My first ultra distance trail run (96kms) and improvements for the next one

Two weekends ago I completed a very challenging, yet rewarding event – the 96km Kokoda Challenge. This event takes competitors through the Hinterland of the Gold Coast in QLD, Australia. With elevations reaching 550m, this is not an easy event. According to the organisers, the 96km Kokoda Challenge Gold Coast is hailed as Australia’s toughest endurance event.

Kokoda Challenge Elevation Profile Overview

Teams of 4 make their way through the 96km course consisting of fire roads, 12 creek crossings and 5000m of vertical elevation. The event is in honour of the Australian troops during World War II who battled on the actual Kokoda Track in Papua New Guinea. In order to qualify for a place the entire team of four must start, reach each checkpoint and finish all together.

Kokoda 2016 winHere we are as the winning ladies team

I am pleased to say that our team was the first all ladies team and was third overall. To put this into perspective there were 55 all ladies team and 330 teams in total. We finished with a time of 15 hours 14 minutes. The overall winners finished with a time of 13 hours 57 minutes. The second placed ladies team finished with a time of 20 hours 1 minute. So we pretty much smashed our closest rivals (yes, I am a tad competitive).

Kokoda 2016 finishThis is us just after we finished – did I mention that it rained for over half the event?

Enough bragging. So now I will provide some details about how we, myself in particular, completed the race and improvements I will make for my next ultra distance trail running event, which is back-to-back trail marathons on Saturday August 13 and Sunday August 14.

  1. Foot care is paramount. My biggest mistake was not wearing good trail running shoes. The longest run I had done prior to the Kokoda Challenge was 5 hours. The shoes I had were OK for that period but not for 15 hours! In fact, I should have anticipated that I would have some trouble as even after 5 hours the shoes I was wearing were uncomfortable. I went out and bought some Hoka Challengers the very next day. I was using a foot balm to prevent blisters but the shoes I was wearing were not made for the ultra distance. Experiment with shoes before hand and make sure you have a quality pair of trail running shoes made for ultra distance. You do not want to end up with a blister the size of the one I had (see below photo).IMG_1496
  2. Keep your nutrition simple. Although I try to avoid refined carbohydrates in my every day diet, and this is because they are easy to over eat as they provide little fibre and nutritional value (I am by no means perfect, however, and do enjoy the odd pizza and corn chips), when it comes to racing I go for simple, easily digestible carbohydrates. I like to train on weekdays with little carbs and generally keep my carbohydrate intake low to become more fat adapted, but during races I consume what ever I need to allow my body to perform the best that it can. At checkpoints I was eating caffeinated gels, lollies, white bread sandwiches, salted potato chips, bananas, instant coffee and an oat slice. In addition, I was consuming an electrolyte mix called Tailwind. I really like this product. It is made by endurance athletes and consists of dextrose, sucrose, sodium, potassium, calcium and magnesium. The flavours are not overly sweet and this product dissolves rapidly and quickly. Running with food in your stomach sucks so you need to find nutrition that you can quickly get down and will not cause stomach issues. Other members in my team were also using Tailwind along with gels, noodles, biscuits, rice and even chia pudding. Nutritional advice for racing can vary widely depending on opinion. I recommend experimenting and finding out what works for you. For me, although this seems in complete opposition to just about all the recipes I post on this blog, I go for easy to consume refined carbohydrates while racing.
  3. Invest in some good poles if there is a lot of steep hiking. If you are planning on entering an ultra event that has a lot of steep uphill sections, I recommend a decent set of poles. Having poles on the really steep sections takes the impact off your legs. I would only recommend them for races with very steep climbs. A set that can collapse and be placed into your backpack is ideal.
  4. Have a great support crew. There is nothing better than having a well organized, caring and motivating support crew. If you are doing an event that requires support crew, it is ideal to have members who have experience racing or supporting. They will know the questions to ask and the items to have ready for you. It can really make a huge difference to your race.
  5. Keep mobile the next day and eat well. I woke up the morning after the Kokoda Challenge pretty dam sore. My legs were sore all over, my feet were swollen and I had little sleep. However, I found that the more I moved the better my legs felt. So keep lightly active the days following the event. Try to avoid long periods of time sitting down to prevent pooling of fluid in your feet and legs.
  6. Allow yourself adequate time to recover before getting back into training. This may seem obvious but I always find after I do well in a race my immediate thoughts are about preparing for the next race. You need to control yourself and allow yourself to recover. I don’t think this is being ‘soft’ but I believe this is being sensible. I may have jumped back into training too quickly and I am now having some foot pain. Also, catch up on lost sleep.

So there are my tips on how I will improve for my next ultra distance trail event. I am by no means an expert at this point in time, but I have been performing consistently well in trail running races and hope to continue as I increase the distance of my races in the future.

Kokoda 2016 startWe love posing for the camera

Well I had an interesting weekend….

140516 win and hospitalIt began with me winning the first of the 20km Nerang Short Course trail running series in a time of 1:38:12. Later that day I was catching waves out at Currumbin Beach on my paddle ski with my new carbon paddle. What I didn’t realize was how sharp the blades of my new paddle were. I had the paddle attached to my ski and tried to hold onto it as I bailed off a wave. As I let go of the paddle it sliced the inside of my right thumb. I looked down at my hand to see a deep cut gushing with blood. I managed to swim in with the ski (thanks to the help of my brave boyfriend Eithy). When I got to the beach I realized that I was unable to bend my thumb – the tendon had been cut. All’s well that ends well. I have had surgery to rejoin the tendon and am at home feeling well. I have learnt some lessons about trying out new equipment also. I am disappointed about the interruption to my training, but I suspect I will be back running this week. However, mountain biking and paddling may take several weeks longer. Looking on the bright side the injury could have been worse and I will be diligent with the rehabilitation to ensure I recover full movement of my thumb.

20160514-083930-0150

Cherry ripe ‘ice cream’ (no refined carbs, vegan) and can cherries help with recovery from exercise?

Cherry ripe ice creamFrozen cherries are a convenient and delicious ingredient to use in making healthy desserts. And they come pitted so you don’t have to attempt to cut open each cherry and systematically remove the seed! But what I didn’t realize about cherries is that they have recently received attention as a ‘functional food’ due to their high levels of bioactive compounds, including the antioxidants melatonin, carotenoids, anthocyanins and the flavonol quercetin (1). I am wary of this term ‘functional food’ as there is not always sufficient scientific evidence to support this claim, however, the phytochemicals in cherries seem to have some potentially beneficial effects.

The antioxidants found in cherries have been shown in studies to reduce oxidative stress and inflammation, reduce pain and inhibit uric acid production, which may contribute to the development of gouty arthritis. These studies were mostly conducted in animals. One randomized clinical trial conducted in 2011 looked at the impact of tart cherry juice on osteoarthritis of the knee in 58 patients (2). While the patients in this study consuming the cherry juice did not report improvements in pain, stiffness and function compared to the patients consuming the placebo, there was a reduction in the levels of high sensitivity C-reactive protein (hsCRP) in those patients consuming the cherry juice. hsCRP levels are elevated in patients with knee osteoarthritis and associated with worse outcomes.

As an endurance athlete I was more interested in the studies conducted on cherry supplementation and its effects on recovery from exercise. Tart cherry juice supplementation has been found to reduce the symptoms of muscle damage in subjects performing contractions of the elbow flexors (3), in subjects performing knee extensor exercises (4) and following marathon running (5).

Exercise increases the production of reactive oxygen/nitrogen species (RONS), commonly referred to as free radicals. The production of these free radicals can result in a reduction in physical performance and cause muscle fatigue. A moderate increase in oxidative stress may actually be beneficial to the exercising muscle, however, excessive levels may reduce muscle function. Because of the antioxidants present in cherries, supplementation with cherry juice has been investigated for its influence on oxidative stress following exercise. The study I mentioned earlier looking at the effects of cherry juice supplementation on recovery from a marathon (5) found that participants who consumed tart cherry juice twice per day for 5 days prior to a marathon and 48 hours following a marathon had lower levels of markers of oxidative stress compared to participants consuming a placebo. However, this study included only 20 participants.

So there is some evidence that cherry juice supplementation can counteract the oxidative stress induced by exercise and the proposed mechanisms for this action include: (a) free radical scavenging; (b) the formation of DNA complexes that are resistant to oxidative stress; and (c) the activation of protective responses, such as our body’s own antioxidants (6). It is not clear which of these mechanisms is responsible, or if it is combination of all three.

In addition to the potential recovery benefits provided by cherries, frozen pitted cherries can be used to make incredibly tasty and easy desserts, such as this Cherry ripe ‘ice cream’ made with shredded coconut, frozen coconut milk, cocoa powder and sweetened with erythritol. I added in some walnuts for extra crunch. Enjoy this as a treat after a hard training session, or just as a healthy dessert on a Friday night.

Cherry ripe ‘ice cream’

Makes 2 serves

Ingredients

1 cup shredded coconut

Ice cube tray filled with coconut milk, frozen

Extra ¾ cup coconut milk

3 tablespoons cocoa powder

¼ teaspoon vanilla extract

1 tablespoon erythritol

¾ cup frozen pitted cherries

¼ cup walnuts (optional but adds a nice crunch)

Utensils

Ice cube tray

Measuring cups and spoons

Food processor or high-speed blender

Spoon

Method

  • Freeze the coconut milk in an ice cube tray at least 2 hours in advance.
  • Add the shredded coconut to a food processor or high-speed blender. Process/blend until the coconut becomes a firm paste. Scrape the sides of the food processor/blender during this process (you don’t want the coconut to get to the consistency of coconut butter – leave it firmer for a better texture).
  • Add in the frozen cubes of coconut milk and process/blend until the mixture is fairly smooth.
  • Add in the extra coconut milk, cocoa powder, vanilla extract and erythritol and process until all the ingredients are combined well and the ‘ice cream’ has a smooth consistency.
  • Add the frozen pitted cherries and walnuts and process for 1 – 2 minutes until the cherries and walnuts are roughly chopped.
  • Divide the ‘ice cream’ between two bowls and freeze for 30 – 60 minutes before serving.
  1. McCune LM, Kubota C, Stendell-Hollis NR, & Thomson CA (2011) Cherries and health: a review. Critical reviews in food science and nutrition 51(1):1-12.
  2. Schumacher HR, et al. (2013) Randomized double-blind crossover study of the efficacy of a tart cherry juice blend in treatment of osteoarthritis (OA) of the knee. Osteoarthritis and cartilage / OARS, Osteoarthritis Research Society 21(8):1035-1041.
  3. Connolly DA, McHugh MP, Padilla-Zakour OI, Carlson L, & Sayers SP (2006) Efficacy of a tart cherry juice blend in preventing the symptoms of muscle damage. British journal of sports medicine 40(8):679-683; discussion 683.
  4. Bowtell JL, Sumners DP, Dyer A, Fox P, & Mileva KN (2011) Montmorency cherry juice reduces muscle damage caused by intensive strength exercise. Medicine and science in sports and exercise 43(8):1544-1551.
  5. Howatson G, et al. (2010) Influence of tart cherry juice on indices of recovery following marathon running. Scandinavian journal of medicine & science in sports 20(6):843-852.
  6. Traustadottir T, et al. (2009) Tart cherry juice decreases oxidative stress in healthy older men and women. The Journal of nutrition 139(10):1896-1900.

 

My first win for a trail running race and some tips to stay consistent with training

Trail run

I was extremely happy to win Round 4 of the Brisbane Trail running series AND to win the entire Long Course series!! Details of the South East Queensland Trail Running Series are here https://www.facebook.com/SEQtrailrunningseries.

The final race of the series was a 20.7km trail run with a mixture of fire roads and single track. I am feeling that my trail running is definitely improving, particularly my downhill running. I actually wanted the race to be more technical as I was feeling quite confident during the race. I was able to back up this hilly race with a 1-hour mountain bike ride followed by a paddle in the afternoon. I felt inspired after watching the Holly Holm vs Miesha Tate fight in UFC 196. Now there is two tough, strong ladies who train and fight like absolute beasts!!

I have a few tips that I believe are helping me stay consistent with my training at the moment:

  • Weights once a week – I perform a simple weight session using dumbbells consisting of 3 x 10 squats with 5 pull-ups in between each set, 4 x 6 deadlifts with 20 pushups in between each set, 4 x 10 dumbbell chest presses with abs in between each set and 3 x 10 single arm dumbbell rows with some sort of kettle bell exercise in between. I am not looking to build muscle but to maintain strength and prevent injury.
  • No alcohol – I know this sounds boring but alcohol and training simply do not mix. Alcohol makes me hazy and demotivated the following day, disturbs my sleep and prevents me from getting to the weight that I want to achieve.
  • Minimal refined carbohydrates – of course occasionally I will splurge and eat some ice cream but I find the surges in blood sugar levels disturb my sleep and make me feel bloated. If I require carbohydrates, for example if I am planning a particularly long training day or have a long race, I will consume carbohydrates in the form of fruits, honey, starchy vegetables or maybe some rolled oats. I prefer whole food sources of carbohydrates. During longer races I will consume gels and electrolytes with simple sugars for easy digestion but for the rest of the time I try to avoid refined, processed carbohydrates.

These tips are helping me back up long training sessions while still being productive at work. I have a 25km trail race coming up so hopefully all this training will pay off.

Matcha green tea and mango cheesecake (no refined carbs) and can collagen assist with recovery after training?

Matcha and mango cheesecakeMangoes are now appearing in the fruit and vegetable aisle signifying that summer is approaching here on the Gold Coast – my favourite time of year. The long hours of daylight and the warmer weather make training at 5am so much more enjoyable. Although I try not to eat too much fruit due to the high sugar content (maximum of one piece per day), I could not resist making a dessert featuring this delicious fruit. I wanted to make a dessert with minimal refined carbohydrates and a lower calorie content. I combined a matcha green tea layer with a mango layer in this cheesecake set with gelatin. The slightly bitter matcha green tea worked well with the sweet mango.

This cheesecake contains a number of potentially beneficial compounds for your health. Matcha green tea is abundant in polyphenols known as catechins. The major catechin in green tea is epigallocatechin-3-gallate (EGCG). EGCG is a known antioxidant (1). Matcha green tea was found to contain 137 times the EGCG compared to a commercial brand of green tea and at least three times the amount compared to the largest value for other green teas cited in the literature (2).

I have previously discussed the potential benefits of gelatin for your skin (read about it here). Gelatin is a mixture of peptides (small amino acid chains) derived from collagen. However, I was curious to know if any research has been conducted on gelatin/collagen peptides and exercise recovery. I wondered about this because I made this tasty cheesecake with gelatin after my recent trail running race that I placed second in (read about my preparation here). Could the gelatin assist with my recovery?

It seems that the majority of research looking at collagen peptides has focused on skin health and degenerative joint diseases such as osteoarthritis. Very few studies have looked at the impact of collagen peptides on recovery and body composition because it is generally believed that the relatively low biological value of collagen would not promote muscular protein synthesis. Collagen is considered to have low biological value mainly due to the low amounts of branched chain amino acids (BCAA) and lysine. However, I came across a recent study published in the British Journal of Nutrition that investigated the effect of post-exercise protein supplementation with collagen peptides on muscle mass and muscle function during a 3-month resistance training program in elderly men (3). The scientists found that compared to a placebo, supplementation with 15 grams of collagen peptides per day in combination with resistance training three times a week further improved body composition by increasing fat-free mass and muscle strength.

The authors of this study speculate that their results can be explained by the rapid digestibility and absorption of collagen peptides. The high arginine and glycine content of collagen may also explain their results as these amino acids are both important substrates for the synthesis of creatine in the human body. Creatine supplementation has been shown to improve muscle mass and muscle function in some but not all studies (4). Collagen peptides may also enhance microcirculation (circulation of the blood in the smallest blood vessels to tissues), thus promoting amino acid delivery and muscle growth.

One final explanation is that collagen peptides are able to effectively maintain nitrogen balance. Nitrogen is a fundamental component of amino acids which make up proteins. Positive nitrogen balance indicates that the intake of nitrogen is greater than the loss of nitrogen from the body, therefore there is an increase in the total body pool of protein. In a study published in the Journal of the American Dietetic Association, the effects of supplementation with whey and a collagen based protein hydrolysate on nitrogen balance were compared in older women. Despite the low protein digestibility-corrected amino acid score (PDCAAS) of collagen (the PDCAAS is a method for measuring the protein value in human nutrition), women who consumed the test diet containing the collagen hydrolysate maintained nitrogen balance. Also, women who consumed the test diet containing whey had a small decrease in body mass with no change in body fat while women consuming the collagen hydrolysate supplement showed no decrease in body mass (5). This study suggests that supplementation with collagen can maintain nitrogen balance and muscle mass, although this study only included 9 women.

While there has been little research into the role of collagen peptides in recovery, the studies above make me think that gelatin could assist with muscle repair and growth. All the more reason for me to eat this tasty matcha green tea and mango cheesecake after my trail running race!

Matcha and mango cheesecake 2Matcha green tea and mango cheesecake

Ingredients

Base

1/3 cup walnuts

1/3 cup coconut flour

½ tablespoon stevia (I like Natvia brand stevia)

1 teaspoon ground ginger

½ teaspoon vanilla extract

2 tablespoons homemade coconut butter (find out how to make it here) or coconut oil

½ cup coconut milk

Mango layer

1 medium mango, roughly chopped

½ of a 250 gram block of light cream cheese

½ cup reduced fat coconut cream

2 tablespoons stevia

½ teaspoon vanilla extract

2 teaspoons gelatin dissolved in 3 tablespoons boiling water

Matcha green tea layer

½ of a 250 gram block of light cream cheese

½ cup reduced fat coconut cream

½ cup Greek yoghurt

1 tablespoon matcha green tea powder

1 tablespoon stevia

½ teaspoon vanilla extract

2 teaspoons gelatin dissolved in 3 tablespoons boiling water

Utensils

Measuring cups and spoons

Food processor

Large mixing bowl

Spoon

20cm x 20cm baking tray

Baking paper

Small mixing bowl

Method

  • Pre-heat the oven to 160°C.
  • Add the walnuts to the food processor and process until they resemble the texture of coarse breadcrumbs. Tip the processed walnuts into the large mixing bowl.
  • Add in the coconut flour, stevia and ground ginger and mix to combine. Add in the vanilla extract, coconut butter or oil and coconut milk and mix well. Tip the base mixture into a 20cm x 20cm baking tray lined with baking paper and press the base down firmly and evenly with wet hands. Bake in the oven at 160°C for about 15 minutes or until the edges begin to turn golden brown.
  • Take the base out of the oven and allow it to cool while preparing the matcha green tea layer and mango layer.
  • For the mango layer add the chopped mango, light cream cheese, reduced fat coconut cream, stevia and vanilla extract into the food processor. Process until a smooth, even mixture is achieved. Add the dissolved gelatin to the food processor and process briefly until it is mixed well through the mango layer.
  • Pour the mango layer over the base and spread it out evenly and smoothly with the back of a spoon. Place in the fridge and allow to set while preparing the matcha green tea layer (I was impatient and did not allow the mango layer to set completely hence my mango and matcha layer fused together).
  • For the matcha green tea layer add the light cream cheese, reduced fat coconut cream, Greek yoghurt, matcha green tea powder, stevia and vanilla extract into the rinsed food processor. Process until a smooth, even mixture is achieved. Add the dissolved gelatin to the food processor and process briefly until it is mixed well through the matcha layer.
  • Pour the matcha layer over the partially set mango layer and spread it out evenly and smoothly with the back of a spoon. Place the cheesecake back into the fridge and allow it to set completely (at least 3 hours) before slicing.
  1. Khan N, Afaq F, Saleem M, Ahmad N, & Mukhtar H (2006) Targeting multiple signaling pathways by green tea polyphenol (-)-epigallocatechin-3-gallate. Cancer research 66(5):2500-2505.
  2. Weiss DJ & Anderton CR (2003) Determination of catechins in matcha green tea by micellar electrokinetic chromatography. Journal of chromatography. A 1011(1-2):173-180.
  3. Zdzieblik D, Oesser S, Baumstark MW, Gollhofer A, & Konig D (2015) Collagen peptide supplementation in combination with resistance training improves body composition and increases muscle strength in elderly sarcopenic men: a randomised controlled trial. The British journal of nutrition 114(8):1237-1245.
  4. Antonio J & Ciccone V (2013) The effects of pre versus post workout supplementation of creatine monohydrate on body composition and strength. Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition 10:36.
  5. Hays NP, Kim H, Wells AM, Kajkenova O, & Evans WJ (2009) Effects of whey and fortified collagen hydrolysate protein supplements on nitrogen balance and body composition in older women. Journal of the American Dietetic Association 109(6):1082-1087.

 

How I prepared for my first trail running race – I came second and there was not just 2 of us in the race!

Trail RunningLast Sunday I ran my first trail running race. I have completed trail runs in adventure/multi-sport races and off-road triathlons, however this was my first official trail run. I am pleased to say that I came second in the long course (11.2kms) out of 88 women. I was hoping to finish in the top 10, so second place was a nice surprise. So how did I prepare for this race? Here are a few tips that will help you do well in your first trail running race:

  1. Run on the trails. This may seem obvious but it is absolutely essential. And I mean real trails. The rockier, hillier and uneven the better. I have discovered some new trails in my area, which have been great. Plus I have been running on single track after mountain biking, which has also been great preparation.
  2. Run hills – sprints and on longer runs. Again this is essential. Running hills builds strength as well as endurance. Also you need to get used to putting in a hard effort to climb a hill then quickly recovering to maintain your pace on flat sections.
  3. Learn how to run down hill. I have recently started running with a group of experienced adventure racers. I had no idea that there was such a skill to running down hill. You must lean forward, kick your heels up to your backside and use your arms to balance yourself. Being a fast down hill runner means you can gain time without putting in a lot of effort.

Trail running is a lot of fun. You enjoy nature while getting fit at the same time. It requires a different kind of fitness than road running. In a trail running race you are putting in efforts to run up hills then navigating over rocks then running down hill. If you are looking for a new challenge and are getting tired of running on the road I suggest you look for a trail running group in your area and enter your first race.

My second adventure race plus how ‘fat adaptation’ has made me a better endurance athlete

GC adventure race paddle 2My alarm went off at 4:30am… but I think I was already awake. I jumped out of bed ready to go, slightly nervous while quite excited at the same time. My breakfast on race day morning consisted of ½ cup of rolled oats with coconut milk, blueberries, yoghurt, cocoa powder, walnuts, coconut, whey protein powder and honey; far higher in carbohydrates than I typically consume, which I will discuss later. Oh and of course a strong cup of coffee. I am a huge advocate of the performance enhancing abilities of caffeine. My nerves calmed as I ate my breakfast.

Adventure race 1 copyWith fuel out of the way it was time to load up my car in preparation for my second adventure race. Well, technically this was a multisport race as true ‘adventure’ racing involves a navigational component. Although this race would be off the beaten track, the trail run and mountain bike courses were to be marked with tape. The race that I was about to embark on consisted of a 1.5km ocean swim, a 13km ocean and creek paddle, a 12km trail run, a 22km mountain bike and concluded with a 2km run to the finish line. It was the Gold Coast Adventure race, formerly the Anacoda Adventure race. This was a race I had fantasized about participating in for a few years. I contemplated the idea of entering as a team, perhaps with the boyfriend completing the paddle and mountain bike leg while I would do the swim and trail run. I also thought about doing Course 2, which lacked the ocean swim and ocean paddle. But earlier this year I made the decision that I would be completing the full event (Course 1) as an individual.

So back to loading up my small, hatchback Toyota corolla with my 14 foot (approximately 4 meters), 17kg paddle ski, the paddle for the paddle ski, my wetsuit, goggles, swimming cap, mountain bike, helmet, gloves, water pack, running shoes, towel and nutrition for the day. My nutrition took up barely any room as it consisted of one espresso gel and two pieces of a homemade oat and nut slice. This may seem like very little for what would be a race lasting over 6 hours, but I will discuss in more detail later how I am able to fuel my endurance racing by burning my own fat stores.

I packed my car, woke up the boyfriend to say goodbye and headed off for the first transition point to drop off my gear for the run leg. The next stop was the mountain bike transition then it was off to the start line. The race started at Currumbin Alley, the point at which Currumbin Creek meets the Pacific Ocean. Both the swim and the paddle were to commence from this point.

GC adventure race swim startThe weather was not great. There were some clouds looming overhead. It had rained during the night and my thoughts wandered to the mountain bike track, sections of which I imagined would be muddy and slippery. Oh well, there was nothing I could do about that now. The time for the race to begin was drawing closer so I put on my wetsuit and prepared for the race briefing. I noticed that there was only one other woman starting Course 1. I compared my ski to hers and felt somewhat deflated. I had a short, stumpy, plastic ski while hers was a long, slender racing ski. Did I stand a chance to beat her?

GC adventure race swimThe 14 of us participating in Course 1 headed over to the swim start. I felt nervous again. Gary, the awesome race director had earlier grabbed my shoulders and said “Lucy, what are you so worried about? You are here to have fun”. I repeated his words in my mind. What was the worst that could happen? If I lost my ski entering through the creek mouth then I would just have to swim after it; something I had done many times before. And I would just have to take it easy on the steep sections of the mountain bike course given the wet conditions. Everything would be fine I told myself.

GC adventure race paddle startThe swim started and I was pleased to find myself in the middle of the pack. We headed out through the waves around the first buoy. The surf was quite flat that day so the swim did not trouble me at all. I struggled slightly finding the final buoy but managed to get around it and started to make my way in to the shore. I tore off my wetsuit as I ran up the beach to where the skis were waiting. Again I was pleasantly surprised to see that my ski was far from the last one on the shore. But I knew I had the slowest ski so I wasn’t going to be surprised if I was overtaken by the majority of the field.

paddleski waveI paddled my ski out through the waves with no problems. Two guys passed me as we paddled through the ocean towards the creek mouth. I had arranged for the boyfriend to meet me at the mouth of the Tallebudgera Creek to guide me through the paddle in. He was there as promised. The tide was going out so I felt slightly concerned that if I lost my ski it would get washed out to sea. I lined up a small wave to catch in and paddled hard. I rode the wave and as it crashed behind me I tipped out of my ski. I quickly jumped back in and began paddling hard again. I was now in still water. What had I been so worried about?

GC adventure race paddle 3The boyfriend paddled with me for a bit, passing on words of encouragement. I saw that two more guys had passed me on much better skis. It was disappointing but what could I expect. The paddle seemed to take forever. At one point I feared that I had somehow taken a wrong turn in the creek and was off course. I was relieved when I paddled up to the bank and the wonderful volunteers were there to carry my ski up while I headed to the run transition.

I chucked on my shoes, put on my water pack and slammed down my espresso gel. The caffeine hit was just what I needed after the 1.5km swim and 13km paddle. At that point I noticed my water pack had been leaking! There was a tiny dribble of water left which I quickly drank as I began the run. Again, there was nothing I could do about this now. Time to get running.

GC adventure race runThe run course was totally fun. I was running along the creek’s edge; crossing the creek multiple times. I ran over rocks, through thick shrub, under trees, through mud, down hills, up hills; I was having a ball! I passed several people during the run, which made me feel confident. I was sure that I had not seen the only other female competitor doing Course 1. I finished the run feeling strong but slightly thirsty. I asked another one of the fabulous volunteers in the bike transition if she had any water. She kindly poured some into my water pack only for it to start leaking down my back. I jumped on my bike, had a bit to eat and began heading for the first steep climb. Once I reached the top of the first climb the course entered the QLD/NSW border track; a rolling section of fire trails and single track. At this point I drank the last of my remaining water, ate the last of my food and began.

GC adventure race bikeAgain, I found this section of the race fun. I think that is my favourite part of adventure/multisport racing; I was actually having fun while racing. Although triathlon and marathon running do have moments of fun (like when you finish), these races are more about going as fast as you can physically and mentally stand. I am also thoroughly enjoying the training for off road races. Last weekend my training session consisted of mountain biking on some single track surrounded by trees and shrubs, followed by a run on the same track. I was thinking ‘This is great!” I definitely have not had as much structure in my training leading up to this adventure race. I haven’t been focusing on my speed or pace or how many reps in a session. This is very different to when I was training for triathlon or for marathons. I would ensure that just about every training session had a structure and a purpose. Now don’t get me wrong, I am all for structured training. Having a regimented training regime did wonders for my fitness and ability as a multisport racer. But at the moment I am enjoying the freedom of actually really liking my training. If you are a triathlete or road cyclist or a road runner but are seeking a new challenge, I suggest trying some off road races. There are plenty of trail runs, mountain biking events or paddling events to choose from – or a combine all three and do a multisport event!

run 2Back to the race. The mountain bike section went well. I enjoyed it. I only had a couple of minor slips and I felt pretty strong. I came into the final transition to see the wonderful boyfriend with his camera. The final leg was a 2km run to the finish. Due to my background in triathlon I was used to running hard off the bike – so that is what I did. I ran hard to the finish and I was absolutely thrilled not only to finish, but also to find out that I was the first female finisher! My final time was 6:10:52. I was 6th out of the swim but dropped back to 12th after the paddle ski leg. I made up some ground in the run and the bike to finish 10th overall out of a field of 14. My ski leg really let me down and now I want a faster ski. Nevertheless I had a great day and again I suggest that if you are looking for something to new to try give multisport racing and off road triathlon a go.

finish 2Now as I mentioned earlier, I want to talk about my nutrition for the day. I did not feel hungry or fatigued once during the race. Although I will admit that the pace of this race was not as intense as what I am I used to for triathlon or road running, there certainly was bursts of intensity, particularly during the mountain bike. But for a 6 hour+ race I felt good and my energy levels felt consistent. I honestly believe that my low carbohydrate diet, which includes a decent amount of fats is the reason for this. I have always avoided carbohydrates at night since the age of 18, however, last year when I was training for the Gold Coast Marathon I decided that I wanted to really reduce the refined carbohydrates from my diet. At the time I was eating oats and fruit for breakfast and often having fruit at lunch. Also, I had been vegetarian for 10 years and it was at this time that I started to introduce a small amount of meat back into my diet. I immediately lost weight, some of which was likely fluid as a result of reducing carbohydrates. But I have found that a whole food diet that is higher in fat with moderate protein, plenty of vegetables and limited refined carbohydrates and fruit helps me to maintain a healthy weight range. What I am now realizing is that this way of eating has helped me to also become a better endurance athlete as I am able to efficiently burn fat as fuel source and not rely on constant source of carbohydrates. Is this all in my head? No, the science is now showing that ‘fat adaptation’ can increase the rate at which the body oxidizes fat for energy and decreases the rate at which the muscles use glycogen.

Fat adaptation

Fatigue during endurance exercise, defined as a submaximal effort lasting greater than 2 hours, is associated with low muscle glycogen concentrations. Glycogen depletion is a function of the initial or pre-exercise glycogen concentration and its rate of utilization during exercise. Typically, nutritional strategies for endurance exercise focus on ways to increase the amount of available carbohydrates by maximizing carbohydrate storage in the muscles and liver in the days or hours leading up to an event, referred to as ‘carb loading’. In my personal opinion carb loading is completely over used, particularly by amateur athletes competing in events less than 2 hours where glycogen depletion is not actually a problem. An alternative strategy to delay fatigue and improve performance in endurance events is to enhance the ability to oxidise or burn fat as an energy source while reducing the rate of muscle glycogen utilization.

A well-nourished adult can store approximately 500 grams or 2 000 kcal of carbohydrates. Of this, approximately 400 grams are stored as muscle glycogen, 90-110 grams as liver glycogen, and 25 grams circulate in the blood as glucose. In comparison, a lean adult with as little as 7 – 14% body fat, still has over 30 000 kcal of fat reserves. It makes sense to try and tap into this abundant fuel supply. How can this be achieved? ‘Fat adaptation’ is a protocol in which endurance athletes consume a high-fat, low carbohydrate diet for up to 14 days during their normal training schedule (1, 2). Studies have repeatedly shown that fat adaptation strategies drastically increase whole-body rates of fat oxidation during submaximal or steady state exercise (60-70% of VO2 max) in already well-trained athletes, exceeding the rates typically induced by endurance training alone. However, the impact that fat adaptation has on performance has shown variable results (3). This is because high-fat low-carbohydrate diets result in reduced muscle glycogen content, which can lead to fatigue in endurance sporting events (4). The ideal scenario is to follow fat adaptation with a period of carbohydrate restoration. Carbohydrate restoration is achieved by consuming a high-carbohydrate diet and tapering for 1 – 3 days thus restoring muscle glycogen levels in the athlete who now has a higher rate of fat oxidation (5-7).

The proposed mechanisms explaining fat adaptation include increases in fatty acid transporters in the membranes of skeletal muscle cells (8), increases in the activity of the enzyme that transports long-chain fatty acids into the mitochondria, mitochondrial carnitine palmitoyl transferase complex (CPT1) (9, 10), increases in fatty acid availability, increases in the levels of intramuscular fat storage (7) and decreases in the key enzyme controlling the oxidation of carbohydrates (11). Basically fat adaptation makes the muscles more efficient at burning fat as a fuel source and spares the amount of glycogen used; perfect for long, endurance events performed at moderate intensities.

Most studies have investigated short-term fat adaptation protocols, however, I am more interested in long-term fat adaptation. Although for the last 12 years or so I have typically tried to limit carbohydrates to earlier in the day, for the last year and a half I have really reduced my carbohydrate intake and consumed more fat. When I first began this strategy, I found that some training sessions seemed harder than usual. This is also reflected in the research. For example, one study evaluated the perceived exertion of subjects during training before and after a 7-week adaptation to either a fat-rich or carbohydrate-rich diet. Before the adaptation period there was no difference in the perceived exertion. In contrast, after the 7 weeks of diet intervention, training was perceived as more strenuous after the fat-rich diet compared to the carbohydrate-rich diet (12). This higher perceived exertion during training while on a high-fat diet has also been observed in elite-trained subjects (13). The reasons for this higher mental effort needed to sustain training while switching to a lower-carbohydrate diet are not clear, but may be due to altered autonomic nervous system activity resulting in an increased sympathetic and decreased parasympathetic response (12).

For a professional athlete, compromising training sessions could result in missing out on a pay day, however, for a top end amateur athlete such as myself, I have learnt to push through these tough training sessions in a carb depleted state, focusing on the long term benefits. You may also find that higher intensity sessions are mentally more challenging at first when switching to a low-carbohydrate diet, but again over time you can become used to this.

As far as I can tell, there have been no controlled studies investigating the effects of fat adaptation on endurance athletic performance beyond 7 weeks. I predict that long-term studies on fat adaptation will begin to surface as the field of sports nutrition questions the importance of carbohydrates to endurance performance. Professor Timothy Noakes is a sports scientist who is a huge advocate of a low-carbohydrate, high-fat diet, also known as ‘banting’ and has spent years conducting research in this area. I am a huge fan of his work and one of his more recent articles published in the European Journal of Sport Science this year entitled ‘Rethinking fat as a fuel for endurance exercise’ is a great read on this topic (14). Professor Louise Burke is another expert in this field who has published a substantial amount of work on fat adaptation in endurance athletes (4, 5).

Something else that I have always done, even many years ago when I was competing in muay thai, is train on an empty stomach in the morning. Occasionally I will have a very small snack of some nuts or a teaspoon of nut butter, but I am able to train up to 3 hours without eating. I always did this intuitively thinking that this would enhance my endurance (plus I am not hungry at 5am), and now the research supports this. Endurance training in a fasted state, where blood glucose levels are low, stimulates the rate of adipose tissue lipolysis (the break down of fats) (15), stimulates the breakdown of intramyocellular lipids (fats stored within muscle cells) (16) and upregulates the capacity of muscles cells to use fat oxidation for energy production (17). Training in a fasted state is another strategy to enhance your ability to utilize fat as a fuel source, although it can be difficult mentally at first.

run 1So in summary I believe that a long-term low-carbohydrate, high-fat diet combined with fasted training sessions has metabolic benefits for endurance athletes. Following this mode of eating allows your muscles to more efficiently burn fat as a fuel source while reducing the amount of carbohydrates that are utilized, referred to as ‘glycogen sparing’. In races lasting up to 6 hours I have never once ‘bonked’ or ‘hit the wall’ and I need very little calories. In my latest adventure race lasting over 6 hours I consumed one gel after the paddle then ate 2 pieces of oat and nut slice during the run and during the mountain bike. My energy levels felt consistent throughout the entire race. I did consume carbohydrates the night before and at breakfast the morning of the race, which I believe are essential for optimal performance when following a low-carbohydrate diet. Topping up your glycogen stores prior to the race ensures you can get through those bursts of high intensity, such as steep climbs on the mountain bike. While I am not quite following a ‘ketogenic’ diet because I do eat quite a lot of non-starchy vegetables and I enjoy beans, which provide me with some carbohydrates, my diet is pretty low carb. I rarely eat refined carbohydrates, meaning no refined sweeteners or grains, and I limit my fruit intake.

This way of eating may not be suited to all types of athletes, especially those participating in more explosive, intense sports of a short duration. But if you have long term goals for competing in endurance events then I believe that training your body to utilize fat more efficiently as a fuel source can be beneficial to your performance. There are some caveats that go with the transition to a low-carbohydrate, higher-fat diet; firstly your training sessions may seem harder at first and may suffer in the short term, but you will adapt. Secondly fat takes longer to digest than carbohydrates or protein, so I find that I need to wait longer for a high fat meal to digest before training. For this reason, fat is very satisfying and will keep you feeling full far longer than any carbohydrate rich meal. Keep these points in mind when you embark on a low-carbohydrate higher-fat diet. I believe that this way of eating is well suited to endurance athletes. You can find plenty of tasty, nutritious low carb meals on my blog to get you started.

  1. Lambert EV, Speechly DP, Dennis SC, & Noakes TD (1994) Enhanced endurance in trained cyclists during moderate intensity exercise following 2 weeks adaptation to a high fat diet. European journal of applied physiology and occupational physiology 69(4):287-293.
  2. Phinney SD, Bistrian BR, Evans WJ, Gervino E, & Blackburn GL (1983) The human metabolic response to chronic ketosis without caloric restriction: preservation of submaximal exercise capability with reduced carbohydrate oxidation. Metabolism: clinical and experimental 32(8):769-776.
  3. Yeo WK, Carey AL, Burke L, Spriet LL, & Hawley JA (2011) Fat adaptation in well-trained athletes: effects on cell metabolism. Applied physiology, nutrition, and metabolism = Physiologie appliquee, nutrition et metabolisme 36(1):12-22.
  4. Burke LM, Kiens B, & Ivy JL (2004) Carbohydrates and fat for training and recovery. Journal of sports sciences 22(1):15-30.
  5. Burke LM, et al. (2000) Effect of fat adaptation and carbohydrate restoration on metabolism and performance during prolonged cycling. Journal of applied physiology 89(6):2413-2421.
  6. Stellingwerff T, et al. (2006) Decreased PDH activation and glycogenolysis during exercise following fat adaptation with carbohydrate restoration. American journal of physiology. Endocrinology and metabolism 290(2):E380-388.
  7. Yeo WK, et al. (2008) Fat adaptation followed by carbohydrate restoration increases AMPK activity in skeletal muscle from trained humans. Journal of applied physiology 105(5):1519-1526.
  8. Cameron-Smith D, et al. (2003) A short-term, high-fat diet up-regulates lipid metabolism and gene expression in human skeletal muscle. The American journal of clinical nutrition 77(2):313-318.
  9. Fisher EC, et al. (1983) Changes in skeletal muscle metabolism induced by a eucaloric ketogenic diet. Biochemistry of exercise, eds Knuttgen HG, Vogel JA, & Poortmans J (Human Kinetics, Champaign), Vol 3, pp 497-501.
  10. Goedecke JH, et al. (1999) Metabolic adaptations to a high-fat diet in endurance cyclists. Metabolism: clinical and experimental 48(12):1509-1517.
  11. Peters SJ, St Amand TA, Howlett RA, Heigenhauser GJ, & Spriet LL (1998) Human skeletal muscle pyruvate dehydrogenase kinase activity increases after a low-carbohydrate diet. The American journal of physiology 275(6 Pt 1):E980-986.
  12. Helge JW (2002) Long-term fat diet adaptation effects on performance, training capacity, and fat utilization. Medicine and science in sports and exercise 34(9):1499-1504.
  13. Stepto NK, Martin DT, Fallon KE, & Hawley JA (2001) Metabolic demands of intense aerobic interval training in competitive cyclists. Medicine and science in sports and exercise 33(2):303-310.
  14. Volek JS, Noakes T, & Phinney SD (2015) Rethinking fat as a fuel for endurance exercise. European journal of sport science 15(1):13-20.
  15. Horowitz JF, Mora-Rodriguez R, Byerley LO, & Coyle EF (1997) Lipolytic suppression following carbohydrate ingestion limits fat oxidation during exercise. The American journal of physiology 273(4 Pt 1):E768-775.
  16. De Bock K, et al. (2005) Exercise in the fasted state facilitates fibre type-specific intramyocellular lipid breakdown and stimulates glycogen resynthesis in humans. The Journal of physiology 564(Pt 2):649-660.
  17. Van Proeyen K, Szlufcik K, Nielens H, Ramaekers M, & Hespel P (2011) Beneficial metabolic adaptations due to endurance exercise training in the fasted state. Journal of applied physiology 110(1):236-245.