Friday Night Dinner: Eating Starch Strategically in a Low Carb Endurance Athlete’s Diet

With Ironman a mere five weeks away, the next three weekends of training are crucial in terms of sharpening, fine tuning and still getting in a few last big volume sessions prior to the taper shortly before the event.

If you’ve been reading my blog over the more recent posts dating back a year or so, you’re familiar with the transition I made at the start of the 2015 season to shift more toward becoming reliant on fat as my primary fuel source.

In a nutshell, I simply reduced the fruit in my diet and increased the quantity and types of fat I consumed. Still eating roughly the same number of calories, but the change in the macronutrient ratio is what’s vastly different.

Low carb? Yes… but not ‘no carb’. It’s easy to get confused about Paleo not having any carbs.

In actuality, it does; in fact, a true Paleo diet, when implemented properly, gets roughly 22 – 40% of its calories from carbs, primarily in the form of fresh vegetables (1).

And it can also be tricky to navigate the whole idea of an endurance athlete not depending on a diet consisting of upwards of 70% of calories not only coming from carbs but coming from carbs that are refined, inflammatory and not nutritionally dense, which, unfortunately is what the recommendation of the USDA still are, to date (2).

Mistakes made in the process of making the transition from a carb-based eating regime to one with more fat are plenty and I’ve made plenty myself! Here’s the skinny: when you create a circumstance in which the body has to rely on its own stored fat to tap into to use as its fuel, it does just that.

The brain is able to make the small amount of glucose it needs out of ketone bodies…. but the body will not even begin these chemical reactions in the presence of too much carbohydrate (regardless of the source) or too much protein (3).

Just as there are now many trendy takes on a paleo approach, there are also many variations, some of which are more erroneous than others, on the approach to eating more fat, especially as it pertains to endurance athletes.

I did my homework before I began testing it out for myself. I poured myself into The Art and Science of Low Carbohydrate Performance.

I enlisted the help of Peter Defty at Vespa, who has created a protocol for endurance athletes to use, including an enzyme catalyst to help the body tap into the very same fat many readers may feel they’re still holding on to. I tested it for a good three months at the early part of last season and guess what?

I was able to still perform to my potential and finish on the podium, I did so with taking in very few calories during the race, no gel, little soreness the next day, and a mental focus so sharp, it was as though a carbohydrate veil I didn’t even realize was shading my eyes had lifted.

Keep in mind that the reason I opted to make this change was not that there was anything lacking. I was racing at a high level, and feeling great, but in principle, the idea that I was eating an alkaline, anti inflammatory, paleo diet, day in and day out, and then consuming man-made sugar packets to race simply drove me nuts. It was time for a change. And the change served me well!

Actually, it would serve most of us well, athlete or not. Weight loss, sharper mental focus, reduced chances of developing diabetes (4) are just a few of the many benefits one can experience by combining a Paleo based nutrition plan with a higher percentage of fat coming from calories.

So, what does it actually look like? And when I talk about using fat as my primary fuel, what does that mean? No one is saying we’ve got to only eat fat or never use carbohydrate.

The key is to learn when and how it makes sense to use them strategically, as Peter often says.

Tonight is a great example. Since Chris, (hubbie / fellow ironman / ultrarunner) and I both have big training weekends, a typical

Friday in the Stephenson home is always our favorite.

Roast, trussed, chicken (I have a great source which sells pasture-raised birds)

our signature seasonal salad (varies based on what I’ve got in the garden)

some type of sauteed greens (yes, we eat fiber before the weekend… and the day before the race. Never quite understood the piece of advice suggesting to not eat fiber the day before a race. Why? So as not to use the bathroom race day morning and have to go during the race? Not sure about that…)

and here is where the strategic carbs come in…

Either my yam baked fries, pan roasted rosemary fingerlings or duck-fat roasted baby yellow potatoes are a key component of a meal eaten the night before a long, intense fasted workout.

( Click here for my favorite roasted duck-fat potato recipe!


And I must reiterate two things: One – this is a recipe intended for athletes to eat the night before a long training session.

Not for a mid-day snack.

We don’t need starch at every meal as we were told, growing up. Athlete or not, we are all better served to cut the starch / sugar / fruit…all of it with the exception of when we’re preparing our body to move for a long activity the next day.


Unless, of course, you want to gain weight, not appear lean despite all the training, have unbalanced energy levels and bonk during your workouts.

If that’s the goal, then bring on the bagels, pasta and sports bars!

May sound like I’m being sarcastic, and I am, but it’s only because I feel it’s a crying shame that in this day and age we are still being told to pile on the carbs.

Enough already!

Two- please don’t walk away thinking this approach would only suit someone who’s got a weekend warrior regime, or doesn’t push the envelope in terms of duration and intensity of their training sessions.

Yes, it takes time to adapt, but I’m not the only endurance athlete who’s finding all the benefits of it!

Pardon me as I exit the soapbox… time to get dinner ready!

(1) Cordain, Loren. “The Ground Rules of the Paleo Diet.” The Paleo Diet: Lose Weight and Get Healthy by Eating the Foods You Were Designed to Eat. Hoboken, NJ: Wiley, 2011. 21. Print

(2) “Publications – Colorado State University Extension.” Colorado State University Extension. N.p., n.d. Web. 02 Sept. 2016

(3)Volek, Jeff, and Stephen D. Phinney. The Art and Science of Low Carbohydrate Performance: A Revolutionary Program to Extend Your Physical and Mental Performance Envelope. Lexington, KY: Beyond Obesity, 2012. Print.

(4) By Kristin Kirkpatrick, MS, RD, LD. “Intermittent Fasting Has Benefits Beyond Weight Loss.” Health Essentials from Cleveland Clinic. N.p., 06 Apr. 2016. Web. 01 Sept. 2016.