After the China Tour back in September I took some time off, relaxed, drank some beers, played some hockey, a little golf, ran (yes, ran) a 13km leg of a relay (not too shabbily I might add), basically did anything that wasn't proper training.
I much prefer the Ashton and Brianne method (mind you, I lack the funds for all the adventures they get to have, and I'd love to take 3 months off, but that doesn't work so well when your competition season is 10months long).
At the end of 3 weeks though, I definitely start to get that itch, that desire to get back at it and start training again. And just like that, on October 19th, my Road to Rio officially began.
That first week of training was fairly easy, except for the VO2max on the Wednesday (but more on that a little later!). I decided to end that first week of training off with a fun race. I decided to enter the Rock N Roll Half in Vancouver. On a whim I applied for an elite bib, completely expecting to be shot down. But to my surprise I was accepted and given a free entry (score!). A really close friend of mine who had gotten into running half marathons was also running and we decided we would go together, trying to hold 4:30km's. I haven't done many mass-participation races while walking, so this turned out to be a lot of fun! Recreational runners generally have a terrible ability to pace themselves (although I might bias that sample, as I think they hate having someone walking in front of them more) so we kept our pace relatively consistent and at 15km I began to pick it up, dropping Wesley in the process. In that last 5km I got to pass 20-30 people which was quite a blast! When it was all said and done I had finished 160th out of over 5000 competitors in 1:34:48, right on pace. Not bad for a guy walking! I had such a blast doing this, I definitely want to get into more races like this whenever I'm home. (you can see tons of race photos here, I'm just too poor to buy any of them.
Back in the summer we (Inaki, Ben and I) were asked by Jared Tallent and Louise Burke (a world renowned nutritionist) if we were interested in coming over to Canberra for a nutritional study funded by the Australian Catholic University aimed at comparing 3 different dietary protocols on training and performance in elite athletes. It was the perfect opportunity to get some really solid base training done with a great group of athletes and good weather as well as some great testing data from the Australian Institute of Sport. The nutritional aspects were a bit daunting at first, with the potential to be on a high fat diet for 3 weeks, something radically different to anything I had ever tried before. With it being an Olympic year, many have thought I was a bit crazy to try something so different and I agreed at first, but in the end it was my scientific curiosity that got the better of me and I was quick to sign up! At the end of the day, training is putting the body under stress, and adapting… a high fat diet, if nothing else would just be an added stress.
The study was to be run in 2 parts. The first part in November and the second in January. We would be on different diets each time, but doing the same training and testing. This would allow us to measure not only the effects of 3 weeks of a single diet on a number or measures, but also against another intervention.
It has to be said how amazing it has been training with the athletes and staff that I've had the pleasure to being around. This first camp had 11 athletes from 5 different continents all come together to help each other improve, and also help further scientific discovery. I think it says a lot about the race walking community when you can have guys from literally all over the world come together in an Olympic year for such a big endeavor, and a new challenge that none of us had ever tried. In January we will have even more people, from even more countries. I don’t think you can find that kind of comradery amongst any other event group in Athletics. And it is the thing I love most about my event.
The purported benefits of such a diet are way too complex for me to understand let alone begin to convey completely. But here is the idea, as I understand it. Fats and Carbohydrates (sugars) can both be used to make the energy that muscles need (the fuel for exercise). Fat is less efficient at doing this so when the muscles need energy quickly (as with higher intensity exercise) the body uses carbs instead to create that energy (a much quicker process). Unfortunately our stores of carbs are fairly limited (a few hours worth of exercise) and when we run out we have to switch back to fats for energy (and a corresponding slowing of exercise to match energy input and output). This is the dreaded wall that many marathon runners are unfortunately familiar with. While one way to try and prevent this is by fueling with carbs during exercise to try and prevent running out (as regular readers will remember, I took in about 1200kcal of Carbs at world champs in the 50km). The idea with HFLC is when you take carbs completely out of the equation you force the body to adapt and become better at using fat, even at high intensities. There are smarter people than me that can explain this MUCH better:
- Video of Louise discussing the diets
- A few scholarly articles: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/26154050?dopt=Abstract
The first week was all about collecting a bunch of baseline data. This included: A DEXA scan to assess body composition, a VO2 test to assess our fitness, a 10km time trial and 25km tempo session to assess performance and a number of blood samples and even a fecal sample. This is how that first week went for me:
DEXA Body Comp:
A DEXA scan is really cool. It is an X-ray that uses the different densities of fat, muscle, etc... to differentiate between lean tissue and fat tissue to give you a very accurate measure of your body composition. For me this was particularly interesting as it was my first scan. I had had Skin Folds done several times with the same results usually… an estimated 5% body fat… around the lowest you would want to be as 3-4% of that is essential to function. Because of this I had naively assumed that even though my diet was terrible, that I was special and didn't need to do much in order get down to that minimal level. The scan showed much different results. 12% body fat. This was a huge wake up call to me, showing that this is actually an area where I could make some big performance gains. Being more conscious about my nutrition and trying to get that number down in Rio could allow me to be moving around the course with 5 or 6 less kilograms worth of weight, a huge difference.
For those uninitiated into the world of endurance sport, VO2max is a value that represents the maximum amount of oxygen your muscles are able to use to make energy. Having a high VO2max is pretty much a pre-requisite for being an elite endurance athlete, but once you get to the elite level, VO2max is only one of many factors that separate people. Suffice it to say for now that it is a relatively good measure of fitness.
In my first week of training back home I had a VO2max test thrust upon me, and it was awful. 3 days into training, being asked to produce a maximal effort just doesn’t work. As a result I scored my lowest score ever with 63ml/kg/min (Elite endurance athletes are typically over 70, up towards 80-85). It was not good, and I was eager to prove to myself that I was better than this.
Luckily I didn't have to wait long, with my next VO2 test coming a week later in Australia. This time things were a little more indicative of my fitness. Scoring 69ml/kg/min, still not great, but not bad after a month of not doing much training. This post is already way too long to go into details about what all the numbers mean, I'll save that for a special blog post on my physiology to come at a later date!
One problem with a lot of research studies are that they look for performance improvements in the lab, which aren't always reliable to the real world. So a cool thing about this study was actually doing field tests. In this case it was a 10km race on the track. With some incentives to make it as much like a race as possible. Having only had a week and a half of training under my belt after a long time off, I didn't have the highest of expectations but I knew we were all in a similar boat, so I at least wanted the win. The 3 Canadians went straight to the front and shared the lead for the first couple km before Ben went off the front. Inaki and I continued to share the lead for a couple km before I tried to make a charge to go catch Ben. I started to close the gap but by 7km I started to slow down and Ben went on win by 15s while I held on for 2nd just dipping under 41min. A time I was really happy with this early in the season.
Another cool test we did was a combination of lab and field tests. Starting with a 1km on the treadmill where our VO2 and other metabolic parameters were measured, he headed out to do 10km before coming back in for another km on the treadmill; 10 more km and 1 more km on the treadmill. The pace was around 50km race pace and the aim of this was to look at how the VO2 and other values changed after the diets on longer, slightly less intense efforts than the VO2max tests. I managed to roll around this fairly comfortably in 4:41min/km with an average HR of 160bpm.
On top of having blood lactates, glucose and ketones taken 100s of times throughout this study. We also had pre and post blood draws done. These were done the morning of the 25km tempo session and made for a hell of a day. Coming in to the lab at 6am, completely fasted and hydrated and having a cannula put in and blood drawn. Then we were given a standard breakfast, equal to 2g of carbs/ kg of body weight. This was followed by more blood draws for a couple hours before the cannula came out and we did the 25km tempo. Afterwards bloods were done for another hour until we were finally allowed to eat (around 1pm). They were looking at the blood lipids to get a baseline as well as your standard hemoglobin and iron etc...
I have nothing to say here… other than I successfully put a tiny piece of my poop into a small jar. Go me! This part of the study was looking at changes to our microbiome (the bacteria we have in our gut) as a result of the different diets we were on.
After all that testing was done it was time to start my High Fat diet! This was a very daunting thing for me, as I'm a pretty picky and simple eater. But I promised myself I would embrace the opportunity and try not to be fussy (to a certain extent). It is really hard to complain when your meals are being prepared by a professional chef… even if they lack carbs.
Here was what our diet looked like for the 3 weeks.
There were session that we all had to do. These were key sessions were we would be measuring RPE, blood lactate, glucose and ketones. Then to individualize it for the differences in how each athlete trains there were a number of optional sessions to add extra volume. The schedule was as follows:
- Monday: AM: 10-14km easy; PM 8-10x1km on 6:30 cycles
- Tuesday: AM: 10-14km; Gym; PM optional training
- Wednesday: AM: Long walk (25-40km); PM: optional
- Thursday: AM: easy 10km; Gym; PM optional
- Friday: AM: Stromlo (14km hill with 400m incline from top to bottom); PM: 10km
- Saturday: AM: Long walk (25-45km); PM: Optional
- Sunday: Off/ optional
That first week of training was incredibly hard. The first couple days weren't so bad as my body was relying on the stored glycogen I had left over in my muscle and liver… So Thursday's easy walks weren't bad and Friday's hill session actually went really well. I had taken King of the Mountain honours in my first Stromlo attempt, but it had come at a cost. I was now fully depleted of carbs. From here on out it was up to fat to fuel me through my workouts. Subsequently, Saturday was one of the hardest workouts I have ever done. What should have been an easy 30km in 2:32 turned into a death march, actually collapsing at the finish. But I had gotten through it, it was an important step for me as I considered dropping out after just 10km. That workout set the precedent for the rest of the study, no matter how hard the workout, I was going to get through it!
With that mindset and some adaptation seemingly taking place the next week went surprisingly well. Monday was a fairly decent 10x1km session. On the high fat diet I assumed going in that my high intensity workouts would suffer the most, and while this workout wasn't the same quality I'd expect during a normal training block, I was pleasantly surprised with how well I did do, and that I managed to get my HR above 185BPM. Wednesday was another 30km, in virtually the same time only 100x easier. Friday's Stromlo was slower and it was a very challenging workout, but again I was happy with even being able to work at the intensity I was at. Saturday I stretched it out to 40km and managed to ignore my watch most of the way and was shocked with being able to walk 3:18! And it actually felt pretty easy, considering I've never gone that far without taking in carbs along the way. I finished that first full week of the diet off with 166km and while my walks were definitely slower and a little tougher than they'd have normally been, I was happy with it and starting to think there might be something in this high fat thing after all.
My next 10x1km session was faster than last week, but it did not feel good. After 4 reps my lactate was up over 10 and I was struggling. Again I was very happy with my perseverance and somehow managed to blast out a 3:50 last rep. Wednesday I had hoped for 40km again but on a 12.5km loop, stopping at 37.5 is just TOO tempting. Especially when everyone else is finished their workout. But again I was under 5:00min/k's and very happy with the workout, even though it felt tough.
Then Friday happened. Going up Stromlo I cracked. I was 6min slower up the 14km hill than I was the previous weeks. I felt like I was broken. There was no ability to push myself. I just felt like someone had flipped the off switch. My easy walk that afternoon was 10km covered in a shade under 59min… my slowest ever 10km! Determined to make up for such a blunder, Saturday I stretched it out to 42.5km passing the marathon mark in just over 3:30. it was slow, but I was happy to end the week on a happy note, with 8km in the afternoon it was my first 50km day of training for the year and helped me get to 181km on the week.
As we entered the last week and with post testing looming we still had 1 more 10x1km session to get through. And just like Stromlo on Friday, I had nothing! I only managed 42:20 for the 10km, a pedestrian time by my standards. Then on Wednesday we started our post-testing (while remaining on the high fat diet).
Overall training on the diet: I found that while I was getting in very good volume, the quality was definitely down on what I would normally train at. That said it wasn't hugely different, and it was better than I had expected going in. The biggest changes I noticed were in my perception of effort. Even if workouts were done at a similar speed, they felt way tougher on this diet. And right from the start. In the 40k workouts, I would start to feel off 10km in and while I would never feel worse, none of the workouts ever felt good. For that reason, even if this were to be a diet that showed performance gains, I don't know if I could adhere to it if it meant that training was never going to feel good.
DEXA Body Comp
One major change that happened over the 3 weeks was a substantial weight loss. Entering the camp at around 68kg, I dropped down to 64kg on the last day of the diet. Being on a diet where our kcal are strictly controlled definitely had an impact on this. There were certainly times on this diet where I felt extremely hungry, this was partly mental because gram per gram fat has more calories so portion sizes were much smaller, but some was also because they had me on a net deficit for the week as my weight goal was to lose a little bit. Some of this weight was due to the lack of glycogen in the liver and muscles (and the subsequent water that is stored with it). But as the DEXA showed, I also lost over 2kg of fat. Dropping from 12% down to 9% (still room for improvement, but a good place to be at this point in the season, as I wouldn’t want to be at 5% for more than a couple weeks). It is weird to think that eating a diet of 80% fat that I could actually lose 2kg of fat… but there you go! The day after the diet ended (I may have pigged out at first opportunity) I was back to 68, and I've hovered around 67-68 ever since.
VO2max is measured relative to body weight. So having dropped 2-3kg from pre and post testing certainly had an impact. That said, a 6ml/kg/min increase up to 75ml/kg/min was an unexpected result. As much as it would be good to attribute this to the diet I was on, I think 3 weeks of hard training played a major roll in this increase. There were some other interesting results in this test. Respiratory Exchange Ratio is a number than can be used as an indication of metabolism, with numbers above 1 indicating anaerobic energy contributions (typically see numbers around 1.15 at max). I think mine maxed out at .94 which is an indication that while my VO2max actually improved, my ability to work anaerobically may have been compromised. The one difference, that I alluded to earlier, was the perception of effort. You can see here that even though the numbers in the sub-max tests are better, the RPE (or perceived exertion) is higher, indicating that I felt like I was working harder. This gave some objective evidence to back up what I had subjectively been feeling that workouts just generally felt harder, even if they were being done at a good pace.
The real big test was going to be to see how I performed on the post-test time trial. After my terrible speed session on Monday I was a little worried about how this would go. Once the race started though I settled in nicely and found a good pace. As the race went on I was able to progressively pick it up. Inaki had gone straight to the front and was never in danger of losing, but each lap I was closing in on Brendon in 3rd behind Rhydian. By 9km I was able to catch Brendon and surge ahead for 3rd but my time was 25sec slower than the pre-test, despite 3 weeks of really good training and an increase in my VO2max. Brendon and Rhydian (both on Carb based diets) actually recorded PB's and Inaki saw a big improvement in his time as well, despite worse racing conditions. All in all though I was still really surprised and happy to have walked 41:25 without basically minimal carbs for 3 weeks.
The final workout on fat! This one was tough. I was able to roll around the 25km slightly quicker than the first time around (averaging 4:39km's) but it was significantly harder both perceptually and in my HR's. Still though, to have finished in this time on this diet is impressive and better than I thought I would have been able to do coming in.
One not very surprising outcome of this study was that my cholesterol went up. And it was already fairly high to begin with. Luckily HDL is generally good cholesterol and these numbers are nothing to worry too much about. But I wonder what would happen if this were a diet I were to adopt chronically. It was also nice to see improvements in my hemoglobin (although this number is influenced by hydration). Because we had stopped all our supplements during the study we weren't surprised to see iron go down. Im not working hard with my supplementation to get it back up before the January camp, but it is good to know that most of it went to producing some more hemoglobin!
Coming into this diet my expectations weren't very high. I thought on the longer easier stuff I would manage well but would really suffer on the hard stuff. I found with the 40km walks the quality was actually pretty good, but still well below what I would do in a race. The speed sessions as well were significantly better than I thought they would be, and I was still able to get my HR up to max. But still none of the workouts felt like they were better than they normally are with carbs. And from a performance standpoint I don't feel like I gained any advantage other than that of a hard 3 week block of training.
From my experience this isn't an intervention that I would use chronically. But I could definitely see some merit into building this into a periodized training program. For example in base season when it is primarily high volume, low intensity if there are adaptations that come from this diet, then going on it for 6 weeks during this part of the season could be advantageous… so long as when you go back onto carbs for competition season the adaptations you made persist/ don't hinder your ability to use carbs. I don't know nearly enough to say whether I think this is the case or not. Also adopting the PCHO idea of having some workouts that you do with low carb availability makes a lot of sense to me. It creates an additional training stress to adapt to but it is acute.
As for competing on a diet like this, I think our event (50km- the longest on the athletics schedule) is still too high of an intensity, i.e. carbs are still the predominant fuel used, for a high fat diet to be advantageous. I think it is of greater importance to train your body to more readily use ingested carbs (i.e. training your body to take in up to 90g/ hr of CHO) than to try and teach it to go without any.
Training Back on Carbs:
The last couple weeks since going back on to carbs have been amazing. While I'm a little upset that my weight immediately shot up again. Training has been going fantastically and I am cruising through workouts with some of the best HR's for a given pace that I've ever had. It is validation that the 3 weeks of hard training has left me in really good shape. Last Tuesday I did a fartlek of 7x1km hard w/ 400m easy float and a hard 200m at the end to make it 10km, and I was actually quicker than I was in my 10km post-test time trial!
The best part, was pigging out on food of my choice (mostly pasta, pancakes and lots and lots of ice cream)
Tomorrow (December 13th) is my last race of the 2015 season. The Australian 50km Champs. Because of how good I've been feeling, I still don't know what my plan is for this. Originally I was going to treat it as a training race and try to build the last 20km. But now that I feel so good, I might take a crack at going hard, because I have so few chances to race 50km. I don't think I'll make my decision until the gun goes! But stay tuned to twitter (@evandunfee) for live updates from that race. And be sure to check out the pre-race write up here: (link to come)
After that Inaki and I head to Christchurch for a few days roaming around New Zealand's south island, before I go and join some of my extended family in Auckland for a Kiwi Christmas.
In the New Year we start phase 2 of the nutrition study with 3 more weeks exactly like before, but on a different diet. That will be followed by the Australian 20km Nationals at the end of Feb before coming home for a bit before the year gets really crazy, prepping for Rio!
If you made it this far; gold star!