*Disclaimer: the above is a sugar free doughnut 😉
This is one of the most confusing topics for recreational athletes. We all know that too much sugar and processed food in our everyday life is bad for our health, but then how many of us head out on a long ride on Saturday and demolish sugar laden bars, gels and a coke? Triathlon magazines promote cereals, muffins or bagels (usually with honey) as post training “refuel” meals, and drinks like Gatorade are marketed to us as essential athlete performance fuel. It’s as if we have forgotten how to move without a constant supply of quick burning sugar. For years and years before sports marketing became a “thing” our ancestors could, and did, run for days on very little food. *Some of the most fascinating history of this can be found in the book “Natural Born Heroes” by Christopher McDougall*
What if I told you that there are people out there taking on incredible journeys and covering amazing distances using very little fuel, simply because their bodies have not been trained to rely on constant sugar hits. Some of these include professional ironman triathletes who are racing (and performing very well) taking on around 100-150 calories per hour, as opposed to 300-400 (which is what many athletes aim for thinking more = better).
I will preface the following by saying that there are a million and one opinions and ideas out there, and I am one of them. People can be very passionate (read: angry and defensive) about their diets, why they are right, and why everyone else is wrong. I’m not here to tell you what you should do, but to share some of the things I have learned whilst researching it myself, show you where those ideas have come from and how they are helping me improve my overall health and performance.
The conventional triathlete diet is very high in carbohydrates, which have long been thought necessary for high performance. Perhaps one of the most famous “take-backs” in endurance history is the man responsible for this original idea, exercise and sports science professor Dr. Tim Noakes. “The Lore of Running,” which he published very early in his career was considered to be the Bible of endurance sport. Noakes promoted eating as much carbohydrate as possible and advised that athletes would perform best when about 60% of their daily energy intake was coming from carbohydrates. He followed this plan himself for many years until, despite being fit and running every day, he was shocked to find he was in the beginning stages of developing Type 2 diabetes mellitus. The culprit turned out to be his high carb, low fat diet. After digging a bit deeper into the research he discovered some of Jeff Volek‘s work on low carbohydrate diets for health and performance, and began to experiment on himself. With the simple act of changing his diet, Noakes noticed a dramatic improvement in both general health and running performance, including the return of blood sugar back to normal. Dr. Noakes went on to become a key researcher in this field of medicine and continues to be a compelling voice in the argument against a high carbohydrate diet for health and performance.
So where and how do we strike a balance? We know that 60% carbohydrate is too much, but how much can we still eat without it impacting our health?
Nutritional ketosis is on the opposite end of the spectrum to the conventional carb-loading diet that athletes are familiar with. It is a term used to describe a state of burning fat (usually that which is stored in the body) to produce ketone bodies, which are then used by the brain and muscles as an energy source. Ketone bodies are produced when the body exists in a fat burning state, typically on a very low carbohydrate diet (<100 grams) with adequate fat intake. Note: this is different from starvation ketosis where the body is getting nothing at all and so breaks down muscle as well- not what we want!
Nutritional ketosis can assist with performance in many sports. Free divers and navy seals have used this method of eating to extend the time they can spend underwater. It has also been used for many years to treat seizure disorders such as epilepsy with high levels of success. Ketosis is often confused with a condition known as ketoACIDosis which is a life threatening condition usually occurring in people with poorly controlled Type 1 diabetes. For a bit more on ketones for human performance, have a listen HERE.
The low levels of carbohydrates required to exist in this state can often be difficult to achieve and undesirable for day to day life and training of many athletes. In this post I am definitely not encouraging you to go and cut all carbs from your diet, nor do I try to exist in a state of ketosis for extended periods of time. One thing I have been experimenting with over the past year is dipping down into 2-3 days of very low carb intake (around 50 grams) when I have a rest day or a couple of light days. This comes partly from the Optimised Fat Metabolism (OFM) protocol by the guys over at VESPA , in addition to what I have read in the literature. I do a very low carb cycle about once every 2-3 months. Put simply, the effect of changing my diet to predominantly fat for few days is to up-regulate the machinery in the body that helps to burn fat by forcing it to access fat stores for energy in the absence of quick burning carbs. Yes, if you try this you do feel a bit sluggish and the hard part is missing out on my big salads and veggies, but the improvements I am seeing to my endurance and ability to recover is similar to what has been shown in research, and I feel like it’s working for me. If this interests you, keep an eye out for the release of the FASTER Study by Jeff Volek and his crew.
Regardless of your feelings about ketosis, ensuring that you are getting enough good fats is vital for athletes of all ages and skill levels. Fat has been demonised in the sport world for years, but is important for brain function, satiety, absorption of fat-soluble vitamins (A, D, E, K) and hormonal production. Omega-3 is arguably the most important fat for nervous system health and so packing some fresh fish in your diet is one way to make sure you aren’t missing out.
Someone that has really helped me to understand how all this stuff works (and how I can apply it to future patients) is Dr Phil Maffetone. I first heard of Dr. Maffetone through the Endurance Planet podcast and have since been speaking with him via Skype and email to check in for advice when I get lost. Dr Maffetone has been using these same nutritional principles, along with his legendary training methods, since way before I was even born. He has coached an enormous number of athletes to better health and performance, including helping Mark Allen to achieve his many Ironman Hawaii victories.
Dr. Maffetone’s philosophy is not a complicated one, but the results can be phenomenal. Originally designed to help his pre-diabetic and obese patients in the clinic, Dr. Maffetone’s “Two Week Test” allows people to feel for themselves how good they can be once they break the addiction to processed foods and carbohydrates. For many people, they don’t even realise there is a problem until they experience the withdrawals and come out the other side feeling amazing. If you are curious, you can find out more about the test and give it a go yourself HERE.
In the modern triathlon world, you don’t have to go far to find “over-fat” athletes who are overloaded on carbohydrate. A “skinny fat” athlete or one with a wobbling gut that doesn’t budge with ironman training are telling signs of poor carbohydrate tolerance and the inability to access stored fat for fuel. Other signs include being sleepy or groggy after meals, frequent hunger, insomnia or fatigue, not being able to get past 3pm without a sugary snack, not being able to go for a training session without eating before/during/after, or coming home from a long ride and demolishing everything in the fridge.
Like Dr. Noakes, Dr. Maffetone is not an advocate for completely cutting out carbohydrates from your diet, but for increasing your body’s ability to access and burn fat for fuel. By increasing your metabolic efficiency, you not only burn more fat at a higher intensity for a longer period of time, but you get much more out of the carbohydrates you do take in. I like to think of it as the same way you get a greater buzz from a coffee if you don’t suck them down religiously. The other benefit of this is that on race day you require less fuel to get the job done, thereby avoiding the GI distress that haunts many ironman athletes in the back half of the marathon.
At the end of the day, everyone goes faster after they have a gel. You’ll run a bit quicker after a coke on your second lap of the run. But race day is a different beast entirely, and once you have primed your body to become a fat burning machine you can take on plenty of carbs during an event and the effects on performance will be so much greater, with the harm to your body being far less.
Race day aside, if you are finding yourself needing to have a Gu before getting in the pool on a weekday morning, eating bars and jellies on aerobic rides less than about 3 hours or smashing down a Gatorade every time you have a jog then it might be time to have a think about your health in general. Just because you are an “athlete” does not mean you are immune from disease and poor health. Is it worth sacrificing your overall health in the long term in order to train quicker or nail some Strava segments in the short term? As an age-grouper who competes for fun, it definitely is not worth it for me. Smashing my body now and developing diabetes or metabolic disease down the track is not why I signed up for this sport in the first place. I know there is a way to perform without destroying our bodies, and I’m lucky enough to have guidance from some great people who have been doing it for decades.