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.

Starving? Read this and you won’t be.

One of the biggest downfalls I see with diet is the lack of protein across the course of the day. A typical pattern I see when I talk to people about their food intake and their appetite is:

“I’m ‘good’ all day, but can’t control myself come 5pm”

OR

“I’m fine all day, but after dinner regardless of how full I feel, I’m not ‘satisfied’ ”

OR

“I’m ‘good’ till Wednesday then it’s all downhill from there”

Any of this ring true? The reason I bring this up is that many people report being absolutely starving, constantly thinking about their next meal and (more often than not) their frustration with being unable to lose body fat as they view their diet as being pretty good. When we delve further, I see quite clearly that when people are “good” it generally means they are undereating during the day, and this leads to almost a binge-like pattern later in the evening, or just an inability to stop snacking. A typical pattern might be:

  • Breakfast: cereal + fruit + trim milk (cos, you know, fat is bad)
  • MT piece of fruit/trim latte OR nothing
  • Lunch: chicken salad perhaps 50g chicken, no-fat dressing, no carbs (hey, we got rid of them back in the 90s!)
  • AT: nothing, or a carrot or similar
  • 5pm: a small handful of nuts, then a slightly larger one.
  • 13pm: a carrot. And hummus
  • 21pm: a few spoons of PB,
  • 47pm: cheese while making dinner
  • 10pm: leftovers off the kids plate,
  • 32pm: dinner (full!)
  • 20pm: piece dark chocolate
  • 35pm: bite of icecream *well I’ve blown it now*
  • 40pm: bowl of icecream *I’ll be better tomorrow*
  • 10pm: 3 rows of chocolate…..

Does this look familiar? While they may be low calorie/fat/carb during the day, people with this dietary pattern will generally consume more calories than they realise in that pre-post dinner window. This isn’t just about calories and fat loss though. Many people also suffer from anxiety around their food intake, gut or digestive issues from consuming more food than what is comfortable, sleep issues due to an excess of food close to bedtime, and unhelpful self-talk related to their perceived lack of control. This last point can be particularly damaging to long term success, as for some this can perpetuate feelings of failure and subsequent behaviours which make it difficult to change in the long term. Other long term consequences of a low protein and low dietary energy early in the day include reduced muscle mass, reduced metabolic rate, low mood and a greater propensity for fat gain in the long run.

How to prevent this?

Eat more protein at the start of the day – it is more satisfying and is digested a LOT slower than other nutrients, and will prevent overeating later in the day. What you eat at the start of the day really impacts how you feel and what you eat at the end of the day. Many experts in the field of protein research view 0.8-0.9g protein per kilogram of bodyweight, based on nitrogen balance studies, are likely underestimating overall protein requirements. This is especially true for those in the older age bracket and for people wanting to drop body fat where studies such as this have found that 2.4g protein per kg bodyweight can help maintain metabolic rate and protect muscle mass. Clinically (which, to my mind, is as important as what the literature says), very few of my clients thrive on a lower protein diet. Athletes (FYI) are recommended around 1.7-2.2g per kg bodyweight and in general a higher protein intake will benefit mood, sleep, blood sugar and appetite.

So what does 2.4g per kilogram look like for the myriad of people out there wanting to drop body fat? IE if you weigh 75kg, your protein intake should be around 180g. If we consider the standard protein sources available, then it might look a little like this (amount of protein in brackets):

  • Breakfast: 4 eggs (29.2g) – with vegetables, scrambled, cooked in butter, coconut oil or olive oil
  • Lunch: Medium chicken thigh 146g (34g), sliced up into salad with olive oil dressing and lemon
  • AT: ½ cup of cottage cheese (18g) with pesto mixed through
  • Dinner: Medium steak (186g) with roast vegetables 57.3g

Well, that is 139.4g of protein per day, around 1.86g per kilogram body weight, leaving an additional 40g of protein being derived from plant sources. You can see that you have to eat a lot of food to get your protein in – which is completely different from the ‘being good’ scenario above.

While the run down of foods to eat above may freak you out if you’re used to a cereal and salad diet – don’t be scared. If your dietary pattern looks much as I described above, allowing more protein earlier in the day will have a huge influence on your overall intake – the pattern of grazing late afternoon into the evening will change. I promise. I’ve written about the protein leverage theory before when discussing the National Heart Foundation’s food guidance system (click here for that post) – that the body has an innate requirement for protein and will drive appetite until this is requirement is met. If you eat a lower protein diet, research suggests you may eat more overall calories (and calories from refined carbohydrate) compared to people consuming a moderate protein diet. I know many people don’t like eating more food earlier as they don’t believe they have the willpower to stop. I recently wrote about the main physiological driver of ‘lack of willpower’, and eating more protein will kill this response pretty quick. You just have to try it. When combined with fibre, a bit of fat and carbohydrate that takes longer to digest, protein is (to my mind) the nutrient to focus on for controlling appetite, hunger levels and helping maintain an optimal body composition.

Protein quality definitely counts here too. This measure has been revised recently to reflect updated knowledge regarding the digestibility of protein, however regardless of technique used to establish bioavailability of protein source, animal protein consistently scores higher than plant protein in terms of protein quality (with 0.75 as a cut-off for good digestibility – see here for some food-based tables). This will have implications for their effect on appetite (i.e. ability to keep you satisfied). In part this is due to the presence of anti-nutritive factors in plant based proteins (such as lecthins, tannins, phytates etc) that prevent our absorption of them (see here for a comprehensive report on the digestibility of protein). This is not to say that plant protein doesn’t count. I have many clients who are vegetarian and, for them we ensure a good intake of eggs, cheese and protein powder (whey, pea or egg white protein powder for a good variety). People following a vegan diet are a little more challenged. While they will get protein from legumes, nuts, edamame beans, tempeh and seeds, I recommend (again) protein powders, and incorporating a variety of these (such as pea, hemp and sacha incha) in their daily diet. These are lower in overall protein compared to, say, whey (sacha incha has around 12g per 20g serve (60% protein), compared to whey protein (17-18g, or 85-90%). But if we are looking to increase protein across the course of the day, these will certainly be useful.

So…what about you?

If you’re a numbers person, think about your goals (weight loss, muscle maintenance etc) and shoot for the grams per protein I’ve mentioned above. Use Easy Diet Diary, My Net Diary, Fat Secret or Cronometer to find out how much protein is in the foods that you’re eating, and what the distribution of it is across the course of the day. Then use the information provided to plan for a higher protein intake and a more even distribution. At the very least, aim for around 25-30g of protein in your meals. If you’re not a numbers person, then use tables like these to give you an indication of where protein is in food. Aiming for:

  • 3-4 eggs at breakfast, or 120g protein-based food or 1-2 fist-sized worth; and
  • at least 120-150g of protein-based food at lunch (or 1-2 fist-sized); and closer to
  • 160-200g protein-based food at dinner (or 1-2 fist-sized); and

shooting for the higher numbers the more active or the bigger you are and THEN base the remainder of your macronutrient intake (carbohydrate and fat) around this – and don’t forget the abundance of non-starchy vegetables. If you want some help with this, get into contact with me or sign up for my online nutrition coaching – this is pretty much how I build my meals. While initially you may feel hungry, this will likely be habit rather than actual hunger (or a hormonal response, as your body’s appetite hormones work on a circadian rhythm and ghrelin may well be released as your body is used to eating at that time. Brushing your teeth is one of the best things to do to cut that hunger. If you wait it out, it will eventually pass and you’ll easily eradicate the feeling of hunger, the grazing later in the day and regain the feeling of control around your food (rather than letting the food control you).

protein_world_hunger_buster_thumb

Thankfully, it hasn’t come to this. There is an easier way to control your appetite… (PC healthycompare.com/diet-pills)

LCHF…why isn’t it working for me? (Part 1)

It’s about this time of year that I start seeing people come through my doors needing some minor (or major) tweaks to their LCHF eating approach. There are usually one of two scenarios.

Scenario #1: When they embarked on LCHF they saw ALL of the benefits they heard about, effortlessly shedding body fat, boundless energy (in training and afterwards), improvement in skin tone, hair condition, sleep and digestive problems. But lately the opposite is true. Despite seemingly nailing this LCHF lifestyle, they’ve noticed they are lacking energy, gaining weight (especially around the middle), latest blood tests have seen their cholesterol levels have shot up (and perhaps triglycerides), they are unable to sleep… … yet if anything, they’ve instigated (and nailed) the hacks they’ve read to optimise their LCHF eating approach. What gives??

Scenario #2: They’ve given it a good go on their own for the last 5 weeks, following it to the letter and despite this, it’s ‘not working for them.’ Worse, their husband/workmate/training partner has taken to it with ease.

Frustrating, much?

While we are all individual as to what is going to work for us, the LCHF approach is a really good one for most people, most of the time. Despite that, there are small things that can derail your best efforts to improve your diet, so I want to cover off the basic (and more nuanced) reasons people don’t fare well on a LCHF approach, and some tips on how to overcome them. I’ve ended up splitting this post into two parts as it was so long!

  1. Too low carb. The internet is a wonderful and terrible thing – information is everywhere, everyone is an expert and the version of paleo/LCHF/JERF that you’ve adopted based on what others are doing may well be too low carb for you. LCHF is a spectrum, and what is low carb for one person may well be higher carb for someone else – generally speaking, anything up to 200g of carbohydrate/day could be low carb. It all depends on context. I see a lot of people who are trying to stay strictly below 25g of carbohydrate a day – too strict (and unnecessary) for most people. Even Prof Tim Noakes, staunch advocate of a LCHF approach to eating (“banting”) has loosened up on this. The people who really benefit from a diet this low would be those embarking on it for therapeutic reasons: diabetes (both types), epilepsy, cognitive health (Alzheimer’s, for example). That’s not to say that others out there can’t make this level of carbohydrate work for them. But if you’ve noticed fat gain (especially around the middle), irritability, hormone imbalances (such as a missed menstrual period), lack of energy (past the initial phases of the LCHF approach), irregularity of bowel motions, sleeplessness – to name a few symptoms, then you may have gone too low. What to do?
    1. Track your diet for 4-5 days to get an average of the grams of carbohydrate you eat per day. If it’s on the very low end of the scale (less than 50g*, for example), then try adding back in some good quality starch to see if any of your symptoms improve. Don’t be pedantic about vegetables. Really. That includes carrots and tomatoes. To be honest, you don’t have to track your carbs if you’re not a numbers person – but it can be a good way to assess if this really is the problem. Use My Fitness Pal, Cron-o-meter, My Net Diary or Easy Diet Diary as nutritional tracking tools. (If you’re embarking on a lower carb diet, this is a good first step regardless, so you don’t make the jump from 400g a day to 60g a day).
    2. If your carbohydrate intake is in the realm of 80-100g carbohydrate, you may not be too low, it might be more of a timing problem – ensuring you have carbohydrate in the meal after a high intensity (i.e. CrossFit or F45) or long duration exercise session can help improve recovery and alleviate a lot of fatigue/irritability. If you’re struggling with insomnia, then adding in some kumara or potato into your evening meal increases production of precursors to melatonin.
    3. Is it more protein you need? Protein can help keep you fuller for longer, stabilise blood sugars (therefore has implications for focus/energy/concentration), promote recovery and help with sleep. Many people fear protein because of the potential for it to be converted to glucose in the body (via gluconeogenesis). For someone following a LCHF diet this isn’t an issue. Try upping your protein portions by 1/3 – ½ at each meal.
    4. If it’s in the initial phases, then up your intake of sodium – to levels more than you think you need. When we drop the carbohydrate content of the diet, we drop a lot of water stores too (hence a rapid loss on the scales) – this is because for every gram of carbohydrates stored, we store an additional 3g of water. Add salt to your meals, a pinch in your water bottle, make a miso drink or drink bone broth.
  2. Not low carb enough. I see this a lot. People equate carbohydrate to bread, pasta, rice and cereal and don’t think about other foods that are predominantly carbohydrate –fruit, dried fruit, ‘green smoothies’ with a fruit base, bliss balls, natural fruit and nut bars… In addition, many products are promoted as ‘sugar free’ when they contain dried fruit, maple sugar, rice malt syrup or some other type of natural sweetener. This may seem elementary to you, but I know many people are confused by this point. Regardless of what you hear, sugar IS just sugar – that one sugar is lower in fructose doesn’t mean it’s not going to influence your blood sugar levels, it’s likely to affect them more. This has to be my biggest bugbear of the ‘real food’ movement; not that these products contain sugar – but that they are marketed as not. This is no better than being told that Nutrigrain is healthy. We all know that’s not true.
    1. Again, track your numbers (as per above) via a tracking tool. A lower carbohydrate approach is not a fixed number, it’s a spectrum. But if you’re still consuming over 200g a day and not engaging in regular physical activity, then something might need to be tweaked (especially if you’re not seeing the results you’re after).
    2. Get rid of the bliss balls, the dried fruit, the paleo muffin or the smoothie from your favourite juice bar that you thought tasted suspiciously sweet for something ‘green’.
    3. Read the ingredient lists on the packages you buy. Sugar has over 56 different names. You probably don’t need to know them all, but it would be good to have an idea, right?
  3. Too many processed foods or snacks. Even if you’ve found a sweet spot with your macronutrient intake, having too many processed ‘low carb’ snacks can continue to drive your appetite hormones in a way that favours eating more than you need. Leptin is a hormone produced by fat cells that tells the body when we’ve had enough to eat, and is involved in the regulation of calories we burn and body fat that we store. A consequence of being over-fat is high circulating leptin levels in the bloodstream, and the brain stops reading signals sent by leptin that we’ve consumed enough food. Instead, it incorrectly believes that we are starving, thus we feel hungrier. Excess body fat increases Inflammation in the body, and is one of the drivers of leptin resistance, and processed food can drive inflammatory pathways in the body – even low carb processed food. And if you’re not over-fat? Well, vegetable oils and certain additives and preservatives found in these foods can drive inflammatory pathways in the body. In addition, an overabundance of processed flours may cause disruptions to our gut microbiome as they are easily digested, perhaps not even making it to the gut bacteria in our lower digestive tract. This can mean we are starving our good bacteria and instead feeding bacteria that release endotoxins, causing increasing inflammation. This can have a secondary effect of increasing your cholesterol level (see this post here). These foods are created in such a way to send signals to your brain’s pleasure centre and drive your appetite for more food that you just don’t need. One of the benefits of a real food approach (which naturally lowers your carbohydrate intake) is that inflammation reduces, insulin drops, gut bacteria can rebalance and the signalling pathways in the brain that regulate your appetite hormones can begin to normalise.
    1. Get rid of most foods or snacks that come in a package with ingredients you don’t recognise.
    2. Eat real food. Base your snacks around hardboiled eggs, cheese (for the dairy tolerant), vegetables, leftover meat, macadamia nuts, egg muffins.
    3. Drop the nut flours. Just because they’re low carb does not mean it’s a free for all with these processed flours.
    4. Increase foods that help balance out your fatty acid profile: more fatty fish (such as salmon, mackerel, sardines) and (grass fed) meat for omega 3 fats. Consider taking a fish oil or algae omega for those who don’t eat fish – and be picky about the supplement!
    5. Take care of your gut: consider a probiotic for 30-60 days (such as Lifestream Advanced, Inner Health Plus, Syntol or Prescript Assist) to help populate the gut with the good guys, but also keep them fed with fermented foods such as sauerkraut, raw apple cider vinegar, water kefir and an abundance of vegetable fibres.

I’ve got more – quite a bit more actually! – but will post that in Part 2 so as not to risk losing your attention ;-). These are three of the basics that people can get wrong (particularly in the initial phases), and the next post will cover some of the more nuanced reasons, and what you can do to correct them. If you’re not sure whether your LCHF diet is working for you, why not jump on and book a consultation with me? An expert eye can help take the thinking out of it for you and save a lot of stress long term.

*50g still pretty low actually! Again, it’s all context 😉

low-carb-zone

Are you in the zone? (PC: http://www.tripfitness.com)

Spice it up

One of the benefits of eating real food is that it minimises the amount of processed refined foods that drive the inflammation pathways in the body which, as you know, is the underlying cause of modern chronic disease. From a general health perspective, this is awesome. From an athlete perspective it is even more so – given that the training derived oxidative stress causes cell damage and breakdown, increasing recovery time from sessions. Anything that impedes recovery is not going to allow you to make the fitness gains you are looking for. Of course, it’s more than just diet you have to consider.  I’m three weeks post-marathon and am up to running around 50 minutes every 2-3 days, with calf and foot niggles making me more cautious that what I’ve needed to be in the past. It’s frustrating for me to tell you the truth; yes I enjoy gym work and swimming, but there is nothing I love more than running and when the weather is blossoming into summer and the choice is between a Smith squat machine or Auckland Domain, I’d know where I’d rather be. Worse is that I really only have myself to blame. I’ve pretty much got my diet dialled in (as to be expected – though, no, it’s not perfect as I am human 😉 ) and I honestly have been taking the return to running seriously and listening to both Coach and osteo advice to ease into it. But it’s slower than what I would have imagined. Where I fall down is the recovery out of training – you know, the wind down time, getting enough sleep – that kind of thing. Hence I’ve been making a real effort this week to get to bed early, to practice diaphragmatic breathing whilst driving and to invert my legs up onto the wall at the end of the day and just ‘be’. So it got me thinking about additional ways to support the body outside of the diet, exercise and lifestyle. What other dietary factors can help support the anti-inflammatory pathways in the body outside of a reduction of processed food and the free-radical scavenging properties of fruits, vegetables, animal protein and eggs?

A lot of athletes are heading into heavier schedules with the Christmas holidays allowing for some block training to occur. This is (for some) combined with the increased indulgences of additional alcohol at end-of year drinks and caffeine to get through the day. In combination with late nights and early starts, it’s no wonder that we hang out for December 23 as this time of year can wreak havoc on the body. It’s too easy to think you can pop a Voltaren or Neurofen tablet before going out and training (or at the end of a hard session) to mitigate the niggles and strains you feel that come from a lack of recovery. This might not seem like a big deal at the time but it really does more damage than what you think. I know – I used to be blasé about these things too – I had a ‘stomach of steel’ that was Impenetrable to even the most harshest of substances (there’s few things harder on the stomach than a mixing bowls worth of green gooseberries that I’ve successfully put this away with no ill effect in my younger years). But the older I’ve become, the more digestive issues I’ve struggled with around training, the more aware I’ve become of the impact that anti-inflammatory pharmaceuticals can have on the gut and subsequent health. Training in itself has been found to increase gut permeability. The decreased blood flow to the gut through even moderate steady-state exercise has resulted in intestinal injury and elevated liver enzyme parameters – and that’s an acute effect of just 60 minutes training. You can imagine what your normal high intensity effort or Sunday bunch ride does in relation to tearing up your insides?*  This increased gut permeability is a big deal. The once tight junctures that should not allow foreign matter to travel through are now not-so-tight. When we have foreign bodies allowed into our system this sparks an auto-immune response. Inflammation is one of the body’s first line of defence against injury, and over time this acute inflammatory response can become chronic which leads to deleterious health effects moreso than just impaired recovery. So the training in itself loosens the guts main defence against foreign proteins, which can increase inflammation – and when you throw ibuprofen on top of that, the effects on the gut and inflammation over time are even worse. It’s an easy thing to do, certainly, and a lot of people do it – however over time this can cause sensitivities to foods that you once had no problem digesting. Think grains, milk, certain types of carbohydrates in the FODMAP spectrum. Our gut has just one cell thickness protecting it from the outside environment. It doesn’t take a lot to upset the balance.

Of course, I’m speaking mechanistically here and everyone is different – some people will go through their athletic career and not have an issue at all despite a regular habit of popping vitamin V; others though, will notice that their tolerance to certain foods is now lower, the time taken to recover from training sessions is greater, and they are not able to get as fit as fast as they used to be able to. Is it an age thing? Sure. You’re not as bulletproof as you were in your 20s. But it could be more than that.

So I thought I’d mention some spices that can help support the anti-inflammatory pathways in the body. This isn’t going to dive into the ins and outs of that information – this post is already verging on being too long.

Tumeric (active ingredient curcumin): (particularly in the presence of fat to help absorption) – my friend Chris loves eggs with a heaped teaspoon or two of turmeric, and avocado and butter in the morning.

Ginger (I love ginger tea, just grating it fresh into hot water) and in green smoothies with lemon.

Cinammon: known for helping blood sugar control and also for its anti-inflammatory properties – I always like to include this in my breakfast meals, as a sweetener for baked rhubarb (no sugar required), in a slow cooked meat recipe or mince.

Garlic a member of the sulfur family, a well known anti-inflammatory compound.(okay, not a spice, but worth a mention)

Cayenne and chilli (active compound capsaicin) – chilli flakes and cayenne pepper are great on eggs, in salad and have you tried chilli chocolate? it is Christmas after all.

The beauty of these spices is that they are cheap, readily available and complement perfectly your real food lifestyle. This post is not prescribing anything more than the liberal inclusion of them in your everyday food. Every real food pantry should regularly utilise these in cooking, baking and barbequing. They are not a panacea to burning the candle at both ends – but it is worth your while to spice things up a little bit in the kitchen if you’re not already doing so.

Not tonight, honey. I’m exhausted.

Have you heard the term ‘ironman widow’? Where someone’s husband (or wife) is basically invisible for the better part of 12 weeks as they prepare for an upcoming race. This not only relates to being physically present (which is diminished when the training time is upwards of 15-20h a week) but also ‘present’ when at home. Often exhaustion sets in, particularly nearer the end of the week or after a heavy training day, where the mere thought of moving from the couch is akin to another 6h ride. Sex? Don’t even go there. It’s a fairly common (yet usually unspoken) phenomenon that rolling around in the sack is off the agenda in the lead up to the event. And I’m not talking about the day before an event; it’s more like as a general rule because they are too damn tired. Does this sound familiar? Yes, being tired is a natural (and expected) part of the training cycle – however, much as we talk about adrenal fatigue and hormonal imbalance in women – this is not an uncommon occurrence in men. It’s just not often talked about.

When we talk hormones, I know that I’m guilty of just addressing women. You know – the stress hormones, thyroid hormones and sex hormones. However men are not exempt from the debilitating effects of overdoing it. Just as a ‘rushed’ lifestyle can affect the thyroid and sex hormones in women (including testosterone), men who undertake endurance sport are at risk of poor testosterone status.

Testosterone: a sex hormone (also present in women too) is a chemical messenger. It declines as we age, and some studies have found a that testosterone levels for a male in their late 30s are down by as much as 50 % on the levels that were present in their 20s. Just as oestrogen is controlled by the hypothalamus, it is the same for testosterone; when the hypothalamus detects a deficiency of testosterone in the blood, it secretes a hormone called gonadotrophin-releasing hormone (GRH). This is detected by the pituitary gland that in response starts producing follicle stimulating hormone (FSH) and luteinizing hormone (LH). These travel to the testes where testosterone is produced from cholesterol by the leydig cells with just a small amount produced by the adrenal glands. It’s then sent back into the blood stream and either attaches to sex hormone binding protein (SHBG) and becomes biologically inert, or remains free in the bloodstream.  Normal levels are between 300 ng/dl – 1200 ng/dl (10.41)-41.64 ng/dL. The three types of testosterone you might see reported are:

  • Total testosterone- As the name implies, it’s how much testosterone available and is the sum of free and bound testosterone.
  • Free testosterone is the most biologically active form of testosterone. Free but low biologically active test and therefore still have signs/symptoms of overall low testosterone.
  • Bound testosterone-This is the testosterone bound to the protein Sex Hormone Binding Protein (or Globulin) (SHBP/SHBG). A high amount of SHBG will usually indicate a low free testosterone.

Testosterone is not just important for reproduction and sex drive – it has a number of other roles including supporting bone mass, regulating fat distribution, muscle size and strength and red blood cell production. If you are a typical endurance athlete who tends to push themselves and have had stress fractures that can’t be put down to a lack of calcium, it could well be that low testosterone is a contributing factor. As we know, testosterone increases during training and contributes to overall energy levels; a low production of testosterone contributes to the fatigue that can be felt under a heavy training load, making someone feel worse than they should. It’s difficult though, to know what is a normal byproduct of a heavy training load (because, let’s face it, endurance sport requires longer and harder training than, say, golf). Below are some common signs and symptoms of low testosterone.

  • Decreased/absent early morning erection
  • Reduced sex drive
  • Erectile dysfunction
  • Loss of facial or pubic hair
  • Testicular atrophy
  • Low bone mineral density/fractures
  • Night sweats

Phew! That’s not you? Well, you may not be out of the woods just yet. Less specific (or earlier signs) include:

  • Decreased energy or motivation
  • Poor concentration and memory
  • Disrupted sleeping patterns
  • Moody
  • Reduce muscle/increased fat mass
  • Reduced performance

You can see that the early signs of a reduced testosterone level could be summed up by being a bit ‘tired’ and are fairly non-specific. The best way to know what is going on with your testosterone is to get it tested through your doctor (noting that the free testosterone is the important measure).

Thankfully there is plenty you can do with your diet to ensure you’re optimising your ability to produce testosterone without getting a prescription for the pharmaceutical type. Unsurprisingly, these come down to pretty much what I write about on a weekly basis:

  • Ensure adequate vitamin D – this is involved in the production of the corticosteroid hormones and it’s important we have enough available to support the production of our thyroid, stress and sex hormones. Food sources are full fat dairy products, a small amount in butter, liver, animal protein and fatty fish such as salmon, sardines and mackerel. Taking a supplement (that also contains vitamin K2) is warranted for a large part of the year in New Zealand, but particularly as we come out of winter and into spring, where the UVB rays are diminished and we’ve been spending the vast majority of time inside on the windtrainer to dodge the weather.
  • Ensure adequate zinc intake (through oysters and animal protein, and brazil nuts too) – a note here is that iron can reduce our overall ability to absorb zinc, and this may need to be looked at if you’re taking an iron supplement.
  • Ensure adequate selenium intake (seafood, Brazil nuts) and vitamin A (full fat dairy products, liver, eggs, animal protein)
  • Saturated and monounsaturated fat: Again, most of the foods mentioned above are good sources of saturated fat in the diet, and monounsaturated fat is found predominantly in olive oil, eggs, avocado and raw nuts. The reality is, all fats contain the range of fatty acids we need, and are labelled ‘saturated’ or ‘monounsaturated’ fats due largely to the amount they contain. Coconut oil (which has had some bad press of late, despite a lack of evidence of a relationship to heart disease) is particularly rich in saturated fat.
  • Cholesterol: another important co-factor in the creation of the sex hormones, and forms the backbone of these. Foods of animal origin help supply dietary cholesterol for this role. If you’re someone who has followed a low fat diet or vegetarian diet and has a low cholesterol level, then potentially your testosterone could be lower than ideal.
  • Ensure adequate B vitamins and magnesium also (present in the foods mentioned above and in abundance in vegetables).

Finally – on the life side of things: sleep more, ensure adequate recovery from training and have more sex. That will increase your testosterone.