?
As Nerd Fitness states in its “Beginner’s Guide to the Paleo Diet,” back in the days of the cavemen, grains weren’t part of the diet. Robb Wolf – former research biochemist, New York Times bestselling author and paleo evangelist – uses the example of a 100-yard football field to illustrate the shift in our eating habits. The first 99.5 yards are how long Homo-Sapiens spent as hunter-gatherers. As they became very effective hunters and gatherers, human bodies adapted to that lifestyle over thousands of years. The last half-yard of the field reflects the period after the agricultural revolution, where “our diet has shifted (but our genetics haven’t).”
The hallmark of the agricultural revolution is grain. In his “Definitive Guide to Grains,” Paleo guru Mark Sisson explains that grains are not friendly to our bodies. Grains are made up of carbohydrates and those carbs are converted to glucose, a type of sugar that our bodies use for energy and other functions. Excess glucose that is not used by our bodies is stored as fat.
So, society and the way in which we produce and process food has changed, but our bodies and basic makeup as humans has not. Paleo represents a return to the diet for which our bodies are designed.
How does it work day-to-day?
Cycling coach, Joe Friel, regularly recommends the paleo diet for athletes. Friel and co-author Loren Cordain – founder of the paleo diet movement – explain that “The essential dietary principles of The Paleo Diet for Athletes are straightforward: you can eat as much lean meat, poultry, seafood, fresh fruit and veggies as you like.” Foods that are not paleo-friendly include “cereal grains, dairy products, high-glycemic fruits and vegetables, legumes, alcohol, salty foods, fatty meats, refined sugars, and nearly all processed foods.”
Peter Glassford, a Canadian cycling coach and Trek Canada Mountain Bike Race Team member, follows the paleo diet for both himself and the athletes he coaches…and he gets results. Peter is the Canadian record holder at the Leadville 100 – one of the most grueling and demanding mountain bike races in the world – and the 2012 Ontario provincial cross country champion. He explains that the paleo approach is “about maximizing nutrition, which in turn maximizes performance.” Glassford recommends that those who begin to follow the paleo diet “Start thinking about your food in terms of nutrient density…what do you get for each calorie?”
Why is Paleo the ideal diet for mountain bikers, and what benefits can you expect?
As the Ultimate Paleo Guide explains, paleo offers a number of benefits to athletes from “high-quality proteins which contain essential amino acids for recovery” to complex carbohydrates that “aid in energy stores and the recovery/building of muscles.” Healthy fats also provide much-needed energy and the loads of fresh vegetables in the paleo diet offer some great health benefits as well.
Lee Agur explains that the increased alkaline that comes with the paleo diet also fosters muscle growth and fights off illness and infections. He says that a more alkaline pH is the goal, as that was the norm “back in the day” (way back in the day…the Paleolithic period). Acidic foods such as grains, cheese, dairy and salty processed foods cause “the body to think it is out of balance (pH wise).” When the body perceives it is out of balance, it uses essential minerals to “restore equilibrium.” The large servings of fruits and vegetables in the paleo diet counteract this effect and increase alkalinity, which makes the body less susceptible to colds and other ailments. The healthier you are, the more you can train and ride.
Paleo helps moderate hormones in the body, such as insulin, growth hormone, etc. These hormones are key to keeping the body lean, strong, energetic and healthy.
Paleo can also get your juices flowing and put you in a positive head space for your ride. According to Esther Blum, author of “Cavewomen Don’t Get Fat: The Paleo Chic Diet for Rapid Results,” beginning the day with a breakfast of meat and nuts – a common meal for paleo devotees – raises levels of “feel-good hormones,” such as dopamine and serotonin. Blum says, “You’ll feel energized, focused, and ready to ride.”
Some other benefits of the paleo diet reported among top athletes include: reduced inflammation, decreased soreness in joints and muscles following a workout or competition, and increased focus.
Important considerations for the Paleo mountain biker
While paleo is an ideal diet for the avid mountain biker, it is important to formulate your paleo approach in a manner that aligns with, and is appropriate for, your level of activity. More simply, as Stupid Easy Paleo puts it, “don’t go out for a five-hour mountain bike ride and only bring water and one Lara bar.”
Steph Gaudreau of Stupid Easy Paleo stresses the importance of knowing your metabolic demand of a particular activity in order to adequately fuel. As she says, “A 3+ hour mountain bike ride/race is going to probably necessitate a supplementation of protein while a set of short intervals will not.”
She advises that one of the biggest mistakes paleo athletes make is “eating too low carb, running down their glycogen stores and feeling flat and worn out.”
Gaudreau offers a good, general rule of thumb: pre-workout fuel should be a mix of fat and protein while post-workout recovery should be protein and carbs.
You don’t have to go too far to find examples of accomplished cyclists who follow the paleo diet. Here are a couple who have seen “going primal” pay off:
Greg Parham, Elite Mountain Bike Racer – An accomplished rider who has won several 24-hour races, Greg attributes much of his success to paleo. Some of the paleo benefits he lists include: better sleep, recovery and greater endurance.
David Zabriske, Professional Cyclist/Tour de France Competitor – According to an article in Men’s Journal, Zabriske eats nearly 4,000 calories per day since switching to paleo – significantly less than the 6,000+ consumed by many other pro cyclists. David can compete at a high level with fewer calories because he is using his own stored body fat for fuel, which “decreases the calories you need to eat.” According to Stay Fit Central, his diet breaks down to “roughly 32% protein, 54% fat, and 15% carbohydrates, daily” – more than double the average fat and one quarter the carb intake of most cyclists! His results since following the paleo diet speak for themselves – he dropped his body weight from 168 to 154 pounds in just a few months, while his dead lift max almost doubled from 150 to 245 pounds!
What does Paleo eating look like pre-ride, mid-ride and post-ride?
We cover nutrition at all stages of a ride in more depth in a previous article (check it out here), but here are some paleo tips and options to fuel you up for a ride, keep you going and help ensure healthy recovery when you’re off the trail.
When using the paleo approach to fueling up for a ride, try some of the of the following foods:
Wild meat – e.g. bison
For sustained energy the paleo way, Bicycling’s Allison Young recommends the following do-it-yourself energy supplements in lieu of “packaged fuel.”
2 Tbsp raw organic honey
2 Tbsp raw almond butter, apple butter, or 1/2 banana
1 tsp lemon juice
1 cup coconut water
1/2 cup pomegranate juice
1/2 cup water
1/8 teaspoon organic sea salt
1,000 mg carnitine tartrate
(found in vitamin and health food stores)
Riders following the paleo diet should stick to protein and carbs after a ride. Stupid Easy Paleo recommends also avoiding powders and shakes in order to get the necessary recovery nutrients from real food. A few carb and protein recommendations from Stupid Easy Paleo include:
Baked yam/sweet potato
Fruit/vegetable blends – essentially baby food in a squeezable pouch, but don’t forget to check the label for non-paleo-friendly ingredients
Dates or other dried fruit
Fresh fruit – e.g. banana
Chunks of meat or ground beef
Overall do’s and don’ts
Dr. Loren Cordain offers the following tips.
Grass-fed or free-range meats
Fresh fruits and vegetables
Nuts and seeds
Healthful oils – olive, walnut, flaxseed, macadamia, avocado, coconut
Legumes (including peanuts)
Refined vegetable oils
Typical daily meals
Dr. Cordain provides the following examples of what daily meals might look like for someone on the paleo diet:
Free-range eggs scrambled in olive oil with chopped parsley
Grapefruit or any fresh fruit in season
Herbal tea (coffee is discouraged in the paleo diet)
Sliced lean beef
Fresh apricots or seasonal fruit
Caesar salad with chicken, olive oil and lemon dressing
Tomato and avocado slices
Grilled, skinless turkey breast
Steamed broccoli, carrots and artichoke
Bowl of fresh blueberries, raisins and almonds
One glass of white wine or mineral water (alcohol is discouraged in the paleo diet, but can be consumed very sparingly based on the 85/15 rule)
How do I get started? Tips for the beginner
Check the label – Look for keywords like “skinless” when purchasing poultry and “free-range” or “grass-fed” in relation to meat.
Don’t give up, use the 85/15 rule to stay in the game – Don’t become overwhelmed as you begin paleo or frustrated by your new regimen. Remember Dr. Loren Cordain’s 85/15 rule, which allows you to eat three non-paleo meals per week.
Start slow and don’t push it – Give your body time to adjust to “being fueled by something other than glucose from the carbs.” Keep your rides short initially – maybe one-hour rides at moderate speeds and less technical or demanding terrain – until your body can acclimate. It’s also important for you to have time to learn how your body works and reacts under a new eating plan.
Increase the fuel for big days on the bike – Once you’ve adjusted to paleo, it might be necessary and/or wise to add some “safe starches,” such as rice or sweet potato for longer rides. Add these starches in sparingly, but the extra fuel can make a difference on those long rides.
Want to learn more?
Check out these books and resources for more information on the paleo diet and its benefits to overall health, weight loss and active lifestyles:
The Paleo Diet – By Dr. Loren Cordain, this is the book that started it all
The Paleo Diet for Athletes – Required reading for any active body interested in the paleo diet
Thepaleodiet.com – Dr. Loren Cordain’s website – a great resource for the paleo newbie and longtime devotee alike
Stupid Easy Paleo – Recipes, practical advice, how-to videos, podcasts and more
Mark’s Daily Apple – Daily paleo news, updates and tips from Paleo guru, Mark Sisson
Primal Blueprint – A popular paleo book by Mark Sisson
The Paleo Solution: The Original Human Diet – A New York Times bestseller and a good paleo read by Robb Wolf
Robbwolf.com – Lots of paleo content and updates
Mountain biking is a thrilling sport that both challenges and rewards riders. Top athletes in any sport will tell you that training, weightlifting and practice are all critical and necessary to perform. But to continue to perform at a high level and maintain an advantage, proper nutrition and eating habits are crucial. Diet is often the “x factor” that separates the best from the rest.
The paleo diet is the edge you need to ride your best and maintain strength, energy, focus and control on the trail. We challenge you to give it a try – we think you’ll be impressed with the results. Take control of your health and take your riding to the next level with the paleo diet.
So keep in touch and see you out on the trails.
About The Author
Like any sport, bicycling involves risk of injury and damage. By choosing to ride a bicycle, you assume the responsibility for that risk, so you need to know — and to practice — the rules of safe and responsible riding and of proper use and maintenance. Proper use and maintenance of your bicycle reduces risk of injury.