FATS v. CARBS

I sat in the dreaded chair 92 miles into the Indiana Trail 100 ultramarathon. I was shivering uncontrollably, huddled as close as humanly possible to a space heater twice my size. I had been bonking for the past 50 miles due to extreme nausea and the inability to take in calories.

I had led the women’s race for the past 62 miles and was desperately trying to hold on to the lead, but I felt it drifting away as I had consumed no more than 100 calories in the past 16 miles. My fluid intake was not much better. I was severely dehydrated, hypothermic and under fueled.

I put my head down on the table and had no idea how to pick myself up and run the last 8 miles. And as I was contemplating my misery the second-place female came into the aid station appearing energized, eating handfuls of food, and she quickly zipped off. There was nothing I could do. After a few more minutes I begrudgingly got to my feet, wobbling and holding on to chairs and tables as I tried to keep my balance. I left the warm, dry tent and entered the cold, heavy rain, forcing my legs to run. I was slow but still moving. Somehow, I crossed the finish line as the runner-up female.

And as if losing my lead with 8 miles to go in a 100 mile race wasn’t painful enough, a few months later I repeated the outcome but this time lost my lead with only half a mile to go in a 100 mile race. More bonking. Again, I defeated myself with nausea and inability to eat (as well as starting the race with a fever over 100, but that’s another story).

Fast forward three years to the St. Pats 24 hour race. No longer did I fuel my running via the old dogma of eating as many carbohydrates as possible. No longer did I rely on overly sweet gels, chews, Pringles, peanut M&M’s, sugary sports drinks, cookies, and waffles to get me through extreme distances. No longer did I need to continually take in calories every 30 minutes to survive an ultra. Instead, I was now a fat adapted runner who could burn body fat as fuel and was no longer dependent on carbohydrates. I could run with steady energy for 24 hours straight.

I started this keto journey in August, 2016. I reached out and hired Evolve Performance Running coach, Dr. Stephanie Amspaugh, for help with my nutritional struggles during ultramarathons. Being a certified holistic nutrition coach, Stephanie was an expert in the ketogenic diet. She was also a physical therapist and put together a strength training plan to keep me injury-free.

I had been a vegetarian for the previous five years and now I was expected to eat a diet extremely low in carbohydrates and relatively high in protein. Stephanie told me it was possible to do this on a meatless diet, but it would be much more challenging. She asked me why I chose to be a vegetarian. I explained that my brother had a heart issue and he switched over to a vegetarian diet so I just decided to do it as well. I didn’t really like meat that much anyway.

Stephanie then shared with me numerous research articles on the health benefits of a keto diet. Not only could it help me with my running performance, it could also reduce inflammation in the body, lower the risk of diseases such as cancer and diabetes, improve cognitive functioning and improve symptoms of depression.

With this new knowledge I was motivated to add meat back into my diet and say good bye to my beloved dinner rolls, chocolate chip cookies, Moose Tracks ice cream and double mocha Frappuccino’s. If this way of eating could prevent a painful end to my next 100-mile race, then I would make the necessary sacrifices.

Stephanie walked me step-by-step through the process of becoming fat adapted. This is not something anyone should try without expert advice and guidance. Articles and information on the internet are full of misinformation as well so it would be a huge mistake to depend on those sources alone.

My first two weeks of transitioning my body to ketosis was not the most pleasant experience. I whined to Stephanie more than a few times about feeling like crap.  She assured me that it would pass. I have never been a good drinker, unless it involves chocolate martinis and Pina coladas. And this was not the time to continue my chronic dehydration. Stephanie warned me that I would need to greatly increase my fluid intake as well as add salt to all my food and take electrolyte supplements. I thought one or two electrolyte drinks per day would cut it, but I then found myself having extreme nausea and unable to get off the couch. It felt like I had the flu… then I learned there really was something called the “keto flu.” After that I listened to my coach better.

After a full year of experimenting with the low carb diet, I toed the starting line at the St Pats 24 hour race. I had big goals. I not only wanted to win and set the women’s course record. I also wanted to win overall and set the men’s course record which was 126 miles. More than one of my running friends laughed at my lofty goal setting.

I started running at what felt to be an easy pace. The first 4 hours passed without a hitch and without a bonk. Then the next 4 and the next 4 and the next. Soon I was approaching the 100 mile mark. My secret goal was to hit 100 miles in 18 hours. I hit it in 16:47 and I still hadn’t had a significant low point. My energy was steady. I was slowing down on the eating but it didn’t seem to matter. I could stop eating and rely solely on burning my own body fat because I had trained my body to do just that.

If I hadn’t started struggling with serious bathroom issues due to IBS and needing to stop and go about every mile for a few hours late in the race, I think I may have run 135 miles. The last two laps I was also forced to walk a lot due to foot pain, but I still achieved my goal and ran 128.35 miles.

I had worked hard with Stephanie to train my body to utilize more fat for fuel than the typical high-carb eating runner. As a result, I didn’t rely on high carb, sugary aid station foods to get me through 128 miles. The high sugar gels and chews likely lead many ultrarunners to nausea and stomach distress. Therefore, I didn’t deal with the nausea I had in all previous 100+ mile races.  Following a ketogenic diet helped me put together as close to perfect of a race as is possible in this sport. There was no severe nausea, no energy crashes, no sitting, and no getting passed at the end of the race. There was simply even, steady energy for 24  hours and a new overall course record.

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