Saturday, January 12, 2013

Paleo Velo

Paleo, a diet steeped in anthropology, looks to early humans as a model for health, fitness and wellness. Paleo has also developed an unofficial but strong marriage with the CrossFit movement. So, in addition to all the nutritional guidelines, Paleo gurus have plenty to say about exercise and fitness.


In short, they say our current infatuation with carb-fueled, intensive cardio activity is bad for us. Even Mark Sisson, a former Ironman, rails against hard endurance training. Instead, we should mimic the exercise of cavemen, which involved a lot of moderate, sustained, low-level aerobic activity such as hiking, walking, swimming, and leisurely cycling. We should also practice short, high-intensity interval training (HIIT), such as CrossFit, to channel the evolutionary "fight-or-flight" response that our ancestors sometimes expressed.

Paleo / CrossFit style trainers go further to say that one can actually train with HIIT to practice for endurance competitions, such as centuries and marathons.

I'm both a CrossFit enthusiast and a cyclist, so this piece of the paleo puzzle has caused a lot of angst. I didn't want to give up my long, hard bike rides, but I also was making visible gains in CrossFit that translated into all other athletic venues.

My response was twofold. On one hand, I took the paleo experts with a grain of salt. I love going on long endurance rides and I believe I'm better for it. The human body is an adaptable machine, and I don't feel the need to temper these rides by keeping my heart rate within a confinement deemed "low" or "moderate" by the paleo authorities.

On the other hand, I've begun including a larger range of intervals in my heart rate, to great effect. Mountain biking does this naturally -- when you're cranking up a hill and you just can't keep going, once you stop you're usually punished by having to walk the rest of the hill. This threat gets me into my red zone better than any personal trainer or spinning class. On the road bike, I've borrowed Tabatas and Volume training from my CrossFit classes (although Tabatas were actually originally used for speed skating and cycling). This has improved my cycling performance and also makes rides more varied and fun.

They did invent the wheel, after all

And I don't think I'd ever do any time trials. The metabolic pathway of just pushing it at your lactate threshold for an hour doesn't have an appeal to me from an evolutionary perspective. Also, in a paleo context, I believe cycling is preferable as a fun and rewarding element within an exercise mix, or a seasonal focus, rather than one's main workout vehicle. (see what I did there?)


That said, I need me some CARBS on my hard rides. The whole idea that you can be fueled by fat necessitates the slow, long, moderate pace described by Mark Sisson in the link above. Before, during, and after a crank session, I need quick-burning fuel from carbohydrates.

I usually load up on sweet potatoes with a hardboiled egg or two, and maybe a banana before a ride. In The Paleo Diet for Athletes, Loren Cordain advocates drinking gatorade and other sports drinks during the activity, then eating high glycemic index foods like bagels and bread after. But is there a way to make these foods paleo, or at least more natural? I am a big fan of Clif-Shots, but they're basically all processed sugar. And although they're convenient, Clif Shots are expensive and the packaging causes a lot of waste. Is there a way to make a paleo clif shot?

I started with this fantastic Origin recipe recommended by a friend. I immediately noticed that the fat from the coconut oil provided a sustained energy baseline, which stabilized the peak-crash cycle of the sugar.

From there, I experimented by swapping the peanut butter for almond butter, and the barley malt for honey. This means the only non-paleo ingredient is the brown rice syrup, and as I've mentioned in previous posts, rice is a gray area for paleo dieters. It's definitely the most benign grain, called a "safe starch" by Paul Jaminet and condoned by Mark Sisson.

I tried to completely replace the brown rice syrup with honey, too. But it's too sweet, and in my case the high fructose content translates into less sustained energy on the bike versus the starch in the rice syrup.

Add in one or two Starbucks via packets, and you can even control the caffeine level in your energy gel, as you can with the Clif Shots. Plus, the coffee adds great flavor. You can store the gel in Coughlin's camping squeeze tubes. Voila!

Happy paleolithic cycling!

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