By SheriAnne Little
As XTERRA athletes, most of us look for ways to live our best lives both on and off the trails. What we eat is a huge part of this. It happens three times a day (more or less), it’s a great opportunity to be social and connect with the people we love, and it can have a huge influence on our performance and how we feel.
An optimal diet isn’t about trying out the latest fad or trying to drop a quick 10 pounds. Instead, an optimal diet is about a way of life that enables you to perform and feel your best without a lot of extra effort over the long haul.
Although for years, carbohydrates have been touted as the fuel of choice for endurance athletes, I have been following a fat-adapted diet for the past few years and have experienced success in both how I perform in races and how I feel. Additionally, a fat-adapted diet is great for endurance athletes because when you are using fat – rather than carbohydrates – as your primary fuel source, you can go farther for longer. Even though most XTERRA events are over in less than three hours, the fat-adapted diet can help make you bonk-proof, especially in the tougher and longer races towards the end of the season.
The Problem With Carbohydrates
If you have been in the sport long enough, you may be accustomed to thinking that the most important macronutrient to consume is the carbohydrate. However, the Western diet is so heavy in processed, carbohydrate-based foods that sugar is usually the fuel our bodies use first, simply because it’s available and can be burned using the least amount of energy.
The problem with eating a carbohydrate-heavy diet on a daily basis (and not before a race when you want to load your muscles up with glycogen, or quick-burning fuel) is that when your supply of carbohydrates begins to dwindle, you will experience low blood sugar and the subsequent lightheadedness, dizziness, and cravings that follow. To regulate, you need more carbs, which can turn into a vicious cycle.
Once carbohydrates hit your system, they send blood sugar levels through the roof. The body responds with insulin, which sweeps sugar out of the bloodstream and into the cells. In turn, this causes insulin levels to rise, which can throw off your brain’s chemical signals, including those that let you know when you have eaten enough. That’s why eating too many carbohydrates leaves you both hungry and overweight.
This type of eating plan results in fat being used as fuel. I like to think of the metabolism as a fire. You know the big oak logs that ensure your fire is going to last for a while? That is what burning fat is like. It’s what keeps you going on the long, tough courses, like at the XTERRA World Championship. However, you also need kindling to get the fire going. The nutritional equivalent to kindling is the carbohydrate. You don’t want to run on that forever, but it’s a great way to build the heat to light the endurance flame. The best performances run on an optimal blend of all three macronutrients – carbs, protein, and fat – and the only way to get there is to make your diet a lifestyle and eat consistently.
The benefit of following a fat-adapted diet is that as an athlete, you can rely more on fat for energy during exercise. This means that the carbohydrate stored in the muscles will be available to support high-intensity efforts, when glycogen is needed most.
Even if you are a well-trained athlete, if your body is used to a high-carb diet, you won’t burn carbohydrates as efficiently as someone who is fat adapted. For example, if you have 1200 calories of muscle glycogen stored in your muscles, and you burn 600 calories an hour, you will be out of fuel in two hours. Even if you can take in 300 calories an hour during a race, you are still left with a calorie deficit. If your body isn’t able to tap into its reserves, you experience a nutritional “bonk” where you “hit the wall.”
If you find that you run out of energy quickly or your splits get slower and slower, you may want to try a fat-adapted diet to see if it can boost your performance while decreasing your reliance on gels and sugary food sources during a high-intensity effort.
A good rule of thumb is to begin with a ratio of 15 percent carbohydrates, 20 percent protein, and 65 percent “good” fats. Good fats include foods like avocados, nuts, and good olive oils.
For example, I start my day with about three eggs, two pieces of bacon, and some spinach. My lunch or dinner might consist of four to six ounces of protein, two cups of spinach, kale, or broccoli, and half an avocado. A fat-adapted diet isn’t about living on butter and potato chips. Instead, it’s about making sure the fuel that your engine is burning is going to get you through those long, tough races.
The great thing about eating is that it happens every day, several times a day, which gives you plenty of chances to experiment with your fuel choices. If you are competing at the XTERRA World Championship on Maui this month, you probably don’t want to make drastic changes to your diet right now. However, during the next few weeks, it’s key that you focus on eating whole foods, healthy fats, and lots of protein to make sure you are in fighting shape on October 28th.
The XTERRA Couch to XTERRA training series is presented by Sheri Anne Little and five-time XTERRA age group world champion Mimi Stockton of Next Level Endurance. Their new 12-week “Couch-to-XTERRA” training program is designed to do just that, get aspiring athletes off the couch, into training, and to the start line of an XTERRA.