Saturday, October 8, 2011

Runners: Is Low-Carb for you?

Answer these two questions:

  1. Are you satisfied with your current weight or would you like to lose 5-10 lbs?
  2. Are you satisfied with your running? Does it feel strong? Are you enjoying it or does it feel like a drag (especially the long runs)?
If you answered “yes” to both questions then you are fine. Whatever you are doing is working. Keep it up. If you answered “no” to both questions, then you should consider a low-carb diet and see how it works for you. I know that this is going against everything that you've read in the mainstream running books and web sites, but how do these “experts” know what is good for you personally?

Jan, in the running list said something about not having time to read a book on low-carb or something about a low-carb cookbook. The beauty of low-carb nutrition for me is that you do not need to read anything, or cook in any special way. All you need to do is eliminate high carb foods: Bread, wheat & flour, pasta, rice, sugar & sweets, potatoes. Eat fruits, nuts, dairy, in moderation. Eat lots of eggs, meat/fish, oil, vegetables. Drink plenty of water.

Most people on a low-carb nutrition typically start the day eating eggs for breakfast (no bread, milk, cereal). I make a two egg omelet cooked with olive oil (or butter) and eat some cheese and vegetables. I might add bacon or sausage. For lunch, try a large salad (with lots of olive oil) and a 4-6 oz piece of meat or fish (tuna, salmon). Again, no bread, crackers, etc. Same for dinner. For snacks you can have nuts (almonds are better than peanuts), cheese, yogurt (regular, not low-fat or no-fat), a piece of fruit.

Avoid processed foods. Avoid foods labeled "low fat". Check the ingredients on anything with a label and avoid foods that are high in carbs, or with sugar and derivatives (high fructose syrup, etc.) listed as ingredients. For fun, or education, keep a log of what you eat to see how you are doing. I have been entering my food in, but there are other sites too. Standard low-carb diet advice is to only monitor your grams of carbs and keep them under 20 (very strict), under 50 (strict, that's how I think I started) or under 100 (more liberal, this is where I am about now). Experts recommend to subtract fiber from carbs to get net carbs, which is what really counts.

Allow yourself two weeks to adjust to this. If you lower your carbs drastically, the first week or two your running will suffer a bit as you deplete your glycogen reserves. Be prepared for a large weight drop the first two weeks, mostly water, from losing the stored glycogen and getting rid of salt stored in the kidneys. Then your body will learn to burn fat (hopefully your stored fat) and synthesize glycogen from fat. It took my body 2 weeks to adjust. My wife suggests to wait a month before deciding if this works for you or not.

My wife started dieting the same time I started eating low-carb. While I never saw this as a diet, she clearly did and kept a detailed food log, aiming at restricting calories. She ate about 1000 calories/day, working on a caloric deficit. She did not consciously try to eat less carbs, but I influenced her and she dropped bread and sugar. While my ratios are 60/15/25 (fat/carbs/protein), her ratios are something like 30/30/30 (but she is eating about as many grams of carbs as I do, because she is eating less calories overall). At first, she struggled a bit with running. It took her a month to start running strong (note: she was not running strong before the diet either.) Now she has lost a total of 14 lbs (started at 145 and she is now 131). She continues to eat the same way, just a bit more food, about 1200 calories, but she does not feel like she is on a diet now. One thing she keeps repeating is that it is liberating not to be afraid of fat. While she continues to eat 0% fat yogurt and skim milk, she is not afraid of meat, bacon, olive oil, eggs, mayonnaise, or other high fat foods.

I have lost about 15 lbs (from 172 down to 157) and my running is better than ever. I can run 10 miles first thing in the morning, without breakfast, maybe only eating a couple of almonds. I do not “bonk” any more. I enjoy running more and I have increased my weekly mileage. My races are going well. I start a bit slower, but gradually accelerate and tend to run the 2nd half of the race faster than the first. It is nice to pass exhausted runners, knowing that you are going to finish strong.

What is the explanation for this? I think my body has learned to burn fat more efficiently. While our glycogen reserves are limited, our fat reserves are not, plus there is more energy in a gram of fat than glycogen. While I do drink Gatorade during a race (and I enjoyed the banana on mile 21 of the Akron Marathon) I do not try to carbo-load and I eat a low carb breakfast before the race (I just eat my regular breakfast of eggs and half an orange). I also do not make any attempt to “replenish” my glycogen reserves after a race. (Standard advice is to eat carbs 30 minutes after a run/race – I ignore this advice because I do not think I need to replenish anything.) As a matter of fact, I usually crave fat after a race, not sugar/garbs. After Akron, my wife and I went to Bob Evans for a cheese omelet and sausage/bacon. It looks like this will be our after-marathon tradition from now on.

If you like to discuss low-carb nutrition with other runners, please consider joining my email discussion list:


Keith said...

What does "bonk" mean?

coco nut said...

I am low carb and have had no problems with my runs being fueled with stored fat. I'm losing my weight that has been stubbonly clinging on to my frame. I can't imagine that low carb would be bad for endurance as long as you have stored body fat for fuel. Thanks for the post.

DrT said...

I am glad to hear that low-carb is working well for you! My wife and I continue to see great results!

Anonymous said...

I am just starting to try low carb! after being vegetarian for years and having a serious sweet tooth and energy issues, something needs to change. I'm not overweight by any means but I would love to lose about 5 pounds just to be very very lean and start to run faster. I hate having such terrible sugar cravings and I get monstrously hungry. I'm a dancer professionally and energy is a big deal in my industry as is being excessively lean. I'm hoping low carb is close to the right direction for me :)

Vladimir Kelman said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Ron G in FL said...

Dear Dr. T: We read "Wheat Belly"
in August. I have now lost 20 lbs
in 6 weeks. 198 to 178. So decided
to pick up running again after 30+ years. (Ran a marathon when I was
both younger and heavier) Was relieved to find your blog assuring
me that a low carb type diet is not a problem for long distance running stamina. Thank you for posting this.
Ron G in FL

DrT said...

Thank you Ron! 2012 was my best running year ever, all in low-carb. I am a much stronger runner now, especially in trails and ultra-marathon distances. The longer the distance, the better I do. I wish the best to you too!

Tammy said...

I am a low carb water and training for my first half marathon. I can't find anything that tells me if I should eat on my long runs. All my friends snack on chews throughout the run but I seem to get sick whenever I try them (tried chews, gels etc). I need some help - I have some longer runs coming up and want to be prepared.

Tammy said...

*runner not water ... Typo

Keith said...

I never eat during runs. I eat after the run. You don't need to eat.