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THE "FAT ADAPTED" RUNNER
(1) Fetters, K. "Is Adding Butter to Your Coffee Actually Good For You?" 2014.
(2) Wee Kian Yeo, et al. "Fat Adaptation Followed by Carbohydrate Restoration Increases AMPK Activity in Skeletal Muscle from Trained Humans." 2008.
(3) Maffetone, Phil. "Rethinking Roles of Carbohydrates and Fat for Performance." 2015.
During my dietetic internship, which consisted of 1200+ hours of interning with various organizations to gain practical experience in the nutrition field, I came across an interesting article about the pros and cons of Bulletproof Coffee titled, “Is Adding Butter to Your Coffee Actually Good For You?” (1).
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Coach Oliver Lopez is a Registered Dietician-Nutritionist who provides our runners with Nutrition Counseling. He frequently works with endurance and power athletes, and has helped athletes of all levels establish better eating patterns.
The article touted the benefits of putting butter in your coffee, such as increased focus and durable energy. This spiked my interest as I was experiencing a lack of sleep as a result of long hours at my internship along with a part-time job I had at the time. Thus, I delved into the scientific literature and discovered an intriguing trend within the endurance sports world. Runners were ditching foods like pasta, bagels, and nutrition gels, like Gu, for nuts, seeds, avocados, and coconut oil. The theory here is that lowering carbohydrate intake and replacing sugar with fat leads to better performance in endurance style events. They started reporting better recovery and training runs, leading to new PR's all over the place, but I wanted to take a closer look.
THE SCIENCE BEHIND USING FAT AS FUEL
Humans are primarily fat-burners. For example, when you commute to work, go shopping, or participate in other everyday activities you mostly burn fat for fuel. As the intensity of the activity you’re participating in, as measured by heart rate, goes up, your body depletes the circulating blood sugar and begins to use glycogen, the stored form of sugar. During low intensity activities the body uses approximately 80% fat while the remaining 20% is a combination of glucose and protein for energy.
For example, a long distance runner would primarily use fat as energy up for as long as the two-hour mark of their run. A novice runner, on the other hand, who is not as accustomed to exercise, uses glucose more as energy, for example 60% fat and 40% sugar and protein. As the body becomes more adapted to aerobic, low-intensity exercise, it increasingly uses fat more efficiently; this process is known as the “fat adaptation effect.”
As one article states, the recommended amount of carbs to ingest daily to spur the “fat adaptation effect” comes out to 2.5g/KG of body weight. For example, a person who weighs 64KG (140lbs) should consume 160g of carbs or 640 calories from carbs daily. (2). To put that in perspective, the average sedentary U.S. adult typically eats over 300g (1200 calories) of carbs daily, and non-fat adapted runners/athletes would eat upwards of 400-500g (1600-2000 calories) daily. Holy smokes, what a difference! Low carb dieting forces the body to use fat, and more importantly to use it effectively. Many give up on the low carb/high fat “Oregon Trail” journey too early, as it often takes people a long amount of time to fat adapt their body. This process could take one week to a couple months, depending on the person. For those who prefer high intensity workouts, such as hill sprints, glycogen is often the first fuel source used, so any sugary wholesome foods they consume lengthen the time it takes for the body to become fat adapted. Phil Maffetone, who has written a lot on this topic suggests that maintaining a sub-maximal heart rate/intensity provides the best opportunity for runners to become fat adapted athletes. (3).
THE TYPE OF FAT
Just to be clear, I strongly advise you not to eat mounds of butter for a pre-run meal. Too much fat is the diet is, well, fattening! Increasing fat intake the daily recommendation can lead to increase LDL cholesterol, triglycerides, and total cholesterol. The best fats to consume are those from plant or grass fed animal sources. Avocados, nuts, seeds, and olive oil are great plant sources to add to salads, smoothies, or just to have as snacks. Grass fed butter or ghee (clarified butter), eggs and fatty fish (sardines, salmon) are good sources as well.
Runners report feeling and running faster while ingesting low/very low amounts of carbs during training. I feel this adaption is partly due to the mechanisms mentioned above, but also the increased digestion of vegetables, and healthy fats that can be causing the positive training effects. It becomes quite simple to understand that when lowering carbs, grains, breads, and pastas they are usually replaced with more veggies which mean more vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants that lead to better recovery, and improved health markers such as decrease cortisol levels, and better insulin control. The increased intake of healthy sources of fat, you are increasing anti-inflammatory omega 3 fatty acids that promote recovery, and joint health. In general you are eating healthier, and that leads to better recovery, and therefore can push harder during training, which can translate to new PRs! The last point to turnover here is that runners feel lighter, and faster, and experience less gastrointestinal distress during their runs, which may be in part because of the effects of sugar pulling water from cells, or the “bloated effect” some runners feel after consuming a rich carb meal. I would recommend trying the fat adaption protocol for yourself, but please ensure that you are still getting the calories you need to sustain the workouts. The goal is not to be calorie deficient, but rather to transform how your body uses food for fuel. With the help of a registered dietitian, a food plan will be recommended to make sure one has a healthy amount of calories while also consuming the right type of fats (i.e. avocados, olive/coconut oil, nuts/seeds, grass fed butter, etc.). It is important to give the plan a two week trial far away from any big races, to assess how your body responds. Take notes on how your body feels before, during, and after runs, paying close attention to how your body is recovering (or not) from injury. Honestly, it’s worth a shot, just not necessarily a shot of butter.
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