The low-carb high-fat nutrition movement has become as contentious as religion or politics. I’ve been following it since 13 December 2013 in pursuit of better health and found that it has worked for me. I’ve never felt healthier or more consistently energetic and I’ve never slept better. But what about racing? How can you do an endurance event on minimal carbs? Well, here’s what I’ve learned and how I successfully managed my nourishment at the 2015 Absa Cape Epic. – Sean Badenhorst
I’m not an expert on nutrition; but I am an expert on me. What works for me may not work for everyone, but I feel that my Cape Epic experience as a fat-adapted mountain biker is worth sharing.
What’s fat-adapted? Well, it means that I gain the majority of my energy from natural and animal fats, not from starches and sugars. This does not mean that I don’t have any carbs, because I do, but my consumption of carbs is limited/controlled and fairly low (less than 100g per day). My daily diet includes vegetables, fruit and dairy, as well as various meats and nuts – essentially, all whole foods. And lots of water, plus one glass of red wine each night.
But I quickly worked out that while this is fine for a sedentary lifestyle, training and racing puts a high demand on working muscles and the brain and added carbs are required in order to perform optimally.
In the six months leading up to the Cape Epic I tried various strategies in training and racing. I found that any riding at a steady pace (say less than 70% maximum effort) I could ride without any kind of carb drink or energy product. I did training rides for up to five hours on only water. But as soon as I upped the intensity, I needed more than water.
I began to use a high quality carb/protein drink on the bike for harder
training rides and races. After trying a variety of brands, I chose USN Epic Pro, which is packed with nourishing carbs, proteins and phosphates. It was also the only one that didn’t make me feel constantly thirsty. I only used a half-strength serving for training, but a full-strength serving for races. Before interval training sessions, I’d drink full serving of Epic Pro too.
At the Cape Epic I used the following strategy:
I drank half a serving of USN Epic Pro before each stage.
During each stage I started with one bottle containing a full serving of USN Epic Pro. I found that I didn’t drink more than maybe one or two sips before the first water point, so when I reached the first water point, I just topped up the bottle with water, making my mixture a tiny bit weaker. I also ate 2-3 baby potatoes.
I would have a few gulps between the first and second water point and normally forced myself to finish the last few gulps on the way into the second water point, where I would fill the bottle with water and add another full serving of Epic Pro powder (I carried this in a Ziploc bag in my pocket). I would then drink three or four cups of plain water and eat 2-3 baby potatoes. And that would carry me comfortably through to the final water point, where I’d have more water and baby potatoes and would either top my bottle up with plain water or another full serving of Epic Pro if I felt I needed it.
My teammate, Issy Zimmerman, is not fat-adapted and therefore, like most at the Cape Epic, carb and sugar dependent. We discovered that his need to constantly eat and drink (at least every 30 minutes) in order to maintain steady blood sugar levels, was dramatically different to my fat-adapted strategy. He drank his energy drink in his bottles (he rode with two bottles) and at the water points, added Energade or Coke/water mix, or just plain Coke, depending on how he felt. He also ate sweet foods at the water points and relied on gels in the last 90-60 minutes of each stage too.
I carried a couple of gels in my pocket in case I might need them, but I never did. I actually gave them to Issy if he needed them.
After each stage I drank a lot of water, another full serving of Epic Pro and a full serving of 32GI’s Pea Protein Recover. I ate whatever was in the Woolworths lunch pack, which usually included a sandwich or a pasta dish. For dinner I didn’t shy away from starches, but didn’t specifically overeat potatoes, pasta or pizza. I also ate puddings after dinner.
Not once during the event did I experience any kind of hunger knock (bonk), my energy supply felt exceptionally constant, with only minor fluctuations which seemed remedied just by a couple of gulps from my bottle. I also never had the dreaded ‘runny tummy’ that many experience after Day 3 in the Cape Epic (supposedly as a result of excessive consumption of sugary supplements and water table fare).
I feel that I was able to ride at a more consistent pace throughout each stage and the event as a whole because I never felt any kind of energy dips or spikes like I used to before I was fat-adapted. My stoppage times at the water points were shorter than most and I rode with a level of confidence in my energy stores that I’ve not felt before. My ability to focus mentally was also consistently high throughout, which comes in handy towards the end of a stage when faced with a fast, rutted singletrack with a sketchy surface.
For perspective, Issy and I are both middle-aged men who are naturally competitive. We didn’t just ride the Cape Epic, we raced it. We ended up finishing 104th overall and 27th in the Masters division. You could call us above-average mountain bike racers.
Excluding the Prologue, our average Cape Epic stage finishing times were around 5 hours. This kind of distance/duration is ideal for a lower intensity pace than say tackling a 75km marathon, which probably played perfectly into my favour in my fat-adapted state. At the Berg & Bush three-day stage race last October, where the stages are between 60-90km, I rode at a higher intensity and found that although I never stopped at any water points, I needed a couple of gels in the last hour of each stage.
As I said at the beginning of this article. Being fat-adapted has worked well for me both in terms of my general health and in terms of my ability to ride stage races with consistent levels of energy. You will notice that I’ve not referenced any kind of scientific research, partly because this is a personal account and partly because there’s not a huge amount of research that’s been done on fat-adaption for endurance athletes. And the research that has been done hasn’t shown that being fat-adapted will make you perform any better. Of course there’s even less evidence that it will make you perform worse…
There will be scientists and dieticians that read this and shake their heads. And there will be ambitious mountain bikers who enjoy stage racing that read this and think differently about the way they’ve always viewed their diet and race nutrition. And that’s all I really want to achieve.
Apparently it takes anything from 4-25 weeks for this process to be
complete. I recall mine taking about 4 weeks (the main shift). After changing my diet completely on 13 December 2013 to Low-Carb, High-Fat, my system understandably went through a phase of adaption. I was patient and persevered. I got some headaches, I felt tired, I felt that I needed more salt than normal and, when riding, I had hardly any energy! I plodded through my daily 25km rides as if they were tough ultra-marathons! I struggled to stay focussed on work tasks for long.
But after a week or so, I could tell my body was adapting. My energy levels were returning and my rides were becoming faster and easier. I wasn’t quite as tired off the bike and my mental focus was improving. This lasted for another three weeks or so and then I felt full strength on most of my rides. As I continued with my low-carb high-fat way of eating, my body seemed to adapt even further and after six months I seemed to be in mature state of fat-adaption, which I currently enjoy.
It makes quite a bit of sense really, a typical person can store up to 2500 calories of carbohydrates, but carries around 50000 calories in stored fat. From birth we’re basically ‘trained’ to rely on carbs for energy (have a look at the ingredients in baby formulas and foods), so it takes some time and a lot of commitment to train your body to make the shift to accessing those vast fat stores for fuel.
I’m not 100% fanatical. I deviate occasionally for one meal and eat pizza or French fries, or tuck into a chocolate milkshake or bowl of pudding. But I don’t crave these because they’re not an integral part of my daily diet. I don’t experience sugar highs and lows and never crave anything. I eat when I’m hungry (usually quite large servings two or three times a day) and drink a lot of water.
Other than the occasional article where I think it’s relevant, I don’t discuss my fat-adaption with anyone unless they specifically ask about it. It’s the single best improvement I have made in my life in terms of health and my cycling performance and it’s empowering to know that I’m in control and I’m not being controlled by a system that’s been widely accepted as the norm in the Western world…
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Originally published in TREAD Issue 35, 2015 – All rights reserved