Low Carb Running

I’m going to a three-day conference on the prosecution and presentation of evidence in child abuse/neglect cases this week. My mom is staying with my boys. I love attending this conference even though the topics we hear about are difficult and emotional. The conference is held up in the mountains, so I’m able to get out and run those trails, which is a treat for me. As I was preparing for the conference, I realized I would have to pack my own food!
As I’ve mentioned before, I am a low carbohydrate athlete. I started this adventure on January 2, 2014. One of my friends, Justin, had been talking about low carb for athletes for about a year. He brought me a book about it in December, The Art and Science of Low Carbohydrate Performance, by Jeff S. Volek, Ph.D, RD and Stephen D. Phinney, MD, Ph.D, I agreed to read the book and after reading it I agreed to give it a try for sixty days.
Before reading the book, I had a general understanding about the theories of low carb. But, I had also heard negative things about the whole Atkins diet. My parents had tried the low carb diet for weight loss reasons and could never maintain it. Anyway, the theory behind low carb, as I understood it before reading the book, was that your body has a lot of calories of fat to burn, much more than the calories it has from sugar. So, If you burned fat you could run stronger longer.
I read the book and found out that there is more to low carb than just being able to run stronger for longer, especially, for extreme endurance events such as the 100 miler. The human body contains about 2000 calories of sugar/glycogen stored in the muscles. Glycogen is easy to burn, and the body burns it first. This is one of the reasons it is hard to lose weight if you don’t control your sugar intake. You have to burn through those 2000 calories before you start burning the fat. If you are constantly replenishing the sugar, it is difficult to get to the fat burning.
The human body even when it only has six percent fat, has more than 40,000 calories of fat to burn. Imagine being able to tap into that resource. You would be pretty much unstoppable, right? Here’s the thing, because your body has been trained from the time you were born to burn glycogen as its primary fuel it needs time to adapt to burning fat more efficiently. It can burn fat, but it takes time to build up enough of the fat break down enzymes to use fat as your primary fuel source. I hope this make sense.
It takes approximately four to eight weeks to build up enough enzymes. Until you build enough, you may feel tired and hungry. However, after you have the enzymes you don’t lose them, and you are a fat burning machine. As an athlete, this means that you do not have to continually consume sugar during endurance events to fuel. You won’t hit the wall, crash, or bonk because your energy source is tapped into 40,000 calories rather than 2000 calories. This is great news for those of us with more sensitive stomachs that have a hard time consuming enough sugar during events to fuel our bodies. When burning fat, you really don’t need to consume much if anything. You do need more water and more electrolytes than you did burning sugar because your body does not carry as much water weight.
Your brain uses two types of fuel, sugar or fat. If you are using sugar as your primary fuel source during an endurance event and your sugar gets low, your cognitive functioning also gets sketchy. You get loopy, take more time to process information, and have a difficult time making complex decisions. At the end of a hundred mile event this is problematic and one of the reasons a pacer and crew are needed. If you are using fat as your primary source of fuel, this doesn’t happen because you don’t run out of calories to feed your brain.
Other benefits of the low carb diet are, reduced recovery time, reduces the likelihood that the body will burn protein (read muscle mass here) as a fuel source when glycogen runs out, and better respiratory functions
When I first began the low carb diet, I had to eat every two hours to not feel nauseous and shaky. My energy levels dropped and maintaining my high miles was difficult. However, after two months I was able complete a 30 mile run without any sugar supplements and if felt great. I went out the next day and did another twenty and felt amazing. I recover quickly from races, example, after the Salt Flats 100, I was running the next weekend because my body was ready to get back out there. I felt strong and refreshed. I’ve run two ultras a 50 and a 100 on the low carb diet and my mental state has remained stable. I did not have major emotional swings, which I experienced when using sugar as my fuel source. I am alert, smiling, and thinking clearly.
Weight loss is also a benefit of low carb, although, it was not one of the reasons I switched. I have lost about 15 lbs over the last five months on the diet.
The first two months were the most difficult. When I went to the grocery store, I saw everything I could not eat rather than learning new things I could eat. Once I felt the benefits of the diet on my running and really committed to a low carb diet, I started looking into recipes for my favorite things such as brownies, ice cream, and snickerdoodle cookies. I can make all of these low carb now, and love them.
It is a big adjustment and makes restraint eating much more difficult, hence the reason I am packing food for the conference. There are tons of resources online and a large variety of low carb cookbooks out there. I would not maintain this diet if it did not provide the athletic benefits it does because it is difficult. I love it now, but it has taken time and research.
If you have interest in trying low carb, I encourage you to read the book (144 pgs), get a cookbook, and learn to make your favorite treats low carb doing these things make this diet easier to maintain.