As a youngster growing up in Sydney, Australia, I had asthma that really limited what I could do. My mind wanted to do active sporty things, but physically I couldn’t follow through and as a result, was pretty unfit (and overweight).
My mum was a good healthy cook and we spent lots of time outdoors, but I would sneak lollies, chocolate, and chips when I could. It wasn’t emotional eating – I just loved the flavours and textures. There was also peer pressure about buying “the cool food” (aka junk) for lunch at school and then University.
Flash forward a couple of decades and I was still overweight and on the roller-coaster ride of fad diets that I would follow for a while, then fail as they left me starving and weak. I wanted to lose weight and be healthy, but I didn’t want to suffer so much. To me, mental health is an important part of physical health, and starving myself on restrictive “diets” left me mentally unhealthy. I found this unsustainable.
So what did I do? I exercised more (it helped that I found an asthma medication that worked). I was living in California now and really got into long distance cycling – which was great for being able to eat more. But again, this was unsustainable as work and other hobbies were bound to cut short my cycling hours! When I moved back home to Australia, the small town I moved to didn’t have much in the way of bike routes (or hills!) but they did have a triathlon club. So that’s what I took up next! Problem was, on a bike your weight is more forgiving than running. So I suffered. I was injured, I was tired, and I was slow.
I followed the conventional wisdom of high carb, low fat. I was still injured, tired, and slow. And it never seemed to get any easier, no matter how much I tried or trained. But I was also stubborn, so I kept going as I did actually enjoy the challenge. I followed the conventional wisdom of carb loading before a race and getting energy gels and sports drinks during. And I still suffered. I always had a stomach upset of some sort that began on the bike and manifested as multiple toilet stops on the run. After four half Ironman and four full Ironman triathlons, I finally started to ask some QUESTIONS rather than what I had been doing all these years – telling myself it was ME that had failed in some way. For so long I had followed CW around a “healthy diet” and what I needed to eat to do sports. And they weren’t working for me!!
My first port of call was a triathlon Internet community, where someone mentioned fructose intolerance. Being the scientist I am, I set up an n=1 study of different sugar solutions and tested myself. Lo and behold, fructose sent me to the bathroom. But I wasn’t done. I kept exploring the Internet around fructose, food issues, and exercise, and stumbled across Mark’s Daily Apple. THAT’S WHEN EVERYTHING CHANGED.
I read and read and read everything I could on the website that day (at work). And I started. Then and there. From the very next meal. I was so convinced that this had validity that I knew I needed to act straight away. I didn’t want to end up in that corner of “paralysis by analysis” or needing to know EVERYthing before I did ANYthing. I bought The Primal Blueprint book and read it cover to cover. Twice. I tweaked what I had been doing since that first day. I read more, and I tweaked more. I then started challenging my own long held beliefs (brainwashing) around the conventional wisdom of carbs for life and for sports.
I read some more and came across the concept of low carb/ketogenic diets for sports. The ketogenic concept seemed more suited to long endurance type efforts, which was perfect for me. The shortest race I do is six and a half hours, so I was hooked. I believed all my problems with race-day stomach issues were to be blamed on carbs – so if I could burn fat (and I had plenty to spare!) for fuel and avoid ingesting carbs, I could feel awesome! Talk about being excited!
So I followed a very low carb version of the PB, including copious amounts of dairy. I spoke to a sports nutritionist who has done work around fat adaptation in cyclists and he was on board. In fact, he thought I could do my next triathlon (a six hour event) totally carb-free if I was well enough adapted. I had three months to become keto-adapted before the race – and I was going to need those three months for some pretty decent training too. When I started, I was a bit skeptical and always carried carb gels on my training rides and runs. But the amazing thing was I could now head out for a four-hour ride or a three-hour run and not need any calories. I was AMAZED!! My training was going better than ever and I was recovering from my long workouts better. I wasn’t sore for days after a run, so I could back up sooner with another quality workout.
However, I remained skeptical that I could complete a six and a half hour race without ingesting calories, so I raced carrying a flask of “back-up” carbs for when I hit the wall. But I never did. I had steady energy and mental clarity through the whole event – something I have never experienced before. And, all this was on electrolytes and water for six and a half hours of effort.
This event really cemented in my mind that I was almost in a place where I had found an eating style that works for MY body. I explored more experts online, including listening to podcasts from Ben Greenfield, Abel James, Jonathon Bailor, Stephen Phinney, and Jeff Volek. I also found an awesome book by Dean Dwyer called Make Shi(f)t Happen. These sorts of folks really helped me explore ways to tweak MY lifestyle in conjunction with all the great info and MDA.
One of the things I did read on a bunch of websites were all the folks who said the weight literally fell off them when they started eating this way. I haven’t had those spectacular results. But I am slowly and steadily losing fat and getting stronger. So even though the weight isn’t falling off me, I’m getting better every day.
After Christmas I noticed I seemed to have stalled in any weight loss. So I began tweaking some more and using the PB as just that – a blueprint that could be moulded to suit my individual body. I made the decision to cut out dairy. It was a biggie for me, as I had come to rely on cheese and cream as a source of fat. I started to again lose small amounts of weight each week. My skin improved, as did my allergies and nose stuffiness. Coconut cream became my “go to” for creaminess, as well as cooking in coconut oil or duck fat.
My last tweak (care of MDA) was a version of Bulletproof coffee. The ingredients in this are a particular type of coffee, with butter and MCT oil. Well, I started just by blending some MCT oil in my regular coffee in the mornings. UNBELIEVABLE. I have really noticed more clarity and sharpness in my mind during the day and don’t crave carby things or rely on caffeine to get me through the workday.
I’m still not going to be winning any races. Frankly, I’m not much faster than I was. But my lack of speed really comes down to the amount of training I can do within all the other parts of my life. So what are the benefits then? I FEEL AWESOME!! My health has improved. I ENJOY my training and events more. I DON’T SUFFER from stomach problems or energy ups and downs during these events or in everyday life. I don’t suffer muscle soreness for days after a strenuous workout. I appreciate more the fitness and health that has come from my eating shift. And I’M NOT CONSTANTLY HUNGRY!!
So what’s a typical day for me? (While training 9-13 hours a week and an 8-5 job):
- Coffee with unsweetened almond milk
- 45–60min workout
- 7:30am Breakfast – Bacon & egg yolks cooked in coconut oil
- 10:30 – Decaf coffee with MCT oil
- 2pm Lunch – Leafy greens with 125g meat/fish, avocado, olive oil
- 4:30 – Walnut/macadamia mix
- 5:30 – Afternoon workout – 60min
- 7:30 Dinner – 125g meat, ½ cup low carb veg, cooked in duck fat
I also make myself some treats on long training weekends that consist of coconut oil, almond butter, cocoa, and desiccated coconut, frozen in ice cube trays. Talk about YUM!
I bought myself a blood ketone meter and have done a lot of measurements to see how different foods/volumes affect my ketosis. More than around 200g protein or two alcoholic drinks sets me down to around 0.5mmol. I normally sit around 1.5-2 mmol since giving up the dairy. That’s probably the only reason I monitor how much meat I consume. I do try and keep my carbs down below 40g/day, but I don’t measure – just eat small amounts and don’t go silly on the nuts! No starchy vegetables and absolutely no grains, sugars, or legumes.
So round two of ketogenic racing was another long triathlon – this time there were going to be some serious hills in the bike part. Since exploring MCT oil as a supplement on a normal day and listening to folks like Ben Greenfield (an ironman triathlete), I started blending some MCT oil into some amino acids and electrolytes for my planned race nutrition. My training and recovery improved EVEN MORE. My mood and mental clarity improved EVEN MORE. So I went into this race with this plan:
- Pre race brekky – Bacon, egg yolks, coffee with MCT oil
- Immediately pre-start – ¾ tbsp MCT oil, 5 g BCAA’s
- During the bike and run – ¾ tbsp MCT oil and 5g BCAA’s per hour
Not your typical carb loading and carb fest that is usually long distance triathlon!
So how did I go?
I had some serious mechanical problems towards the end of the bike leg, and ended up being out there for around 40min longer than I planned. I only consumed less than half of the MCT oil/aminos that I had packed. BUT IT WAS AWESOME!! I felt great though the swim, strong and consistent through the bike (serious hills and long flats), and set a personal best (PB) for the run leg. Even though I had problems on the bike, my mental state was so much clearer and positive than any race I had previously done. Seven hours and 40 minutes on essentially just a few electrolytes.
And here’s the kicker: all those foods I thought I craved over the last few months? I let myself have them over the following couple of days – bread, milk, butter, cake, and chocolate. And guess what happened? I felt like crap. My skin and eyes were itchy, my face broke out in zits, my stomach was upset, I was bloated, had a headache, and puffed up 4kg in 3 days! And the best part? Nothing tasted good or gave me any satisfaction to eat. I won’t be doing that again!
So what are the biggest lessons I learned?
- PB = Primal Blueprint. AND PB = Personal Best. BE YOURS!!
- There is no one answer. Read, re-read, and experiment on yourself. Constantly tweak what you do. Dean Dwyer (in Make Shi(f)t Happen) talks about thinking in Beta (i.e., constantly tweaking yourself like multiple releases of a computer program) and not following prescriptions. Too many “solutions” out there just tell you what to do. Places like Mark’s Daily Apple and PB encourage exploration as to WHY you might want to try things and how to uncover what will work best for you. And that really sets them aside from all the CW out there.
And that’s my story. Thanks for reading, and all the best!
“Originally published on Mark’s Daily Apple.”