I gotta say, whenever I hear about these low carb athletes, blog posts and such flickering through the feed reader and such ... I tune out. Why? Because almost invariably when it comes to touting the superiority of the low carb diet, the tent gets very large indeed. Anyone eating fewer carbs than the mythical "average" American consuming 500g/day is a low carber. Which is ridiculous on its face, but makes for great hyperbole to blame the carbs for obesity and all manner of evil in the world. In any case, when one looks a little deeper into the diets of these low carb athletes, they aren't really low carb at all.
I'm quite tired of this double standard applied by purveyors of low carb wisdom and light. You see if a study shows even the slightest benefit to LC over the rival diet, it is touted as further evidence of LC greatness, even if after more careful consideration, it was hardly a low carb diet after all. Yet that same diet fails to elicit the famed LC magic, and all of a sudden low carbers notice and point out that it wasn't really a low carb diet after all. Sorry. Can't have it both ways.
The same goes with athletes. In comments on my nutty ketosis post, Tim Olson was brought up. Western States 100 – Low Carber Wins Ultramarathon – Steve Phinney and Jeff Volek Study. Impressive chap Tim Olson is. This ultramarathon is 100 miles, and Olson won the event this past summer beating the previous course record by 21 minutes and crossed the finish line 15 minutes before the next racer. I'm impressed, and there's no sarcasm there.
I'm having a hard time finding any info on Olson's actual habitual diet, but that's not why I'm writing this.
STEVE PHINNEY: All these runners eat and drink throughout the 100-mile race, because you can’t maintain your hydration unless you drink, and most runners find that if you can’t eat during the race, for instance, if you get a upset upset stomach, you drop out. That’s because if you can’t eat, you hit the wall or do what the other guys call bonking. Bonking is what happens to runners who are adapted to racing on sugars and carbs, and if they can’t eat enough carbohydrate, their blood sugar drops too low, because there isn’t enough glycogen . . . carbohydrate in their system to make a storage form of carbs called glycogen. So if these body stores of carbs burn out, blood sugar goes too low, and the brain suffers from inadequate fuel, and if you don’t stop running you’re going to pass out. With bonking, it feels horrible, and if you don’t stop, then you’re going to go into a coma.
That last statement is interesting given what Olson himself tells all to read, but I'll get there.Why didn’t he need much? And what DID he eat?STEVE PHINNEY: I wouldn’t tell you the details even if I knew because it’s confidential research information. And I don’t think he’d want any of the details of what he’s doing to be public, because, realize, all of a sudden this guy knows absolutely that he’s got a remarkable competitive edge.
But Olson did eat – so . . . was it glucose gels? Or did he go for butter?STEVE PHINNEY: Well typically he probably wouldn’t eat butter or fat anyway because this guy is a super slim, highly efficient, fat-burning athlete. He’s got very little body fat, but if let’s say he’s 7% by weight body fat that means he still has at least 30,000 calories of fat in his body when he starts the race.
STEVE PHINNEY: When the starting gun goes off, 30,000 calories of body fat. Now, if you run this race typically your body will burn 10,000 calories over the 100-mile course, so he’s got enough to run the race three times over before runs out of fat fuel. But that’s because he’s a fat-burner. For the carb loaded runners, who are less adapted to burning fat, at the same starting line, even if they’d done their carb loading to the maximum, the most carb calories they’d have in their bodies is 2,000. Now, if you’re running on a carb fuel strategy, and you’ll need 10,000 calories to complete the 100-mile race, that 2,000 calories of carb stored in your body at the start of the race is only 1/5 of the fuel that you need to complete the race.
OK, so Olson is "fat adapted" and burning fat for fuel during the race while the poor high carbers must eat more frequently or they will "bonk" from running out of carbohydrate fuel. The way Phinney describes it, however, shouldn't a fat adapted runner like Olson need to eat nothing at all? I mean really, he's got enough fat to fuel his journey, all of his mitochondria, and enzymes, and what not are running smoothly. At most he needs maybe 50g glucose to help run his brain, right?
Well, as it turns out, Tim Olson wrote a diary of sorts about the race: Timothy Olson’s 2012 Western States 100 Race Report
... I made a stupid mistake and ran through that aid station a little too quickly. I was feeling so good that I forgot to grab any gels. A half mile down the road I realized I only had one gel and was not going to see my crew for 10 miles, yikes; this made me a little nervous, but I was hoping I could make it.
... When I finally reached the aid station, I was so stoked to get a gel in me, but they did not have one gel without caffeine. I don’t use caffeine and after many bathroom stops at last year’s Western States, I had decided to not use caffeine for this race. I really needed some nourishment quick, so I decided to have a few quick drinks of Sierra Mist and two orange slices. Not exactly what I had in mind, but it had to do. I knew I would be to my crew in five or so miles and then I could restock my pockets with gels that work for me.
I was a little scared with where my nutrition was going; I was really relying on fat as my fuel with the help of Vespa* and was just hoping my body would ride the climb out. I had to battle many mind games before and during this year’s race. Circumstances don’t always go your way, but figuring them out on the fly is the only way to survive. The day before the race, I decided to be a part of the test studies. I did not eat breakfast Friday because they wanted us to give blood after a ten-hour fast. In the middle of giving blood I got incredibly dizzy, and the next thing I knew I was having crazy dreams and then woke up on the floor. I’ve never passed out before and it was not my ideal situation to experience it for the first time the day before the biggest race of my life. I felt pretty worn out and funky all day Friday, but regardless, I woke up Saturday ready for the journey that loomed ahead. Things don’t always go as planned, but accepting the situation and letting it not get to me helped me through other stages of the race. So I guess my body can take running a 100 miles in less than 15 hours, but giving blood is just too much for it; life is funny.
I entered Michigan Bluff (mile 56) after a big climb, in the lead and ready to get some calories down. I came in feeling okay, but was definitely a little frantic as I relayed information to my crew and restocked on gels and Vespa for the rest of the trip. ...
.... We buzzed through ALT (mile 85) and kept pushing. I had moments where I was fading, but would quickly snap out of that fear of slowing and see all the good in my life....
I tried to keep remembering to fuel, but gels were getting pretty tired. Sierra Mist was working, so I would down a few cups at each aid station and maybe a gel occasionally. ...
... I pulled into Highway 49 (mile 93.5) in quite a daze. I was just too focused on the next step ahead. Krista got me a filled water bottle; I had a few drinks of Sierra Mist and was on my way.
So, *Vespa is "a synergistic blend of naturally-occurring "wasp extract," honey, propolis and royal jelly which athletes of all ages and abilities rely upon fat for steady even energy levels to prevent bonking and intestinal issues, allow quick recovery with minimal muscle soreness and give them that competitive edge." So I ask ... Should a fat-adapted fat-burning beast need Vespa? Isn't that for all those carb-loading dolts?? What of these gels? Well here's an older entry on irunsofar, discussing them. Mostly they are 100 calorie glucose and/or fructose packs with some electrolytes and amino acids (and caffeine in many). So again I ask ... Should a fat-adapted fat-burning beast -- using Vespa to enhance their own superior fat burning abilities no less -- still need multiple "shots" of glucose? Why?
So Phinney and Volek recruited like 25 of the 350 some-odd racers to participate in their study. About half were "low carbers" -- whatever that means. And according to the interview, in addition to the winner, one or two more of the men and one of the women who finished in the top were "low carbers". Sounds like a study from which we will learn a lot. Sarcasm there. But really, what's with this tangent? How well someone utilizes fat for fuel during a 100 mile race, heck for most of us even in a 10 mile race, is totally irrelevant. You've got people having fat burning dreams playing leisurely games of frisbee golf for crying out loud, and a 100 pound rock climber thinking nutritional ketosis is an experiment worth trying.
Here I thought low carb advocates -- including the paleo variety -- sought mainstream acceptance of the diet, both for weight loss and ultimately as a lifestyle choice. Well, if this nutty ketosis stuff keeps going on, this sure isn't going to be helping. We note that Olson -- as Phinney states -- was not eating butter on the trail, he was sucking down carb gels and Sierra Mist. Mark Sisson gave this story some "link love" -- I wonder if we'll have an "Is it Primal" edition featuring Vespa and various gels.... I guess Sierra Mist is OK for races because if I'm not mistaken, it's sweetened with sugar, not HFCS. Look, if a person running their 50th, 75th, 99th mile isn't running entirely on fat stores ... do you think maybe their metabolisms are telling us something? Olson speaks of filling his pockets with gelS. If 30,000 calories of body fat isn't enough, what is all this high fat eating good for if not to facilitate more efficient use of dietary fat for fuel as well, right? Your triglyceride/fatty acid cycles are forever going, why not replenish those stores with a stick of butter??
The answer seems obvious to me: our cells NEED glucose. Even in fat burning mode. And even a LCHF ultramarathoner needed dietary glucose to win the race. Quite a bit of dietary glucose. Or am I missing something?
This seems as good a place as any to ponder Volek & Phinney. A long time ago I mentioned here that Volek had received funding from Atkins Nutritionals. This is no secret. I wondered out loud at the time if that might not just bias his work. At the very least, folks can be quite skeptical of research funded by Big Pharma or done by some "biased" research group such as a group including Taubes' arch-nemesis George Bray. Again, there's a double standard there. In any case, I was challenged a bit about that and looked further into Volek's background ... nothing worth mentioning at the time, but I think maybe it is worth mentioning now.
Jeff Volek is out of the Education School at UConn, he holds the following degrees: •Ph.D. Kinesiology, The Pennsylvania State University, 1999 •M.S. Exercise Science, The Pennsylvania State University, 1995 •R.D. Penrose-St. Francis Health Services, 1992 •B.S. Dietetics, Michigan State University, 1991. Now, he does have a background in nutrition, but when one publishes in peer review journals, it is generally in the field in which they hold their highest degree. Kinesiology is subject area that is generally associated with sports training from the fitness perspective, not nutritional studies. Being out of the Neag School of Education, the program is essentially educating trainers. His current course offerings include: EKIN 248: Physiological Systems in Human Performance, EKIN 258: Mechanisms and Adaptations in Sport, EKIN 392: Muscle Physiology, EKIN 393: Physiology of Human Performance. So it makes one wonder, me anyway, how it is that his summary bio states:
My primary area of research is focused on physiological adaptations to low carbohydrate diets with emphasis on outcomes related to metabolic syndrome, diabetes, and cardiovascular disease. I primarily use prospective diet and/or exercise interventions and use sophisticated cellular techniques to understand changes in adiposity, fatty acid and lipoprotein metabolism, inflammation, vascular function, and endocrine adaptations. Our recent studies have suggested a shift in our understanding of the role of dietary carbohydrate restriction. Long considered primarily a stratagem for weight loss, reduction in dietary carbohydrate is now understood to lead to improvements in metabolic syndrome and other cardiac risk factors, even in the absence of weight loss and frequently even in the presence of higher levels of saturated fat.
Huh? What does any of this have to do with what an expert in kinesiology normally studies and a full time faculty member on the basis of? Well, at least:
Another major area of research has been in the general area of sports nutrition including studies evaluating a wide range of dietary supplements on exercise performance and overall health.
Still, nutrition and supplements on performance is not really what he received his PhD in. So, you wonder how it is you get funding to do the nutritional studies he has done, and once funded and completed, how they get published. How does a Kinesiology PhD get published in American Journal of Clinical Nutrition? Well, I don't suppose hooking up with his partner in crime, Dr. Stephen Phinney, has anything to do with that? Might just help that he "is on the editorial board of the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition." Volek's other market for his publications is Nutrition & Metabolism, guess who's on the board there too (along with a few other interesting names and affiliations to the home base of one Dr. Richard Feinman).
Perhaps Volek missed his calling and really wanted to be a sports nutrition guy, but it is interesting how he was able to build his career going straight to that to where he's basically more of a diet guy than having anything to do with kinesiology. And his first mentioned focus is metabolic syndrome, diabetes and CVD??? I don't suppose being somewhat out of one's element, receiving funding from Atkins Nutritionals, and likely relying on connections with certain journals might just influence this man's objectivity? Just wondering ...
But perhaps he's trying to return to sports roots with this performance angle. This, too, I find interesting. UConn ... hmmm ... UConn ... whatever does one think of when they think sports and UConn? Basketball!! I realize these teams have their own trainers and staff and all that, but when you think about it, if there really was anything to what this esteemed researcher was coming up with, don't you think we might hear something of how his principles are being implemented? Imagine if all 5 starters could play the entire game if needed? Do the trainers not know about this performance edge? How about the cross country team? Not quite the prestige of the National Champ basketball programs, but more up the nutty ketosis alley anyway. I'm not seeing it.
No ... the focus these days seems to be how to improve the performance of the 0.0001% engaging in ultra endurance competitions. My, my we've come a long way from even The New Atkins (2010) let alone the "real" Atkins. We're at a point to where long term VLC diets bearing no resemblance to anything humans evolved to consume are being marketed as better, healthy, and even performance enhancing.
I say, channeling my best Rod Tidwell/Cuba Gooding Jr impression from Jerry Maguire: Show Me the Evidence. I think their last book, subtitled: "An Expert Guide to Making the Life-Saving Benefits of Carbohydrate Restriction Sustainable and Enjoyable" needs some scrutiny on that claim. I don't suppose these "experts" have any bias that might cloud their judgment? Nah.
And what of that study of ultramarathoners. They drew blood from 25 recruits, perhaps a handful of whom finished in the top tier, and surveyed them on their usual diets. OK, this should tell us all a lot!