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Friday, 6 February 2015

The No Fuel Triathlon

“In theory, everything works in Practice”
Yogi Berra

First of all I understand there will be a lot of nay-sayers or people trying to dismiss or disprove this and I’ll admit some of it is a work in progress. Probably cause it goes against everything that you have been led to believe in books, magazines, seminars or what you have tried for yourself.

Second of all I can’t fully explain the mechanism of action of all of these products or techniques. I reflect back on the study that a Swiss professor did in the 1930’s on how bumblebees fly and showed that, in fact, bumblebees can’t fly (this study is often incorrectly accredited to NASA). Just because the theory isn’t clear doesn’t mean you should discount the fact the outcome worked.

Thirdly I studied and am certified in Sports Nutrition and know what you ‘should’ do.

And therein lay the issue.

Sports nutrition, especially for endurance events such as triathlon, focuses on inputs and specifically max inputs. Things like the maximum amount of glucose or fructose that can be absorbed by specific receptors such as the Glut II (Fructose / Glucose / Galactose) and Glut IV (Glucose) receptor. They focused on managing gut issues based on maximum inputs and how to manage that by looking at things like combining minerals to enhance absorption, balancing osmolarity etc. etc. They focus on managing the bi-products or damage from burning sugar. In short trying to overcome some of the issues of trying to take in large amounts of sugar based fuel. There are also issues around the impact of heat on digestion of sugars and generalisations on what the brain and muscles need. 

Too many athletes have their day ruined by gut issues due to having to consume large amounts of gels etc.

As an ageing athlete who was working to regain health I was also concerned with the long terms dangers of high sugar diets and the impact of glycation end products both for my clients and myself. Everything from tooth decay to Type II diabetes - even cancer. This created a contradiction as to how to live sugar free but train the stomach to utilise gels and sports drinks when competing. This is a very common dichotomy for athletes balancing long term health with athletic performance.

So overall, as Albert Einstein said, you can’t solve a problem using the same thinking that created it.

As a coach I read a great amount of articles and studies and a number of articles had attracted my attention. One in particular talked about how different fibre types used different fuels. That is, that fast twitch fibres burnt exclusively glycogen whereas slow twitch fibres burnt fat. A separate, but related study, which formed the basis of my article here talked about how higher cadence used predominantly slow twitch fibres which mean by utilising a higher cadence I could spare the biggest limiter to aerobic performance - glycogen.

Glycogen is stored in our muscles and liver and typically provides around 1200 calories worth of energy. The issue is that once this store is exhausted then it takes time to reload - around 24 hours. In the past I have experienced ‘dead-legs’ on rides. Looking at these studies showed that these dead legs were caused by:

a) Relying on fast twitch fibres
b) Running out of fuel (glycogen) to power them.

So if I could do the ride using a higher cadence I could spare glycogen for the run.

The second article(s) were from people like Tim Noakes around the Central Governor theory and how fatigue comes from the brain before the muscles. Many studies such as this one had shown, for example, increased time to fatigue in cyclist using BCAA’s. I extrapolated that into a theory namely: -

The brain is focused on self-preservation. If it is breaking down its support system (the muscles) then a self-protection mechanism kicks in to slow the body down - fatigue. BUT - the body uses protein (amino acids) to rebuild so by providing these it would placate the brain. That is, the brain would think “Well I am breaking down my vessel but I’m getting the building blocks I need therefore it’s all good” Or thoughts to that effect...

So putting these things together meant that by focusing on slow twitch muscles I could manage glycogen and by placating the brain with amino acids I could mitigate fatigue.

So where does sugar come into this?  What about fueling the muscles with gels etc. that we all know is mandatory. Short answer is that gels and sugar doesn’t play a part in this strategy. Muscles can be fuelled by fat as part of the standard Kreb cycle by converting fat into Acetyl CoA and even as a lean athlete (more about that later) I still knew I had about 63,000 calories available as stored fat including about 3000 stored in inter muscular fat. Far more than the 1200 calories in glycogen. If people think that fat isn’t stored in the muscle go have a look at a sirloin steak at your local butcher..

This is not something I decided on race day (and I would strongly suggest that you DON’T just try this). This formed the basis of a two-month plan that was incorporated as part of a training, nutrition and supplement strategy. I should mention that prior to starting this I basically hadn’t trained for ten months due to an Achilles operation and excess cortisol from stress that had created related issue around blood sugar (and weight gain)

Training was focused on two things.

1. Recruiting more slow twitch fibres
2. Emptying the glycogen tank to make the body more efficient at using fat to reload it and to fuel performance.

Therefore my training incorporated heavy, supersetted weights. This meant that I was burning glycogen but also that the fast twitch fibres were fatigued. Then, and this part was NOT fun, I would go ride long steady hills on the bike. Without fast twitch fibres I forced my body to recruit more slow twitch (or fall over). This was definitely a case of check the ego at the door. Similar with the run my focus was on functional strength rather than volumes. As mentioned I had been recovering from an Achilles op

Prior to the event, my longest ride in training was 30km. My longest continual run was 4km. The race distance was a 90km ride and a 21km run.

Nutrition was based primarily on hormones. Insulin is quite an anti social hormone. Hormones and enzymes like Hormone Sensitive Lipase, Lepton, Testosterone, HGH are all happier when insulin (or elevated blood sugar) isn’t present. So my diet wasn’t Paleo, ketogenic or anything like that - it was purely focused on keeping my blood sugar down and therefore insulin down so the hormones and enzymes I wanted would come out to play. Keeping my blood sugar down also helped with making my brain less reliant on glucose for mood. I also used a high amount of protein. Firstly to help build muscle/strength post weights and strength sessions but also to make the body more efficient at gluconeogenesis - producing the blood glucose it does need from protein.

I also incorporated intermittent fasting again to drain glycogen and enhance fat utilisation but also to balance hormones, enzymes and inflammation. Ironically the fasting day (Monday) was also my hardest training day including the hilly bike ride, a weights session and also a short power swim.

I used three supplements.

Carnitine. Shown in some studies to increase fat utilisation. In my reading I saw articles dismissing it based on the fact there were ‘No long terms studies proving its effectiveness’. But there weren’t any disproving it and it makes sense that a relatively new (for endurance sports) product won’t have any long terms studies.

Branch Chain Amino Acids.
To test the theory/effect on fatigue and make sure they didn’t cause any gut issues. I used these during my weights sessions and also during bike ride. The difference in my strength during weights was immediate. I knew, metabolically and physically I wasn’t suddenly stronger (unlike creatine etc.) so knew this was an increase in ‘brain’ strength.

Apple Cider Vinegar
This has become a new super food for me. Assisting digestion, lowering blood sugar and providing additional aminos all made this a ‘no-brainer’ for me. Even when I had a cheat meal with my friends like a pizza (we all need to live..) I would accompany with a glass of diluted apple cider vinegar to blunt the blood sugar response.

I followed this plan for 9 weeks. Was I 100% compliant?  No. Like I said we have to live (not to mentioned Christmas and New Years Eve in that time..) but was pretty close. What I found interesting was that I dropped 10kg of body weight over that time BUT virtually all of that was body fat. I only lost about 1kg of power producing muscle. I normally don’t recommend trying to lose weight so close to an event as most people drop muscle and end up weaker but this high protein, high fat strategy teamed with the listed supplements seemed to work well !

Come race day my strategy was simple. I never recommend using speed on the bike as you never know what the conditions are going to be like. And the conditions couldn’t be worse !  30-50km winds on the bike. I’d made the mistake of only driving over (the race was 700km from where I live) with a disc wheel that messed with my head a bit but a short ride the previous day in the same wind settled those nerves. On my Garmin 510 I had two metrics displayed. My cadence and what gear I was in. I love the way the Garmin 510 can display gears from the Shimano DI2 system. My strategy was simple. When my cadence dropped below ninety (which I knew meant glycogen) I changed to an easier gear. When my cadence went above 100 (neural fatigue) I changed to a harder gear. In my water bottles (two) I had 6000mg of Branch Chain Aminos mixed in 750ml of water. Every ten minutes I had a big swig of the mixture. My average cadence ended up being 94 but with very little deviation.

The one thing I noticed after riding the 90km on the bike was how fresh my legs felt. I believe this is due to exclusively using slow twitch fibres and never muscling the bike plus the brain placating BCCA's. I had recently switched to shorter cranks using 165mm cranks which meant less load on my hip flexors and quads.

When I got off the bike I looked at the clock and worked out if I ran my ‘normal’ run I could go sub 5 hours but that wasn’t the point of the test (but it will be the point of my NEXT race). Again focusing on leg turn over rather than speed and the same water BCCA mixture. But in hindsight I realised that if I still had a ‘full’ glycogen tank then running a sub 100min half marathon was realistic.

After completing the race I noticed two things. My stomach felt perfect - no bloating or compelling need to hit the port loo from excess sugar. No muscle soreness or fatigue. I put this down to the fact that burning fat produces very different bi-products than sugar so I had less oxidisation and glycation of cells.

Forty-eight hours post race I felt full recovered with no muscle soreness.

As mentioned this was a case study of one and I am sure people will pick holes in my theories but the one thing I have taken away from this is how good I felt during the event (despite the worst conditions I have ever experienced) and how good I feel afterwards. The next step is to use this strategy to hit a top 10 age group finish.

I don’t expect this strategy will necessarily lead to faster times - although people tend to run better when they don’t have gut issues, but if it means less long term damage to the body then maybe it is worth exploring further ?

Maybe it is time we started to look at sports nutrition based on what our particular cells (muscle and brain) need rather than trying to solve the problem of what is the maximum amount of sugar and other damaging products we can put into it ?