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.

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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.

Time restricted eating: when you eat matters

Intermittent fasting is an increasingly popular phenomenon among people wishing to improve their body composition and their overall health – almost as much as consuming the latest superfood.

Intermittent fasting (or time restricted eating, as it is known in the scientific literature) is when we restrict our eating during the day to a window of from around 8 hours to 12 hours, and has been popularised by the fitness industry in recent years. There are different ways to approach it, though from a health perspective, eating earlier in the day to allow for the feeding to align with our body’s circadian rhythm may optimise the health benefits for overall longevity. Fasting has been a practice undertaken for centuries in some cultures, and research reports favourable effects on many markers of metabolic health, including blood lipid profile, blood glucose metabolism and hypertension when these populations have been studied. More recently, researchers have investigated different time restricted feeding protocols in relation to risk of cardiovascular disease, neurological disorders, diabetes and some cancers using rodent and human trials. The longer time spent fasting may have pronounced health benefits, though recently a more conservative method (of even an 11 hour fast) has emerged as being beneficial for certain populations. Indeed, time restricted eating is being thought of as an easy to implement, effective lifestyle intervention that could help improve appetite control, markers of overweight, inflammation, blood glucose metabolism and hypertension, all reducing risk of cardiovascular disease, diabetes and some cancers. This recent small study found that late night (or prolonged eating periods) increased fasting glucose, blood triglycerides, insulin and weight gain.

When healthy adults eat meals that are identical in terms of macronutrients (ie carbohydrates, proteins and fats) and caloric load at breakfast, lunch and dinner, the postprandial (ie. after eating) glucose response to the meal is lowest after breakfast and highest after dinner, even though the meal is identical. This is one example which suggests that our metabolism, and response to food, changes across the course of the day (see here). We are diurnal creatures – we do most of our activities during the day (including eating, working, exercising) and we rest at night. This is controlled by our internal clock in the brain, the superchiasmatic nucleus (or SCN) which in turn influences smaller internal clocks (or oscillators) in the peripheral tissues of our body. These clocks control thousands of genes within our body, including those that regulate our metabolic processes, which accounts for around 10% of our entire genome. While light is the major cue for the SCN in our brain, timing of food intake influences the circadian rhythm in the other tissues, including the liver, which has implications for metabolism. This tells us that our basic metabolic physiology is supposed to behave differently according to the time of day – this is everything from making neurotransmitters, to making insulin, to glucose transport inside of cells, to fatty acid oxidation and repairing cellular damage. It makes sense then that when we eat has just as important implications for our health as what we eat. Research investigating the health effects of fasting has found that anything that breaks the fast will break the fasting period, including no calorie options such as black coffee and even herbal teas. This is because there are compounds within these fluids that require breaking down by the liver. That is not to say that people don’t experience benefits from fasting if they consume a hot beverage earlier in the day (as is often recommended to help get through the morning hours and comply with a 16:8 protocol) or limited calories (for example, 50 calories), however longevity benefits may well lie within the strictest definition of fasting.

With the advent of artificial light, and the changing structure of work schedules (combined with the increasing busy-ness of everyday life), this has elongated the period of time that people eat, which has negative health consequences. While you may have heard in media reports of scientific studies that eating late at night makes no difference to overall weight loss, the focus on weight ignores the more important, underlying metabolic and chronic disease risk that eating late into the evening can have on health outcomes. It may be easier to regulate appetite too, as  research suggests that appetite hormones respond more favourably to eating earlier (8am to 7pm) than later (noon – 11pm), and the level of satiety achieved with this could prevent overeating. This is relevant with time restricted feeding as research has shown that more frequent eating patterns can be detrimental to metabolic health if consumed close together. One study found that participants who ate excess calories consuming their food over three meals and three snacks had increased visceral (stomach) fat deposition, liver triglycerides and lower liver insulin sensitivity compared to those consuming the same number of calories over three meals. The snacks were consumed later in the day, and after each meal, so elongated the overall eating period.

Animals limited to 9-12 hours feeding period, but not limited in the number of calories they eat have experienced benefits including decreased fat mass, increased lean muscle mass, improved glucose tolerance and blood lipid profile, reduced inflammation, higher volume of mitochondria (the energy powerhouse of our body), protection from fatty liver and obesity, and a more favourable gene expression. In humans, research studies suggest that eating within a time restricted window of 11 hours (say, 7am to 6pm) is associated with a reduction in breast cancer risk and occurrence by as much as 36%. Earlier eating time has resulted in more effective weight loss in overfat people, and every 3 hour increase in fasting duration was linked with 20% reduced odds of having an elevated glycated haemoglobin (HbA1c), a marker of long term blood sugar control. For every 10% increase in calories consumed after 5pm there was a 3% increase in c-reactive protein, a biomarker used to measure inflammation (the underlying process that, when elevated long term, can influence risk of diabetes, cardiovascular disease and some cancers). Finally, when meal times were constructed earlier in the day this resulted in a 10% decrease in c-reactive protein. Eating within a 12-hour window improved sleep and weight loss within an otherwise healthy population. You can see then, the myriad of potential benefits to eating within a time restricted eating – could it be worth trying to fit into your lifestyle? And if so, how to do it?

There are many different time restricted eating protocols to choose from – and the type of fast you choose to do really comes down to what works for you. The 16:8 protocol that seems to be most popular is a little aggressive for anyone new to fasting, and this may ultimately leave you feeling hungry, cranky, and vulnerable to overeating later in the day – undoing any potential health benefit that has been shown in the research. Indeed, many people I see that try this as their first experience report that they can successfully get to 11am or lunchtime without eating, but once they are home from work, no amount of food will keep them full, eating right up until bedtime.  My advice is to start a little more conservatively. Given that (in an ideal world), we sleep for 8 hours a night, not eating in the 3 hours leading up to bed time should be a good place to start for most people, thus it gives that 11 hours where some of the health benefits begin to be realised. From there, once adapted, you could try to push it out by an hour. While the most potent benefits occur with the strictest definition of fasting, the blood glucose and lipid improvements, along with fat loss can still occur in those whose definition of fasting refers to calories, not coffee and tea as mentioned above. That the benefits occur in the absence of caloric restriction is important to reiterate, however by restricting the eating period, many people also reduce overall caloric intake, which can further improve overall metabolic health and body composition. Fasting doesn’t appear to be something you must do every day to see the health benefits either, and even 3-4 days a week could be beneficial for metabolic health.

That said, this reduction in calories and extended time NOT eating may not be good for all, especially if your notice increased anxiety, sleeplessness or disruptions in hormone balance, so it is always best to proceed with caution. It would also be prudent for any individual with a health condition to discuss with their health professional before embarking on time restricted eating, especially the more aggressive protocols.

(PS I’ve got dates booked for Nelson, Wellington, Dunedin and Christchurch for my talk! Click here to find out more details, would love to see you 🙂 ).

clock

As with many things, it could be all about timing…

Another mindset shift: (lack of) training for the marathon.

Another marathon ticked off. And this is the first one that I’ve completed as an LCHF athlete. More than that though, it’s the first one I’ve raced on a smaller training load than I thought I needed. And while I say ‘oh, I don’t race’ – in reality, when I step up to the start line and the gun goes off, I am racing. It’s a race against the clock and myself, and not the people around me, though I did earmark one dude on the start line as my nemesis that I wanted to take down – and this had nothing to do with his running ability.  This was purely because he was in a tutu and as soon as I saw him I thought ‘there’s no way I’m letting anyone in a skirt, guy or girl, beat me.’ Rational? Obviously not.

I entered the Queenstown marathon at the start of the year purely because the early bird deal was so good. As a new event, they took $50 off the entry fee for the marathon and, like anyone who likes a bargain*, that was enough for me to sign on the dotted line. Inevitably, though, life and limb gets in the way of any decent build up period for a race and more often than not I’m left with 8-10 weeks to go and starting to panic that I’m not going to have the time for an adequate preparation period. Now any coach would look at that length of time and say that it was ridiculous to think it wasn’t enough time. Physically, of course it is – particularly as it’s not like I’m going from a couch potato to my first marathon; I’ve been running for over 20 years. Psychologically though: different story. Particularly when your compatriots are 6 -8 weeks into their 16 week build plan for an event and ticking off 8-10 km intervals on a Saturday, backed up with a 2h 15min run on a Sunday and I’m high fiving people for completing a 40 min easy run without any nagging sensation in the calf. I’m obviously excited to be running, but daunted by what is ahead in terms of ‘making up’ lost kilometres to get me on an even par with other runners of my ability. It’s easy to talk yourself out of a good race before you’ve even begun to train for it. I know I do. And, even when you do train for it, how many people do you know line up on the start-line with either a niggle, a virus, or lack of preparation to blame their less than ideal finish time on?  Not only do I battle with knowing that others have been able to consistently run at a time where I’ve only been able to do gym work and some swim sessions, but my main problem is that I have a fear of failure. This has been the hardest thing to let go of over the last few years – the expectations that I perceive others have of me and my running ability.  In some ways not having the ideal race build up let me off the hook; it’s a legitimate reason for running slower than others think I’m capable of – and just finishing the race is good enough. Bevan, though, didn’t let me off that easy. He guided my training for the Queenstown marathon and was adamant that 8 weeks was adequate to get me in pretty good shape to get around.

Previously, I would have tried to cram in as much running with intensity as I could tolerate, with a couple of rest days per week, so I would build my fitness faster that way. Bevan had a different approach. He pointed out that whenever I get injured in the past, it is from the combination of both longer runs plus interval training which places too much stress on my body. Hmm… good point. He predicted that, if I were to include intensity along with duration in my build up, I would break down at roughly 4-6 weeks in, leaving me in a spectator role come race day, as it has in the past. Needless to say, that put the kibosh on my grandiose plans of the interval/long run double that is the mainstay of any running programme. Instead, he suggested that I needed to focus on frequency. Just run. Everyday. The length of the runs varied from 25 minutes to 2h, and while I would lift the pace on some runs, there were no set tempo sessions, hill repeats or one kilometre intervals. It was just running. Part of me loved it – telling a runner that they can run everyday is like letting a sugar addict loose in a candy store. In addition to that, while I LOVE running, I actually really don’t like running those 2 1/2 – 3h runs which are another mainstay of a running programme. They to me are almost the necessary evil of marathon build-ups that sap your reserves, leave you feeling broken and ancient for the rest of the day, but at the same time almost perversely thrilled that you’ve ticked off the big miles that distinguish you from that half marathoner runner.**   A big part of me though was anxious that this preparation would leave me short on race day. How was I supposed to get around 42.2km when I hadn’t run for longer than 2h on any long run?

But I listened dutifully to what Bevan told me, switching it up a bit with my pace – some days it was closer to 6 min kilometer pace, something I would never have considered doing in the past but had become almost worryingly easy to do now. Others we would run a steady 20 minutes at around 4.40 kilometer pace as part of our long run. But, bar one run that was around 2.04 and in hideous weather at a hideously slow pace, I never went beyond those guidelines. I got up every morning and ran, once a week was 2h, once a week was 80 min and the rest were between 25-60 minutes – and, as Bevan said, I made it to the start line in one piece. And while I still wasn’t convinced that I had run long enough in any long run to get through the event and feel okay, you know what? I did. Other than that inevitable dip that occurs in ‘no mans land’ from around 27-32 kilometers, I felt comfortable, strong, I paced it pretty well (the second half was four minutes quicker than the first) and came in at 3.28 and some change. It’s not my fastest – actually it’s slower than my PB by 37 minutes, but I felt awesome. That I made it to the start line and finished in one piece on such a spectacular course are three wins in my book. As a runner, I love to be able to run and I think this approach will allow me to do that. This has provided me with the ‘proof’ I need that I don’t need to do the extra long training runs to successfully complete (and run pretty well) in an event. This is a massive shift from days of old, and the runner mentality. My goal in running these days isn’t to aim for another PB; I don’t have the mental energy required to do that, nor do I want to. I just want to be able to run, enjoy it, participate, push myself and enjoy the afterglow of a run well run. Who knew that you didn’t need to run hard and long to do that? This might not be a major for another runner – but for me it is almost as much of a mind shift as the LCHF approach to marathon training. Stoked to have made it.

PS The guy in the tutu totally took me out – so did another very talented woman runner in a Lululemon running skirt. At the risk of making myself wildly unpopular, I am not a fan of the ruffled skirt number.

*aka any runner because as a group we are known for being frugal – though anyone who runs will testify that it ISN’T a cheap sport

** no disrespect intended. I love half marathoner runners. In fact some of my best friends are half marathoners.