Wednesday, 7 December 2016

The Tank Tracks - Fuelled by Fat

About 2 miles from my home is a rather odd path up a hill with no name. There’s a grand view from the top. Locals refer to this path as The Tank Tracks. This is a reference to the fact that it was created and graded by the army during the second world war.

The path runs for one kilometre in a mostly straight line up an even sloped hill. The grading is largely crumbled away now but most of the path is still firm all year round and this makes it the easiest local path by which to ascend to the ridge of the South Downs.
Two views from almost the same spot taken 66 years apart.

Perhaps it is the quirky name, or possibly its ease of use but this path has become an attraction for runners near and far.  Local running groups meet at the bottom or jog out from the nearby villages of Hassocks, Keymer and Ditchling and use it for a lung-busting hill climb. The route is especially popular with the local group "We Run! Hassocks" and many local runners have experienced their first proper hill run here.

It can take a novice 10 to 15 minutes to climb the 130 vertical meters from the gate at the bottom to the signpost at the top. Elite runners have been attracted to the route as well; the current record of 5 minutes and 6 seconds is held by Maximilian Nicholls from Tonbridge Athletics Club who also holds Strava records for climbing Snowdon!

Before I took up hill running I used to stand on the platform at Hassocks Station and look up at the local hills and think “I should be able to run up there”. You can see the line taken by the Tank Tracks from the platform.  So I took up running and sure enough after a few weeks I was running up there. And I have been running up there for 12 years now and I’ve probably run this path over 100 times since then. It was particularly useful in the winters of 2008 and 2011 when I was training for the 
3 Peaks Fell Run as it allowed me to build up my stamina for mountain running no matter what the state of the countryside. I put down a respectable PB of 7:10 back then.

There are nicer paths by which to reach the South Downs Way, and there are certainly harder ones; the best is probably the path from Clayton Rec to Jack and Jill Windmills, and the hardest is probably the direct route up Ditchling Beacon from the lower car park. However the great appeal of the Tank Tracks is its reliability in all seasons. I’ve run up there in deep snow, in the dark, in torrential rain and in a howling gale and I’ve never had a trip or fall.  This means that it can be used as a marker of how fit you are. Run up the path as fast as you can and compare it to your best, or your worst, or your average.  Many folks are not the least bit concerned by such things and that is fine, but I often am. When considering a target time for a hilly race I will always have a run up the Tank Tracks to judge how strong I am.

I have lost count of the number of times that friends have exclaimed about the wonderful view from the top of the hill by the signpost. You can see for 40 miles in most directions on a good day. It reveals just how wonderful our local countryside is, and it’s only 2 miles from home.

I am certainly not one of the fastest up the Tank Tracks. In fact I am nearly 2 minutes slower than the record holder. But I might have one claim to Tank Tracks fame; I think I might be the only person to have run it twelve times in one morning, and I am sure that I’m the only one to have done this on a zero carb diet..   

And lastly, having mentioned the diet, I am very pleased to say that last week I beat my PB on the Tank Tracks; for good measure I did it on another local hill as well this week.  

Lots of fitness experts suggest that it is not possible to perform at your best in short distance threshold training or racing when burning fat rather than carbs. I like to think when it comes to 2nd rate runners like myself, I may have proved them wrong.

Monday, 28 November 2016

I worry about a number of things, but I don’t worry that my body is trying to kill me - 7 little-known facts about cholesterol

When I discuss the LCHF diet with friends, family and increasingly with my clients all over the world, the conversation generally goes like this:
  1. I describe the diet and it’s effect on obesity and type 2 diebetes.
  2. I talk about running on fat.
  3. I talk about the fear of fat.
And it is always at stage 3 that things get difficult. We have an ingrained fear of fat, and saturated fat in particular. The way I try to get past this point is what I have coined “My Cholesterol Chat”. But I always fear that I have not got the message across as clearly or as simply as I ought be able to.

Here is a great post from Zoe Harcombe that does just that.

A simple summary which I shall use from now on goes like this:
  1. Cholesterol is of vital importance to every cell in our body. It is a good thing.
  2. It is so important that we make it ourselves, we do not get it directly from the cholesterol in food.
  3. There is no such thing as ‘good’ or ‘bad’ cholesterol. HDL and LDL are just the transport mechanism by which it is distributed from and returned to the liver.
  4. If you lower the amount of fat in your blood (for example be losing weight on any diet) then LDL tends to be raised. Why would losing weight be bad for us?
  5. Statins prevent the body from making cholesterol; this thing that is vital to every cell in our body! It is now clear that the tiny number of already ill people who do benefit from taking statins do so not because of the way it lowers cholesterol but more likely due to the way it combats inflammation. Aspirin does the same thing, but without the side-effects.
  6. Eating animal foods has no impact on cholesterol levels; please stop worrying about saturated fat!
  7. Lastly, consider this: Who is gaining from this whole business if the increased lifespan of the tiny number of people who do benefit from taking statins can be measured in days?
Zoe’s summary is perfect:

“The body makes cholesterol. I worry about a number of things, but I don’t worry that my body is trying to kill me.”

Monday, 5 September 2016

Can I run as fast on fat as on carbs?

I was watching the diamond league athletics on the telly last night and wondering, could I still run 400 meters in under a minute? When I was a boy I had a PB of 55 seconds. And 4 years ago pre-LCHF I clocked 62 seconds after an ill-advised bet with with my son; could I still get anywhere close to that?

The stock answer to the question "Can I run as fast on fat as on carbs" tends to be that the fastest runners are all fuelled primarily by glycogen, not fat. This may be true, particularly as they all tend to be young and insulin-sensitive; they are suited to running fast on carbs. Most of us are neither of these.

But where is the line between carb-speed and fat-speed? According to Tim Noakes this line is probably only a few minutes back from the leaders of a Marathon, or a few seconds for a 10K.

And so the number of people for who the stock answer applies is actually tiny. Look at the details of elite low-carb runners and you will see that they run sub-2:30 marathons and 30 minute 10ks. How many people do you know who can do that?

What I hope I have proved on this blog is that for everybody else it is possible to train ourselves to run just as fat on fat as we could on carbs. See this post for lots more detail on how we can train our bodies to run fast on fat.

Perhaps there is a competitive advantage to the shorter, faster races from burning carbs, but again, how many people does this apply to? Unless you are a track running member of an athletics club or still at school then it is very unlikely that you will ever run a fast 400 meter or mile race again (I'd put the parents race on sports day in a separate category here!). In which case this advantage is of no consequence, you could run just as fast on fat as you could on carbs.

And so the big question should really be, why would I want to run on fat?

Well my answer to this question comes in two parts:
  • As a runner I am much happier and feel more consistently energised when burning fat. I also don't have to carry anything on long runs which is rather nice.
  • As a human I am convinced that the older I get the more suseptible I will become to insulin resistance and the risk of obesity or diabetes is just too great.
And as for the standing quarter in under a minute. I am confident that I'll do this down at the track one evening this autumn.

Tuesday, 12 July 2016

24 hours of Endurance

I haven’t been posting much lately. Minor injuries led me to withdraw from the Brighton Half and full marathons this spring and so I have been focussing on something a bit different, a 24-hour relay. Our village running club We Run! Hassocks entered 4 teams into the Endure 24 event, a 24 hour relay over a 5 mile course. We entered one team of eight, two teams of five and a solo. I was to be in a team of 5.
We Run! Hassocks
There are a number of firsts for me here; running at night, camping and running, running with little or no sleep and running at a decent pace several times over a long period. Previous experience at the South Downs Way Relay was useful but that was with a bigger team and much less distance. We reckoned that the faster team of five might complete perhaps 7 laps each. I have not run this distance in a single day for over 6 years now.

Once again I figured that energy intake was to be the key factor determining my ability to keep running at the same pace over a 24 hour period. There is no real difference here between running on fat or carbs but with fat having more energy in I reckoned I’d not be needing to eat so much as the others and hence I ought to be able to feul a little more comfortably.  Another issue was to be that one of our team would not arrive until 10 pm as she had a wedding to attend; so with less than 3 hours between each run I’d need to get some food down pretty quickly after each one, including during the night when I am not used to eating at all.

Part of the fun of these events is the camping. Our gang of 20 or so had camper cans, a caravan, a mess test and several smaller tents, all bunched up together amongst thousands of other runners and a 5 minute walk from the start/finish area. Many of the gang got there on the Friday and made camp. They had a jolly social evening but an early bed-time. I did not get back from working in Paris until the Friday night and arrived shortly before the start of the race on Saturday lunchtime.

I had had to curtail a run in Paris on the previous Tuesday after a pain in the thigh after just 5 miles, so I was feeling anxious as to whether I could complete the challenge and desperate not to let the team down. The weather was expected to be warm with a high chance of severe rain!  I’d packed for the worst, including full rain gear and 5 running shirts. 
Up the long hill on lap 1
Up the long hill on lap 2

My first run was lap 2. Like Nick before me I went off rather faster than I had planned. I had figured I ought to be able to keep going at 40 minutes per lap, or 8 mph for each of my laps but I ran the first in just over 35.  I spent most of the time worrying about my leg and not watching my speed, but I was pleased that everything felt fine and was not too tired when I headed back to camp after exchanging the team wristband. Then I made a big mistake, after a quick stretch I sat down and ate, and rested; and after an hour or so my right leg was as stiff as a plank. I hobbled around a bit and nothing improved. I hobbled to the start of lap 6 and nothing improved. I felt like I was going to be unable to run and I’d let everyone down already.

I started lap 6 at walking pace with my leg hurting, but when I broke into a jog things got better. After 5 minutes I was up to cruising speed and feeling fine. It’s all well and good “listening to your body” but when it is telling you the wrong thing sometimes you just have to force the issue.  Lap 6 turned out to be quite quick; I even took 2nd fastest time of the year on one small Strava segment.

From then on I kept moving, not sitting down for more than a few minutes at a time and gently massaging my legs frequently for the next 20 hours. The stiffness never came back.

Laps 10 and 14 went well. I felt strong and kept having to remind myself to slow down.

Now I was starting to feel tired. Not so much from the running but from the time of day. I am not a night owl and I generally want to be in bed by 11, but I didn’t want to seize up again so I forced myself to stay awake with coffee and conversation. The other runners were coming and going from the mess tent throughout the night and so there was always someone to chat to. At midnight we made coffee for Janna our solo runner who came in for a rest after completing her first 10 laps.

A team of 1
A team of 1!
Lap 19 was my first ever night run. I’d been obsessing about my head torch which always slips off but one of the gang suggested I use a running cap to support it. This worked well and I also carried a powerful hand torch that I had bought for a tenner off ebay the previous week. I expected to run much slower in the dark but as soon as I got moving I felt fresh again in the cooler night air and the route was lit-up my my lights and those of the others around me. 

There are several very fast teams in this event and I was used to being overtaken perhaps four or five times on each lap by faster runners. On the night-time run I was rather chuffed not to be overtaken at all.  Despite the need to tread carefully, particularly in the woody sections, I managed the lap in 39 minutes.

Our fifth team member had turned up by now and she very kindly did 2 laps in a row twice at night in order for us to rest a bit more. Unfortunately one of the team had to pull out after four laps and so we were back to a team of four.  I tried to sleep for a couple of hours but I think I was too wired to rest. I was up again at 4 a.m for my next lap at 5. Dawn was breaking and there was a double rainbow over the woods as I headed off on lap 25. This meant rain. But thankfully the forcast storms didn’t materialise and we just got a few comfortable drizzly showers during the rest of the day. Again I felt strong although I’d not slept now for 24 hours. I may have been a little weary but I didn’t feel any lack of energy.

My contribution to the group camping was to cook breakfast bacon for everyone. I topped up on fat with eggs and creamy coffee and felt strong. Over breakfast we did the maths and realised that we were on time for completing 34 laps. This meant 8 laps each for the slightly faster runners. 40 miles!

It’s interesting how the mind works; during the night I had been thinking “just 2 more laps after this one”, but when it came round to each lap I was ready to go and I know that I could do more if needed.

Lap 29 went similarly well. There was just the one point on each lap that I rather dreaded. “Heartbreak Hill” as it was termed lay 3 miles into the route, it is just a 30 meter climb but it’s sharp and hard on the quads. By now I was one of very few people still  running up this hill and I was determined that I ought to be able to do so on every lap. It did hurt though. Luckily I had sussed out the route and my plan for each lap was to start out gently up the long hill, speed up for the next 2 miles, take it easy up heartbreak hill and then go fast back down to the finish. The route was on tarmac, gravel paths, grass paths and a little rough woody path.  I think that the mixture of terrain and pacing helps dispel the monotony and helps the legs too.

One more lap to go. For a while we wondered if by pushing harder for the last 4 laps we might get in just under 24 hours and get another lap done, but we realised that this was not on, so we relaxed; we each had plenty of time to complete our last lap. I intended to go more slowly, honestly! But as soon as I got going after a slow climb to the top of that first hill the love of competing took over again.

I tend to run slower than some uphill and faster than most downhill in order to maintain an even effort just below my VO2 max.  A young chap raced past me on the hill but didn’t really pull away, and that to me represents an unavoidable challenge!  I sped up slowly on the flat and downhill sections and passed him before Heartbreak Hill, and then I didn’t see him again. I still felt good and I was nearly home now, so I raced back down the hill to the finish where I handed over to Helen to run the last lap. I didn’t need to race; there was no one fast to race against and it made no difference to anything, but I enjoyed it immensely all the same. 

Finishing fast
Finishing too fast?
One of the big rules of running fuelled by fat is not to actually run out of glycogen. I’ve talked about even tempo before and it helped me at Beachy Head. The liver can keep making glycogen in small amounts and so if you preserve it your brain should be fine. But burn it all up in one mad dash at the end of running 40 miles and perhaps your brain will complain. Mine did just that.

I had a drink and stood around at the finish smiling for a few minutes but my heart rate did not come down. In fact it rose from about 160 to 180. And I was very hot. That was not good. I had some more drinks and took my vest off to cool down. After 5 minutes I thought I was improving and put my hoodie on, the “Fuelled by FAT” one that I like to wear at events. And then I nearly collapsed. I was stood looking faint and wobbly when some of the gang turned up to watch the12 o’clock  finish. “I know what you need” said Ginnette, “Sugar!”. They all found that rather amusing but she was right. I was marched to the Cliff Bar tent where I had a couple of their fruity jelly fuel cubes and a minute later I was right as rain!  I felt like I’d been in a practical science experiment studying the brain’s dependency on sugar; and it reminded my of the finish at my first  30 miler 10 years ago when the St John’s Ambulance guys dragged me into a van and force fed me sugar and oxygen (they were rather over-zealous I'm sure), or the day I collapsed a mile from the end of the Month Blanc Marathon; brain gone.

It has been a few years but once again I’d hit the wall. Luckliy I hit it and the end of running 40 miles, not 20 miles earlier!  Lesson re-learned though, when running on fat we have to be very careful not to burn out; study your own performance and when running endurance events always run within your current ability; or if you must race at the end of an ultra, then eat a banana first!