Path to Primal
Updated: Aug 27, 2019
The engorged swells off the coast of Panama City Beach did not hold back their intent to make our day as tough as possible. Lining up for my first ever 70.3 distance race, just nine months after my first multi-sport event, I was banking on my trials of miles logged years ago across the Southeast single track. The day brought high heat, raucous rains, and scorching sands. Even with the finish line in sight, I was on my very last effort just to pick my feet up to cross it. Empty, beaten, and starving, I called out for the usual standbys, a banana and, of course, 2% chocolate milk, which my supporting mom quickly brought to my aid. My first attempt had been a success insofar as I carried out the distance, but a near disaster on my body. Somehow I won my age group, and as soon as I recovered, a week or three later, I reflected on how I could have improved. The solution seemed obvious, as it was pretty much the same conclusion I made after every race with a burning desire to improve (aka every race): more training, better pacing, and, obviously, eat more carbs while racing. It took me another five years to understand one of those objectives was deeply flawed and counter productive.
Two gravel-strewn miles separated my diminishing frame from the finish line of the 2017 edition of Ironman Victoria 70.3. The lead in to this race couldn't have set me up for a better performance. Kinsey and I just finished a long road trip from Fairbanks where we took plenty of time to smell the roses along the way. The entire month prior, I was on terminal leave and had ample time to train and prepare. By the time the gun went off, I knew exactly how much fuel I needed, what watts to hit, and my morning meal had all the right ingredients: carbs with a side of carbs and a touch of protein, with toast on the side. Oh, and don't forget to top up on the carbs with a sugary gel precisely half an hour before you jump in the water. On the bike, I dutifully put away about 90g of carbs per hour, according to my effort, duration and body weight, ensuring a mix of fructose and sucrose to get maximum absorption. My coach marveled at just how much fuel I could put away during those four and a half hours. Indeed, I prided myself on my eating abilities and my cast iron stomach on race day. After all, before ascending Alabama's highest peak during a 24+ hour endurance run back in 2010, I powered myself off honey-coated brownies, Oreos, peanut butter and fudge (while my enamel screamed in silence), my 19 year old body taking care of business, come what may, as far as I was concerned. But two miles away from what could have been a solid day of racing, I was done. At the half way mark of the run, I knew I was in trouble. I ate some extra powerbars, like, whole bars at a time, muscling through the pasty, chewy, unnatural texture. It didn't work. I got passed. Then again. And a third time. I was hopelessly out of fuel, or at least my brain decided I was, and I could hardly work up a shuffle, let alone a race winning effort. Perceiving that my brain was in danger of losing its fuel supply, my body had gone into survival mode. Every signal to my limbs went from push and endure to stop everything at once. No exceptions. How could I have failed so hard after so much tedious prep?
It was back to the drawing board, but this time, I'd have to burn the old drawing board to the ground if I really wanted to elevate my performance. What had gone wrong? It turns out, a lot.
Burning down the drawing board would be difficult; basically everyone I'd ever trained with operated under the carb-burning paradigm and any mention of cutting grains and favoring fats was scoffed at. After all, glycogen was our most precious commodity while training and racing; we need it, as much as possible. We must do everything we can to preserve this minuscule and fast burning source of energy lest we bonk or get tired. When our metabolic pathways are used to receiving such regular doses of sugars, it turns out, yes, it's true, your performance will suffer if you don't keep the sugar flow going. Gatorade told us so, so we'd buy as much of their artificially colored sugar water as possible. But after Victoria, understanding that what we'd been told about peak performance was dead wrong became a lot easier. Though I'd read about this whole high fat approach, I had book knowledge about some of the principles, until I had experiential knowledge (and even that took several lessons), I wasn't ready to put my chips on the table. I even had a friend in Fairbanks who trained for ultra distance events who was giving the high fat thing a shot. She'd read The Big Fat Surprise and took very little fuel with her on her 3+ hour rides. She even blended butter in her coffee. I'll take my coffee black, always, thank you. Also, gross, right? I had a lot to learn in a short amount of time if I wanted to excel.
Something I, and our food industry, had seriously taken for granted was that our bodies weren't designed to interact with modern life in our current fashion. We were not designed to push ourselves in endurance sports in the way that we do and feed ourselves in a way that can only lead to massive fluctuations in energy and mood; the kettlebell, one of my favorite pieces of equipment, is a modern invention, unknown to early man. It can be used for great gain in the gym or rhabdomyolysis if used improperly. One thing I love so much about the Olympics is the huge array of activities we can compete at and excel in. It's a veritable celebration of the variety of human limits we can push. Yet we, as endurance athletes, get it wrong so much of the time. We have practically endless energy right there on our bodies, even the leanest of us, but we continue to tell ourselves that the dirtier burning glucose (mostly from some form of corn and modern, highly inflammatory wheat) is the key to success. And the more we reinforce that, the more tightly locked away the bountiful energy stores from our triglycerides become.
I, for too long, was convinced that the small tank of dirty burning fuel was superior to tapping into fat stores. I assumed that by simply training for endurance sports, I was also training to be a good fat burner while shoving sugar, and beloved whole grains, down my throat as often as possible to keep the tank topped up. It just doesn't add up. The limited glycogen stores will deplete in a 4+ hour event, the brain will continue to demand 20% or so of that energy via glucose (if you're not good at burning ketones), you will not be able to assimilate external fuel fast enough to keep up, and your decline is inevitable. While plenty of athletes have completed full Ironman events and longer while operating under the high carb approach, very, very few of them keep a consistent split from beginning to end. In this article discussing the 2013 London Marathon, a scant 4% of contestants ran the second half at the same rate or faster than the first. While experience and good pacing can account for a lot of that, even the pros had difficulty following the tried and true negative split method that so many coaches admonish. The carb-powered engine is simply not sufficient for peak performance at longer events and peak health for our bodies. There is no such thing as an essential (externally sourced) carbohydrate, even for elite endurance athletes, and when we become well fat-adapted, the energy supply becomes limitless, we will become bonk proof.
I came across Primal Endurance and devoured every page. The more I researched the world of the low-carb approach, the more confident I grew in my new methods, and, in fact, these methods weren't particularly new at all. I learned I could recover faster if I burn less glucose, I could have greater mental clarity when my brain doesn't rely on ingested carbs, and because of the greatly reduced amount of free radical damage and insulin production induced by aerobic glucose metabolism, I'd have a longevity benefit to boot. I could dedicate an entire series of blog posts expounding on these benefits alone as this barely scratches the surface.
I started by switching from my sugary drink mix in races to UCAN superstarch, a carb that doesn't raise insulin nearly as much as straight sugars so you're body can still stay in a fat burning mode, while having access to carbs if needed. (By the way, insulin regulation, it could be argued, is the primary root cause of late race collapse. Insulin regulation is not just for type 2 diabetics anymore). During that season, I was a lot more particular about what oatmeal I'd have on race day morning (it was still mid season, not a good time to go cold turkey on my standby meals, though slight alterations were allowed...and necessary). I chose pearl barley, one of the least offensive oats when it comes to glycemic response, and topped that with plenty of coconut oil. My first major race back, early on in my days of becoming a fat burning machine, went far better. At Ironman Canada 70.3 in Whistler, I led the field up until mile 50 of the bike and ended up placing 4th overall.
I continued to experiment and that winter, discovered my now favorite beverage, a blended coffee with coconut oil, grass fed butter, collagen, raw cacao powder, topped with cinnamon, and noticed that ravenous hunger that visited at the end of almost every workout was gone. I stopped feeling starving all the time and since then, never had a moment out on the bike or on a long run where that creeping sense of panic starts to take over if I didn't get the next hit of sugar. Yes, that happened several times during training, too, and even that didn't teach me my lesson.
A season later, I raced Ironman Superfrog 70.3, another 14 months into my fat burning journey. I took in very few sugars during the bulk of that race, relying almost entirely on UCAN and MCT oil in my bottles, until about four miles out from the finish. I took a hit of Gatorade and my brain lit up like a Rockefeller Christmas tree, boosting me to a strong finish. In that case, the quick energy from sugars worked, but had I started my day trying to burn sugars all along, I would have been burnt out by then and the impact would have been a lot less. Like a small tank of nitrous oxide, I timed my carb intake to boost me across the last few miles rather than trying to stretch that dwindling tank across many hours of the morning. Over the years, I've consumed a lot of sugary drinks during a race, but never has a small cup of sugar at an aid station had such a profound impact.
Just two years ago, if I told myself to quit on carbs and grains, I would have been dismissive, too stuck in conventional "wisdom" to see that there was a better way. Now, when I'm deep into my fat burning groove, whenever I reach for a glass of wine or beer for a brief indulgence, I have to ask myself, do I want to lose my superpowers today?