Loren Cordain’s book “The Paleo Diet” was written as a template to address inconsistencies that he perceived were caused by evolution, namely farming and processing. He wrote it for people trying to lose weight. He absolutely 100% did not write it for athletes, I know this because he wrote a follow up that addressed athletes called “The Paleo Diet for Athletes”. Now I realize as I say this there will be a bunch of people that will say that they are familiar with the book yet numbers do not lie, the first one was a hit, the second one not so much. I say this because there has been a lot of talk within the crossfit community recently related to sugar. The problem becomes not what the reality is but what people perceive as the reality. Does the Paleo Diet allow for some fruit? Absolutely but fruit has sugar in it. How about Paleo starches like sweet potatoes and squash? They also break down into sugar in your blood stream in the form of glucose. You might think that the messages of Gary Taubes or Dr. Robert Lustig are open for interpretation but for many people simple is right. Eat no sugar, that’s simple. I mean who has the time to research all this stuff?
That answer is, “I do”.
I am also pretty sure I can keep it simple too.
There really are two kinds of athletes doing Crossfit for this example
Many people Crossfit as a way to lose weight or change their body composition positively, this typically involves some manipulation of bodily fat or muscle, so this is the first group. That is where the Paleo diet comes in, when combined with Crossfit many people are able to reach their body composition goals. I have always been a fan of Mark Sisson’s carbohydrate curve, more active equals more carbs, less active, less carbs. Pretty simple, that is why so many people like it. Eating mostly whole foods at an overall energy deficit and exercising with intensity gets results. It’s easy for Crossfitter’s to dismiss the “haters” that make fun of the Paleo diet and Crossfit because it works, six packs do not lie. I will come back to this point in a bit.
One mistake I see a lot when it comes to Crossfitting and Dieting is that people restrict carbohydrates to a dangerous level. Ketogenic Diets or diets similar to the first phase of Atkins where you stay in ketosis with extreme carb restriction so your body needs to convert protein to glucose through a process called glucogenesis, seem like a good option because restricting carbs is almost a mantra at this point. When that stops working, people start eating less to see continued improvement (I’m looking at you ladies). Fat mobilization is a tricky game, you need to be in a deficit to lose fat but if you stay in a deficit too long the effects on your hormones are negative. This is an example where more is not better, in fact, it’s worse. This really applicable for athletes doing high intensity work like Crossfit. First your body composition goals are compromised but in the end you never reach your performance potential.
Workout of the Day Killers
The next group is the “WOD killers” as we know them in Crossfit. This group is always at the top of the board in terms of performance. These folks are typically pretty ripped too, for anyone that thinks the Crossfit Games competitors are the only ripped people doing Crossfit you are wrong. Crossfit gyms have more six packs than a liquor store. Some of these folks eat pretty clean most of the time but they often have a hidden secret. They eat and drink sugar. They are normally pretty good about not flaunting it because they are already ripped and good performers in the gym, it would add insult to injury to point out that they are not eating celery and chicken breasts all day. In the end abs are muscles, bigger muscles are the result of work capacity. The glucogenesis process does not work fast enough for athletes that need a ready supply of glucose for athletic performance. Energy from fats and proteins will get you far but to reach your performance goals you need carbs as well, specifically those that are good source of glucose. Don’t worry, some of the old Paleo staples like sweet potatoes and squash fit the bill.
That is really one of the secrets to body composition goals. To reach your full potential muscle is a necessary component and carbs/sugars help that along.
Paleo Post Workout nutrition for athletes
I didn’t quote stage 1 and 2 but I will provide the link. The recommendations are more in line with endurance runners, for most Crossfit athletes that are not avoiding fruits and whole food carbs having a standard breakfast with mostly fats and proteins works fine.
“Stage III: Eating Immediately After
In the first 30 minutes postworkout (but only after long and/or highly intense
exercise) and postrace use a recovery drink that contains both carbohydrate and
protein in a 4 to 5:1 ratio. Or you can make your own by blending 16
ounces of fruit juice with a banana, 3 to 5 tablespoons of glucose (such as Carbo
Pro) depending on body size, about 3 tablespoons of protein powder, especially from
egg or whey sources and two pinches of salt. This 30 minute window is critical for
recovery. It should be your highest priority after a hard workout or race.”
Who wrote this blasphemy that spits in the eye of Taubes and Lustig? Loren Cordain did. What gets lost in all of the conversation of “what percentage Paleo are you” is that athletes have different requirements than dieters. At some point in your Crossfit journey you are no longer a dieter, you are an athlete. Athletes need glucose. In the grocery store pure glucose is sold as dextrose, 5 tablespoons of dextrose is 60 grams of straight sugar. Why would Loren Cordain recommend this if it were so toxic? Well, because for athletes it typically is not. The simple answer is that glucose is a toxin in your blood stream, post workout however glucose stores without insulin through proteins call GLUT4′s, that’s right, you don’t need insulin to store glucose. So when you can bring glucose into the muscle cell you remove the potential of it being a toxin and storing in your fat where all the problems start. Post workout is the best time to do this. Let me also suggest that you should still have your sweet potatoes or squash later, you have to think of your post workout meal as a bit of a “bonus meal” because if you try and fit this into your “carbohydrate curve” you are missing the point of how a muscle filled with glycogen (the storage unit for glucose in the muscle) allows you to perform and ultimately gain strength and build muscle.
Incidentally I do not agree with his fruit juice recommendation because it requires too much sugar to get an appropriate amount of glucose and fructose actually prioritizes replenishing liver glycogen first. Though I do like a banana in my shake for this reason, well that and it tastes good.
Paleo Post Workout drink perfected
Crossfitter’s have a huge advantage over strictly endurance or strength athletes because we get the best of both worlds (even if it’s only degrees of both). i designed this stack based on using the fats to blunt the insulin response and slow the digestion for better absorption of both the protein and the glucose (dextrose). Endurance athletes can typically handle the added calories from the fats but their sport does not place a heavy demand on the muscle/skeletal system, this is why endurance athletes typically have a low body fat percentage but are not particularly muscular. Strength athletes have the opposite problem, their sport places a high demand on the muscle/skeletal system but calories need to be limited otherwise they can store excessive fat. Crossfitter’s are sort of a happy medium in this respect, because we do a combination of both. One thing you should know about fats and fat storage is that when your calories are below maintenance you do not store fat as a general rule.
So here is my shake:
30g of Protein from Protein Powder (usually one scoop)
10g of BCAA’s (2 TSP’s)
60g of Dextrose (5 TBSP)
200g of Whole Coconut Milk (half of a can, make sure to be aware of BPA free cans), most often I use Trader Joe’s light and add a TBSP of Medium Chain Triglyceride oil.
1 medium sized banana
Total Calories (gulp) 750 kcal’s. Remember you drink this post workout because that is the best time to get all of these nutrients into your cells. Having this pre-workout will not get a similar response. Also do not be tempted into thinking you need to carb up pre-workout, if you want to have a banana with breakfast or lunch then great but intaking carbs at this point does not address your glycogen stores quite as acutely as the post workout window does.
Confessions of a former fatty
I addressed my issues related to obesity by honing in on body fat reduction. I went from 32% to 20% upping my protein and fats and being more conscious of my carbohydrate intake. That got me to the phase of my journey most Paleo’er refer to as “skinny fat”. I gained a lot of muscle and lost more weight in that process, I got strong in comparison to my former self but trust me the WOD Killers were not shaking in their boots. I was able to add that muscle without a lot of carbs simply because I was not muscular and far from my genetic potential. I got down to 9% body fat before I started on my bulking journey, so avoid the temptation to use this article to justify bad behavior, be honest with yourself, could you still stand to lose some more fat because if so those 750 calories a day will not help you. Like Robb Wolf is fond of saying, I will paraphrase “at some point calories do matter”.
At my lowest I was a small 149.5 pounds, I was athletic but not strong (I wanted every WOD to have HSPU’s or Pull Ups). I now weigh 160 pounds, about half of those gains was muscle. That means I put on 5.5 pounds of fat in the process. If you don’t think that sucks you are wrong, I worked my ass off to lose 63 pounds. In the end though performance is what drives me now. There are certain WOD’s where I miss that little athletic guy but last night I Rx’ed Grace for the first time, it took me 8 minutes and 34 seconds. Once again, the WOD killers did not notice but I did. That added 5 pounds of muscle allowed me to do something I could not do before. Carbs did that. I will probably be dialing in my nutrition for the rest of my life, the WOD killers probably don’t give that too much thought. It’s often a fine line pursuing performance while also being conscious of your past. Just remember that some of those things that contributed to you being fat can now make you more athletic.