Steph Lowe is a sports nutritionist, Yogi and founder of the natural nutritionist, a hub for celebrating the importance of real food. She’s also the author of the real food athlete, a book we heavily endorsed, exuberant life, and our recommend highly that you get yourself a copy now. Steph is recorded, her philosophy on eating and fueling sport performance and would like to share those insights with you in this article. This is a transcribed version of the popular podcast Steph did with us a few months back, discussing LCHF and it’s role in improving athletic performance. Hope you enjoy and please let us know if you have any questions or thoughts.
Over to Steph…
Okay. I am going to start with a few basic principles for context. So firstly, what I want you to think
about when it comes to your metabolic profile or your metabolic options is that we actually have one of
one or two options when it comes to what our body can burn for its predominant fuel. So if you’re
burning glucose or sugar, we refer to you as being a sugar burner and if you can access fat and burn fat
for fuel, we refer to you as a fat burner. Another term that you might be familiar with is being fat
adapted or fat adapted athletes. There are so many reasons that this is the preferred route for an
endurance athlete, which we’re going to cover this evening. And I wanted to start with some numbers to
help you understand what we’re dealing with when we talk about either that glucose tank, that sugar
burning, that fat burning potential.
So when we look at the sugar burning or that glucose environment, what we know is that a well trained
athlete has about 1500 to 2000 calories of glucose stored in the muscle as glycogen. We’ve got 2000
calories beyond that. Everything that we burn needs to come from what we call an exogenous source.
So that’s like an external carbohydrates which we know could look like, you know, the food that we eat
day to day. But in an insurance environment, that’s the sports gels and the gatorade and the coke and so
on. Then on the flip side, if we’re fat adapted or we can effectively store body fat for energy, we have
between 60,000 and hundreds of thousands of calories of energy to access. You know I say it
lightheartedly, but you don’t need to be a mathematician to work out whether you would
choose the 2000 calories or the 100 or 200,000 calories.
So it’s pretty clear what gives you the more abundance of energy. But the problem is for most of us who
have followed a conventional food pyramid and to follow those conventional endurance or sports
fueling guidelines, we can’t burn fat for fuel. So we stay a sugar burner and that creates a whole host
of problems, especially when we’re talking about those longer events like marathon, ultra marathon has
on men and women. You probably all have heard of the term hitting the wall in Australia. We also talk about
it as being a nutritional bonk and that’s the inability to tap into fat reserves. That means your only
option is to consume these exogenous carbohydrates and essentially you can’t keep up with the
demand. Your body is burning matches like so many calories. You can’t put enough back in. So what your
body has to do is it has to slow down and you’ve probably seen videos of people crawling across the
finish line of an iron man. It’s usually multifactorial, but one of the big reasons is that they’ve run out of fuel and the
mechanisms behind that, because they’re not a fat adaptive athlete, they’re not able to burn fat for fuel.
When you’re a sugar burner, you’ve got that one tank and that one tank only, but when you’re a fat,
then you can actually access both. So we call that a dual fuel system. So being metabolically flexible means that you’ve got that abundance of fat calories that unlike almost unlimited reserve, but you’ve also got the ability to use muscle glycogen and that’s the fuel that we use, the high intensity. So you know, obviously they’ll be some training sessions, but a lot more of a significance when it comes to race day because the pace is always or most often going to be higher. And we’ve got that performance goal. So being metabolically flexible, it’s absolutely the best of both worlds.
We also know that when we’re fat adapted, we have the ability to spare muscle glycogen. So it’s got that glycogen
sparing ability so that you can burn fat for, you know, obviously rest, low to moderate and moving up
until you hit that crossover point and then you can preserve that glycogen for where it’s most required
and that’s an immediate fuel for speed or climbing a hill or getting to the finish line past the people that
are about to pick your for the podium or whatever that might look like in, in your race.
Um, so that’s two. Number three is improved performance, I mean, absolutely. The problem with
burning carbohydrates is it produces a lot of lactic acid, which we all know that feeling of being quite
lactic, heavy in the legs, for example, or in the arms from swimming, but it also produces reactive
oxygen species. And this creates damage in the body that your body needs to go in and mop up using
antioxidants and it’s quite an expensive process.
On the other hand, we know fast burn clean, so when you burn fat, when you oxidize fat, the byproducts are on the carbon dioxide and water so there’s no oxidative damage. It’s a really clean environment and your body recovers faster and we know that recovery is king, right? If you recover, it means you can get back out there and train better than next day and obviously the next day and the entire season.
So improve performance is key and this is probably one of the things that my athletes say to me. They
noticed early on in the piece, like I wouldn’t say it’s one of the number one or an initial changes which
we’ll get to what that is shortly, but definitely you know, early on in the piece and noticing how much
better their recovery is. And that’s because you know, we’re obviously removing that oxidated damage.
But we also know that when we consume refined sugars, which is what makes us a sugar burner, we’re
actually creating this highly inflammatory environment and the inflammation is the enemy to everybody
because we know it’s linked with most if not all chronic disease. But inflammation is actually a huge
enemy for the athlete because that’s totally slowing down the recovery process. So in looking at what
we eat and obviously removing those refined sugars and processed foods is critical, so that you’re
moving away from that sugar burning state and you can start to burn fat for fuel.
Still continuing with that inflammation piece, we know that inflammation is the cause of a lot of those
chronic injuries. So, sadly I see too many athletes with injuries that go on for years. I’ve even seen, we’ve
probably all seen pros that retire early and a lot of it comes down to being too inflamed from the poor
quality food that you consume and your body can’t heal. So injury prevention, especially if you’ve got
those chronic injuries outside of an acute situation, which is more obvious as to why it’s occurred, becoming
fat adapted is, you know, is the number one goal there as well. All right, we’ve got five so far. I will do a
recap at the end, but the, my number six is definitely, um, enhanced immunity.
So we know now science has evolved a lot rapidly in the last five years. So we know that about 80 percent of our immune system lives in the gut. So what do you think the food that you eat or what sort of effect do you think that the food that you eat has on your gut and on your immune system? It’s huge for the food that you eat, obviously travels through your gut, which is where 80 percent of your immune system is found. So if you’re eating lots of
refined carbohydrates and refined sugars and poor quality processed foods, you’re not providing your
body with the essential building blocks of a healthy immune system. So what we see in the athletic
space is chronic colds or always sick, always sick in taper and again, like I honestly think that large
majority of that is avoidable. If we think about our building blocks and what we need to create that
optimal health. Obviously performance and athletic longevity.
LCHF For Weight Loss
Now from a weight loss perspective, being a fat burner obviously means you can access dietary fat for energy, but also it means that you’ve got the ability to burn rather than store body fat. So I meet a lot of athletes who get a couple of weeks out from a race and then they realized that we were heavy and so they’re only sort of knowledge is I’ll have to cut calories and I’ve literally spoken to guys that are trying to eat 500 calories a day while training for an iron man because they were desperate to lose 10 kegs before they hit the start line. Like that is a disaster waiting to happen. Whereas when you can burn fat for fuel, when you’re a fat burner, you can burn body fat, so it’s a beautiful way to
achieve your race weight without being in that restrictive or or calorie counting environment. Not to
mention the metabolic disruption that comes with that sort of old, we call it the calorie fallacy.
So it’s a great way to achieve goal, race, weight, but day to day, I mean the freedom that you get from food.
Hopefully some of you have already experienced this. I know that some of you, if not all of you, have
definitely been experimenting with real food, but you know when you’re a sugar burner, you’re on that
blood sugar roller coaster, so you’re up and you’re down and you’re bound by your appetite and you’re
essentially a junkie because we know that sugar is a drug and you just need your next hit every couple of
Whereas when you’re a fat burner, you, you basically have that blood sugar stability and what we
call satiety. So you get this amazing feeling of fullness from the food that you eat four or five hours
without needing to eat. Some people get even more than that. So it’s great for your energy and your
mood. It’s great for digestive ease. So a lot of people that have digestive issues find this life changing.
Um, and yeah, it completely changes your relationship with food. So you have this really efficient
metabolism, meal to meal and day to day.
Reduced Carbohydrate Intake, Less Hassle on Race Day
Then in training and racing what you, what you do is you obviously have that fat engine, that huge calorie supply that we’ve been speaking about. You’ve got some muscle glycogen for the top end components and you usually only made a much smaller amount of exogenous carbohydrates, remember they the carbs that you consume. We’ll talk about bit more about your options, but you only need a really small amount.
Whereas we know our conventional guidelines are that the really generic 60 to 90 grams of carbohydrates per hour in training and racing, or you may be familiar with the one gram per kilogram body weight, so if you weighed 50 kilos, the recommendations would be to take 50 grams of carbs a hour. If you weigh 100 kilos, the recommendations would be to take a hundred grams of carbohydrates. Now that is crazy.
We know that digestion is a really expensive process of you’re putting carbs into the gut. The blood flow goes in there. You direct energy into the gut and it should be going out to the heart, lungs, muscle, legs, etc. For a lot of people, that creates the significant gastrointestinal distress that we see in endurance racing. Most of it is avoidable and then you obviously don’t have to have the 25 gels taped to the top tube or basically a picnic basket when you’re trying to put your race fueling strategy together. So you want to be fat adapted to make it really simple and that you’re fueling plan is stress free.
That obviously helps with the avoidance of gastrointestinal distress that comes from that really excessive consumption of, of carbs in training and racing. And then we have that beautiful logistical ease. So there’s no stress. You’ve got a small amount of carbohydrates, you might be doing literally 50 percent of what the guidelines or what our conventional recommendations will tell you. You’ll test this training though, because we know nothing new happens on race day. Um, but yeah, it’s, it’s, it makes the fueling plan, just something that happens alongside the
day rather than it being a huge focus because you’re not there to eat, right. You’re there to race.
And finally, my, my favorite by far is that we know that sugar is highly inflammatory. So we know that that is
moving us in the direction of the chronic diseases that we see far too prevalent in the West. So we know that the opposite, that anti inflammatory environment is going to decrease the inflammation and that’s what will look after your athletic longevity. And that’s so, so powerful because you love the sport, right? So you want to be doing it today,
tomorrow I’ll probably only ever be on the podium when I’m in like my, you know, my seventies, we’re going to be doing it forever. Like I think that’s a really important goal as well.
How to Get Fat Adapted
So you’re probably wondering how we’re going to get there. So how are we going to get fat adapted and experience
firsthand all these amazing benefits. It’s going to be very individual, like I hope you appreciate that. But
tonight I want to give you some, some areas to start. And then, you know, when we move into the
questions we can fine tune if there’s anything that you’re not quite sure about, but number one is the
food that you eat. So the acronym is j.e.r.f which stands for just eat real food or my model is Lchf, lower
carbohydrate, healthy fats.
Now this is so key because it’ll change your physiology of being a sugar burner and allow you to become
that fat adapted athletes. So it really does come down to what you put on your plate. So if you think
about what the Food Pyramid looks like, we’re essentially turning that upside down.
So as a rough guide, we give you a macronutrient recommendation. It’s about 15 percent carbohydrate, 20 percent protein, and 65 percent of of healthy fats.
So for a lot of people that’s crazy town because we’ve all been told that we need to eat the pasta and carbohydrate load and know we still see these dogmatic, archaic guidelines on websites like the AIS and every other week the Ironman triathlon has got, you know, an article about being fat adapted and then an article about a sports drink. And it’s confusing, right? Because there’s so many mixed messages. But I want you to always come back to our mantra of J.e.r.f.
If it’s real, it comes out of the ground, off the tree or from an animal. The ladder is obviously a personal preference. I know everyone eats animals, but if it’s real, it will look like basically how it does in the wild. The flip side of that is the foods that we see in the middle of the shopping aisles, that are in a packet in a box and I have a mascot. These are the
refined carbohydrates that are really high in sugar that are going to perpetuate that sugar burning environment.
So I know Paul mentioned my site earlier, I have lots of resources on Lchf, um, and, and what sort of meals that might look like. Um, but I do want to talk about carbohydrates a little bit more because they’re actually a really important food group. So I definitely don’t want this to come away or I don’t want you guys to come away from this being afraid of carbohydrates because they’re really important fuel. It’s just we want to look at the difference
between the refined carbohydrates, which are those packets and boxes and the foods with the mascot,
versus unnatural whole foods.
Not All Carbs Are Created Equal
So carbohydrates are found in fruit and vegetables. We know that foods like potato, sweet potato and white rice, especially when they’ve been cooked and allowed to cool, create resistant starch, which is the food that our beneficial.gut bugs eat to stay alive, so we do need to be consuming carbohydrates, but it is only in that 15 percent of ad daily intake and it definitely comes from more of the whole food sources.
In my book, the real food athlete, I teach you how to sort of work out where your grams per day should sit, but as a sort of a general guide, lchf could be as low as 25 grams of carbs a day or as high as 150. So the low end probably wouldn’t apply too many of you, but it’s definitely if you’re dealing with any metabolic disease or chronic disease or outside of this space it’s used to treat childhood epilepsy, cancer.
As we move up the spectrum, it’s quite relative to your genetics, your current weight and your level of carbohydrate intolerance as well as your level of activity. So if your lean and very active, it’s going to look like about 150 grams of carbohydrates a day, so that’s nowhere near that 25. If you’re still trying to lose a couple of kilos and maybe you’re at your job is quite sedentary, you’re going to be under 100. It still can work it out with that 15 percent of your daily intake, but that should give you some context so those numbers are quite different to what we see in that pure Keto space, which is gaining a lot of popularity, which I think is largely positive for real food and getting us off the Food
Pyramid and the the addiction to sugar, but it’s not about demonizing carbohydrates. They’re very essential, especially if you want to get faster and I’m assuming you know that you all want to get faster, right? So we do need to make sure that we’re including these foods so that we can definitely replenish muscle glycogen. Remember that’s the fuel that we burn for high intensity and definitely on race day.
Now our second strategy is what we call faster training or training. Empty. You’re probably already doing this. Hopefully you’re getting up quite early to do your training and not eating. That is the best way to start to transform your metabolism. Even if you’re eating a banana before you train that banana is the fuel that you’d been in this way more the ride or the run. Versus; you’ve been sleeping all night and fasting for at least eight hours, I hope, which means that when you rock up to training, your body is going to be burning fat for fuel.
That’s essential. If you’re not doing it, you must remember that you’ve got to be gradual, so I always
recommend that you start with lower intensity sessions and you keep it to the short week sessions to
start. But my adaptive athletes can definitely do between two and two and a half hours fasted. So that’s
water and sugar free electrolytes only, in a long lsd like a long slow distance session, so when your heart
rate’s low, which is where that perfect fat burning environment is.
So there’s two really easy strategies that you can start. What I do want to clarify though is that there’s a period of transition, we refer to it as the medical gray zone, right? And this is the period where you go from being that sugar burner and your body is, is actually starting to switch over to becoming a fat burner. It takes about four to seven
days. The experience for some people is pretty horrific. Unfortunately they’re going through a detox, coming
off the sugar. Their body has like basically dropped their main fuel source and they can’t get access the
diesel tank, which is that fat store. So for some people it’s like fatigue. It’s definitely gonna impact any
high intensity sessions. So I wouldn’t actually even be doing any high intensity sessions if you’re making
You just gotta really kind to yourself and make sure you get your sleep and stay hydrated and you probably might even ate a little bit more frequently initially, but you’ve gotta Sorta know what, what you’re, what you’re up for. I think it’s really important that you’re aware that it may happen. Um, and so that you start at the right time. If you go to a race and a couple of weeks, I wouldn’t even start now, I would start in your off season or in your recovery, um, if you’ve got, you know, six or eight weeks up your sleeve, you can definitely do a lot before your next race, but you’ll have to manage your expectations in those four to seven days.
So I’ve got a couple of other areas I wanted to explore when it comes to fueling, I mentioned before to
you guys about that you’re probably going to be consuming maybe 50 percent less, than that won’t
necessarily be straight away. Like if you’re, if you’re already having 60 grams of carbs and an hour or 90
grams of carbs now or whatever it is, please make you scaled back slowly. But if you’re not, I think that’s
good news because we can start you on quite a low intake of carbohydrate grams per hour and test this
in training so that you can basically learn to fuel off the least amount possible rather than the most
amount, which is our conventional model.
LCHF & Training
Um, so remember I’m talking about training, just talking about training right now. So the point of training is to continue to accelerate your metabolic efficiency and your ability to tap into fat. So if you’re having a gel, your body will immediately be burning sugar. If you’re doing that fasted and session or at least the first part of the session, empty or fasted, that’s where your body is burning fat for fuel. There’ll be a point where you’ll need to start to put some carbohydrates back in, but I’m talking maybe you know, 30 or 40 grams of carbohydrates per hour. Again, quite a general number, but the best news is you’ll have all those training sessions to test and you’ll log parameters like energy. How’d you feel? obviously performance, recovery, ongoing satiety, energy, and you’ll be up. I didn’t really shape what that fueling looks like.
We’ve got to remember though, it’s always intensity, direct derived. So the manager is, my carbohydrate requirements are relative to the intensity. So if it’s an lsd like alone slow session, where you’ll hot rate is, you know, let’s say it’s 1:40 and, and you’re racing over here at 160, you’d need another plan essentially they to plans and we call that train low rates high and it’s not highlight the non per 100 grams an hour, but it’s high up relative to the intensity so you’ll know what your race heart rate looks like.
So if you’ve worked out in training that you work really well off 30 grams of carbohydrates an hour,
what you’ll do is choose to have your sessions that your coach, gives you where you’re doing a rice pace
tempo efforts, whatever that might look like, and you might try 40 or 50 grams of carbs an hour and you
just tweak your race plan up relative to the intensity. So it’s really important that you remember that
because a lot of people, um, I think a lot of people are diving into the Keto end and then becoming
completely afraid of carbohydrates. Then they’re not fueling at all for, for an ironman barely would you
believe? And I think we’re just taking that message a little bit too far so we don’t get results in the
extreme, would get results in the middle when we stand in balance. So we’ve got to be really smart with
how we take this message so that we get the best of both worlds.
Um, so the train low race high is definitely what I want you guys to work with. So again, you’ll have
those two strategies where your most important goal is actually your post training, your
refueling, so you’re going to be refueling that muscle glycogen tank. And this is where we actually
want to be putting in some whole food carbohydrates, like some fruit or some sweet potato. Um, but
you do that in a full meal with your non starchy veggies, your quality protein and your healthy fats so
that you top up your muscle glycogen tank and a tank that’s full is full, right?
So think of it like a sink. A sink that’s full is full. So once your muscle glycogen is full, if you try and put more carbs in there, like our archaic carbohydrate loading protocol tells us that sink will overflow. So carbohydrate loading, if you really think about it intellectually, it doesn’t make any sense. There’s no where else for those carbs to go. So for a lot of people that go down the toilet because it causes a lot of gastric distress to try and consume seven to 10 grams of carbohydrates for every kilogram of body weight in race week when you’re quite sedentary. Um, and if you start carbohydrate learning early enough you’ll actually put on weight; the water weight that every glycogen molecule carry. So you’ll be heavy on race day.
So we don’t want any carbohydrate loading. We want a focus on refueling and with quality whole foods. And then it actually makes sense that you’ll probably be eating a little bit less in race week because you’re training less so your appetite will probably be less and you’re certainly not doing any, maybe a tiny bit of effort, but you should be barely doing any intensity. So you’re not actually going through that glycogen, so your tank stays full.
So hopefully that makes sense. I feel like I’ve been going on for ages, but I really wanted to cover a few key concepts with you guys. So I’ll recap some of the benefits and then I’ll jump into the questions. If you do have some questions, start typing them in now.
So I gave you 12 benefits. So this is the focus when I’m maybe some doubts creeping or you feel like you’re getting trapped in that carbohydrate model, which is very common in the endurance space.
The 12 Benefits of Fat Adaption
- We want a flexible metabolism because we want to be able to access both of that. That dual fuel system.
- We want to spare our muscle glycogen for top end
- We’re going to improve our performance
- We’re going to improve our recovery
- Injury prevention
- Improving our immune system
- Achieving our goal race weight easily without restriction or calorie counting.
- We’re going to have an efficient metabolism day today, so we’re not on that blood sugar roller coaster.
- We’re going to have a more efficient metabolism in training and racing. So you know,
- Minimal carbohydrates and and therefore avoidance of gastrointestinal distress,
- Logistical ease on race day
- We’re going to extend our athletic longevity.
So it sounds pretty good to me. So hopefully you guys have found that helpful from a context point of view, but that you can see the way to there is through what you eat and some of those training and fueling strategies that I shared it with you guys.