In this article you’ll learn how the Paleo diet for athletes helps 20 world class and professional athletes perform their best, stay healthy, and beat the competition. These men and women represent pretty much every type of sport there is and show that following the principles of the Paleo diet can help you build a leaner, stronger, faster body and become a champion. Some are more strict about it than others but all of them use its principles successfully.
Just What Is The Paleo Diet?
The Paleo diet is based on the way scientists believe our ancestors ate thousands of years ago. Experts on the diet claim that our bodies haven’t changed much in the last 10,000 or so years and because of this the way we eat shouldn’t either.
What this means is that when you’re on the Paleo diet you eat plenty of fats for energy, protein to build muscle and keep you healthy, and limited to moderate amounts of carbohydrates for their vitamins and minerals.
You can still eat lots of delicious foods when you are eating Paleo. Just some of the foods you can eat are: fruits (especially berries), vegetables, and meat (beef, chicken, eggs, fish, and pork). Fats are also allowed, in fact they are encouraged since they taste great, keep you full, and have many healthy benefits. Fatty foods that Paleo dieters love include: avocados, coconut oil, olive oil, and the fat found in fatty fish and other meats.
Most Paleo dieters also prefer that the meats and eggs they eat are of the free range variety and their fruits, veggies, and fats are organic to help get as much nutritional bang for their buck as possible.
The foods you need to avoid on this diet make up a much shorter list. It includes: flour and grain based foods (bread, corn, pasta, rice), sugar rich foods (soda and candy), and dairy.
As you may notice, the Paleo diet is very similar to the Atkins diet in that both help to switch your body from burning carbohydrates to stored body fat as fuel. One of the few differences is that Atkins and similar low carb diets have you count the amount of carbohydrates you eat while Paleo doesn’t. Another is that dairy is allowed when following a low carbohydrate diet like Atkins and most people who eat Paleo avoid it altogether.
Key Benefits Of Paleo Eating For Your Health And Athletic Performance
Like Atkins and other low carbohydrate diets, eating Paleo helps moderate the hormones in your body (i.e. insulin, growth hormone, etc.) that play roles in keeping us lean, strong, energetic, and healthy.
Comparatively speaking, a high carb/low fat diet throws these hormones out of whack and cause our bodies to be chronically inflamed. This leads to us feeling tired, stiff, and sore and builds a body that looks and feels fat, puffy, and bloated.
In addition benefiting our overall health, it appears that eating Paleo improves sports performance too. The list below highlights several ways following this diet can help improve your performance in the gym and on the playing field.
Why The Paleo Diet Is Great For Athletes & Building A Better Body
- Eating Paleo reduces inflammation so you recover faster.
- Athletes who eat Paleo often report that their joints and muscles are less sore after a hard workout or competition.
- Using your own body fat reserves for energy enables you to train and compete harder, longer than a high carbohydrate diet.
- You will get all of the protein and amino acids your body needs to build muscle and get stronger.
- Eating Paleo may help boost the production of key muscle building and fat burning hormones in our body including growth hormone and testosterone.
- When you’re eating this way and using fat for your fuel you don’t have to worry about drinking lots of fat storing sugar-based drinks before, during, and after your workout for energy and recovery.
- Once you’re body adapts to the diet, you will have more energy and greater ability to focus on putting 100% into every workout and match you play.
20 Elite And Professional Athletes Who Thrive On A Paleo Diet
Amanda Beard – 7 Time Olympic Medalist In Swimming
The youngest American Olympic medalist in swimming history, Amanda Beard switched to a Paleo diet to lose weight after the birth of her son.
Amanda then continued to eat this way, along with adding kettlebell workouts to her routine to build a leaner, stronger, fitter body during her attempt to qualify for a 4th Olympic games as a 29 year old mom in 2012.
While she didn’t qualify for the 2012 games, eating Paleo helped her beat the majority of her much younger competitors at the U.S. Olympic Trials where Amanda finished 5th in the 200 meter breaststroke.
She hasn’t given up on her Olympic dreams as of yet. In a recent interview with Yahoo News Amanda says that she’s training to compete in the 2016 games. Hopefully continuing to eat Paleo will make this dream come true!
Follow Amanda’s progress toward the 2016 games at her website, AmandaBeard.net.
Apolo Ohno – 8 Time Olympic Medalist In Speedskating
Prior to his last Olympic games in 2010, where he was competing to become the winning-est winter Olympic athlete of all time, Apolo Ohno followed a diet that is very Paleo. The final result speaks for itself, as he won his 8th medal at these games setting the record for most medals won!
According to his trainer John Schaeffer, when Apolo was training for the Olympics he only ate vegetables, fruit and fish, except for the night before and the morning of each race, when he gorged on brown rice pasta prepared with coconut oil and essential fats.
Eating like this certainly helped Apolo use his own body fat for fuel, giving him the endurance, strength, and mental focus required to become an Olympic medalist.
The results of his making these dietary changes speak for themselves, by the start of the Vancouver Olympics Apolo lost 16 pounds and went from 10% to less than 3% body fat. This decrease in body fat certainly helped improve Ono’s muscular endurance, strength, and power.
Bethanie Mattek-Sands – Professional Tennis Player
My wife and I are really stoked to see Bethanie Mattek-Sands playing so well on the tennis courts this year. This is because her power, strength, and charisma make her one of the most entertaining women on the tour to watch.
It looks like one of the main reasons for her success this year are the dietary changes she’s made. After learning that she’s allergic to several foods like dairy, foods with gluten (i.e. bread, rice, and pasta) and tomatoes Bethanie eliminated them and began eating a diet that seems to be pretty Paleo.
Since doing this she’s gone from being out of the top 200 in the rankings to the top 50. The huge improvement in her ranking is a result of being able to last longer on the court and continue to play with speed, strength, and power throughout a match.
One of the things Bethanie credits to her success is eating a diet that seems to be a strict Paleo diet. She’s eliminated foods that contain gluten and dairy as well as tomatoes and several other foods to which she is allergic. These are also foods that are not allowed on the Paleo diet.
I think this quote of Bethanie tells it all with regard to how much changing her diet is helping on and off the tennis court. “It always seemed like my body was fighting something. I was always sick a lot. Since avoiding everything that I’m allergic to, my sniffles went away. My skin cleared up, my eyes got whiter, I lost some weight. I’m actually eating more now, which is interesting.”
Follow Bethanie at her website.
Brendan Steele – Pro Golfer
Being a successful professional golfer means that you need a lot of mental and physical endurance. That’s because their tournaments last several days and require you to be able to play for 8 or more hours every day. PGA golfer Brendan Steele uses the Paleo diet to give him the necessary mental and physical strength to excel under these challenging conditions.
While Brandon may be one of the few Paleo dieters on the PGA Tour today, I think It’s only a matter of time before more professional golfers follow suit.
Caroline Nichols – USA Hockey
A 2 time Olympian (2008, 2012) and current team member, Caroline started eating Paleo after being introduced to it by nutrition experts Matt Lalonde and Dr. Elke Nelson.
According to Caroline, switching from a high carb, pasta-rich diet to Paleo has helped her lose fat, build muscle and perform much better on the playing field.
Results came quickly too. According to Caroline, it only took a month to see significant improvements in her performance.
While she says it’s tough to stay 100% Paleo on the road, Caroline does her very best. She packs nut butters and jerky when traveling to ensure she always has something to eat that will keep her full of energy and using fat for fuel.
Here’s a great quote from Caroline about her experience on the Paleo diet. “Paleo has given me a great foundation of healthy eating habits and I am reaping the benefits in my training. Lean protein and lots of veggies is exactly what the doctor ordered for this Olympic athlete.”
Read this interview to learn more about Caroline and her experience on the Paleo diet.
David Zabriske – Professional Cyclist/Tour de France Competitor
Getting a professional cyclist to eat a high fat, low carbohydrate diet like Paleo is probably one of the bigger challenges a trainer or sports nutritionist can accomplish. That’s because cyclists are known to be hyper-obsessive about their weight and feel that eating a high carb/low fat diet is the only way to stay lean and perform their best.
David is one cyclist who eats a high fat, low carbohydrate Paleo diet. This switch occurred this year after he spent a career eating high carb/low fat. He even went vegan for a year before the 2011 Tour de France.
According to an article in Men’s Journal, Zabriske eats almost 4,000 calories a day since he’s gone Paleo. This is significantly less than the 6,000 plus many pro riders, eating a high-carb/low fat diet, report ingesting daily. The reason for this is that David is using his own stored body fat for fuel, which decreases the calories you need to eat.
David’s meals include foods like coconut oil, avocados, eggs, almonds, cashews, chicken breasts, beef jerky, string beans, onions, and protein powder. Nutritionally speaking his diet breaks down to roughly 32% protein, 54% fat, and 15% carbohydrates, daily. This more than doubles the average fat and is one quarter the carb intake of most cyclists!
Since going Paleo, Zabriske’s results are extremely impressive. Over the course of a few months, the 6-foot cyclist dropped his body weight from 168 to 154 pounds. His strength has also shot up, as David’s dead lift max almost doubled, going from 150 to 245 pounds!
Most importantly, David’s cycling performance received a boost too with a 15% increase in power on the bike!
This quote from David’s conditioning coach, Jacques DeVore, sums up his athletes experience with the Paleo diet. “I don’t think he ever thought he would improve this much. For a guy who’s as elite as he is, and we’ve added that much power on the bike in one off season? That’s huge.”
Eva Twardokens – Olympic Skier
Eva was a member of the U.S. ski team for 14 years. She won six national championships in alpine skiing and a World Cup bronze medal. During her career she also suffered several injuries including ACL tears that required multiple surgeries.
After retiring, Eva started to follow a Paleo diet and train at one of the original Crossfit gyms to help heal her body from the abuse it took, as an elite skier, who routinely hurled herself down icy and steep race courses.
According to Eva, eating a Paleo diet helps her ‘feel better’ all around. She says it gives her more focus and energy and helps to keep her mood positive all day long.
She also follows other principles of the Paleo lifestyle which includes lifting heavy weights, sprinting, and ‘playing’ every day which for her means surfing the breaks of Santa Cruz.
Here’s what Eva has to say about eating Paleo. It’s a succinct statement that sums up Paleo’s benefits perfectly. “I think it’s made me look and feel better than anyone close to my age!”
You can learn more about Eva, her diet, workouts and more at her blog, evastrengthandconditioning.com
Frank Mir – MMA Fighter
Frank Mir is a champion MMA fighter who went Paleo in 2011 after a year of following a vegan diet.
According to Frank, he felt less strong and ‘softer’ while eating vegan. Injuries were also more common. His energy was lower in the ring too.
In an interview, Frank had this to say about his experience eating vegan. “First I started as a vegetarian. And for a whole year, I gave it a shot. And it kept my weight down. But honestly, my body fat wasn’t as low – I got a little bit softer. I was getting injured a lot more. I felt a lack of ‘umph.”
After going Paleo, he almost immediately put on several pounds of muscle and got his strength back. Frank also says the Paleo diet helped him enter the ring leaner than he ever was while eating vegan.
Follow Frank Mir on Twitter.
Grant Hill – NBA All-Star & Olympic Gold Medalist
The NBA basketball players have beaten up bodies and are retired by their early 30’s. Grant Hill defied this average and played at a high level until the age of 40. Unlike many athletes who retire broken, battered, and chronically sore, Grant did so in the best shape of his life! A big part of this appears to be his diet which is pretty Paleo.
According to Grant’s website, he avoids eating foods that contain flour and sugar and instead eats lots of fruits, vegetables, and protein rich foods like beef, chicken, and lamb. All of which are the same principles of the Paleo diet.
Grant has this to say about his diet. “As a rule of thumb, if it was here a million years ago, then I tend to eat it. If it wasn’t, then I try to stay away from it.”
Greg Parham – Elite Mountain Bike Racer
Greg is an elite level mountain bike competitor, having won several 24 hour races. That’s right, he competes in events that involve riding a bike over challenging terrain for an entire day!
Greg says much of his success is due to following a Paleo diet and lifestyle. In addition to eating lots of grass fed beef and avoiding sugar and flour rich foods, Greg also lives similarly to a caveman, sleeping on a sheepskin rug instead of a traditional bed.
According to Greg, the benefits he experiences by eating Paleo are better sleep, recovery, and greater endurance. He also says that eating Paleo allows him to get better results while training less!
This quote of Greg’s sums it up nicely. “Leaner. Stronger. Faster. I made the switch to the Paleo diet in January 09 and these are but a few of the benefits I’ve experienced. As an elite athlete, I was looking to take my performance to the next level. I didn’t buy all the marketing junk about high carb intake, sports drinks, powerbars, goos, protein drinks, you name it. My body needed real food. Making the switch was easy.“
Follow Greg’s Paleo adventures at his website, GregCavemanParham.com
Hunter Pence – Professional Baseball/SF Giants
Following a Paleo diet helps Hunter Pence perform his best as an outfielder for the World Series Champion San Francisco Giants.
Since switching to the diet about a year ago, Hunter has been able to easily maintain a super lean 6.5% body fat at 6’2” and 220 pounds! He says that eating Paleo also helps him recover faster, feel stronger, and be significantly less sore the day after a game.
Hunter is so committed to the diet that he has cab drivers take him to the nearest Whole Foods when he’s on the road to stock up on meats and veggies. He’s even known to eat kale and olive oil in the dugout during a game! The only vice he claims is a little bit of dark chocolate every day to curb his sweet tooth.
You can follow Hunter on Twitter and keep up with Paleo fueled performance.
Iris Lazz – Professional Snowboarder
Iris is a professional snowboarder who gets paid to travel the globe and snowboard at the greatest spots in the world! She gets to shred mountains that are super steep and carve perfect turns in fresh powder that no one else has ever touched!
Snowboarding at this level requires a lot of strength and endurance. Frequent travel to distant locations, in different time zones, around the world also means that you need to be very healthy to avoid getting sick. Eating Paleo seems to do the trick for Iris.
If you’re looking for a great Paleo breakfast recipe check out Iris’ Paleo Pancake Recipe
You can learn about Iris and how she follows the Paleo diet at her blog.
John Welbourn – 10 Year Veteran Of The NFL
Retired professional football player John Welbourn doesn’t just eat Paleo, he’s made it a big part of his post-football business. Since retiring from professional football John has started a Paleo foods company and Crossfit gym in Southern California.
John says he ended up eating Paleo without realizing it, since sugar and flour rich foods hindered his health and performance in the gym and on the football field. While eating a Paleo diet helped John play at over 270 pounds and 8% body fat without ever having to count a calorie!
“I sort of naturally found the diet in that I knew a lot of grains and white sugars and processed foods made me feel sick. I never really cared to eat them. I didn’t really know a name for what the diet was until about three years ago. It instantly made sense to me since I’d always gravitated that way.” says John.
Kobe Bryant – NBA All Star & Olympic Gold Medalist
According to team trainer Gary Vitti, Kobe Bryant has gone Paleo. His diet includes plenty of grass fed beef and butter, 2 staples among Paleo eaters. He also does his best to eliminate sugars and keeps the total amount of carbohydrates he eats to a minimum!
Seeing how well he’s still playing in his mid-30’s, demonstrates, the proof is really in the pudding when it comes to this way of eating. Kobe is still able to play 40+ minutes a game and in many ways get better! According to Vitti, Kobe feels that switching to the Paleo diet is what led to his late season resurgence in 2012 and is what allows him to feel remarkably better throughout the season.
“Kobe Bryant, was really on board right away because, as he’s getting older, he knows he needs an edge and that nutrition can be one of them. Since he’s adopted it, he says he feels remarkably better.” Gary Vitti, LA Lakers team trainer.
Mike Jenkins – Strongman Competitor
Imagine competing in a sport that requires you to be able to deadlift 500 pounds for several reps, pull a tractor trailer hundreds of yards, and then carry hundreds of pounds in each hand as you walk 100 yards, in sand!
These are the types of events athletes who compete in the strong man competitions do several times a year! Mike Jenkins is one of the best in world and he does it following a Paleo diet.
According to Mike, he started eating this way after his first professional event in 2011. Following a year of eating this way, he won the 2012 Arnold Schwarzenegger Pro Strongman contest.
Although Mike felt like he had less energy and strength for the first month he ate Paleo, the benefits kicked in soon thereafter. According to Mike, eating Paleo gives him more energy and enables him to train longer and harder.
What amazes me is that Mike ‘only’ eats about 4,000 calories a day! I write only because he is a lean and muscular 400 pound athlete who trains hard several days a week. He’s able to do this without eating significantly more calories due to the fact that eating Paleo has him using stored body fat for fuel!
Like most athletes, Mike adjusts the Paleo diet to meet his specific needs. He finds that eating cottage cheese added to an MHP Paleo Protein shake before bed helps keep his strength and muscle mass where he needs. He occasionally eats brown rice or sweet potatoes too, as he feels doing so really helps.
You can follow Mike on twitter to learn more about his diet, workouts, and competitive results.
Novak Djokovic – Tennis Player & Grand Slam Champion
Since becoming a Paleo dieter, Novak has won 6 tennis grand slam championships and become the number 1 ranked player in the world!
He credits changing his diet, especially going gluten free – which Paleo does as well – with helping him finally cracking the elite levels of tennis. Novak began eating this way after blood tests revealed that he’s intolerant to gluten, the protein found in foods like bread, pizza, pasta, and rice.
According to Novak, eating gluten free gives him more energy, endurance and decreases the time it takes for him to recover. As an avid tennis fan for many years, it’s really evident what a change the diet has had on his performance. Prior to going Paleo, Novak would lose his energy late in a match and retire. Since going Paleo, he’s able to play matches that last more than 5 hours and come out on top!
Novak recently had this to say about the benefits of his diet. “This particular diet changed my life really in a positive way and affected positively my career and my overall feeling on and off the court. So I particularly wanted to share this kind of food regime and this kind of change that affected my life positively with the people, just present them my own experience.”
Shane Dorian – Professional Surfer
Shane Dorian is a professional surfer who routinely surfs 60 foot waves around the world. He also lives the Paleo lifestyle. In addition to eating lots of fruits, vegetables, and healthy fats, Shane gets his protein from boar, and deer that he hunts himself – with a bow and arrow!
Following a Paleo diet helps Shane surf the world’s biggest waves (he won the award for doing so in 2013) and outperform his peers even though at age of 41 he’s often 15 or more years older than the competition!
Check out Shane’s Instagram account for killer surf pictures and photos of what he hunts and eats every day.
Simon Whitfield – Professional Triathlete
Like most endurance athletes, triathletes often follow a high carb/low fat diet since they believe it is the best way to fuel their performance. Simon Whitfield eats Paleo instead. He credits much of his success – 10 consecutive Canadian Triathlon Championship titles, gold in the triathlon at the 2000 Summer Olympics, and silver in 2008 – to eating Paleo.
According to Simon, “I think it’s a testament to the fact that I’m still doing it at 38, and I’m healthy and injury-free.”
Simon’s daily diet includes Paleo staples like coconut oil, bacon, and ghee butter, with a focus on quality fats, proteins and “adequate” amounts of carbohydrate supplies.
You can learn more about Simon at his website.
Timothy Olson – Ultramarathoner & 2012 Western States 100 Winner
Timothy is the winner of one of the most prestigious long distance running races in the United States. When I write long distance, I mean a very lengthy 100 miles, long!
In 2012 he won the Western States 100, and didn’t just win but crushed the overall course record by 21 minutes! All while following a Paleo diet that’s very low in carbohydrates.
Timothy began the road to eating low carb by first eliminating gluten from his diet in 2011. While he says this helped his training and race performance it didn’t eliminate the upset stomach he often experienced. This is a common problem among distance runners which often leads to them withdrawing from their event.
He then changed his diet to be low carb and the rest is history. Timothy now eats a very low carbohydrate diet with a few exceptions. He will still eat sweet potatoes (cooked in coconut oil) before a race or long run and occasionally has a protein and fruit smoothie after a 5 hour run to speed his recovery. Given the demands of his sport, it’s pretty safe to say he’s still using fat as fuel and benefiting from it too.
Timothy also says that he takes amino acid supplements to help boost his workout performance recovery. The only really high carb thing he still does during a race is to occasionally drink a soda during its later stages. This apparently helps settle the stomach upset that he and many other runners get during the later stages of a meet. I doubt that these carbs do any harm given the energetic demands of his event.
Read Timothy’s blog to learn more about his diet, workouts, and competitions on his blog.
Ursula Brobler – Lightweight Rower & World Record Holder
Deciding to pursue an Olympic gold medal at the age of 26 is almost unheard of in today’s world of pre-teen phenoms! Fortunately, for us, Ursula Grobler doesn’t let her age keep her from pursuing this dream.
Since taking up rowing at the age of 26, Ursula has represented the United States at several international competitions, placing in the top 4 in 2010-2012 in the lightweight division. She’s also set the world record for indoor rowing on an ergometer.
According to Ursula, following a strict Paleo diet is one of the keys to her success. Ursula is so dedicated to the diet that she even works with Paleo diet expert and bestselling author Robb Wolf.
Since dedicating herself to a Paleo diet, Ursula has become a world record holder for the indoor rowing ergometer and top 4 finisher in the lightweight division at the rowing world championships.
Ursula credits much of her success to her diet. In interviews she states that it has given her more endurance and allows her to train harder, and longer on a regular basis. She also says that eating this way boosts her mental clarity and focus, which is a huge boost for any athlete that needs to put 100% into every workout and every competition! Ursula also states that eating Paleo has eliminated her allergies and improved her overall health tremendously.
Ursula has this to say about how Paleo benefited her health and rowing performance. “The amount of energy I had was noticeably different. I could hold a larger volume of training, and recovery was faster. I also noticed how my nerves and cognitive ability kept sharp and those sluggish lulls in the day were being erased. My whole quality of life went up, with little things like my allergies that went away and I was sick less often. I was more productive and had more time for what I really wanted to do.”
Ursular writes about eating Paleo on her website.
Now that you see how elite men and women use Paleo to perform and win at the highest levels, it’s time for you to give this diet a try if you haven’t already. If you currently eat Paleo, keep at it, and use the tips and tricks of the athletes in this article for even greater results than you’re currently having!
I also recommend our interview with Dr. Jeff Volek to learn more about how eating a high fat, low carbohydrate diet,like Paleo, can help improve your performance, health and positive mental attitude!