Amidst yesterdays comments the question was asked “Where is the science for the Zone or paleo with regards to improving athletic performance?” as both a scientist and coach I would have normally told this person to go pound sand as my gym is full of people who are performing FAR better with a paleo diet than the standard high-carb, low-fat chow. The reason this person hooked me in however was because they cited a paper that I had already written a rebuttal to for the CFJ. I’m not really game for a re-write to get that piece up to CFJ standards so I’ll just post it here today. A point I’d like to make here that I did not make in the paper is asking for “science” in many instance is like asking for the answer to every question imaginable all at once. Bright-eyed, bushy-tailed undergrads who hear their prof’s say “it must be scientific!” have not hit the real world yet and do not realize the complexity of designing a study that tells you something meaningful vs. just being a means to your next grant. As I make the point below, no one bothered to look at how the Zone has been used with ATHLETES. Instead the guidelines from the weight-loss book were followed, with predictable results. The following is the content of that article:
I received an interesting email several weeks ago that contained a blog post recommending AGAINST the Zone nutritional approach for individuals entering BUD/S or similar, highly demanding selection programs. The author makes his case against the Zone in three basic ways:
1-The Zone is counter to standard endurance nutrition “wisdom”.
2-Scientific investigations of the Zone have produced lack-luster results.
3-The supposed scientific underpinnings of the Zone are inaccurate and thus, the Zone’s efficacy must be called into question. To properly consider the author’s position, let’s take a look at his blog post in it’s full glory:
“Nutrition is a very important factor regarding preparation for SEAL or SWCC selection. Preparation requires proper training, and proper training requires proper fuel selection. It is essential to develop an effective eating strategy to make it through such a physically demanding program as BUD/S, which means learning to eat like an endurance athlete (emphasis mine). SEAL candidates are exposed to nutrition information at the Prep Course in Great Lakes, during BUD/S Orientation, and during SQT – but it’s never too soon to get a handle on nutrition.
Many candidates have heard that the Zone diet is an effective diet to use while preparing for BUD/S. Unfortunately, this is not true and BUD/S candidates are not encouraged to follow the Zone diet. The Zone diet is not considered to be unhealthy, and has been used with good results by people attempting to lose weight. Even for moderately active people or athletes who do not train hard for more than an hour a day, the Zone diet may serve their needs. The problem is that strictly following the Zone diet (40/30/30 per cent of calories from carbohydrates, proteins, and fats) does not provide enough fuel in the form of carbohydrates to support the amount of training necessary to prepare for BUD/S (or get through BUD/S!) The Zone diet has been very effectively marketed, but claims are made based on anecdotes and testimonials (emphasis Caviston), not scientific research. Note: for those who use energy bars or other commercial energy foods, Zone products are fine, though not proven superior to other brands. The caution against the Zone diet is the practice of limiting carbohydrates to 40% of total calories.
Here is a link to an article in the Journal of the American College of Nutrition called “The Zone Diet Phenomenon: A Closer Look at the Science behind the Claims”. From the article’s conclusions: “When properly evaluated, the theories and arguments of popular low carbohydrate diet books like the Zone rely on poorly controlled, non-peer-reviewed studies, anecdotes and non-scientific rhetoric. This review illustrates the complexity of nutrition misinformation perpetrated by some popular press diet books. A closer look at the science behind the claims made for the Zone Diet reveals nothing more than a modern twist on an antique food fad.”
This link is to the abstract of another article in Sports Medicine called “The Zone Diet and Athletic Performance”. The entire article is unavailable without subscription, but the following portion is relevant: “Applying the Zone’s suggested protein and macronutrient distribution in practice, it is clear that it is a low carbohydrate diet by both relative and absolute standards, as well as calorie deficient by any standard. Reliable and abundant peer reviewed literature is in opposition to the suggestion that such a diet can support competitive athletic endeavors, much less improve them.”
I’d like to keep this counter point fairly simple however there is SOME need for technicality. As we will see, if we simply hang our hats on “inputs and outputs” it could be quite easy to dismiss the Zone as a dietary approach which is inadequate to the needs of elite level athletics or for the rigors of various selection programs. First I want to look at the notion that the Zone is NOT appropriate for endurance athletes and the statement on the author’s part that BUD/S candidates should emulate the eating habits of “endurance athletes”. I will then look at the scientific investigations of the Zone and illustrate some laughably simple design flaws, and finally I’ll look at the notion that the Zone is “unscientific” as seems to be implied by the references supplied by the author.
What DO endurance athletes eat?
The author recommends that individuals who wish to succeed at BUD/S should “…learn to eat like an endurance athlete”. The seems like sound advice until one realizes there is NOT solid consensus in what that actually means! One might assume this to mean an exceptionally high carb, grain based diet and in fact this does reflect the diet of many top endurance athletes, but by no means does it reflect ALL endurance athletes. In particular several of the worlds best regarded, highest paid and most successful endurance coaches employ nutritional strategies quite consistent with the Zone. Joe Friel who has authored more than 10 endurance oriented books including: The Triathletes Training Bible, The Cyclists Training Bible, and the Paleo Diet for Athletes (co authored with Prof. Loren Cordain) has coached athletes at the Olympics and World championship level, and was founder and past Chairman of the USA Triathlon National Coaching Commission. Joe is quite successful and highly sought after for his coaching not only of the technical elements of training but also for his nutritional approach. What IS that approach? A moderate carbohydrate, grain-free paleo diet sliced and diced into approximately 30% protein, 30% fat and 40% carbohydrate. Joe DOES alter fueling somewhat during races and to emphasize post workout recovery, but his basic approach is quite at odds with what Caviston seems to imply. Here is an excerpt from the Paleo Diet for Athletes in which Joe describes his experience switching from a standard high carb, low fat, grain based diet to a paleo/Zone diet:
“I have known Dr. Cordain for many years, but I didn’t become aware of his work until 1995. That year we began to discuss nutrition for sports. As a longtime adherent to a very high-carbohydrate diet for athletes, I was skeptical of his claims that eating less starch would benefit performance. Nearly every successful endurance athlete I had known ate as I did, with a heavy emphasis on cereals, bread, rice, pasta, pancakes, and potatoes. In fact, I had done quite well on this diet, having been an All-American age-group duathlete (bike and run), and finishing in the top 10 at World Championships. I had also coached many successful athletes, both professional and amateur, who ate the same way I did.”
“Our discussions eventually led to a challenge. Dr. Cordain suggested I try eating a diet more in line with what he recommended for one month. I took the challenge, determined to show him that eating as I had for years was the way to go. I started by simply cutting back significantly on starches, and replacing those lost calories with fruits, vegetables, and very lean meats.”
“For the first two weeks I felt miserable. My recovery following workouts was slow and my workouts were sluggish. I knew that I was well on my way to proving that he was wrong. But in week three, a curious thing happened. I began to notice that I was not only feeling better, but that my recovery was speeding up significantly. In the fourth week I experimented to see how many hours I could train.
“Since my early 40s (I was 51 at the time), I had not been able to train more than about 12 hours per week. Whenever I exceeded this weekly volume, upper respiratory infections would soon set me back. In Week Four of the “experiment,” I trained 16 hours without a sign of a cold, sore throat, or ear infection. I was amazed. I hadn’t done that many hours in nearly 10 years. I decided to keep the experiment going.”
“That year I finished third at the U.S. national championship with an excellent race, and qualified for the U.S. team for the World Championships. I had a stellar season, one of my best in years. This, of course, led to more questions of Dr. Cordain and my continued refining of the diet he recommended.”
“I was soon recommending it to the athletes I coached, including Ryan Bolton, who was on the U.S. Olympic Triathlon team. Since 1995. I have written four books on training for endurance athletes and have described and recommended the Stone Age diet in each of them. Many athletes have told me a story similar to mine: They have tried eating this way, somewhat skeptically at first, and then discovered that they also recovered faster and trained better.”
There are many points to be learned from Joe’s experience switching from the standard high-carb, low-fat, grain based diet to a Paleo/Zone diet. I’ll get to all those points in due order but the primary point which must be made at this point is that Caviston’s recommendation to “learn how to eat like an endurance athlete” may in fact be true, however it illustrates the need to question whether Caviston actually knows what that MEANS. Elite level coaching is quite far afield from the world of special operations military in a very important point: Coaches are paid based on their success, special operations communities succeed often times INSPITE of their training. In a scenario like BUD/S and SQT there is a supply of highly motivated, driven individuals in EXCESS of need. Given this fact one need merely apply sufficient pressure to weed the herd to sufficient numbers for the current needs. Coaches by contrast live or starve based on the results they achieve for their PAYING clients. Joe Friel and an ever-growing number of coaches at the elite level understand that the high-carb, low-fat diet is NOT the best route to optimum performance, to say nothing of health and longevity. A pithy counter point to Joe’s story and his success with his athletes would likely run along the line: “This is just anecdotal information…we need SCIENCE to show us the way…” As a former research scientist I can see both the wisdom and the fantasy inherent in this sentiment, but since Caviston brought one “scientific” study looking at the Zone in an athletic performance setting we certainly need to address those findings and learn a little about the limitations of Empirical findings devoid of technical understanding.
Blinded by Science
The research Caviston mentions above and the research presented here illustrate a problem with how the Zone has been presented. Dr. Sears has largely neglected to inform the research community that there are effectively TWO different approaches to the Zone. One is a calorie restricted weight loss diet, the other is a eucaloric diet which is moderate in carbohydrate and protein, higher in fat and perfectly suited to the needs of athletes. This lack of education on Dr. Sears part (in my opinion) has made it difficult for what little research which has been directed at the Zone to have any meaning. In the above examples the researchers were subjecting athletes not only to dramatically reduced carbohydrate intake (an issue we will look at in a moment) but also to INADEQUATE calories! We should be shocked if a group of athletes did anything other than perform poorly when they have their primary fuel source changed AND are inadequately fed! To fully understand this situation we need to look at exactly WHAT happens when we feed athletes little to no carbohydrate but ADEQUATE calories. This is actually a much more extreme dietary alteration than the Zone recommends but looking at the metabolic adaptations to different fuel sources will provide a much better perspective for accurately accessing the relative merits of the Zone. This exercise also illustrates an inherent flaw in a purely Empirical approach to fitness and actually, life. If we took the above information at first blush we should, by the laws of empirical observation, categorize the Zone as a performance DAMAGING diet when in fact it is not. Without SOME understanding of human metabolism, origins and the time-course of adaptations to various fuels, we could easily jump to the wrong conclusion.
In this article from the Journal of Nutrition and Metabolism the author reviews the information surrounding the effects of a ketogenic (very low carbohydrate diet) on performance. It is an interesting piece in that it shows historical accounts of investigations into low carbohydrate diets as well as modern metabolic ward studies comparing athletic performance with or without significant dietary carbohydrate. An immediate and compelling finding is that CHANGING from a high carbohydrate to a low carb diet leaves one feeling weak and showing poor performance for as long as 3 weeks. This mirrors Joe Friel’s observation that his training and recovery took a significant hit for the first 3 weeks of his change to a Paleo diet. What we discover is that it takes 3-4 weeks for the fat mobilizing enzymes used during exercise to build to sufficient levels to off-set the low carb diet. Near the end of the Nutrition and Metabolism paper we find an interesting summary of the findings:
“Both observational and prospectively designed studies support the conclusion that submaximal endurance performance can be sustained despite the virtual exclusion of carbohydrate from the human diet….Therapeutic use of ketogenic diets should not require constraint of most forms of physical labor or recreational activity, with the one caveat that anaerobic (ie, weight lifting or sprint) performance is limited by the low muscle glycogen levels induced by a ketogenic diet, and this would strongly discourage its use under most conditions of competitive athletics.”
Boldings were my emphasis.
What we can draw from this is that fairly high level aerobic activity may be carried out in a properly adapted individual, even under ketogenic conditions. The need for carbohydrate for sprint/high intensity efforts remains fairly consistent, however this illustrates in interesting phenomena: elite endurance athletes utilize a relatively higher percent of fat for fuel at any given work output vs. less advanced athletes. Other considerations such as reduced inflammation due to dietary alterations undoubtedly play a role in performance and recovery but are outside the scope of this paper. These topics are thoroughly investigated in the CrossFit Nutrition Certification.
What can be safely inferred from this information is a moderate carbohydrate intake, coupled with adequate time to adapt to fat as a primary fuel source, is a viable alternative to the standard high carb, low-fat approach. Not only is it viable as a means of athletic fueling, it is obviously a better option for long-term health and wellness.
The final point I will address is the link Caviston provided which attempts to discredit the Zone by tackling perceived inconsistencies in the science Dr. Barry Sears uses to describe how the Zone works. The paper Caviston uses to this end is quite technical so I will keep my point brief: The authors of that paper inaccurately characterize the claims made by Dr.Sears. The authors imply Dr. Sears describes “good” or “bad” eicosanoids (hormone like molecules which have powerful effects in the body) as all or nothing propositions when this is simply not the case. Dr. Sears makes it clear that he is making some broad generalizations to simplify a VERY complex chunk of information. He does this in a way that conveys the essence of what people need to know: Insulin control + omega 3/omega 6 fatty acid balance= optimized health and performance.
I’m not sure if Caviston’s position on the Zone is legitimately one of ignorance or this is simply the latest in a trend of standing against anything that CrossFit recommends. It is intriguing to me when any organization or individual dogmatically defends what is ultimately an indefensible position. Professor Loren Cordain made the following observation:
“1) If, in human networks, the nutritional message is incorrect or partially correct, then 2) the message will eventually fail and fizzle out because it simply doesn’t work in the majority of people , or 2) If, in human networks, the nutritional message is indeed correct in the majority of people then, 3) people will find it and will adopt it (whether or not they are able to sustain it), and pass it on. Herein lies the beauty and power of this concept — success breeds success.”
This observation offers significant insight in why CrossFit has gained rapid and lasting acceptance in a variety of communities: It works. The training, the nutrition, the whole enchilada. Over time our understanding of this technology will grow and our ability to help people and affect change will grow in lock-step with this progress. For those who find themselves drawn towards the rigors of BUD/S or a similar highly competitive selection program I can unreservedly recommend a paleo/Zone approach to optimizing performance and increasing one’s likelihood of passing a given program. Hopefully however it is obvious that a period of 3-4 weeks may be necessary to fully adapt to the program, so proper care and planning should be taken when contemplating a significant nutritional change.
Good paper Robb. I was waiting all morning for you to post this after I read the huge comment board from yesterday’s post. I think a simple way to put it in my mind is that Paleo takes care of quality and then things (macronutrients and total amount) can be adjusted to fit goals.
Want to win at the Crossfit game –> Paleo plus some extra Paleo carbs to fuel your glycogen taxing WODs
Want to gain/loss weight –> eat more/less Paleo foods
Want to lift heavy stuff a couple of times a week with 5% body fat and a shitty Fran time –> eat lower carb Paleo (I know I heard that somewhere before)
In all seriousness, thank you Robb. As you said in Boston at your Cert, this stuff is important. Crossfit is based on solid nutrition and Paleo seems to cover all the bases. Want to discuss dairy, lean or fattier meats, legumes, nightshades? Want to argue how much protein is ideal? Fine but traditional Paleo is the place to starting point. After that, it’s up to you and will ultimately come down to how you do on it. Give it a shot and see how it goes! Now I know I heard that before.
It will be interesting to see if anything about pseudo-science is mentioned this weekend in Vassalboro, Maine at the Level 1 Cert I’m attending. I can’t wait, it’s going to be a lot of fun.
Great post…very good way to hit the high points. Just as a point of clarification, the pseudo science comment does not emanate from the Level 1 cert. That’s a separate issue. My issue with the Level 1’s has been the occasional slide to weigh and measure crap and this will trump food quality.
“If we took the above information at first blush we should, by the laws of empirical observation, categorize the Zone as a performance DAMAGING diet.”
If we did we would be committing an error in logic. Diet is not one-dimensional (i.e. carb content), and science is nothing without well defined terms, and the problem here is that taking “Zone” just to mean macronutrient ratios is compatible with a whole host of diets, and it is not unexpected if some of these are better or worse suited to the goals of particular individuals. It would be equivalent to selecting another dimension (e.g. Paleo vs. non-Paleo) and categorising Crossfit-style Zone Paleo as equivalent to a high-carb Paleo vegan diet. Clearly not a valid extrapolation of the data.
Correct, but my point here is focussed on the EMPIRICAL piece. A lot of noise is made about “Measurable, observable. repeatable”-empiricism, being the end-all-be-all. Virtually to a point of anti-education and “ignore the man behind the curtain”. This approach creates a population of people (trainers) who cannot think outside a given situation. A person in this situation would affect some dietary change and wrongly assume it was deleterious in the long run.
Holy Canoli, Robb–pumping out the high octane posts left and right. I don’t think you realize how many CFers (and other assorted athletes and fitness bloggers) hang on your every written word. Thanks for taking the time to provide us with our fix of crack-a-lack in the form of these posts while you’re working on a book to boot.
Quick question: on a cyclic low carb, how crucial (theoretically) is the metabolism reset? Due to a weekly company lunch out, I’m having wicked trouble staying below the 20g of Natural Hormonal Enhancement’s reset week and wonder if I’d be short circuiting the process by skipping ahead to the regular CLC stuff (100gish carb meals twice a week) or if, again, the ketosis week is as much of a must in your opinion as the author makes it out to be.
I cannot wait for the book to be done so I can do work like this as my main writing. The bool project is fun like cancer!!
Just do your best on the re-set dealio. Chicken salad is pretty damn low carb…it can be done
Mike Kesthely says
I second Justin’s comments—awesome work pumping out posts while both working on your book AND doing nutrition certs. I’m totally jacked for the cert this Saturday in Edmonton.
I had sent you this study a while back, and you had asked me to remind you of it:
Seeing as how most CF athletes are on some kind of version of low-carb nutrition, be it Zone, Paleo, CLC, etc, do you see (potential) value in speeding up glycogen repletion through acetic acid intake? Would this affect max glycogen levels, which may be an issue based on low carb diets, or only affect recovery?
The book may be as fun as cancer, but think of it as your sure-fire retirement fund. 🙂
I’ll have to give some thought to the benefits of the acetic acid. We are also concerned with net renal acid load and that is not going in the right direction with vinegar. Will give this some thought!
Great post! I’m surprised it wasn’t published.
It was great hearing Sears say what you have been saying about the 40-30-30 only being a baseline and is not the be-all-end-all so many make it out to be. Adjusting carbs & fat for the individual’s needs seems very acceptable to him.
Can’t make it up to Chico anytime soon but next time I’m up that way it will happen for sure.
Adam Christiansen says
I’ve got a question that is rather off topic. I hope you haven’t had to answer it before…tried to do a thorough search, but couldn’t turn up anything.
My main goal is weight loss. Therefore I’m keeping things under 50g of carbs (replacing the calories with fat) and the carbs I do eat are all low density veggies, but I’ll occassionally plug my day’s meals into fitday to check how I’m doing. When I do it turns up short on several vitamins and other nutrients due to (I believe) the lack of fruits and vegetables. Should I be taking some multi-vitamins or any other supplements (already take fish oil) of some sort? Or am I just not eating the right veggies? I generally try to get as much color as I can into my carb meal.
Thanks for any help!
the occasional iron free sup is just fine. Adding in a few more veggeis will help your plight AND on a low carb diet our need for many items such as vit-c and b-vits are dramatically reduced.
Seems like you are getting a lot of static over the paleo deal…. I am not sure why as it makes sense and it works. Either way, just wanted to add my vote to paleo. I have always leaned towards paleo but am now completely on board after being diagnosed with a gluten intolerance. My GI issues drastically improved already. Thanks for all the great information here! Hopefully I can make it out to the nutrition seminar in december here in North Carolina so I can learn more!
Yea, the disconnect is a bit head-scratching. the intent of the post was to vent some steam and affect some change. It appears to have accomplished the former at least.
Thanks for taking up the topic. We posted a blog about carbohydrate needs in endurance athletes here http://ramblingoutsidethebox.blogspot.com/2008/11/carbohydrate-needs-of-endurance-athlete.html . Several studies were cited, discussing high vs low fat diets and athletic performance. The up shot is that higher fat diets improved endurance performance over low fat diets. These were not necessarily paleo type diets either, just varying fat content. Of all the studies I’ve seen, there may be some decreased performance when restricting carbs in bicycle time trial sprints but not in the overall performances. Presumably if you are looking specifically for an affect dependent on glycogen content, you will find it. The flip side is that training under a higher fat diet will develop the machinery to burn fat and conserve glycogen, such that more work is performed using fat burning, hence the overall ability to do the work is increased and you are not dependent on glycogen stores. The other aspect that you touched on above is that diet can affect health and recovery (adequate protein, decrease inflammation) which will have a profound effect on athletic performance in the long run by allowing more consistent training.
On another note, after your posts of a few weeks ago on post workout nutrition, I stopped worrying about replacing carbs in a hurry and focused on protein and vegetables first, and am starting to see my weight loss restarted. Thanks again!
Great post! You highlight a great point folks miss: Training likely differs from game day. We sometime ened to train at a bit of a deficit to find a rebound and improved performance over the long haul.
Glad to hear the PWO post was helpful!!
freddy c._one world says
I couldn’t wait to get done at the cop job so I could chill out and read your post today.
I want to thank you for making my time management even more difficult. I think I have spent about 3 hours on your blog since yesterday morning. I now need 27 hours in a day to get everything done that needs to be done. I know you can sympathize with me on that one…
I never really put much thought into my own personal nutrition. I attended your nutrition cert, and I dabbled strict zone for a few months, but I just hate putting thought into what I eat. I look back at 31 years of athletic endeavors and realize that I could have had much more success if I would have focused on my nutrition while training.
I’ve been following John’s programming on CrossFit Football for a few weeks now. Since my training sessions run an hour or more now compared to an average time of 15-30 minutes, I end up feeling mentally and physically exhausted like I haven’t felt since I was fighting. I am wrecked! I know I am 44yo now, so I need to focus on what I intake if I want to be able to output the work demands of CrossFit Football. That being said, I’ve been making a conscientious effort to focus more on my nutrition for about three days now. Reading the nutrition info on CrossFit Football and stumbling onto your blog yesterday morning could not have come at a more perfect time.
This blog is a great way way for you to educate me and share the experiences of others who are also trying to make smarter nutritional choices.
Sorry for rambling. I really dig your blog 🙂
Dude! You are always an ass kicker…if the big thing you are feeling is centered on recovery a shift in food quality will help a bunch. Hit about 15g/day of fish oil. It is AMAZING what that will do!
As usual, the info you give us on this site is invaluable. We have seen such a transformation in our client’s performance and their body comp since we had our conference call. It’s nothing less that startling.
I see that you are writing your chapter on insulin. We are all looking forward to reading your book. I found this site for those who want a baseline understanding of the role insulin plays in our health. I’m sure you will go into greater detail in your book, but just figured I’d pass it along for some to read.
We will be scheduling another call with you within the next week. Thanks again.
Nathan Magniez says
Just wanted to say thanks for all your hard work. 2 awesome posts back to back! I can’t wait for the book.
Anyway, here is an example of an endurance athlete that doesn’t eat like “an endurance athlete”. His name is Jonas Colting and he is a Swedish Tri-athlete.
Also from Mark’s comment above:
“Want to lift heavy stuff a couple of times a week with 5% body fat and a shitty Fran time –> eat lower carb Paleo (I know I heard that somewhere before)”
This pretty much describes my goals as I like weight training just a tad bit more than an Awesome Fran time. How low carb should one go for this type of goal (especially the low BF%). I have about 3 servings of veggies a day and about 1-2 fruit(s). Add to that 2 servings (PWO and after dinner) of whey protein(~53g and 4g Carb) with coconut milk.
Fat loss right now is my number one goal. Thanks in advance for your help.
BTW…I have up’d my fish oil intake to about 30 caps/day (Kirkland Brand) and have swayed my wife and mother in-law to up their intake (albeit not that much).
i’d like to make something clear about this stuff. We, as in cfe have adhered to a fairly strict paleo / zone diet since remodeling our training and nutrition more than 3 years ago. I was always a high carb endurance athlete prior to coming in contact with friend Dean Karnazes, and paleo /zone nutrition. You can write anything you want and try and back it up with calories, carbohydrate intake, and everything my nutrition classes seemed to adhere to in school. Do yourself a favor, and watch Ironman Live sometime. Watch it towards the end of the race and keep an eye on the bloating, the curled over bodies, and people throwing up. Or just go to an Ironman, or ultra endurance event. The carnage will speak for the high carbohydrate diet itself.
The change that has to occur with switching over is unique too, in that the body is not going to understand what to do for its energy sources, and you may experience bonking (hypoglycemic states) frequently in the first month. Not too long after, energy is long, and plentiful.
My question is, since what is the primary source of fuel in an endurance competition or even BUD/s for that matter (because essentially that is what it is day in day out)??? 🙂
Very good post. As an endurance athlete and coach myself, it’s safe to say that ‘we’ have been mislead a fair bit. In the grand scheme of things when it comes to training, there are not nearly as many truly glycogen depleating workouts as ‘most’ triathletes (my focus) are lead to believe. By and large, the bulk of an athletes training, especially the typicaly age group athlete and general populout, is done below Lactate Threshold.
Granted, if you are over sugar fueled, then you will likely need more sugar. But, placing more of an emphasis on meeting protein requirements (Zone/Paleo/Primal/whatever) and adjusting more with fat and smart carb timing and choices I think that the fat burning mechanism will take over. There are a couple of sports ‘nutritionists’ working on some of this now with their athletes…Neal Henderson and Bob Seebohar. Paleo diet for athletes was kind of a step in this direction.
Nothing else other than to say that telling endurance athletes that they need 60-70% carbs in their diet has probabaly resulted in starting lines that don’t look ‘that’ much different than the general public when it comes to ‘fitness.’ Staring with quality food, as you’ve stated before, will get most folks most of the way there. Tweaking will get them the rest. Thanks for the very informative blogs.
Tommy Hackenbruck says
Been following your blog as of recently. Thanks so much for the free knowledge. Loved this piece…how do guys like Caviston get off bashing the “low carb” zone diet, yet offering absolutely no advice and/or supporting data as to a better alternative. I hope he got lots of pats on the back for his groundbreaking work.
Anyway, I used to eat whatever the hell I wanted while doing construction for the past 3 years (big bag peanut m&m’s every day, few beers, lots of potatoes and white rice). Even worse diet before playing college football (4-5000 calories a day of burritos and pizza). Last Jan. started CrossFit and ate much cleaner diet and results have been ridiculious. After getting my ass handed to me by Mikko at the games I’m looking for an edge and you’ve convinced me to really put as much effort into my diet as I do my training. Started earlier this week doing about 95% paleo (I think), was about 65% before. Still love milk products but I’m working on it. I’m trying to soak up as much nutritional knowledge as possible to really do it right. I’ll check back in with you down the road and report all the great news.
Once again thanks for the free un-biased knowledge and inspiration.
why is it called a “low carb” diet, isn’t there enough evidence to call it an “optimal carb” diet???
I want a copy of that book when it comes out, gonna be in the lobby of my box at all times.
You’d think optimal carb would stick, but we are a ways off from that!
Steve RIchards says
You mention carb/protien mix for restoring muscle glycogen. Some say high glycemic carbs at a 4/1 ratio, others say low glycemic carbs work just fine. The paleo diet mentions intra-muscular triglycerides work in leiu of Muscle glycogen. Which is the best?
You are talking about different things. We want good access of muscle fat,s we want gylcogen repletion that is consistent with our goals…so, it depends.
Equating Paelo with Zone is like saying black is white. Sears sees his crossFits base moving toward a far better diet and is just trying to latch on with a name change, hoping to pull Paelo wool over as many eyes as he can. Totally Bush League. Sears and Zone are OUT (thankfully)- he had no balls to stand on his own.
pj-seems a little harsh.
Great job, Robb. You really are the man.
Presenting one side of the story and calling it science doesn’t it make it so. If there’s one thing I’ve learned from the capitalist society we live in its that where there is money, psuedo science will surely follow. And sadly the majority of people will fall for it….time and time again. Reminds me of that line in Anchor Man, ‘60% of the time, it works every time.’ Additionally it seems there are certain people that (for whatever reason) are highly motivated to attempt to prove the majority wrong, I’m sure Freud could shed some light on the root of that motivation, but I’m going to leave that one alone. Surely some ‘data’ can be found to support any viewpoint, but one must take into account that to gather all data is not possible (and scouring the internet doesn’t an expert make,) realistically we can strive to gather all feasible data, do our own testing and then hopefully draw something more-or-less resembling a conclusion(s). From what I’ve been able to gather, a lot of what works and doesn’t work with diet has as much to do with a given individual’s schedule, access to certain foods, personal motivation, etc, as it does with science. That’s the key to developing sustainable/reasonable dietary guidelines because as best I can tell, blanket guidelines really don’t seem to cut it. But I really do like paleo/zone as a starting point. If for no other reason than because the paleo aspect jibes historically (it’s hard to argue with nature) and I believe zone is a responsible utilization of science/modern technology allowing us to make the most out of a system nature designed.
In regard to the comment about ‘low-carb’ being more accurately called ‘optimal-carb’. That shift will happen the same day we start referring to ‘organic’ vegetables simply as vegetables and perhaps refer to non-organic vegetables as something more akin to what they really are, perhaps ‘vegetable-substitute’ would be more appropriate? Organic is the way vegetables have grown for 99.99999999999999999% of their existence, it’s only been since the 1940s or so (IIRC) that we began messing with synthetic nitrogen fertilizers…and genetic mods etc came well after that.
Sorry to rant somewhat off-topic but I do feel that all this sort of goes together in the big picture.
The thing with BUD/S (and I’m sure is not that much different from other selection programs) is that the trainees don’t have the same luxuries we civvies do when it comes to food choice and timing. During the “work” day (~4 a.m. to 4-6 p.m. in the early stages of BUD/S) you eat what is served at the chow hall…when it’s served. Rather challenging to eat a balanced meal every 3-4 hours, let alone follow a particular nutrition strategy.
So, I agree with Robb. I’m not sure the author really knows what defines an endurance nutrition approach.
I had input form folks in the SEAL/BUDS community who have seen significant improvements with a zone diet AND managed to keep thing pretty sold nutritionally even during hell Week type scenarios. Caviston just hates everything related to CrossFit apparently. it’s not really helping anyone, very unfortunate.
I know it is two weeks after this was originally posted (I have been out of town), but this just burns my ass on a few levels.
1) Having been in charge of Hell Week for 1 1/2 years, I had seen some insane thresholds of human endurance. Andy and I did some research on why students were ending up with blood glucose readings in the 30’s 1-2 hours after eating. It turns out the high carb crap we were feeding them was devastating them. The best compromise we could come up with was “Zone Bars”. There were 0, which means NONE, incidents of low glucose in the students when we replaced the high glycemic / high carb snacks with Zone Bars. The best solution would have been a stick of raw, grass-fed butter, but I’ll take those results just the same.
2) The absolute best, multi-faceted athletes that I have seen in our community, do not eat the crap that Cav recommends. They eat a low carb, high fat diet and they cross fit in some way, shape or form.
3) The same people who recommend eating a high carb diet also think crossfit is dangerous. We have too many ignorant dinosaurs hindering progress. The opinions on that site are a reflection of that.
Most of us get it thank god.
thanks for the comment and perspective. I guess dramatically reduced medical-outs, and improved O-course times ala crossfit and the Zone are just not that compelling for some people?
The sprinting exception is my big frustration as a hockey player. Experimentally a drop-off has been shown in sprint performance below 55% calories from carbohydrate (interestingly, when lecturers present this information to hockey audiences they usually characterize the “low carbohydrate” diet as being composed almost entirely of low-quality carbs…very strange); other than skating performance, I feel best with a carb intake below 100g/day. I’ve been struggling with whether the better course of action is giving up on top gear (after all, I’m an adult playing at a non-competitive level…but I think CrossFitters can empathize with that feeling of wanting to go all-out), or continuing to try to craft as minimally-destructive high-carb diet as I can.
Anneke Marvin says
OK, I’ll buy you a NorCal Margarita AND whisper in your ear,…
I emailed you something similar but upon further investigtation found that this might be a more appropriate forum for enlightenment…Sorry for adding to the desire to stab your eyeballs out with an icepick 🙁
Cynthia wrote :
Of all the studies I’ve seen, there may be some decreased performance when restricting carbs in bicycle time trial sprints but not in the overall performances. Presumably if you are looking specifically for an affect dependent on glycogen content, you will find it. The flip side is that training under a higher fat diet will develop the machinery to burn fat and conserve glycogen, such that more work is performed using fat burning, hence the overall ability to do the work is increased and you are not dependent on glycogen stores.
So, I am confused. This is mainly because while mountain biking IS an endurance sport, there are also short, intense periods of abaerobic activity. According to the studies Cynthia referenced, as well as the study I read under your FAQ section, short term anaerobic activity (such as jamming up a loose, rocky, steep hill) is compromised slightly by a low-car, high-fat diet, while endurance athletes’ performance (this describes the rest of mountain biking) enjoys an increase after the week-to-two-week transfer period. So, because I am both, what is the right approach to take on “game day”? I am just past the transfer period for Paleo, and am racing the East meets West Kenda Cup finals as the defending Kenda Cup West Champion (no applause, just throw money at me – mtbers are poor). I’m concerned about my nutrition race day since this is my first race outside of the “traditional” endurance nutrition paradigm.
Sorry for being redundant…Pretty new disciple of Paleo/Crossfit.
Thanks for all of the great info…
An important thing to keep in mind is training day is different from game day. You may train a little on the lower carb side occasionally to force some adaptation in the direction of fat metabolism. come game day however, you will almost certainly up your carbs. This may be things like cytomax with a little protein powder added to the mix, or if it’s a longer event (over 3 hrs) a mix of liquid and solid foods. You will need to experiment a little to see what works. The main points are to know what intensities you will hit and what your stomach can handle at these intensities. So, your training will look more plaeo (although not necessarily LOW carb…fruit, yams and sweet potatoes provide plenty) but game day will need to reflect what the demands of the race are. The longer the race the lower the intensity (by necessity) and the more you can rely on higher protein and fat foods.
Let me know if this helps. I need to do a blog post on this with some specific examples.
Anneke Marvin says
This is great! Thanks for clearing up my confusion. I love how I feel eating paleo, but I was unsure about racing! My particular races are shorter – under 25 miles – so I need to experiment a little with some more liquid sources. Solid food makes me want to yak:( I have been riding pretty hard through the last two weeks, and feel strong going into the weekend, so I’m hopeful it’ll be kick-ass!
Ok, yea. A shorter race will be harder so you will have some GI issues (potentially) with solid foods. Keep me posted on what you do.
Anneke Marvin says
Overall, today went well. It’s hard to separate the causes for the few issues I had, since there are so many factors that go into having a successful race. Most of the issues I had were more heat related since it was well over 117 with the heat index and I had some chills goin’ on in the second lap. I also think I haven’t given my genotyping quite enough time to adapt to using fat as a primary fuel source, since I did feel a little more fatigued than I usually do, but that could also be due to the heat, and the fact that my overall time was 10 minutes faster than the last time I raced this course! (Way more intense!)
I did the protein and cyto combo. This worked well as I had no GI trouble. The things I think I have to play with are my pre-race food timing and, as you said, not going too low-carb; adding more yams and fruit into my diet. I was using Hammer Nutrition’s website for nutrition guidance, and they suggested eating first thing in the am, then fasting for three hours pre-start, then slamming a gel right before the start, and fueling on the course, for races over 1 hr. But that was based on a high-carb diet, so I’m not sure if that logic still holds true…I’ll have to investigate! It had something to do with glucose release from the muscle,…
Anyway, I am the National Champ for my category, and I really killed my last time, so I’m happy. Now, time to start training for next season! Thank you for your advice and for letting me pick your brain!
That kicks ass!! Keep me posted on how you continue to tweak things and what the results are.
Anneke Marvin says
P.S. I ordered “Paleo for Athletes” this morning, since he specifically addresses food timing and other relevant issues!
perfect! It’s a great book for endurance athletes. We (john Welbourn, Prof. Cordain and I) are writing Paleo Diet for Power Athletes. it will fill in the gaps between the needs of power and endurance athletes in a paleo diet context.
Wow Robb, Paleo Diet for Power Athletes! Awesome! I’m looking into doing one workout a week after reading up on Dr. mcGuff and his Body by Science. If you don’t know it, it’s one workout a week where you do 5 exercises to failure at a slow pace and then you’re done n about 15 minutes. I’d choose squats, deadlifts, hspu, pullup, and pushups. The idea is that it will take 4 to 7 days for one to completely recover before the next workout. I don’t have enough time to do Crossfit right now and think this might be a good fit since it still works strength and the type 2 muscles. I’d imagine on this i could go pretty low varbs and do well. We’ll see, mcguff is an er doc and he does this once a week and has pulled a 1:30 500m c2 row before, not bad. Let me know what you think, thanks Robb!
I like it, but I roll more towards Art Devany’s old stuff. More power and exlossive movements done quickly. Similar format but in and out in like 20 min.
Anneke Marvin says
I’ve started reading The Paleo Diet for Athletes and I have some questions. Here are some excerpts from Hammer Nutrition’s website regarding pre-exercise fueling. Some advice is remarkable similare to The Paleo Diet for Athlete’s, but some is contradictory. For example:
“To repeat: during sleep, your liver-stored glycogen maintains proper blood glucose level; you expend nary a calorie of your muscle glycogen. You might wake up feeling hungry, and I’ll discuss that issue later, but you’ll have a full supply of muscle-stored glycogen, your body’s first used and main energy source. Your stomach might be saying, I’m hungry, but your muscles are saying, Hey, we’re good to go!” Hammer Nutrition.
Dr. Cordain specifically says in regards to pre-race nutrtion: “All of this [ongoing bodyt maintenance during sleep] takes energy, and one of the most available fuel sources for this activiey is the carbohydrate stored in your muscles as glycogen.So when you awake your carbohydrate stores may be depleted by as much as 140-160 calories.”
What is Hammer’s rational for their statement/belief that muscle glycogen isn’t depleted during sleep?
Also, Hammer recommends:
“Recall that I mentioned earlier that muscle glycogen, the main fuel recruited for the first 60-90 minutes of exercise, remains unaffected by a nightlong fast. When you awaken in the morning, you haven’t lost your primary fuel supply, and can’t add to it by eating within an hour or two of exercise. That’s absolutely correct, and believe it or not, being hungry before an event won’t inhibit performance.
However, hard-training athletes often do wake up very hungry and feel they need to eat something before their workout or race. This is especially true for half and full iron-distance triathletes, who start very early in the morning in the water, swimming for up to an hour or more where consuming food is not possible.
What to do? Try either of the following suggestions to help with this problem:
Just start anyway, realizing that hunger is not a performance inhibitor, and begin fueling shortly after you start, when you get into a comfortable rhythm. The hunger sensation will diminish almost as soon as you begin to exercise, and you’ll actually be benefiting, not hurting, your performance by following this procedure.
If you feel that you absolutely must eat, consume 100-200 calories about five minutes before start time. By the time these calories are digested and blood sugar levels are elevated, you’ll be well into your race, and glycogen depletion will not be negatively affected.
Again, part of this statement is directly contradictory to Dr. Cordain’s assertion that the number one goal for preexercise foods and fluids is to satisfy hunger. “The longer you put it off, the greater the risk of starting exercise underfueled.”
I’m not trying to be an instigator or a troll…I’m just wondering how two such diametrically opposed opinions can be out there and figure out what Hammer is basing their advice off of…is it just misguided science? I’m trying to have a discussion with some other trainers about Paleo for athletes vs Hammer/conventional fueling, but I need some backup! Inquiring minds want to know! I’ve tried the Hammer approach, and it’s been OK, but since I have nothing to compare it to yet, I don’t know how it stacks up. I’m starting to map my fueling witht he Paleo diet now that I’m off season to see how I feel and what changes need to be tweaked, and I’m excited to see what the performance results are.
In short I’d say I’m closer to the Hammer nutrition view of things than what you have quoted form PDFA…but Id want to see the book again to take this in complete context. For the most part a PWO carb meal is about all most folks will need, with just protein/fat/veggies for the rest. Let em knwo fi this makes sense…sorry I cannot tackle this in mroe depth…I’m just overwhelmed!
Anneke Marvin says
No worries, Robb! Thank you so much You’ve been invaluable already:)
Miss Spinach says
Thanks for directing me here. I think one of the major differences between my first paleo-zone attempt earlier this year was the factor of “adequate time to adjust.” This obviously varies considerably and is probably affected by the level of athlete, whether there’s any adrenal fatigue going on, etc.
Also, I know I was not taking enough fish oil at the time to cushion the transition from higher carbs, no matter how whole and unprocessed the source. From what I understand from this article, it was like going from standard carby gluten-free diet to paleo-zone of the “dieting” variety, rather than paleo-athlete’s zone. Big difference….
Yep, huge difference between these two situations. Without adequate time to adapt the performance is abysmal.
The whole Paleo/Zone philosophies have unfortunately taken some really very simple nutritional concepts and have complicated them beyond belief. There’s nothing inherently wrong with these diets, in fact there’s more good than bad with them…however…neither are optimum for athletic performance or body composition the way they’re usually presented.