Paleo can be the best athletic fuel you’ve ever put in your mouth. The stories of dramatic success, effortless PRs, and hours of clean-burning energy are everywhere. But it doesn’t always work that way automatically or without any effort.
In fact, in the very first weeks of eating Paleo it’s perfectly normal to see a performance drop no matter what you do. Even if you’re doing everything perfectly, it’s still a huge adjustment. Lower energy in the gym is your body’s way of saying “this is really hard; I need a break right now.” Your mojo will come back with a vengeance once the transition is over, so just bear with it.
On the other hand, after about 2 or 3 weeks, a consistent state of gym lethargy probably points to something more than just adjustment. So if you’re struggling to keep up with your workouts even after you’re made it through the initial adaptation, here are some ideas for what you might be doing wrong, and how to fix it:
Not Enough Carbs/Not the Right Carbs
To perform at a high level, most people need at least some carbohydrates – and carrots don’t count! You might be having carb problems if:
- You can do long and slow workouts (e.g. jogging, swimming laps), but struggle with the fast and intense ones.
- You’re having extreme carb cravings, even though you’re eating enough food overall.
- Your eyes and mouth are very dry.
Carbs are your fuel for intense exercise: no matter how “fat-adapted” you are, your body will need to burn carbs if you’re doing sprints, Crossfit WODs, or anything else intense.
The type of carbs you pick also matters. When it comes to workout recovery, there are two different kinds of simple sugars to worry about:
- Glucose (“starch”): this is the type of carbohydrate that your body can use for energy. It’s sent directly to your muscles after you eat it, where it’s stored for future use. Foods that taste “starchy” (e.g. potatoes and rice) contain primarily glucose.
- Fructose (“sugar”): fructose is sent straight to your liver, not to your muscles. Foods that taste “sweet” (e.g. fruit) typically contain more fructose (although they also have some glucose as well).
For optimal fuel and recovery, you want to get primarily glucose, rather than fructose. To make this happen, go for starchy carbs: potatoes, sweet potatoes, bananas or plantains, and optionally rice. Fruit (except for bananas and plantains) is not a great source of workout fuel, because it has more fructose.
Almost everyone who does intense exercise should eat at least one serving (the size of your fist) of starchy foods on every workout day. At least. The vast majority of people do better with more. Start with at least one serving, and work your way up until you find a level that makes you feel good.
If you have a lower carb tolerance, it can be helpful to eat most of your carbs post-workout, but if you do just fine with starches, there’s no reason to be cramming in a potato as you’re walking out of the gym. The important part is just that your glucose/glycogen stores get replenished before your next workout; there’s no magical window of opportunity for scarfing down your carbs before your muscles wither away to nothing.
If you’re worried about gaining weight from eating more starchy foods, it might help to read this article about carbs and weight loss.
Not Enough Electrolytes
Electrolytes aren’t just for the Gatorade marketing team! They’re important for the rest of us, too. Some telltale signs that you might have an electrolyte problem are:
- Muscle cramps or spasms.
- Horrible muscle aches, worse than you got before.
- Racing or pounding heart.
The most common reason for electrolyte problems on Paleo is salt restriction.
There’s nothing wrong with eating as much salt as you like on your food. Sodium is an important mineral, and it’s been unfairly demonized (probably because, like fat, it’s so closely associated with processed junk food). In fact, since getting rid of salty processed foods, you’ll probably want to add more salt to your home cooking. That’s just fine: go ahead and add it.
If you’re a more serious athlete (several hours of heavy sweating per week), you might also look into supplemental electrolytes. Either go for a brand of electrolyte powder without any added junk, supplement coconut water with a little salt and lemon juice, or make your own.
Not Enough Food
What happens if you try to drive your car on an empty gas tank? Nothing! Your body is the same way. If you don’t give it enough fuel, it won’t go.
You might be not eating enough if:
- You’re trying to “diet” with Paleo by worrying about calories, restricting fat, or ignoring your hunger.
- You get energy crashes that get better after eating, even if you didn’t feel hungry.
- You just removed grains and sugar from your old diet without increasing fat and protein to make up for it.
The solution: eat more! More protein, more fat, more carbs…more food! How much more? That depends on you, your workouts, and your goals. As a general rule, though, you’ll know you’re eating enough when your workouts start to feel good again. And if you want to put on any muscle mass, you’ll need to keep eating past that point, even though you don’t feel hungry.
This doesn’t just apply to workout days, either. Sometimes, recovery is a little delayed, so you get ravenously hungry the day after a hard workout. That’s fine, too; your body needs that fuel to repair your muscles.
Alternately, if you don't want to eat more, you could also work out less. Quality beats quantity when it comes to exercise: exhausting yourself with hours of trudging on the treadmill isn't nearly as healthful as cutting back on the volume and really putting in your best effort for every workout.
You Just Started/Changed Something
When most people switch to Paleo, they also take a hard look at their workout regimen and often decide to change something that isn’t working for them. Whether it’s swapping out some cardio for strength training, decreasing the total volume of work per week, or completely starting an exercise program from scratch, adopting a Paleo approach typically brings a change in how you move.
That’s great – just be aware that for the first few weeks of a change or a new routine, performance will naturally have its ups and downs as your body gets used to it. If you’ve never lifted weights before, you will be sore. If you’ve never even gotten up off the couch before, don’t expect to start pounding out the marathons right away!
You can make this transition a lot easier by using smart recovery routines (including plenty of rest, water, and mobility work), and by taking each new change slowly instead of jumping in all at once. But just remember that there’s nothing wrong with having an adaptation period at the beginning of a new routine: if it’s still a struggle in 2 weeks, then start looking for nutritional issues.
Summing it Up
Whether the fix is upping your carbs, getting more electrolytes, or just plain eating more food, you don’t have to settle for dragging yourself through the gym all the time! In the long run, Paleo should make your workouts easier and help you get stronger and healthier. For the first week or so, you might be working through an adjustment period, but if you still feel like you’re running through molasses after that, there’s probably something you can tweak diet-wise to get yourself back in the game.