Why I went LCHF?I have been experimenting with low carb living for more than 10 years now. After my daughter was born and I weighed almost 250 pounds, I went on the Atkins diet and it started there. It has been a bumpy ride because I got caught up in believing the products "nutrition companies" like GU started selling me when I became an endurance athlete. And, I believed in calorie math. If I burned 2500 calories on a training run, then I could eat 2500 calories of whatever I wanted and be even, right? (I no longer believe in calorie math, at least not in an absolute state.) While I have believed for a long time that low carb is a healthy way of life, I just had a hard time reconciling that with the demands of training to be an endurance athlete.
As I have taken my running to greater time and distances, eating (and energy) has become a common source of problems. If you are carb addicted, you need to eat an almost endless supply of carbohydrates to keep your energy level constant. But that is tough to do. Your body can only process something like 250 calories an hour -- it varies person to person -- and you are burning like 800. The math doesn't work. Making the problem worse, many of the products we eat are from sources that, given enough time and quantity, will make us sick -- either GI distress or nausea. And, much of what we drink comes in the form of a sugary beverage which can lead to hydration issues from consuming too much liquid. When I first read that Jason Schlarb ran a 100 mile race (and won!) on 1700 calories, I decided to investigate this topic more. (I probably ate something like 10,000 calories in my first 100 mile race.)
What are the results I have seen?I have seen almost all the benefits that Phinney and Volek predicted in their books -- leaner physique, more constant energy, quicker recovery from races and hard training sessions, stable weight, and solid gut (no more runner's trots!), and more.... I had two of my best race ever in 2014 and I fueled pretty much with one gel every 45 minutes and water, about 150 kcals an hour. My energy level was constant and I was surging past runners after 7 hours. I set a personal best on a segment of the North Fork 50 course after running 43 miles. The best part is that I rarely think about calories I am eating -- unless I am trying to eat more! I eat until I am full.
What are the challenges I have encountered?The main challenges I encountered were early on and part of the adaption phase. I attempted to go extreme low carb (20-50g a day) while training 55+ miles per week and I was groggy all the time. I hated running. Some of this was due to adaption phase and should be expected to take time. Some of this was due to the extreme nature of trying to go so low so quickly. (These days I typically eat 50-150g a day, though I rarely count anymore.) And some was due to the amount water weight I shed. This is referred to as the "Atkins flu" and is cured by drinking some beef broth to get sodium in your system.
The other thing that has remained with me and been somewhat elusive is a bit of a "fog" that comes over me once in a while. I think the difficulty here is with the central nervous system (brain), which requires lots of energy, mostly from carbohydrates. You need to keep the brain energized and alert. In races I started using amino acid pills to aid in keeping my central nervous system from being overcome by fatigue. As the central governor to your entire body, once your brain fatigues, it will shut everything down. The pills were expensive and kind of a hassle. Lately I have been experimenting with an amino acid supplement (called Biosteele). I use it before and during workouts and even as an energy supplement during the day. It contains no sugar and no caffeine.
*UPDATE* I have recently started using VESPA before and during my long runs, particularly my long races. The product is crazy expensive, but it works. It has really helped with my mental clarity and keeping my energy stable. I was genuinely amazed at how stable my energy was for all 23+ hours at Western States 100.
What do I actually eat?Day to day, I eat lots of things and won't waste (much) space here. Google LCHF or Paleo and you'll find lots of ideas. The books I recommend below also have example recipes. I tend to eat lots of salad, soups based with broth and/or heavy whipping cream, red meat, pork, eggs, coconut oil, cheese, high fat dairy, etc... I try to buy organic fruits and veggies and grass fed meat, but I am not super strict about that. I never eat legumes or grains and I rarely eat fruit (typically just berries or organic apple sauce). My beer drinking has been cut significantly down. But, I still have cheat days -- usually pizza and beer. I don't try to be perfect all the time. I think that is a misconception of this diet. My cheat days are fewer (maybe every 2-3 weeks) when training hard. After Bear 100, I went off the diet for several days and ate like a pig.
Eating on the run is a bit of a moving target. Fat adaption does not mean that I do not eat sugar during runs. It means that my body is quite happy to burn fat. In fact, it burns fat as the primary energy source. However, for shorter distance races (up to 50 miles), I find the convenience of gels hard to pass up. They are easier to pack, cheap to buy, and convenient to eat. I just eat fewer of them. For North Fork 50, I ate Hammer Bars and drank Skratch Labs for the first 25 miles, then I switched to gels and plain water in the second half of the race. Pretty simple.
Beyond 50 miles is the point when all that sugar starts to take a toll on the GI system. And, running 100 miles takes a serious toll! Your body goes through a lot, including missing multiple meals and being awake for up to 48 hours. Having only tried twice, I have not yet perfected a 100 mile diet, but I think it will require more real food (Epic Bars, Nut Butters) and supplements (like Generation Ucan and pure MCT oil) as well as gels. During my recent Bear 100, conditions were miserable (hot early, then pouring rain) and I lost patience with my nutrition plan early. I also think I was attempting to eat too many calories, nearly double what I was eating in shorter races all summer.
I see lots of advantages in a product like Generation Ucan and have attempted to use it -- and will continue to try -- as an in-race fuel source. It is great pre-run. But, it is extremely inconvenient on-the-run. Not only is it expensive, it is difficult to mix, grainy in the mouth, and does not provide an instant energy source when you get low. I am considering just drinking it at aid stations where I see crew. I think my 2015 strategy will be fewer calories between aid stations (some Skratch Labs and Vfuel gels) and then real food at aid stations -- Epic Bars, Ucan, Nut Butters. And, don't forget the amino acids!
*UPDATE* At Western States this year, I had a Coconut Lara Bar every 2 hours, VESPA every 2-3 hours, and a serving of Skratch Labs about every hour. That's it. About 150-175 Kcals an hour and I had stable energy, no GI distress, and no nausea for 24 hours.
Please note that I have no sponsors. Every product I mention above I pay for with my own money. Therefore, I have no allegiance to them an no incentive to push products on you. Most products I choose are either because I believe in them -- usually they are wholesome food with clean labels -- or because they are convenient (cost, taste, easy to carry on the run).
If you undertake this process, I highly recommend reading as much of the following as you can. Remember this is a major life change that impacts your long-term health. I am not a doctor, but many of the of the following folks are.
Links and Authors I recommend
Peter Attia Blog
Zach Bitter Blog
Timothy Olson Blog
Books I recommend
- Real Meal Revolution (tough to get in US right now)
- The Art and Science of Low Carbohydrate Living
- The Art and Science of Low Carbohydrate Performance