Fuelling the fat-adapted athlete

On August 1st I’m releasing my athlete-specific meal plan, which is a long time coming given that I consult with many endurance athletes! It’s hard to be specific with a general plan, clearly, particularly when it comes to training nutrition, so when you sign up I encourage you to contact me to see if we need to tweak the elements of this plan to suit your training.

The goal of an athlete training plan is to provide fuel where required, be strategic about the type of fuel and when to have it. I want to help make you a more efficient athlete – so your training and recovery is optimised to enable you to get out there day in, day out in the best possible shape. This will allow you to show up to the start line (or game day) in the best position to do your best. Like recovery, nutrition is vital to enhancing fitness gains from your session – eating the wrong types of food increases oxidative stress and dampens down your immune system, leaving you susceptible to inflammation, illness and injury. If you don’t recover effectively from the previous training session, your ability to get out the next time and hit certain paces/power is compromised – therefore overall fitness gains aren’t realised and you may not reach your potential awesomeness. I’ve written about this previously in more detail here.

To be metabolically efficient, we want to be strategic about when and how we have our carbohydrate, how much we have and the quality of the carbohydrate source. That is why in the plans I focus on adding fruit, kumara or potato after training if the training requires additional carbohydrate to support recovery. By removing carbohydrate from the pre-training meal/snack, we don’t have an insulin response that will drive circulating glucose (what carbohydrate is broken into) in to your muscle cells, shutting down lipolysis (fat burning). The body will be forced to use alternative fuel sources such as fat which, as an endurance athlete, we should be primed to do. The reality is, though, the modern diet that a typical athlete follows has made sugar burning the default training state, even at low intensities. Even the leanest marathon runner has enough fat calories on board to go out and run back to back races – accessing this though is the problem! Fat as a fuel source creates a lot less oxidative damage and reactive oxidative species, thereby the inflammation you experience post-training is reduced, recovery is enhanced, and you’ll be able to hit the next session fighting fit. We need to adapt from a carb burner to a fat burner for you to go out and train and not risk bonking or running out of fuel. The switch over doesn’t happen overnight, and if you’re new to this approach then training can feel pretty sluggish to begin with – but hang in there as it does get easier!

There are different approaches to fuelling depending on your goal:

Pre-training

If body composition improvement is your goal, it is best to do fasted training sessions or use coffee/caffeine as an ergogenic aid and fuel afterwards. This doesn’t mean that you’ll lose MORE body fat than if you were just to reduce calories, but it will force your body to tap into its own reserves, which (when combined with this dietary approach) I’ve clinically seen helps accelerate fat loss in the context of this eating style. For extended, longer duration >3h+ then having some fuel (as suggested in plan) can be a good idea, or starting fasted and taking on board fuel after 45-90 minutes depending on session is optimal.

If you are happy with your body composition or do not want to drop any body fat, then you can choose to take on board some fat before training – such as cream in coffee, MCT oil powder in coffee, or ketones. By fueling before training, you will shut down your own fat oxidation, but be upregulating pathways for fat oxidation, however it will be burning the fat that you consumed. This option is also good for people who have higher cortisol levels – training in the absence of any fuel can further exacerbate the ‘stress’ response from your hypothalamus (brain). Taking on board some calories sends signals to your brain that there is no need to stress. Taking the ketone supplement has been found (compared to fasting) to upregulate fat oxidation at lower given intensities; once the intensity rises to a high intensity, the opposite may be true (potentially due to the ketones being used to spare glycogen at the higher intensities).

If you struggle to maintain your weight and need to work at keeping calories high, then adding in some additional protein alongside could also be a good option – this could be a couple of hardboiled eggs, some scrambled eggs, additional fat-based calories or a smoothie based on nuts, avocado, some protein powder, coconut milk, greens, with no fruit). Again, this will provide a minimal insulin response, meaning your body will be burning the fuel you provide it (fat calories) and therefore working towards improving metabolic efficiency.

In all instances above, 10g of branched chain amino acid powder can help fuel a longer session – just mix in water beforehand.

In a perfect world, the best type of training to do if you are new to this is low intensity training; this is because your body needs to relearn how to burn fat as its primary fuel source. The ultimate goal down the line is to become metabolically flexible (ie easily shift between both sugar burning and fat burning) – and that will happen! That means the natural switch over to burning sugar that occurs when training at higher intensities will not impact on your fat-burning capabilities at the lower intensities. Right now, though, if it’s all new to you, your default is to burn glucose at that high intensity. Any shift back into glucose burning at this stage will impact on your ability to burn fat and can leave you in no-mans land when it comes to training. What I mean is, you are following a lower carbohydrate approach to diet, so there is no glucose on board as a ready source of fuel, yet you are too high intensity for your body to use fat as a primary fuel source (at this stage). No mans land.

However, it rarely happens that an athlete is always training low intensity, even in their off season. Therefore supplementing with an exogenous ketone supplement (such as Pruvit) provides your body with fuel the way a carbohydrate gel provides glucose. Ketones are the byproduct of fat metabolism, and when you burn fat as a fuel source, your body generates these to support metabolism. At a high intensity if you’re new to this, taking exogenous ketones provide you the fuel to enhance fat oxidation before your body has the machinery in place to do it for you. Otherwise the intensity will force your body to switch back to glucose burning. Remember, in the initial phases of your fat-fuelled approach, your body has to upregulate the machinery required for fat adaptation – it isn’t the default fuelling response. Any opportunity to switch back to burning sugar, it will take it.

Taking the ketones (along with MCT oil powder) will provide the fuel you need for the training without the need to use glucose, and is recommended in this instance. Further, ketones aid in recovery from longer sessions, and most athletes I work with who use them experience reduced inflammation, less excessive hunger, and can go for longer at a higher given intensity without an increase in their heart rate or perceived effort. Most have also experienced improved body composition due to these reasons. My recommendation is to have ½ sachet of the ketones and you can include 10g of MCT oil powder with it prior to your session.

During training:

 Shorter training up to 2h, low-mod intensity

Nothing – perhaps water, or an electrolyte fluid (no carbohydrates required*)

 Medium length from 2-3h low-mod intensity

Evaluate how you feel, take some MCT mix (see below), Superstarch (30g/hour in 750 ml bottle), ketones as below (sachet in 750ml bottle, 1/3 bottle hour), otherwise just electrolyte fluid.

Longer training: over 3h

36g MCT oil powder + 20g BCAA + ¼ tsp salt in 750 ml bottle OR sachet ketones, 18g MCT oil powder + 20g BCAA in 750ml bottle – ¼ bottle per hour AND every 45 minutes have something small, solid, food based: ¼ – ½ Cliff bar, 30g cheese, hardboiled egg, small handful cashews, ½ UCAN superstarch bar, homemade bar (such as apple pie blondie).

If including high intensity intervals

Try carb rinsing: 5-10 minutes before starting effort, have a glucose tablet, thereby trickling in carbohydrate – this method tells your brain you’ve had carbohydrate onboard without taking anything on. OR have sachet ketones in drink bottle as above.

*may need something if getting into it for first time, and suggestion is the ketone supplement here to help aid the fat oxidation pathways.

 Post-training

If body composition improvements are a goal, train around your meals so you don’t need to eat in addition to them, also can create a ‘train low’ environment by withholding food for around 45-75 minutes to further enhance fat oxidation. If higher intensity effort, include 10g BCAA powder in water post-training to preserve muscle mass.

If happy with body composition, then you can do as above or add in a protein shake with around 25g protein, use unsweetened almond milk to help provide calories and preserve muscle mass. Having the other ½ of your ketone sachet here can enhance recovery. Include 10g BCAA in water post-training to preserve muscle mass.

If you struggle to maintain your weight (or you are training hard again in next 8 hour period), then adding in the protein shake as above, plus serve of good quality carbohydrate such as kumara, potato, a piece of fruit can provide calories plus easily digested fuel to support recovery. Including the other half of your ketone sachet here can enhance recovery and include 10g BCAA in water post-training to preserve muscle mass.

In all instances, if the training is long, then I think the benefits of post-workout fuel outweigh ‘train low’, especially if you have a heavy or longer session the next day as a lot of ultra runners or triathletes do.

This isn’t definitive, and someone else will have a different approach, however these are generally the guidelines I have used that work with clients and that may work with you.

Remember, though, the best way to get fat-adapted is to adopt a daily diet that supports fat metabolism – click here to sign up to my plans and use the above guidelines to support your training.

IMG_1740

The fuel I used pre-half marathon at the beginning of my marathon training program: 1/2 ketone sachet, MCT oil powder, coffee and PB.

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