By Helen Kilding and Grant Schofield
I’ve been getting quite a few questions about triathlon and other endurance sport training and racing. Even in our own research group, there is a lot of debate and questions about what and how, especially regarding supplemental carb use.
I think it comes down to understanding that ‘high performance endurance athletics’ and ‘health’ are not always the same thing. I might even go as far as to say that they are mostly mutually exclusive in the long run.
That’s different from doing endurance events and being healthy – I believe that is possible.
Most of my friends are not going to like hearing this…and after a life of pursuing carb-fuelled high performance endurance, why have I changed my mind? And what should you do if you like being involved in endurance sport and exercise but want to maximize your health and avoid things like heart damage and self-oxidizing yourself into early aging.
I’ve been an advocate recently for the polarized training approach – where you spend most of your time doing very easy aerobic, fat burning exercise, and just a short amount of time doing very high intensity training. You try and avoid that middle chronic cardio zone.
Case study 1: Joe McQuillan, endurance exercise physiologist and low carb high fat (LCHF) proponent. He is happy enough himself to be on a LCHF diet because of the energy and weight benefits, but he’s not convinced that a polarized training approach (also known as an 80/20 approach) generates any sort of high performance for competitive endurance athletes.
We just finished a long discussion about this where Joe points to the “optimal” training points for endurance performance. Here’s his note below on this.
Grant, this modified table (below) is from Racing and Training with a power Meter by Coggan and Allen. All I have done is arrange the outcomes by way of 1st and 2nd contribution to enhancement of that outcome. FYI L3 is tempo, L4 threshold, L5 VO2max, L6 anaerobic (<3 mins). Nowhere on the list is L2, for most it falls as the 3rd most important zone to contribute changes to an outcome of X. This does not detract from the fact we need to do L2 exercise and a lot of it for base work, but within L3/L4/L5 sessions we spend time in this (L2) zone, + warm-up and cool down from interval training increases this by default. I think in certain phases for a road cyclist and 1/2 IM/standard dist triathlete a 50/50% <L2/>L2 is likely.
I don’t see 80/20 as a valid method for enhancing performance at L3/L4 racing (I also saw this recently appear as 75/25).
|Increased plasma volume (L4 & 5)||
|Increased muscle mitochondrial enzymes (L3 & 4)||
|Increased lactate threshold (L3 & 4)||
|Increased muscle glycogen storage (L3 & 4)||
|Hypertrophy of slow twitch muscle fibres (L5)||
|Increased muscle capillarization (L3)||
|Interconversion of fast twitch muscle fibres (type IIb -> type IIa) (L3 & 4)||
|Increased stroke volume/maximal cardiac output (L4 & 5)||
|Increased VO2 Max (L3 & 4)||
|Increased muscle high energy phosphate (ATP/PCr) Stores (L6 & 7)||
|Increased anaerobic capacity (“lactate tolerance”) (L6)||
|Hypertrophy of fast twitch fibres (L7)||
|Increased neuromuscular power (L3)||
In other words, the best race results for an athlete can’t easily be obtained from mostly easy training with some occasional harder stuff.
Is Joe right? Well the more of the higher intensity training you can get AND adapt to then the faster you will probably end up going. This is similar to what Mark Sisson talked about in his blog this week – it’s a matter of time frames and perspective on performance. Long-term health eventually matters to long-term athletes too.
The thing is that short-term or even medium-term maximum performance doesn’t take into account overall wellbeing and health – which applies long-term both to elite athletes and weekend warriors.
There is only so much moderate to high intensity training you can take. So my feeling is that most people should be very careful about overdoing this.
Believe me, I have been there done that as far as overdoing it is concerned. It’s still something I constantly struggle with – exercise makes me feel good and I like so many aspects of it, including the social. But the toxic effect of too much intense exercise is something I have to try and avoid for my own good.
This of course means that I won’t be competing with and beating people who I likely could, simply on the basis of our pre-training physical abilities.
That’s a bummer, but that’s the way it goes. Some guys will always smash themselves up a bit, optimize their performance, choosing to neglect their long-term health. They will be the ones on the age group podium.
Should we celebrate this? Probably at the Olympics and world championships we enjoy seeing what the limit for humans is. But, in my opinion, that shouldn’t be what non-professional athletes celebrate. If you want to do that, then do it in small controlled amounts and take a break.
Health, as I have written about previously, is about the application of stress and your adaptation to it. Too much stress is toxic. My opinion is that 20 hours of triathlon training a week is likely to be too much for most people who are working full time and might have other commitments – e.g. family, work, etc.
I guess that’s why you see a good deal of podium triathletes at triathlon age group world championships are professional coaches or independently wealthy and not working. It’s only under these special conditions that you can tolerate the training stress and recover from it. Even then, that isn’t the optimal health outcome.
So if you’ve made your personal decision about endurance sport and health – and it is about personal health and wellbeing first, performance second – how should you proceed?
The balance between health and performance?
Case study 2: Julie, an older female triathlete
My goals are to get and hold my weight to or just under 60 Kgs and get my running improved. Current weight 61 Kgs. Generally in a tri I struggle to keep my 10km run under 55 mins. For my age group I am usually in the first 20% of the swim 10% in the bike and 50% with the run. I end up with a final placing in the first 5.
I followed a schedule of about 18 hours training a week leading into the Auckland ITU (world champs). Aged 59 and came 10th.
I will look to start Tri’s this summer. I have had a year off after 10 years competing.
Here’s my suggestion – give or take for the best balance between stress, enjoyment, health, weight management and energy. Just a guide and flexibility is important.
First: Nutrition – Accessing and using aerobic lipolysis (fat burning) during the bulk of your training is crucial. It produces less oxidative stress, tires you out less, requires less effort, and your brain and body operate more efficiently. For this I suggest a whole food Paleo style diet with a degree of carbohydrate restriction – preferably off all sugar and grains. The amount of carb restriction depends on your tolerance to carbs and exactly how much glycogen you are burning in training. Dr Peter Attia has recently written a nice piece on calculating this. I prefer the full low carb high fat approach in a whole foods framework. That works well for me.
Just to reiterate, you need to get the nutrition right first. No amount of training properly can make up for setting yourself down the sugar burning/addiction pathway.
Also, remember the exercise isn’t the thing that helps you make your goal weight – the nutrition does this.
Second: Training – I suggest capping things at 10 hours a week, maybe 12 if you have to. Remember it is adapting to the training that is important. You won’t race at your absolute best, but you will be most of the way there. Exercise is a potentially toxic stimulus to your body. You want just enough in the context of the rest of the stress in your life to be able to adapt to it. Better under-doing it than over-doing it.
The bulk of the training is easy aerobic L1, L2, occasionally a little L4-5 where it can’t be avoided (going up a hill on a bike). I’d do virtually all sessions in this zone, except 2 maybe 3 a week where I’d do some very short and very hard interval sessions like the ones below.
- Run track 10 by 1 min with 1 min rest.
- Bike: 2 by 6 by 40 sec hard out, 40 sec rest
- Swim: 10-15 by 50 m
This makes it very easy to design a program, you spend 10-12 hours in a combination of swimming, biking and running at easy aerobic pace. You throw in very short sessions when you feel up to it, where you maximally hit out.
That, in my opinion, is the way to health. It’s not the way to the best possible race performance though. Your call.
Thanks as always to the super diligent Helen Kilding for her editing
I had a few things click into place in the last week or two, around how to conceptualize and manage our well-being, especially considering all the biology involved.
Without being grandiose and egotistically naming a theory after myself, I think what I have come up with has some novel concepts. I do acknowledge the inspiration from a scientific paper, which lays out the (some) diet and exercise components of the hormesis of wellbeing (see here).
So here’s a summary of the theory (or at least the bringing together of a few different ideas):
- Hormesis is the adaptation to a stimulus which in a bigger dose is toxic. This stress exposure is central to, and even essential for, wellbeing.
- Hormetic stressors come form all sorts of things; including sun exposure and our food environments (eg, fasting).
- Wellbeing depends on a constant ability to have neuroplasticity (rewiring of the brain). Certain biological conditions must be present for this to occur.
- These conditions include high levels of BDNF (brain derived neurotropic growth factor), low insulin, increased IGF-1, and low reactive oxygen specs (ROS).
- Hormesis drives these conditions in a similar way across a range of different stressors – too much or too little does exactly the opposite, more or less.
It’s a cool theory I think because it offers some simplicity and parsimony when thinking about the biology of wellbeing and what drives it.
So that’s it in a nutshell and here’s a bit more detail:
What is hormesis?
Hormesis is a theoretical phenomenon of dose-response relationships in which something (as a heavy metal or ionizing radiation) that produces harmful biological effects at moderate to high doses may produce beneficial effects at low doses.
In other words, it’s the theory of general adaptation and super compensation applied across a range of stimuli. Obviously the amount of the stimulus any biological organism can take depends upon its current state (genes plus recent exposures), but also the other stimuli that organism is experiencing. The stress from the different stimuli is likely to stress that same system concurrently (important for later).
Humans need to be exposed to hormetic stimuli to maintain biological function. With no stress, the system adapts backwards as well. If you lie in bed for weeks, or travel into space with zero gravity, your body adapts just as fast as to no stress.
Bottom line: Hormesis is adaptation to mild stress. Stress is not just good but essential to human health and wellbeing.
Can we define wellbeing biologically?
Here’s the next important step. The human nervous system is a complex distributed neural network. It isn’t confined to the head – its throughout your body. Mind-brain-body=same thing. There are around 100 billion neurons in every human. Each can synapse to up to 7000 other neurons. Because the hardware and the software are the same thing, you must constantly rewire the system to learn anything, to experience anything and remember it, to solve problems, to experience a worthwhile life. This happens at all ages.
We call this neuroplasticity.
How does this rewiring happen? We need to produce some key biological conditions. This is centered around production of Brain-derived Neurotropic Growth Factor (BDNF). BDNF is the protein which stimulates this rewiring.
I’m arguing that the conditions which support BDNF production are central to wellbeing.
You guessed it. Hormesis drives BNDF production.
How hormesis drives wellbeing
In the figure below, I have tried to simplify the basic logic behind a hormetic response driving neuroplasticity. What is involved (simply) to optimize the biology of rewiring is low insulin, higher insulin-like growth factor 1 (IGF-1), and absence of reactive oxygen species (ROS).
What is interesting is that a range of hormetic stimuli, sometimes through different mechanisms, achieve the same biochemistry The opposite is true when we expose ourselves to too much of the same stimulus. Once the stress response is maladaptive rather than hormetic, we produce insulin resistance, inflammation through ROS, and (sometimes) adverse levels of IGF-1 (see Figure below).
These ROS, insulin and IGF-1 do not always perfectly covary AND importantly they are also essential for humans one way or another for living. We need insulin, we need ROS, we need flexibility in IGF-1 production. It’s just that the systeM needs to have metabolic flexibility to respond and rebuild (especially the nervous system).
Bottom line: Neuroplasticity is essential for human wellbeing and the supporting biology may be the center of the mechanism for feeling good. There is no evidence that hormesis drives this biology.
So I’ve tried to put together a start to the broader framework of understanding how various exposures to environmental stressors are highly beneficial to us in hormetic (adaptable) doses and directly drive the BDNF and neuroplasticity mechanism and therefore well-being.
These are known mechanisms in the basic research.
Exercise is a great example of hormesis in action. This paper ” Impact of exercise on neuroplasticity-related proteins in spinal cord injured humans” showed a five-fold increase in BDNF in athletes after a 10 minute easy stint, but a decrease in BDNF after a marathon (42 km) event.
So exercise which we can easily accommodate and then adapt to drives the physiology of neuroplasticity and wellbeing. This is the hormetic response. The stimulus (exercise) eventually becomes toxic at high and more intense doses.
So my theory is that there is a straight biological and hormetic connection to wellbeing through neuroplasticity for several (and there are likely more than I have identified here) important health and lifestyle behaviors.
I’ll get to the indirect effect later in this piece.
Some factors, like psychological stress, simply drive adrenal axis responses which would be appropriate for an acute “fight or flight” short lifesaving sprint, but are entirely inappropriate and toxic applied chronically. Chronic psychological stress is known to drive reduced insulin sensitivity and increased ROS.
Others, like exercise, offers a balance. You need the stress, but too much is toxic. Sunlight exposure is like this. Some exposure drives Vitamin D production. There is good evidence to show the antioxidant (ROS defeating) effects of Vitamin D, as well as the vascular effects and increased insulin sensitivity through nitrate availability, but if you go and get sunburned then you will see the opposite effect.
Food is a really interesting stimulus. I think what we want is both the hormetic effect of the occasional fast, which is known to promote a catabolic (repair) effect and reduce ROS, IGF-1 increases, and low insulin. Obviously fasting for too long might have the opposite effect through probably high cortisol production. Equally, we need the anabolic effect of eating and the nutrients supplied by food. Too much food, especially junk processed carbs, bangs up insulin and ROS. So I think the intermittent fasting people are onto something when they cycle in and out of food availability.
Metabolic flexibility is an overriding theme here too.
By that I think that when you become metabolically dysfunctional and are constantly hyperinsulinemic and have high ROS, you really have the least effective system for neuroplasticity and cognitive rewiring.
Another factor is the health of your gut microbiome. Again, when not in its usual human supporting and symbiotic form, this is inflammatory. It helps create insulin resistance, ROS everywhere, and general metabolic dysfunction.
You’ll see below several ideas and mechanisms I propose. If you think of more then let me know.
Actually I just thought of another – brief ice baths. Short exposure-reduced ROS and increased insulin sensitivity. Too long=severe stress and probably increased ROS?
Indirect effects and wellbeing
Where positive psychology fits in here is something I have been thinking carefully about. I, along with others, have been into that field for a while now and we talk about creating social networks, being nice to others, giving your time and resources to others, and many other things. Have a look at our Sovereign NZ wellbeing index for the full meal deal.
So indeed these are important, but because many create the resources you need to buffer stress and control the exposure to the potentially toxic stimuli. Having a social network for example means you will less easily be overwhelmed by stress and more in control of your life.
A more distant indirect effect is money. Money by itself clearly has no direct effect on your BDNF, insulin, ROS and so forth. I’m pretty sure no one has done this study, but I predict that sitting and staring at a large pile of cash has very little effect on these!
But money gives you the resources. The time and space to create the networks, to give to others, and to control the exposures to the life stresses you want and thrive on.
Bottom line: Hormetic stress is the biological basis of wellbeing. We see good evidence across a range of environmental stressors how this all works. This brings the “Primal” type approach right into mainstream science where it belongs. I know the primal/paleo guys have been saying this for years, but we do need to convincingly bring the biology and the practice together which is what I’m trying to do.
This is a theory of stress, but in a controlled and balanced way.
I am critical of much of the work in public health, quite a bit of which I have done myself. We often try to understand how a single factor (e.g., exercise) is related to wellbeing. We assume a linear model where more is better and the dose applies across the population.
Clearly, in this hormetic, model that is just rubbish. Everyone can take a different amount of a particular stress (say exercise). What they can take and probably adapt to (hormesis) depends on:
- Their genes
- Their exposure to exercise in their lifetime, weighted more heavily recently
- The sum of all the other stressors they are currently being exposed to – obviously there’s less chance of adapting to an exercise session if you are sunburned and had a poor night’s sleep and an argument with your wife.
So what this all means is that what you need to optimize your potential at anytime is highly dynamic and different for you now than it was yesterday. And you almost certainly won’t resemble the same profile as others around you.
Last bottom line…
Moderation and stress that you can adapt to is crucial for well-being.
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.Cheers,Jane
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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:
- 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.
- 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!).
- 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.
This blog was inspired by a question/objection to LCHF from my friend Stuart: “Don’t growing kids need a rich and varied diet when they are growing?”
I couldn’t agree with you more Stuart. Let’s cover this in two parts, the rich and the varied separately.
Rich: Yes, kids like all humans respond well to a nutrient dense diet. I am advocating a nutrient dense diet full of fibre, and whole foods full of micronutrients. Children, like adults, should eat until they are satisfied. Their food should be based, like adults, on primal principles. In other words, the starting hypothesis for the diet that children thrive on should be based in evolutionary biology, not what the modern food supply is.
The reality is that we have had 100,000 generations of humans who have successfully bred, raised off spring, and bred again on diets full of whole foods, often high in fat and low in carbohydrates. There is still no evidence that diets high in carbohydrates are essential for optimal human growth and development.
Yet, there is a widespread belief that carbs are absolutely essential for children’s growth and development. Especially as a source of dietary fibre and other “essential nutrients” (usually not specified what these actually are). A recent article in the Guardian reported on Gwyneth Paltrow’s children being on a low carb eating pattern. It was interesting to see a variety of reactions to this approach. At one end there were the dietitians claiming that the children would be at health risk because of the absence of the vital carbohydrates. And that they would no longer be able to think clearly and this would affect brain functioning. Others, with a more balanced view in my opinion, note that from an evolutionary biology perspective there is no reason children shouldn’t flourish under these sorts of whole food conditions.
We certainly need more research in this field with kids. If the adult data are anything to go by, then children should flourish under a diet that more closely resembles that of our ancestors.
Varied: Do you mean that refined carbohydrates offer a healthy variation? If so, no I disagree. These are not part of a rich and varied diet. Can they eat them now and then? Yes, like some adults, that is probably OK. Metabolically healthy children are highly insulin sensitive. They will spontaneously react to swiftly remove carbohydrate from their blood. This is what a sugar high is in its extreme in children – the body reacting to remove carbohydrate from the system by all means possible. I feed my children carbohydrates in higher quantities than I eat them. Heck I even give some of them wheat products. Sugar, yeah that too sometimes. But my children are metabolically healthy and will deal with it. They will need to modify this as they age into middle and older adulthood, as it is inevitable that they will become less carbohydrate tolerant.
By metabolically healthy I mean a normal weight. It’s not normal to be a fat kid. I mean normal blood glucose, I mean normal motivation to be active, I mean normal physical skills appropriate to age. I also mean normal blood pressure, normal liver, and good lipid profiles. Many children in our society aren’t in this state and it’s not their fault. Being obese as a child, according to some researchers, has about the same effect on quality of life as having cancer as a child. It’s no fun for the child. They know it, we know it. Let’s start talking about it.
As Dr Robert Lustig says, “But the kicker here is that fat kids don’t get sugar highs. They just reach for another cookie”. In other words, a high carb diet in a metabolically dysregulated child is not OK. It’s not because they are the same as a metabolically dysregulated adult. Children now have fatty livers, insulin resistance and diabetes because of the food, mostly sugar, they are being fed. Is this because they are gluttonous sloths? No, it’s not their fault. It’s no ones individual fault. It’s the fault of the food industry, poor government regulation, poor nutrition research, and poor public health recommendations. For fat kids it’s not OK to keep stuffing down the carbs. That won’t help and if sugar especially is involved, the problem will probably only get worse.
It’s worth watching Dr Lustig’s “Sugar the Bitter Truth” lecture on youtube. Its great and the first medical endocrinology lecture to go viral. For the technically minded geeks, his address at the ancestral health symposium is even better.
Lustig has clearly made a decision to, publicly at least, attack sugar as the demon in childhood obesity. Most would agree that is probably the best place to start, especially nutrient-poor sugary drinks. However, the obvious next logic in his arguments must extend to processed and other rapidly absorbed carbohydrates.
Are we ready for this next step in our society? I am.
OK, I’m ranting, maybe raving now I think. But did I make the point? Rich is good. Varied doesn’t mean refined sugar and carbs to be “balanced”, especially if you are in metabolic trouble.
So what do my kids eat?
I am the first to admit I’m not a perfect parent, even when it comes to diet. In fact, that seems to be quite a hard part of parenting. That said, we have switched things around from what I would say is conventional eating in our family and it’s going fine.
The reality is that my kids are not on a LCHF diet. They eat mostly whole foods, mostly good quality meats and fats, mostly wheat free, with a dose of the foods all kids get exposed to these days. Is sugar good for them? I doubt that it does much good. On the other hand they are insulin sensitive and deal with it pretty well. So no worries.
In fact that’s a point for the whole LCHF thing. What I am advocating in general is that high carbs affect some people adversely. Paradoxically, these are the people who are most vulnerable to obesity and metabolic syndrome. That’s not my kids and it may not be you, now at least. As we all get older we will probably tolerate carbs less well. Some kids may even be in this category and you’d have to approach their eating with a little more rigor than I do.
Here’s how it goes for the kids in my house 90% of the time
- out: cereal, skim milk, toast and spreads, fruit juice, sugar
- in: eggs, bacon, all fruit, yogurt, smoothies with full fat milk and berries
- out: sandwiches, processed muesli bars, chips
- in: cooked meat, fruit, cheese, yogurt
- Fried rice with vegetables, eggs, yogurt, cookies (yes I know but that’s the way it goes), fruit, milk
- Whatever we are having, which is typically meat, fish and vegetables or salad and some sort of high fat dessert (e.g. cream and berries).
Do they buy chocolate bars, soda, and other sweets? Yes they do. Do I support it? Sometimes, but mostly not. Remember, a treat is only a treat when it is not all the time. It’s an imperfect world and we’re doing what we can.
Grant Schofield has a chat to a village pig about the pig’s future. The pig listens carefully.
Thanks to everyone who has started following this blog. Frankly, while I find this stuff interesting and important, I had no idea that it was shared by so many other people. An academic’s real-life exposure to social media is an eye opener and fun. 3000 hits in a little over a week!
So the main question I have had from people so far is “what do you eat?” and “what about kids?” I think I can talk about both of those, in this and the next post. After all I am me, and I am the father of three boys.
I have been active and relatively fit my whole life, including a stint as a professional triathlete. One observation and my main excuse for not being a long lasting and super duper fast professional triathlete, was that I could never get my weight under 85-86 kg. In fact, when I did my fastest time in Ironman NZ 2001, I was officially entered in the heavy weight “clydesdale” division, where I was 94 kg at weigh in. To be fair, that was at the conclusion of the pre-race pasta party. My time of 9:04 was (I claimed at least), at the time, a clydesdale world record. I’m not sure there is such a record but it gave me mileage at the time – “world’s fastest fat guy over the Ironman triathlon distance”.
What bugged me though was why I couldn’t get fully race lean. I was eating low fat, high carb. It was exactly what the experts said I should do. I could hardly exercise any more. I was training up to 25 hours a week! In fact, I noticed the same thing when I watched the Ironman in Taupo New Zealand this year. Roughly one third of the field is overweight or obese in my judgement. How can they stay fat doing so much exercise? Maybe they are LESS fat than when they started? Or maybe their high carb diet and chronically raised insulin fails to allow fat burning?
Anyway, post triathlon retirement and children arriving I was up over 102 kg. I was still exercising everyday, eating “healthily” and still fatter than ever and it was getting out of control. Why was I always hungry? Why did my energy always “fall of a cliff” after lunch? I was trying really hard to NOT be a fat bastard. You can imagine, I do physical activity, nutrition, and obesity research. You lose street cred when you are fat.
My Solution: Take up marathon running and starve myself. This method got the weight off. It also made me sick and injured. I was especially prone to colds and flu with several every year. I hate flu.
I finally got consistently injured enough to flag the running and take up age group triathlon again. Same results: weight creeping, always creeping. When it crept past an acceptable point, I’d starve myself and exercise like crazy. I’d get sick.
Surely there has to be a better way? Enter, LCHF.
Now: I’m down to my lightest weight since mid-high school. 79 kg, lean, full of energy, and all the injury and illness has gone. I’m eating until full, as much as I like. It’s Awesome. I wouldn’t have believed this was possible. But it is.
I started reading all the literature and science in nutrition, which has been part of my broader field for a while. I have read enough now and experienced enough case work to change my starting hypothesis.
That’s partly why this blog is here. That’s why I have changed my research and practice direction in physical activity, nutrition and obesity, as well as the broader area of well being. I am now up with the science and we need to do it better.
So what do I eat?
I don’t always eat three meals a day now. I often try intermittent fasting which usually isn’t planned but happens naturally* according to hunger, food availability, work pressures and convenience. For this to be possible is a revelation to me. I have spent almost all of my life being pretty much hungry the whole time. If I didn’t eat every few hours I would fall off a glucose cliff and basically become 50% functional. This is hardly convenient and hardly optimal for a high performance life. My new way of eating also allows me to easily create calorie deficits to manage my weight if I feel I need to.
*The fact that I can quite often end up fasting accidentally for relatively long periods, while staying mentally sharp and full of physical energy, is an amazement to me. I’ve spent my whole life doing exactly the opposite. It’s sort of like the “user manual” for being me has been found. I am fat adapted and can oxidize fat as a primary fuel source. I can use ketones as a fuel for my brain. I don’t fall off the glucose “cliff” every few hours. This is a great place to be in. It also means you lose the cravings for the sweet food, especially sugar. This is the main benefit most people I know who have moved into this style of eating report. The constant energy and loss of ridiculous hunger every few hours.
I also have the occasional off day or meal when I just do whatever I feel like. We are all human after all. I used to plan these for a while and really looked forward to them. Frankly, now, I can do this if I want but I feel so crappy after eating simple carbs, especially wheat products, that I just don’t bother much. Again, this is a revelation as my self control in the face of high sugar high carb foods in the past has been completely non-existent!
Here are some typical meals for me:
- Scrambled eggs with whipping cream and streaky farm bacon from the butcher fried in coconut oil
- Smoothie made with coconut cream or milk, whipping cream, coco powder and or fresh berries
- Salmon, avocado and tomato
- Omelette with cheese and veggies (meat added when I feel like it).
- Massive salad with lettuce, tomato, capsicum, cucumber, cheese, meat of some sort – fish, chicken, bacon whatever is around, avocado, almonds. Mix up and add copious amounts of dressing which is home made olive oil and vinegar or mayo. The dressings have to be made by you, because almost all commercial dressings use hydrogenated vegetable fats – yuck – and are often high in sugar
- That’s my “go-to” lunch above. I lack imagination for lunch according to my family, but that’s the way it goes! I do have eggs and smoothies for lunch sometimes or something from the dinner/lunch list below.
- Some sort of meat or fish. Heaps of veggies (green and red veggies as a rule, cauliflower is also good, avoid starchy ones). I like pork with crackling. This is the time to really appreciate the flavors of fat.
- Wine, although I am trying an alcohol free month right now because it was getting out of hand!
- Berries and cream for dessert
- Low carb cheese cake is a favorite
Other tips and traps
- Don’t trim fat. Healthy fats are monounsaturated olive and other nut oils, Omega 3 fish oils, and healthy meat fats (unprocessed red and white meats including beef pork, fish and chicken), as well as dairy fats. Coconut oil is great. Avoid hydrogenated and polyunsaturated fats, especially in cooking.
- Just to reiterate, you have to replace carb and protein calories with something. The only macronutrient left is fat. Our ancestors likely coveted fat. Fat, at least as far as insulin and leptin goes, is metabolically benign. Carbs are not, especially when they are rapidly absorbed.
- Coffee is OK, I use whipping cream not milk. I tend to avoid dairy except cheese of all sorts (yum!) and cream. Milk can be high in lactose (a carbohydrate). Those who are more carbohydrate tolerant (have an ability to eat carbs without weight gain) can go for full fat milk and a fuller range of dairy. Most kids are in this category.
- Alcohol is a tricky question. Alcohol is certainly not metabolically benign. I recommend abstinence during the adaptation period into LCHF. Have a look at this link to explore more about keto/low carb adaptation. Then what you want is a low carb drink if you enjoy alcohol. I certainly don’t drink alcohol for physical health reasons but I do drink it for social and marital health reasons! My wife Louise and I spend lots of time sitting on our deck drinking wine and talking. Great fun! The active alcohol is called ethanol and is processed in the liver without much effect on insulin, at least not directly. It in fact follows a similar and dangerous path to the liver and beyond. It’s metabolically active in an inflammatory and insulin resistance-promoting kind of way. However, that said, we all have our vices, the actual insulin raising carbs in a glass of wine are between 3 and 6 g, depending on the wine and the size of glass (we have big glasses in our house!) so a glass or two is fine. Beers have way more carbs (12-20 g) per bottle and contain wheat that may result in other metabolic effects for some people. You can get low carb beers of course. I don’t really care for spirits, as a result of bad youth experiences I think, but if you do use them then it’s crucial to leave out the sugar based mixers.
That’s my wrap. I’m not perfect and as a normal human fall off the wagon too. I’m on the 18/21 plan. If there are 21 meals in a week, try for at least 18 good ones, hopefully better. Let me know your favorite meals and we can post them up.
Why become a fat burner?
In a previous post, Why some people stay skinny and others get fat I talked about how high carb foods lead to high insulin levels which effectively turn down, or off, your ability to burn fat. There is a longer downward spiral from years of this. But that was that post.
In this post, I want to look at exactly what you can do to turn yourself into a fat burning machine. This is not only about turning the fat burning on and creating a situation where you can drive a homeostasis for a steady and healthy weight, but is also about well-being and energy. My experience, as well as the overwhelming blogashpere and research itself, shows that an important benefit of fat adaptation is a much more stable energy level and well-being/mood.
We’ll look specifically at endurance athletes first. They want the same things that those who have problems with metabolic dysfunction want. They want to burn fat, not carbs, because humans have such a limited supply of carbs but much much bigger supplies of fat to draw upon. When athletes going long distances run out of carbs they are said “to hit the wall” or “bonk” (French for the noise your head makes when it hits the road?) So we’ll look at some of our lab results with an athlete later.
It’s not about treating carbs as evil and trying to run your body without carbs. In some ways it’s the exact opposite – it’s about sparing the glucose you do have. It’s about getting your body to do what it is designed to do under usual evolutionary conditions – burn fat and have enough energy to move all day and/or make short intense bursts. Becoming an efficient fat burner allows you to do just this.
Carb burners v Fat burners
If your metabolism is set up to predominately burn carbs, then you’ll most likely have many more highs and lows throughout the day energy wise. I call the lows “falling off the glucose cliff”. That’s when your glucose dependent brain cries out for more fuel – in the form of simple carbs usually. The cycle continues. If that’s you, then this blog could change your life for the better!
There are many plausible or proven health benefits here to. There is the obvious one of easily being able to control your weight. But far beyond that is reducing the damage high sugar, and high insulin, and sugar burning (glycolysis) do in your body. All of these are inflammatory and cause oxidative stress. These are the causative mechanisms behind chronic disease development including heart disease and stroke, diabetes, cancer, and brain (dys)function.
Fat burning in endurance exercise
One lab-based method we use to measure fat burning vs carb burning is the respiratory exchange ration (RER), also known as the respiratory quotient. This is the ratio between the amount of carbon dioxide exhaled and oxygen inhaled, which provides an indication of which substrate (fat, carbohydrate or a mix) is being used for fuel. We do this using our breath by breath gas analysis system in our Metabolic and Exercise Science Clinic at the Human Potential Centre at AUT Millennium Campus.
The RER varies between 0.7 (100% fat burning) through to ≥1.0 (100% Carb burning). A ratio of 0.85 has been labelled the metabolic efficiency point, when the body burns half of each. We try to determine what exercise output can be maintained for half and half. Bear in mind that everyone will eventually burn 100% carbs if the exercise is intense enough, but the higher the intensity at which fat is still the predominant energy source the better. However, what we are most concerned with is the ability to burn fat at rest and at lower to moderate intensities of exercise. This is great for weight loss. It’s great for health. But it’s also great if you are an athlete trying to do longer distance events like the Ironman triathlon.
We recently had a high level triathlete in our lab. We measured his RER before and after a 10 week training block going into this year’s Ironman NZ. We also transferred him to a low carb high fat (LCHF) diet for the period of that training. He was training about 20 hours a week and came in to the 10 week block relatively fit, albeit slightly heavier than he wished.
- Start weight 86 kg, post weight 78 kg. Good weight loss while reporting eating until full. No deprivation of food or calories if needed. Reduced calorie consumption on long training sessions. Few if any gels or sports drinks.
- Pre RER @ 270 W bike = 0.93, post RER @300 W = 0.82. This translates to a change in fat utilization from 23% of fuel to 60% of fuel at the same power output, for a lighter overall weight (power per kilo was also increased).
- Metabolic efficiency point (50/50 fuel use) improved from 180 W to 300 W. This shows the massive increase in efficiency we saw with a switch to a LCHF diet.
If you know anything about endurance training and racing then you’ll know that these results are outstanding. To the point of being spectacular. The limiting factor in longer races is not maximal output, but how fast you can go while conserving muscle and liver glycogen (carbs). You need to maximize your fat burning and preserve your very limited supply of carbs as much as possible.
Most athletes try to get around this problem by eating extra carbs during training and racing. This can work to an extent, but perversely raises insulin and shuts down your body’s ability to burn fat. It’s almost impossible to eat and digest enough carbohydrate to actually race these events well. You need a good degree of fat burning.
Anyway, this illustrates what can be achieved with a LCHF diet; good, effortless weight loss and spectacular performance gains.
If you’re not an athlete, and I’m assuming most of you are not, then the same principles still apply. We can hook you up to the gas analysis system and determine your “metabolic efficiency” at rest. We can assess just how much of a carb burner you are and we can track your progress if you decide to become a fat burning machine through a LCHF diet.
Fat adaptation v ketosis
There’s a special type of low carbohydrate diet called a ketotic diet. I want to explore that in the next post. Stay tuned.
This is a great TED talk by presentation guru Nancy Duarte. Her ideas about speaking are what you get given when you are invited to do a TED talk. It’s a really powerful and simple analysis of great speeches in history including Martin Luther King’s I have a dream speech and Steve Job’s IPhone launch speech in 2007.
Great communication is of course essential to changing the world. It is essential to any good idea. Without great communication, great ideas are lost. Mediocre ideas can flourish because of great communication. That’s such a shame on both counts. The good news is that this is totally learnable. I did it myself in my TED talk which I’m pretty proud of.
The basic idea is that great speeches all have the same structure – a shape which describes how the world is, and then switches back to how it could be. It always ends with the “new bliss”. It pulls the audience between what is and what could be – the powerful idea you have of “the new bliss”.
Enjoy the video.
(pic: the entrance to AUT Millenium where I work)
I’ve wanted to start a blog for quite some time now. The trick is to get the technical skills together well enough to actually know how to run one and do it regularly. Well, I’m just about there.
What will I blog about?
I am really interested in the science of how we can be the best we can be. This crosses disciplines such as biology, medicine, pubic health, and productivity management. The cornerstones are nutrition, exercise, sleep, neuroscience, psychology and well-being. I’ll be covering these topics under the broad heading of the Science of Human Potential (the name of this blog).
I’ve been interested in human health and performance for my whole career. I started in psychology then into sport and exercise psychology, then into public health especially physical activity then obesity.
There have been some twists and turns along the way which might help to give a view of why I do what I do and where it can go.
Sport and exercise has always been a massive part of my life. From an early age I played rugby union, learned to sail and race, and eventually ended up in the high school rowing squad. Rowing at my high school had no room for anything but high performance. So I was introduced to this at age 13. From there we won national championships most years. The combination of the sheer physicality of the sport and the team work and individual excellence required both mentally and physically really defined my teenage years and who I could become as an adult.
Being fit and involved in some sort of high performance activity has been part of my life since then.
I finished bachelors, Honors, and doctoral degrees in psychology at the University of Auckland by 1994. At the same time I had got into triathlon as a sport. I ended up racing semi-professionally. That’s code for “was never quite fast enough to earn a decent living, so had to supplement prize money income by working“. In the end I raced professionally in several world championships in long course triathlon, ironman and duathlon. That was great fun, and the skills and work ethic I have learned from triathlon are important to me.
The extra benefits from the high performance sport world, especially triathlo,n include:
- I met my wife Louise because of triathlon. She ended up also as a professional triathlete, a better athlete than me. We’ve been married since 1995 and have three boys – Sam, Jackson and Daniel. Louise also started Vitality Works, a workplace health company acquired by Sanitarium in 2012. Vitality Works has allowed both of us to benefit from a huge amount of professional and personal development in health and well-being.
- I figured out early that a high performance life is just as much work as a low performance life, so you may as well take the high performance life. It just requires a bit more work up front, but frankly you avoid work later and you get more choices.
- I have the skills to stay fit and enjoy maximizing my biology for my own personal peak performance.
- I still get to compete at a reasonable level in triathlon and running. This is cool because the age group triathlon and running groups are really fun, and you get to hang out with people of a similar performance, health, and happiness mindset.
My academic career began with part-time teaching in the Psychology Department at The University of Auckland during my PhD tenure. I moved to Australia (Central Queensland University in Rockhampton) and worked in the School of Psychology there for nearly 10 years. Most of our spare time then was dedicated to triathlon training and racing with Louise. I wasn’t going fast or far in the academic world at that point. Enter Kerry Mummery.
Kerry Mummery is now the Dean of Physical Education at the University of Alberta. He really mentored and started me on the journey to becoming a decent academic. We worked on several physical activity and health projects together. The most notable was 10,000 Steps. This started as a whole community project and morphed into a nationwide program which is still running successfully today.
This was the entrance into public health proper for me. I started at AUT in 2003 after the birth of Jackson our second son. Back in Auckland and into a new country with plenty to do. That’s when things really took off. I had the good fortune to have several great staff members and PhD students under my guidance. Almost all of these are still with me.
The highlights in the last decade are:
- Working with dozens of talented doctoral and masters thesis students
- Being highly successful in obtaining research grants and funding. This is the life of an academic and you live and die by this success. We are up over $20 million in funding.
- A solid and respectable publication record. Ditto above. Important for gauging success. But by itself is unlikely to put much of a dent in the universe.
- Being involved in Vitality Works. This has put a dent in the universe and allowed me to develop more formally into peak performance, well being and neuroscience.
- Being the youngest full professor around for a while. That wore off as I aged!
- Moving our work beyond physical activity into obesity, well-being, productivity, and nutrition/weight loss. Most recently the work we are starting in metabolic efficiency and weight is likely to put the biggest dent in the world.
- Starting the Centre for Physical Activity and Nutrition and eventually morphing that into the Human Potential Centre at the new Millennium Campus.
So that’s where I’m at. Where I want to go now, and with this blog, is to explore the science behind what helps us “be the best we can be.” It’s an emerging and multidisciplinary science. Let’s go!