How do I get fat adapted and train for triathlons?

Hi Grant,
I met you on the weekend at the New Zealand Society of Positive Psychology after the morning workshop when you showed a group of us around your building. I asked you, as a ‘fellow triathlete’, about your diet and exercise regime. You directed me to your blog which I read and found very interesting. I have started on the road to a LCHF diet 🙂 So far so good.
I would really appreciate your advice on an exercise programme. Your current exercise programme sounded really interesting – not as grinding or as long as the programme I use. I need a coach – yes I am a needy person! South Island, ideally Christchurch, would be great if the person follows your ideas! I follow my training programmes to the letter – just the way I am. I would be delighted to be part of a research programme if that would be helpful to anyone. I am 60 years old this year and enjoy competing in Age Group Triathlons.
Looking forward to hearing from you.
Hi Jane
Great to hear you have made a start on the LCHF diet. Just some extra (unsolicited?) advice for the adaptation period. If you are sufficiently restricting dietary carbs to around 50 g or less a day, a few things are worth noting:
  1. Your brain will no longer have enough glucose to run purely on glucose for fuel. This means that until your body can re-orchestrate how it can fuel the brain, you will feel crappy. Some people call this the “keto” flu (because you are adapting to a state of nutritional ketosis). The brain will need to use the by-products of fatty acid oxidation (specifically beta-hydroxy butyrate, or BHB) to make up for the lower amounts of dietary carbs coming in. So most people have a period of a couple of days of mental haze. In my experience, if you have a job where you have to actually think, then plan to try to do this phase at the weekend. Training volume will have to decrease too.
  2. It is possible to mitigate some of the symptoms of the adaptation (dizziness, tiredness, brain fog) by supplementing with good quality medium-chain triglycerides (MCTs). These automatically put fats into your body which mimic the ketones (BHB). MCTs can’t be easily stored as fat and are burned intra-muscularly AND in the brain. Coconut oil is very useful for this. Butter has a good deal of MCTs. Other coconut products do too.
  3. Salt supplementation can be important. In the adaptation period many people find themselves getting dizzy due to hypotension (low blood pressure). What is likely to be happening is that the kidneys are dumping sodium to keep the sodium-potassium balance intact. So, eat heaps of coloured veggies to get the potassium up. Salt gets salt up too. We could be talking up to 5 g/day in the adaptation period.
  4. Keeping an eye on dietary carbs is very important as if intake isn’t low enough, you can end up in the grey zone of just feeling crap and never fat-adapting. A few tricks here are to:
    1. Use a computer-based or smart phone diet diary. If you are in Australia or NZ, the best and free one for this is “easydietdiary”. It links to Aussie and Kiwi food databases. A great learning tool.
    2. Over-consuming protein can also trick you out of fat adaptation because once you reach your daily requirements, you turn extra protein into glucose through a process called gluconeogenesis. Depending on activity levels, daily requirement will likely be 1.2-1.5 gram of protein per kg body weight. Again, the easydietdiary, or other food counters, can assist in seeing how you compare to this. I’m not saying you need to count food all the time, just get an idea of exactly what has what. Some foods are surprising (e.g., BBQ sauce = 53% sugar!).
The idea is that once you are fat adapted, your body should prefer fat as its primary fuel source. This has numerous benefits including more stable mood, lack of hunger and cravings, a better night’s sleep, easy weight control, and an ability to easily miss meals and enjoy the benefits of intermittent fasting.
Now, onto training for endurance sports in the fat adapted state. I have moved into a space which we call “polarised” training. A couple of really neat studies (see below) have come out recently which support this type of training over conventional threshold type training. It is especially good for those on a fat adapted diet because with this diet, you simply won’t have enough glucose supply in the liver and muscles to train in the athlete grey zone, where most (triathletes especially) spend their time.
Here’s what we are talking about:
Polarized training = 80%+ time spent in low intensity work, at or below VT1 (very easy), and 20%, or even less, in very high intensity work (above VT2), which means very hard and hurting. The overall training load and duration will be less than the conventional model, mostly because full recovery is required for the high intensity side.
That’s not what most athletes in endurance sport do. What I regard as the conventional model of endurance training is quite a bit of longer endurance work, but also 30-40+, or even more, in the VT2 range or just below. That’s sort of what some people call threshold zone.
In my opinion, and the evidence both mechanistically and experimentally is mounting, the trouble with the conventional training approach is that much of the training is powered by exclusive carbohydrate oxidation. This creates reactive oxygen species (ROS), glycated-end products, and cellular damage. All of these compromise immune system function and create cell level damage. This rolls out as a tired athlete, who gets sick more often, and recovers more slowly. It also means you are predominantly burning carbs for fuel and therefore need to fuel on carbs constantly. That means none of the benefits of being fat adapted. It also means you have to rely on glucose exclusively for fuel in races. This is a very limited fuel supply in longer endurance races, and the supplementation of carbs through gels and so forth can cause serious gastric distress. It’s also just damn hard to keep your weight under control when training and eating like this, at least for some people (including myself), and especially older athletes.
On the polarised training and fat adapted side, you are burning fat for most of your training and not creating the cellular damage and immune system compromise. You are fat adapted and feel great. You stay in shape more easily and the hard sessions are short enough that extra glucose supplementation isn’t necessary.
Here are some links to two recent studies on polarized training v conventional training for endurance runners and cyclists. Great outcomes on less training.
So what does polarised training look like for me? I do mostly easy long runs and rides (read no rush of ego-driven frenzy). When I feel recovered enough to do so, I do a short and very intense session. That could be once, twice or three times a week. It all depends on my life stress and nutrition quality.
Here’s a few examples:
  • Running track: 10 min easy jog, 10 by 1 min hard on the track, walk 1 min recovery in between. This means I get about 325 m round the track and then walk around to the start of the 400 m again. Actual distances will vary depending on fitness and running ability. That’s the session! Total time: 30 min / Total hard work: 10 min
  • Running treadmill: 10 min warm up. Crank the treadmill up to 19.5 km/hr (or whatever speed is hard for you). I do 4 times through 40 sec run, 20 sec rest, 30 sec run, 15 sec rest, 20 sec run, 10 sec rest, 10 sec run, 5 sec rest. I rest for 4 min after 2 cycles through this. This is very hard, but over quickly. You leave the treadmill going at full speed and hop to the side to rest. Total time: 24 min / Total hard work: 10 min
  • Bike road: Ride for an hour on a hilly circuit. Go flat out on every hill, cruise down. Total time flat out: about 20 min
  • Bike trainer: 10 by 2 min, increasing power every interval by 10 watts from about 340 to 400 w. This really hurts. 2 min rest in between and slightly longer if really hurting.
Those are a few ideas of what I like. I would say that people should make their own ones up to suit time and fitness (and how much you like the pain game!). The other thing you do have to do occasionally is some racing and race simulation, which will be more in that threshold sub-VT2 zone. Fine, limit the damage and take some carbs on board for that part. You will need them. The Kreb’s (glucose metabolism) cycle is spinning fast and the dietary carbs won’t spike insulin and turn off fat burning in this zone, as long as you aren’t silly about it.
Enjoy, and happy fat adapting!

7 Comments on “How do I get fat adapted and train for triathlons?

  1. Pingback: Is exercise damaging my heart? | The Science of Human Potential

  2. Thank you Grant for the great article. I myself have been training similarily for the last 18 months, with hill/bush walks with intermittent sprints. laterly, due to time restraints I have been doing HIIT and HIIRT training. I am LCFH and intermittently fast (18-20 hours) 5 days a week. People do not believe how little i train. 2 sometimes 3 times a week with 2 hours max with only about 20-30 actual pushing hard. I have a resting heart rate as low as 46 and feel very strong at 44. Any way thanks a lot, look forward to more articles on training in fasted states if you have time.

  3. Pingback: Can you be a healthy endurance athlete? | The Science of Human Potential

  4. Pingback: Adieu les carbs et bienvenue le FAT! | CRAZY PASSIONS

  5. Pingback: 7 reasons for endurance athletes to fat adapt | ednr real foods

  6. Reblogged this on Core Cycling and commented:
    Interesting point about having to supplement with extra carbs and not being affected.

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