Low Carb Diet For Endurance Performance – Accelerate your Bodies Efficiency at Burning Fat
As we move into the cold dark months in Northern Michigan the paddling is definitely slowing down and many of us are back to the drawing board planning our strategy for next season.
I have always been drawn to anything and everything that challenges conventional wisdom, I’m not sure exactly why, but probably because in that challenge I see excitement, opportunity, a chance to be unique, and with any luck some competitive advantage (the surfski itself is a perfect example ) As I left the Epic Retailer Conference in mid October I was thrilled to have two new opportunities in front of me to work on through the off-season both of which posed a pretty significant challenge to the conventional wisdom.
Setting the Stage
As many of you may know, I have been a strict vegetarian and about 90% vegan for the past five years. My initial decision to adopt this diet/lifestyle was driven by an awareness that I had to do something to clean up my diet after the twins were born since my training time was cut back significantly. Additionally I read some pretty provocative books that spurred me along. Thankfully I had already been heavily into cooking, but nonetheless the first few weeks were a rocky road trying to figure out how in the world to cook Tofu, Tempeh and Seitan. Eventually I got the cooking dialed in, lost a few pounds, and seemed to retain good strength and perform quite well in lieu of the limited training I was doing.
Over the years I thoroughly enjoyed mastering Vegan cooking, built a portfolio of unique and flavorful entrees and hosted many very successful gourmet vegan dinner parties enjoying a unique opportunity to introduce gourmet vegan food to our friends and family. While I adhered to a fairly strict vegan diet, I never felt there was anything wrong with eating well raised animal products and became convinced that sugar was a much more toxic substance than good meat would ever be.
Getting the itch for change
Having been nearly vegan for over five years, this fall I was starting to get the itch to mix things up again, and craving a new challenge to spur some new thinking, innovation, and maybe even a competitive advantage. (I have my 40th birthday coming up next summer and am committed to racing the US Champs in San Fran , the two combined are providing some good motivation). Over the past year I listened in on a lot of the on-line lecturers my wife Kim attended as part of her health coach program at the Institute for Integrated Nutrition. Several were very informative and thought provoking and after listening to these leading edge speakers, Kim would usually order their books. The books were there and my curiosity was triggered, so I started to read. The first was Grain Brain by Dr David Perlmutter who is a neurologist, and hence the title. His book is written predominately from the perspective of brain disorders (alzheimer’s, dementia, epilepsy, parkinsons, ADHD, depression, etc.) and he puts forward a strong argument that high insulin levels and inflammation from a high carbohydrate diet in addition to gluten sensitivities are often the root cause of most diseases of the brain. This book definitely piqued my interest and at the recommendation of Erik Borgnes, I moved on to reading Gary Taubes lastest book Why We Get Fat, which is essentially a slimmed down version of his original best seller “Good Calories / Bad Calories”. Gary is an amazing science researcher and writer and his book was definitely a game changer for me and immensely improved my understanding of the critical and dominating role insulin plays in our bodies.
The low carb diet has been around for a long time and I even gave it a shot 10 years ago for at least a month with mixed results. But until reading Gary’s book, I never truly understood all the science behind it. These two books really got my attention at many levels and made me start to question the science that partially led me to the vegan diet. I quickly came to the conclusion that while you absolutely cannot debate the merits of a vegan diet from a perspective of environmental sustainability and animal welfare, the effects on health are not nearly as conclusive.
Reflecting on my actual diet
As I began to reflect more and more on my actual diet, I realized I was consuming extremely high levels of carbohydrates. I hadn’t really gained weight or noticed any significant lack of energy from this, but I did realize that I was starting to eat constantly and would have periods of the day where I was ravenously hungry with no good explanation (i.e. two hours after eating a big bowl of steel cut oats for breakfast)
Random Coincidence or Fate?
As we prepared to head to Charleston for the Epic Conference I had made the decision that I would work hard to cut grains out of my diet and try to go as low carb as possible, without jumping right into a bunch of meat, cheese, and dairy. As coincidence or fate would have it, on our last night out Kim and I got to talking with Zsolt Szadovszki. We somehow landed on the topic of diet and he explained he had been vegetarian for several years but had recently gone low carb and back to animal proteins and had lost over 25 lbs and was feeling more energy than ever. Zsolt gave me the name of an endurance athlete and doctor named Peter Attia who was doing some ground breaking work in the area of low carb and had served as an inspiration and resource for him. Kim will probably never forgive Zsolt for that one. Once I discovered Peter’s blog at www.eatingacademy.com I was in, hook, line, and sinker.
But Can a low carbohydrate diet really work for endurance athletes?
Most of us would generally agree that a low carbohydrate diet works well to lose weight but would challenge the idea that it could work for an endurance athlete. Peter and team are working to prove that it is quite the opposite. They argue than in fact a low carb diet may be optimal for some endurance athletes. Particularly those who don’t handle carbohydrates well. We all know them, the guy you know who is a phenomenal athlete, works out every day, but still carries an extra 20 lbs or so. He is the one who should definitely take a shot at trying a restricted carbohydrate diet.
I can’t say that the concept of going low carb was completely foreign to me, because I know Erik Borgnes who is an endurance machine follows a predominately low carb diet which he has written about before. Peter actually reminds me of Erik’s long lost brother and is equal parts brilliantly analytical and passionate about his interests.
Peter has some amazing material on his blog, much of it way over my head, but after two or three passes through I can start to digest it. He also recommends another great book that I purchased titled The Art and Science of Low Carbohydrate Performance by Jeff Volek and Steven Phinney. I believe this book is an absolute must if you are an endurance athlete attempting a low carb diet.
I have now re-introduced meat, cheese, and dairy into our house and trying to work through the challenges of how to afford buying only quality / local product. The biggest difference so far is that my appetite has stabilized considerably and I am able to go much longer periods of time without getting hungry. As I reflect back, it was no surprise that I had some serious bonks in the longer races this season. With a high carbohydrate diet I had trained my body to run exclusively off of stored glycogen and glucose. To add insult to injury, I rarely if ever trained over 2 hours, so in almost all cases I was simply running off of stored carbohydrate. In those couple of times this summer (Back on Black and Michigan City) where I passed the 2 hour threshold, I definitely paid the price.
The theory behind it
The theory with the very low carbohydrate (Ketosis) strategy is that over the course of a few weeks your body becomes so well trained to burn fats that you do so as long as you stay aerobic. Even on a low carb diet your body will have some stores of glycogen so the goal is to just tap into that glycogen for very short periods when you need to go anaerobic over the course of a workout. If all goes as planned, you should have unlimited fuel on board (in the form of fat) to maintain a steady effort for hours on end.
Relating this all to Surfski Paddling
One of the things that really baffled me in my early days of surfski paddling was why I would get so ravenously hungry after a paddle. If you were to look strictly at your heart rate average and the time you worked out it just didn’t compare with cycling for example where I could do the exact same workout and not generate much appetite at all. My brother (biochemistry major) first suggested to me that maybe it was the brain,and based on all my recent reading, this now makes perfect sense to me. While the brain is only 2% of your overall mass, in a normal state it burns 20% of your fuel. Now imagine how much fuel it is burning when you are 100% focused on trying to balance a tippy surfski. This fuel consumption of course would never register on the formula of your HR based calorie estimator. So in the world of surfski paddling, having your body trained to burn fat could actually be an additional safety precaution. The first thing to go in a bonk is your brain, when your liver runs out of glucose if it isn’t quick to start producing ketones, your brain really struggles and in a surfski this leads to a loss of balance which quickly snowballs when you fall in, exert more energy to get back on the ski, get cold, etc.. In my personal experience bonking (thankfully has never happened to me in the water) taking an energy gel simply does not help recovery, once I’ve bonked, it takes a few hours to come back around.
My Experience So Far
I’m now about a month into the ketosis and even purchased a test kit to check my blood levels. The tests I’ve done have shown that I am actually in the high range of ketosis testing at 3.9 and 4.4 mmol/L. The ideal range is actually between 1 and 3 mmol/L so I may need to start taking in a few more carbs. My day to day energy is great and my workouts are getting better every day, although I haven’t done anything real long yet. It did take a few weeks of feeling less than optimal as my body transitioned off of it’s glucose dependency. I also realized (thanks to the great books) I need to very consciously supplement sodium on workout days to offset the natural loss of sodium and water weight that occurs when insulin levels remain low.
My grand plan is that I’m going to stick with very low carb / ketosis and test it out in some 50k ski races this winter. If all goes as planned, by next summer I will be Bonk Proof! I’ll keep everyone posted through the ski season.
The second part of my journey in Challenging Conventional Wisdom, will be adopting Oscar style paddling technique. Not everything Oscar preaches challenges the conventional wisdom, but there are certainly some key components that do. Stay tuned!