Friday, July 23, 2010

Going Primal

After reading my friend Robby's post on his caveman diet I thought I would put down my own experiences with food recently.  I've been trying to improve my diet for a long time now and despite plenty of positive changes I was still struggling to cut out refined sugar - the fun stuff.

You know cakes, biscuits, ice cream, sweets, chocolate - all that stuff I would happily reward myself with and that I had a serious sweet tooth for.  I could reduce it, but I couldn't kick it and more often than not, after a big weekend I'd be sitting on the couch tucking into half a tub of Strawberry Cheesecake ice cream and telling myself I deserved it.

After IMSG I was looking for areas where I could get improvement and I didn't think I could train more.  I knew I had more or less maxed out on available hours, and had to train smarter and look for other places to gain time.  The 2 key elements that came out of that race were mental preparation and nutrition, both day to day and race day specific.

I knew my diet was sub-optimal but how to make the change?  I needed something simple, easy to follow and also something that made sense - i.e. explained why I should be doing what I needed to do. Another friend Huw (who just went 9:55 in Roth finishing with a blistering 3:23 marathon), put me on to Mark's Daily Apple,  where I found out about his Primal Blueprint, a series of 10 rules on how to be healthy.

I won't go into the specifics here, but essentially it's all about living and eating similar to our early ancestors who adapted to life on the plains over hundreds of thousands of years.  That is what our bodies are adapted to and not the modern western diet, which is mainly based on changes due to the advent of agriculture some 10,000 years ago.  A time way too short for us to adapt via evolution.

What is a Primal diet? 
Well here are the fundamentals:
  • lots of fruit and vegetables
  • plenty of meat
  • plenty of fish
  • nuts
  • spices
  • some seeds
  • some dairy allowed but don't overdo it
  • treats in moderation include red wine, 70% cocoa dark chocolate, honey
  • coffee allowed but prob just the 1 a day
And you get to eat AS MUCH AS YOU LIKE (except the items in moderation mentioned above).  I like that.  This diet is SO easy to shop for - you basically ignore just about all the aisles in the supermarket except fresh produce, and even better don't go to the supermarket at all (read on for more info).

What is NOT in the diet?
  • wheats and grains
  • no bread, pasta, oats, cereals, rice (except a small amount of wild rice), cous cous, etc
  • processed foods
  • refined sugar
  • beans
  • legumes (like peanuts)
The website is very dense and can take some wading through, so I just bought his book and worked my way through that.  The science really made sense to me and it was so simple I thought I had to give it a try.  Part of the issue is, he's against what he calls Chronic Cardio, so this reduced carb diet can be tough on endurance athletes.  I'm still working on how to be as Primal as possible whilst still fueling my body during and after big sessions.  My current compromise is gels/bars/energy drink during exercise, recovery drink afterwards and then back to being Primal the rest of the time.  Also maybe hit the potatoes and a bit of rice on the big days.

I've been on this diet about 8 weeks now.  Key is first of all getting rid of all the non Primal foods in the house.  Then plan to ensure plenty of Primal foods are available.  This can be tricky as it is strongly recommended to go organic - standard supermarket fare is mostly devoid of the nutrients you're aiming for.  I've setup 2 regular orders - one for organic fruit and veg with and one for organic meat with

Snacks are a big issue for me - I need them!  Here's what I've got going between meals:
  • carrots
  • fruit
  • tomatoes
  • some dried fruit (not too much!), nuts and seeds - tend to make my own mix
  • biltong
  • beef jerky (I order a batch from
  • tinned fish (current fav is smoked pilchards from waitrose).  Must admit I don't often go for this option :)
The other key point is the 80/20 rule.  If you're eating right 80% of the time, it doesn't matter if you go off the rails a bit 20% of the time.  So I don't get stressed if I go to a friend's or a restaurant for dinner - under those circumstances I can cross some boundaries so long as all is well at home.

What have I experienced?
First day I developed a headache in the evening - body is wondering what happened to all those lovely carbs!  For 2 weeks I felt a bit drained and not too energetic.  Then I started to feel normal again.  I lost some weight (man I really don't need to lose weight!).  I'm reckoning the weight lost was the relatively low levels of excess fat I was carrying, and I'm hoping to put weight back on when I start doing weights again and upping my training volume.

Mentally I have found a large difference - I am just much more alert, much better able to think, I am more motivated and have less tired periods during the day.  I always thought my mental sluggishness was training related but perhaps a lot of that was the insulin spike/crash cycle I was constantly in.  My work has improved dramatically and I am finding plenty of positive effects of my new found mental energy.  The last couple of weeks I have seen improvements in my physical performance too.  I'm still way down on fitness from early in the year, but for the first time since May I've started to feel good on the bike or running.

I'm also cooking a lot more and thankfully I love cooking so that's all good.

It's still early days so only time will tell on whether this will have a significant positive impact on my sporting performance.  I'm pretty confident it will.  I'll revisit this in a couple of months time to see where I am then.

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