Low-Carb High Fat For Triathletes: The Good And The Bad

What are the good and the bad of low-carb and high fat for triathletes, a growing number, especially Ironman participants, have started following low-carbohydrate, high-fat eating patterns in recent years to make the most of their body’s large amount of fat energy during the competition.

Switching to a new lifestyle can be difficult, requiring intense preparation and a great deal of willpower. Without the advice of a specialist, it can be overwhelming, full of doubts and possibly harmful to one’s health.

A discussion with Stephan Nuesser of Vivere180 and SNDC to try to figure out the secrets behind a low-carb, high-fat diet for triathletes. Nuesser is an expert in advanced performance testing, and in the last few years has helped athletes realize their full athletic potential by getting accustomed to a low-carb, high-fat intake.

Stephan, from his performance lab located in Burscheid close to Cologne, Germany, explains what you need to consider before changing your diet, what changes you can anticipate as your body gets used to it, and how these nutritional modifications will support you as an athlete in triathlons.

Considering low-carb, high-fat

From a dietary perspective, the vast majority of athletes still use carbohydrates as their primary energy source. It could be argued that the industry controls or influences what we understand: we need carbohydrates, such as pasta, to be robust and efficient. But it’s just not true.

The amount of fat stored in your body won’t limit you if you are participating in a long-distance run or triathlon; your body can store around 70,000 to 80,000 calories of fat. In contrast, the amount of carbohydrates that can be stored is only 2,000 calories.

I compare it to a truck, with a small gas tank in the front for carbohydrates and a much bigger one in the back for fatty acids. As athletes, we are continuously seeking to keep our energy levels high, frequently going through strenuous and time-consuming efforts, failing to consider that we can draw on the potentially large reserves that lie right in front of us.

Gaining access to a greater supply of fat can give you access to more calories than you could get from carbohydrates: “If you switch your fat metabolism, it can provide you with 70 to 80 per cent of the energy you need, meaning you only need 20 to 30 per cent coming from carbs.”

The notion that fat directly increases cholesterol levels, leading to chronic heart diseases, is a misconception. It’s been proven wrong. I would suggest that the over-consumption of glucose and fructose [sugary carbohydrates] is the root cause of many of the afflictions related to metabolic syndrome, including type-two diabetes, hypertension, and obesity. It’s not fat that causes obesity, but rather the consumption of processed foods and carbohydrates.

Despite that, it doesn’t need to be effective for everybody. If an individual competing in athletics fuels their energy with carbs and has experienced no adverse effects from consuming 20 gels and two litres of Coke during events, feeling capable and in good health, then they should persist with this approach. However, from my own personal experience, the majority of athletes do not have the same relationship with carbohydrates.

When to make the switch to low-carb, high-fat

Committing to switching to a regime of consuming low carbohydrates and higher amounts of fat is a huge decision. You need self-control, a dedicated timeline, and frequent examinations to adjust well to this more effective fat-burning stage – it’s likewise essential to have the help of a specialist to lead you.

Take into account that it will take a minimum of eight weeks for one to get used to it. At present, you may experience moments of reduced strength but that will soon pass, and you will experience improved well-being. I usually suggest people begin in November or December so that they can use the winter months to adjust to burning fat as fuel.

When you are set to commence, a plan of well-monitored carbohydrate limitation, recording and checking should be carried out.

I ask that my athletes at least seven days log all of their food intake in the MyFitnessPal app and combine this information with their Training Peaks data. I can get a look at the athlete’s current intake of fat, carbs and protein based on the training.

It’s time to cut back on carbohydrates and switch to predominantly low-intensity workouts. Additionally, begin taking regular ketone readings to assess how the metabolism is adapting.

No precise definition of what is considered to be “low carb” exists. It is necessary to adjust the number of carbs so that the athlete has no issues and can train and compete efficiently. It can be anything from 50g to 200g, depending on what is necessary to acquire the best results. I witness athletes not giving their bodies enough carbohydrates when they attempt to do something alone.

Generally, I begin with 100g to monitor the athlete’s response. If they’re okay with that, we can lessen the amount, which we call a cold keto stage where we really force the body to depend on the fats. It usually takes around two weeks before people can return to their regular physical activity level. At that point, they can usually consume an average of 100 to 200 grams of carbohydrates.

The Science: Why Low-Carb High-Fat Works

First, an LCHF approach is not a ketogenic diet. A ketogenic diet typically consists of consuming less than 50g of carbs each day. Dan Plews, a coach and exercise physiologist, noted that on the other hand, an LCHF is generally measured at around 130 grams per day.

I don’t care to declare that it is only 130 grams. There is an ideal balance, although some individuals require a bit more or a bit less (e.g., those with insulin resistance or glucose intolerance).

Connecting to long-distance triathlons, these events are never run with maximum effort for a protracted period. In this instance, it might be useful for athletes to draw energy from fats instead of carbohydrates, which could fend off the exhaustion experienced at the conclusion (or even before) of the marathon.

Plews emphasized the importance of preserving the body’s native carbohydrate stores to properly compete in long-distance triathlons.

If one is exerting 300W of energy and all of it is derived from carbohydrates, it won’t be long before the body’s internal store is exhausted and they will become exhausted.

Switching to fats as opposed to carbohydrates may present an unlimited source of energy for the body, at least in conception. An individual who is extraordinarily slim (for example, such a person might have 8% body fat and be 155 lbs) can store a whopping 25,200 kcal of fat – significantly more than the 1,500 kcal of carbohydrates that are stored within the muscles and liver when large amounts of carbohydrates are consumed.

However, Plews, who has come up with a particular strategy for very low-carb high-fat diets, does not wholly repudiate carbohydrates and importantly points out the unique demands of longer-distance triathlons when compared to other endurance activities.

He stated that using a low-carbohydrate, high-fat diet will likely be beneficial for any sport that requires the burning of fat and the use of stored carbs in the body.

It is highly improbable that you will exhaust your intrinsic carbohydrate supplies while competing in a 10k run, a half marathon, or a marathon. Once you spend more than four hours on something, it can start to become an issue. And over 7-8 hours, it becomes a major problem.

He asserts that when it comes to training for long-distance triathlons, one must factor in VO2 max, running economy, and other performance indicators, in addition to FatMax (maximum fat combustion rate).

The explanation is that Ironman events are held around the aerobic boundary (the relaxed effort that an individual can keep up for an extensive amount of time), and the FatMax amount is usually found at an Ironman intensity level of approximately 75% of an individual’s peak heart rate.

Science: Why LCHF Might Not Work

Although an LCHF approach can elevate your maximum fat oxidation rate, nutritionists and researchers point out that a “high FatMax” (which refers to the highest possible oxidation level) is different from a “wide FatMax” (which suggests a higher capacity for fat oxidation). Sadly, this rise can take place as a result of carbohydrates being burned at very strong levels.

An individual’s FatMax can get to an extraordinarily elevated figure by carrying out a low-carb, high-fat diet. However, the amount of VO2max levels and wattage where one can reach this amount will be quite minimal.

Basically, if they leave that area, they may confront difficulties.

A wider FatMax implies that the athlete may not reach their peak FatMax, but they can burn fat in a wider variety of percentages and power values of their VO2 max—which makes sense considering the variability of a race.

This implies that the athlete can continue to burn fat efficiently under greater power levels, while still being able to draw on carbohydrates for intense activities.

Robert Gorgos, the former nutritionist to Ironman World Champion Anne Haug and nutritionist for the professional cycling team BORA-Hansgrohe, suggested that a wider FatMax would be necessary for competing since more carbohydrates would be burned during higher levels of intensity.

In the FatMax region, a person with average fitness levels can still use up to 70-80 grams of carbs in each hour of activity (around 200W). Roughly 400 grams of carbohydrates could be burned while cycling for four to five hours. By implementing a nutrition plan that helps you become more fat-adapted, you may be capable of burning 40-50 grams of fat every hour, so the protective effects may not be as dramatic as you think.

Gorgos has cautioned that completely leaning on the LCHF approach can have a detrimental impact on the glycolytic system, the procedure that generates energy through the breaking down of carbs (notably at higher levels of intensity). He states that cycling races focus on a burst of strength and strength endurance more compared to long-distance triathlons.

He argued that although particular drinking habits might increase the body’s productivity and require less carbohydrate consumption, the associated risks are not worth the potential gain. I do not think it is feasible to reach a top ranking in the Ironman event without utilizing the fat-burning metabolism.

According to both Laura-Sophie Usinger, a triathlon coach, and scientific evidence, this statement is true based on her personal experience as an athlete and coach. She declared that carbohydrates are the fundamental source of energy for our bodies. You need to make sure you have the resources to be able to meet the demands of an exercise program. If you maintain a low-carbohydrate diet and wish to participate in intense workouts or compete at a high level, your results would not be up to par.

She states that if someone is not presented with low-carb options, their high-intensity workouts will be adversely impacted for a period of 7-10 days beginning with the start of the program and perhaps lasting up to a month or so in some cases.

From a health point of view, she claims that LCHF, when consumed by elite athletes, can decrease the effectiveness of the immune system and reduce bone strength (which then raises the risk of stress fractures).

She mentioned that usually LCHF is associated with having lower energy, which often leads to athletes gaining, not losing, weight. It is because when the energy you have available is limited, your body attempts to store as much as possible, which leads to weight gain.

However, Usinger thinks that the LCHF diet can provide advantages to certain classes of sportspeople; especially those who are overweight and looking to shed excessive body mass or those who are competing in competitions that require exertion of minimal intensity for greater than twelve hours.

It can clearly be seen that a Low Carb High-Fat lifestyle for a long-distance triathlete can result in great accomplishments. Van Berkel is one of them.

Training During LCHF Adaptation

For the duration of the keto period, which may be anywhere from two to eight weeks, it is important to be aware of the types of muscle fibres being used; during this time it is best to stick to the low-intensity for fat burning.

You can still engage in one or two workouts each week where you increase to a significant intensity for durations of 15, 20, or 30 seconds. This ensures that your body’s glycolysis process is still running without a large accumulation of lactic acid.

Doing higher-intensity exercise will not necessarily boost your fat-burning, but it can help your body get used to that kind of activity. It’s best to avoid prolonged intervals at a high intensity if you want to move into aerobic carbohydrate metabolism.

Athletes must be prepared to feel weaker as their bodies adjust, but they should push on until the process of adjustment is complete.

The body’s strength decreases during the adaptation process as it is undergoing a physiological transformation. Once the exercise is completed, the same level of power and performance is restored, no longer necessitating the need for a diet abundant in carbohydrates.

A triathlete whom I collaborate with attempted this last year on their own and cut it short after four weeks because it didn’t feel right. The performance went down. He didn’t trust it anymore. He stopped his diet and returned to eating carbohydrates, but the same issues returned; he experienced exhaustion during his run and had difficulty maintaining his desired pace. This year we collaborated and there were some initial issues, but we made modifications throughout, and now that eight weeks have passed, he feels really proud that he accomplished it and is still following it.


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