Saturday, 4 November 2017

What I am Reading Now

 My current reading diet is mostly inspirational. This is what I need right now, tales of what humans can endure on their own two feet. I just completed the longest event of my life but I still consider myself to be in recovery from earlier injuries. Rest period; I need ideas, motivation.

I’ve been travelling for the last two weeks and on my birthday in Columbus Ohio I was given three books; one each from Jane, Cam and Molly; and they were all about running and mountains. Perhaps this was a signal that it’s OK to carry on where I left off in Cartmel 4 weeks ago. Or perhaps that’s just wishful thinking; we’ll see! 

I stayed on in the states after the family went home and I chose the two paperbacks to read on the planes, leaving the huge glossy hardback for when I got home.

Run or Die – Kilian Jornet

I have known about Kilian Jornet for some years now but this is the first time I have read anything that he has written (or at least read a very well translated version of it). Not only is he an amazing runner and mountaineer but he has an engaging narative style and paints a picture much wider than his incredible achievements.

I was surprised a few weeks back to learn that the husband of one of my wife’s clients has just appeared on Kilian Jornet’s Instagram page.
Dave is a bit of a running and BMF star locally and he knows how to grab attention. He was running at the recent Glencoe festival when Jornet, passing by, snapped a picture of him climbing in a pink tutu!

Jornet clearly loves a story and his book is a great tale of the life of a world class cross country skier and mountain runner.

He asks himself some powerful questions including "why do we run?", and "where do you go when you have surpassed the feats of your idols?" Where do you find inspiration now?  Clearly this will never happen to me but we all need to learn how to re-set our goals. As we grow older we grow slower and it is important to grow wiser, to sometimes look outside the box when setting our new goals. 

Jornet's goals have spread to cover the globe, and his prowess at ski mountaineering has enabled a world of high-altitude possibilities for racing and adventure. Jornet is still a young man and I worry that with his love of danger (just check out his Facebook page!) there may only be an all too familiar one ending to his story. How many of the authors of the mountain adventure books on my shelves are still around to tell their tales?

This book was written a few years back and Jornet is still at it, breaking records (including the fastest ascent of Everest this year) and seemingly smiling all the time. And the very fact that he was there in Glen Coe smiling and taking photos of pink Dave from Sussex and posting that on his page suggests to me that he is on a relatively sound path forwards.

Running Man – Charlie Engle

Charlie is an alcoholic, an addict; and he is a world class ultra runner. Right away this book got my attention. I often struggle to answer the question of why I run, why it is that I will happily go out and endure discomfort and pain for several hours at a time. Once or twice I have described it as an addiction, but never having been addicted to anything else I was not sure that the description was a fair one. Now I am.

A good book about running is often not really about running at all, it is about some other struggle, some other story. Running is just the medium through which the tale is told.  This is true for Running Man. Right from the start we know that Charlie is no ordinary athlete; he wanted to be great at everything he tried and he longed for recognition from those he admired; on failing to achieve this recognition he turned to alcohol and become a recognized champion at that instead.  

I have not read a better account of addiction to alcohol and drugs, of the way it affects the individual and all those around. Maybe it is the fact that Charlie consistently returns to running as a form of salvation that attracts me to him – surely many people would right him off as a looser from the start and perhaps only because I know where the story is going I force myself to listen to the depths of depravity and desperation that he seems incapable of escaping, despite its effects on family, career and friends and Charlie himself. I wanted Charlie’s escape to come sooner but he kept sinking lower, at times I almost wept for his mother, his kids and for him.

I have never really understood how Alcoholics Anonymous works. Now I do and I have learned an important lesson. Charlie has not drunk for 20 years but I understand that he is still an addict, and there are times when only another addict can understand the torments that he still encounters and help him to face up to them.

As a side note it was interesting to learn that Charlie was one of the very few people to be jailed as a result of the housing crisis that hit the US in the first few years of this century. Not for miss-selling mortgages (as so many bankers were happy to do and were not jailed for it) but because his accountant lied on a mortgage application form.  In spite of this awful injustice he used his time in prison well and when he couldn't run in the Badwater Marathon he ran the 136 miles with 540 laps of the prison track instead.

In the end escape did come, in  the form of an addiction to adventure running (a bit like ultra running but harder). Only something so incredible as running across the Sahara was enough to replace to hold that drugs had on an otherwise well loved and respected man.

Now I am looking forward to reading the glossy hardback Running Beyond by Ian Corless

Closing off a neat circle this book, with a foreword by Kilian Jornet is chock-full of great photos and descriptions of Ultra racing.

It was just such a book that last Christmas got me interested in running another big Ultra, and it was Ian’s photography, particularly of runners descending Halls Fell Ridge on Blencathra, that fired my enthusiasm for the Lakes In A Day race. He was there in the clouds taking pictures again 4 weeks ago but I was too busy watching my footing to smile for the camera!

Time to pour a glass of red wine, put my feet up and dream….

Monday, 9 October 2017

Train Low Race High - The Lakes In A Day Ultra

In all of the events that I have run since starting on the Low-Carb High-Fat diet I have set out to show what can be achieved when competing on very low carbs.  I have run my fastest off-road marathon on almost nothing but fat and I have successfully trained at very high intensity on a low-carb diet. But I am also aware that many proponents of the diet actually rely on carbohydrates to fuel the prolonged high intensity work that often comes when competing.

I hoped that with good pacing I could stay within my fat-burning zone (perhaps 80% of my VO2 max) for the time taken to run a fast marathon. And I think I have proved that I can. But some events place unavoidably high demands on your strength and endurance; mountain running is a good example.

When I entered a 50 mile Ultra across the Lake District National Park I was under no illusion that I could do it carb-free. The ascents would be long and grueling and would doubtless have me burning glycogen whether I liked it or not. So it was time to experiment with Train Low Race High.

You could be forgiven for thinking that this post's title was a reference to the fact that I live in Sussex where the hills rise to a mighty 250 meters above sea level, somewhat lower than the Lake District peaks I would be running over, but that's almost as far as I'll go with that metaphor, much as I like it!

So here is an account of the longest race of my life and my approach to nutrition.

Last Saturday morning at 8 a.m. I stood on the start line of the hardest event that I have ever entered. It had been a long road to get there and I had no idea if I was going to finish it, but I was determined to try my hardest.

Last Christmas Jane gave me a book entitled "50 Races to Run Before You Die", and brimming with confidence I entered The Lakes In A Day Ultra a 50 mile event that traverses the Lake District from north to south by way of nearly 4,000 meters of mountains.

I've always wanted to run a long one in The Lakes and being fighting fit at the time I laid down my plans in the depths of winter; perhaps I could finish inside 13 hours. That would be something special. Then in February I injured my knee and could not run properly for the next 7 months. If you are a regular reader of this blog you may have wondered why there have been so few posts this year, and the truth is that there has been almost nothing to write about!

I've spent a lot of time this year cycling and walking, and slowly building some jogging into my walks. I completed a 100 mile bike ride in 5.5 hours. I knew that I was fit but would I be able to run? 

Sometimes a little gentle jogging worked and sometimes the pain returned. The consultant looked at an MRI  scan and said rest, and so from May I rested from running completely for 3 months. The training plan changed and there was no room for any more injuries, but it still looked sort-of achievable, perhaps. 

All of my endurance walking was completed on a low-carb strategy. This included several 20-30-mile walks on just eggs & bacon for breakfast and a few bottles of water. 

The essence of Train Low Race High is to train your body to burn fat as effectively as possible and then add carbohydrates at the last minute to give you more power just when you need it. Adding carbs earlier or relying on them entirely would leave me susceptible to bonking into The Wall. I was sure that I could go all day on fat, I just needed a top-up for the hard bits.   Only in my last training walk/run did I experiment with an energy drink just to learn if my stomach could tolerate it. It's been a few years since I used an energy drink and I look back on Powerade and the like with some distaste. The Tailwind drink was not so bad as I'd feared so into the bag it went.

In France on holiday I learned more about how far I could push my injury on longer walks. After an hour or so my right knee would hurt a little, but after easing up the pain would subside and I'd be good for several more hours with no problems afterwards. I also figured that for a 50-mile mountain event "walk/run" was a pretty good strategy. There is no way that most entrants would be running more than half or even a third of the event and approaching it as a walk with a bit of running rather than a run with a lot of walking made good sense to me. I certainly put the miles in, the only thing missing was the altitude. As I mentioned before Sussex is not blessed with mountains and so my long walks had a lot of ups and Downs.

A typical training walk/run on the South Downs
I hit my reduced training targets in the nick of time without having run for more than 4 miles at a time since April. I was concerned by this of course but I drove up to Cumbria with Jane just hoping to finish the event at all. Above all else I was determined to enjoy it.

Jennings Ale - The fuel of champions!
In the two days before the event I started adding more carbs to my usual low-carb diet. Mostly in the form of bread and potatoes. The night before the race I enjoyed a couple of pints of Jennings in the pub at Caldbeck - it is a fell-run after all! Breakfast was an energy drink, a big bacon bap and a bowl of Alpen.  I carried 3 sachets of Tailwind energy powder and planned to scoff pizza, flapjacks and soup in the 3 feed stations along the way.  

Ready to roll
The first half was brutal. 27 miles, 2,500 meters of mountains, driving rain, a horrendous wind on the high tops and deep bogs on anything remotely flat. It had me cold and wet in the first two hours. I couldn't fault my Haglöfs jacket, OMM shorts or Salomons. But in order to keep warm I had to keep moving quickly.

I had planned not to take the direct route down from Blencathra as I feared for my knees, but the longer easier route was directly into the wind for the first mile; there was only one way down. There were queues of nervous runners inching their way down Hall's Fell ridge. 

Looking down Halls Fell Ridge to Threlkeld on a good day
It's not the steepest ridge but it's up there with them and a fall would have been serious. The wind was in our faces one moment and on our backs the next, not good on steep wet rock. We were all on all-fours on the steepest sections. Luckily I've done this sort of thing a few times before. I took a few risks to overtake the crowds and my knees held firm. 

Seeing Jane at the aid station at Threlkeld was a welcome sight. I refilled my drink, ate a quick ham&cheese roll and a flapjack and I was off. Only another 40 miles to go!

I then broke a walking pole crossing a slatted wooden bridge and had to manage the 17-mile Helvellyn range with one pole. All of my training has been with my lightweight Black Diamond carbon z-poles and so the ascent of Clough Head was all the harder with only one. I was working as hard as I could for 45 minutes. Taking turns with the remaining pole my arms were hurting badly; even so I was ascending faster than everyone around me.

Surprisingly when I got onto the long Dodds ridge I was able to run a good deal up there; it was bleak and I just wanted to get down! The wind picked up more with the altitude and being on a west-facing ridge - it was gusting well over 70 miles per hour and the horizontal rain was stinging our faces.  I ran with a group of about 10 others and we all seemed desperate not to get left behind; visibility was very poor and at times it was scary up there! Looking at the GPS tracker playback of the event I can see that several runners made some big mistakes on the ridge. Luckily I knew the route reasonably well and with just my compass I made a few good choices when the others were fetching their maps out. That kept me in touch. My running was slower but my climbing was faster. Then my left knee started hurting badly on the descents and I feared that I would have to stop. I got left behind on Helvellyn and I was very slow heading down to Grisedale tarn. I was hobbling, hurting and on my own. I felt low on energy but perhaps more from the cold than from the running.

Just beyond Fairfield I bumped into a lady who had fallen and was dazed. This was a section that I've never done before; she had but at first she didn't recognise anything. We soon got moving slowly but we were heading up when I hoped that we should be going down! Luckily she remembered the up, and I trusted the compass and I stayed with her until we both knew that we were not lost. As it happens we were both on the right route the whole time. By now I was shivering badly. Just checking the compass meant having to stop and get colder still. On the decent she passed me as I was hobbling and cursing. This section of the route took an hour longer than expected. I'd finished my energy drink and was  feeling very low. What made it worse was that there was no one else around. But I remembered that there was no one in sight either ahead or behind me as I had been ascending Fairfield.

I was about ready to give up at Ambleside when Jane appeared out of nowhere high up on the ridge above Sweden Crag with a fresh pair of  Z-Poles and a big smile. And just at this time the clouds parted to the south and we shared one of the classic Lake District views over Windermere. That did it for me, I was determined to go on.

First smile in 15 miles
The loss of 800 meters of altitude and a few slices of hot pizza at the food station in Ambleside warmed me up nicely. I soon felt strong again and I set out on the second half with a spring in my step. My knee was getting much better now that I was away from the rocky descents and I was soon able to run again.

The sun went down and it felt like I was on the home straight (albeit a 24 mile one). I knew the way alongside the lake and through the forests after walking this section on a family holiday at Easter. The sky was clear and a full moon rose over Windermere; a beautiful sight.

The lake was full too and at times I had to wade through it as the path skimmed the shore. Oddly this was a pleasure as it soothed my feet and I soon warmed up again from the constant effort. Jane met me three more times with encouragement and the miles flew by. 

Despite not having trained at night I was happy to be on my own in the dark. No one passed me in the second half and my energy levels were still high. I can't shake off my competitive spirit and it felt good to be steadily passing people. Even the incessant mud was not a big problem, with two poles I was able to stride confidently through it.  I think it’s fair to say that I ran (or at least jogged) everything that was runable in the last 20 miles of the race.

Two cups of soup and a sausage roll at the last aid station and I was off again into the moonlit mudfest; the bog was up to my knees in places.  When I finally hit the lanes I ran the last 2 miles down into Cartmel at 11 O’clock with a big grin on my face and half a bottle of energy drink left in my sack. 

It had been a wild adventure. I was down an hour and a half on my target time for the first half but the second half was as quick as I had expected (and nearly 2 miles longer!) and I finished in 15 hours; inside the top 20%. There was cheering from folks outside the pubs and I ran through the village like I was finishing a 5-miler. Such a great way to finish my first Lakeland Ultra after 8 months of pain and doubt.

Still smiling!
The organisation for the event was impeccable. The marshals were great, popping up in the most unexpected places; the aid stations were packed with good food and good cheer and the whole atmosphere was perfect.

On the day I estimate that I consumed between 2,000 and 3,000 calories (I'm not one for counting), mostly in the form of carbohydrates and mostly in the first half of the event. This compares to the 9,600 calories that Strava estimates that I used over 15 hours. I was able to deal with the mountainous first half with the aid of some glycogen and I was able to keep going strongly in the second half due to my long-term adaptation to fat-burning. This is not a proof of anything but the Train Low Race High strategy appears to have worked very well for me.

Thanks Jane, for putting me up to this challenge and seeing me through it!

Here is the Strava Route Profile

Saturday, 30 September 2017

The Long Road to Caldbeck

It’s been another strange year for running and me. Much like last year I was injured in the spring and couldn’t take part in the Brighton Marathon. I have not made the start line for 5 of the last 6 classic Brighton road races and the 6th was cancelled due to high winds!  

I picked up an injury training for the Brighton half and it persisted for a lot longer this time; I ignored the warning signs and suffered badly when I had to hobble home in pain one weekday lunchtime during a light jog around the village.  After several false and painful re-starts an MRI scan in May showed the problem to be fissuring of the patella cartilage which make your knee look like cracked mozzarella (on the inside that is) and does not mend quickly.

Mozzarella Knee
Luckily my first big target for the year was the Prudential London-Surrey Ride 100 cycling event at the end of July and despite not being able to run I could cycle pain-free.  Also I was unemployed for two months in April and May so I was able to get stuck into my training in a big way four months from the event. Regular long rides around Mid-Sussex enabled me to ensure that my ‘hopeful’ target of six hours for the 100 mile ride was an achievable one. I have never ridden this far on roads before (the South Downs way is almost 100 miles but it’s off-road and it took more than twice this time) and I wanted to ride the 100 miles without stopping, so nutrition was a big focus of my attention while training.

The temptation to run kept calling, but each time I tried, even for a 1 mile jog, the pain would return. So I decided not to run at all from late May through to our annual camping holiday in August. That was hard. I love running!  Luckily the cycling got better and better and I approached the 100 mile event in a cloud of excitement and trepidation. The roads were closed and there was a big field, and not having ridden in a group for more than a few miles before I had no idea what the excitement and the drafting effect might do to my speed and endurance.
Waiting for Le Depart
I started from the Olympic Park in Stratford on time with 24,000 other riders and had the best day out that I have had for years. Drafting was easy with no fear of red-lights or dash-outs. No one got too close and I probably spent half the time on someone’s wheel and half with someone on mine. I felt strong at the start of the hill climbs that come after 65 miles and cruised up Leith Hill and Box Hill with bags of energy in store. 

I had originally intended to ride on very low carbs for the day, much like my recent marathon runs but during training rides I had felt tired after 4-5 hours and decided that ‘train low, race not-so-low’ was a fine approach, limiting myself to a pair of Cliff Bars cut into chunks and stored in my frame pack so that I could get at them easily on the move. The day was not too warm and surprisingly I managed the whole ride on just two standard size water bottles. I didn’t felt thirsty until after I’d finished. I probably consumed about 600 calories of carbs during the day including eggs & bacon for breakfast and perhaps the same in total in the 3 days leading up to the event; this compares favorably with the 2-3,000 calories that is generally recommended to get you through a 100 miler.

Much like my experiences running marathons as a fat-burner my energy levels remained high all day. The last 20 miles back into London were fantastic and I rode them at about 22 mph. My average for the whole ride was 18.3 mph, hills and all. This compares rather well with my 18 mph average for a 50 mile training ride just two weeks earlier. No mechanicals, no toilet stops and no accidents all led to a finishing time of 5 hours 30 minutes, which I am very, very pleased with.

My second big target for this year is the Lakes in a Day Ultra. 50 miles of varied peak and forest trails with 4,000 meters of ascent from Caldbeck on the northern border of the Lake District National Park to Cartmel on the southern border, via Blencathra, Clough Head, Helvellyn, Fairfield and the whole length of Windermere.  This is a hard event, a good deal harder than anything I have ever done before and with such a bad knee injury there have been numerous times when I have been sorely tempted to give up on my attempt for this year. I have been living on the knife-edge of a training plan for six months and until 8 a.m. on the 7th of October that’s where I will remain.

I decided that I could train for this event by focusing on long distance walking (which luckily I can do without very much pain) and building in some running from the summer onwards if my knee responded to the period of relative rest from May to August. There was little room for failure here as this left only two months to turn a walking plan into an Ultra plan.

To be clear, no one actually runs all of this 50 mile event; it is a mixture of running where possible and walking on the steeper sections, which make up a large part of the route. The record time of 9 hours 12 minutes was set at an average pace of about 5.4 mph. This may sound slow but remember the 4,000 meters of ascent and decent; the equivalent of scaling Ben Nevis three times. 

Progress was slow in the early summer but I had the 100 mile ride to focus on. My consultant hinted that he could provide a cortisone injection if the pain didn’t recede but he also reminded me that this might lead to a false recovery. Knowing me I’d be tempted to run before I could properly walk and in the long term this approach would probably speed up my inevitable decline. I hope to keep running for a good few years yet and so a proper recovery was clearly the best way forwards, even if it meant not making the start line once again.

As has happened before (see my BHM post) things started to improve during our camping holiday in August. I'm sure that being on my feet all day rather than sat behind a desk is very good for the legs. I managed a little jogging at first and this progressed to a 15-mile walk-run by the end of the fortnight. This together with several brisk long walks of between 20 and 30 miles in length at a pace of 4 mph left me feeling much more positive about my ability to complete. I had hoped to beat 13 hours (if I am fit I normally take the record time and add one third) but my "I’d be happy with this" target of 14 now seemed just about achievable. Although having never walked or run this far before this does leave a lot of scope for error! 

There was pain during the long walks and I’ve spent many hours on the point of packing it in and calling for Uber and a pizza; but often as not the pain would melt away after an hour or two leaving me able to walk happily for another 4 or 5 hours. I’m not suggesting that we should ‘run through the pain’ as many hard-as-nails fell runners would advocate; when the pain comes I slow down, change my gait, have a drink of water or pick some blackberries. The challenge has been more mental than physical, and as we get older I think we get stronger mentally.

I may have mentioned once or twice before that I love running fast and challenging myself. My wife, a personal trainer, often remarks on how most people need someone to motivate them to get their trainers on and do some hard work. But that’s not my problem at all; conversely what I need is someone to hold me back. With typical over-enthusiasm I returned from France with a desire to burn up the hills in anticipation of the mountains to come in October. As soon as I’d unpacked the trailer I put my Salomon’s on and tore up and down the Tank Tracks 4 times. It felt great, up until 100 yards from the end of the last hill when a tiny prick of pain stabbed my left calf.

Over the following month that prick of pain has receded but only slowly. I’ve cursed my stupid self many times but oddly it may have turned out to be a good thing in the end. The mild pain spreading from a tight ball in my calf has not stopped me from completing a series of brisk 30-mile walks and I’ve thrown in some light running too including an pleasant jog along the 7 Sisters from Cuckmere Haven after 7 hours of brisk walking. 

Cuckmere Haven looking like a watercolour
Without this restraint I may well have started to focus too much on running and not enough on fast walking. Long hill runs require lots of recovery but my target-paced walk/runs are much lighter on the limbs and very much more specific training for what I am hoping to achieve. It’s going to be a long slog but I’ve been slogging it out at about the right pace on a regular basis for several months now. 

When I decided to continue training for this event with a bad knee I set myself a red-line, a target training effort that would decide whether Jane and I would make the long-haul up to Cumbria for a weekend away from the kids and mostly away from each other. I try to be realistic and I like to finish what I set out to achieve. I have DNF'd only twice before and I did not feel good. I want to enjoy this experience and I knew that if I was not in a fit state to perform then there would be little chance of that. Better to be in the garden weeding!

And so in order to go to The Lakes I had to complete a 30 mile route with at least 1,000 meters of hills in under 7 hours with no bad knee pain with at least 3 weeks to go before the event. Ordinarily this would not be such a challenge for me but from where I was sat back in April I clearly had a mountain to climb. A fortnight back, with no time to spare I passed the test and now my bags are packed and ready - despite the fact that I write this post from Portland Oregon! I’ve seen enough of the South Downs Way for this year and now it’s time to head north. 

With one week to go I have just about enough miles in my jet-lagged legs, I have a willing chauffeur (actually Jane put me up to it in the first place), I have the hotels booked, I have the shiny new kit required, I know the route (I receed the second half while on holiday in the Lakes at Easter and I know the first half from the past) and, most importantly it looks like I really will be there on the start line with 450 other runners in Caldbeck on October the 7th.

What could possibly go wrong?

Tuesday, 21 March 2017

PCSK9 Inhibitors - the new way to screw the NHS for every last penny

Did you hear the “Amazing” news about the new generation of Statin drugs that was announced at the weekend? The new PCSK9 inhibitors like Evolocumab are even more effective at lowering LDL cholesterol and according to many this makes them a wonder drug.

The issue with statin trial data was simply a question of whether it is actually valid to rate a drug on a surrogate endpoint such as lowering cholesterol rather than that of saving lives. However the trials for Evolocumab went further than this, they provided real data on the expected outcomes for patients. Great?

It was a surprise to me that these new drugs need to be taken as well as a statin; so the question of the side-effects of statins is still very much alive. Again the advocates such as Professor Rory Collins will claim that the benefits vastly outweigh the side-effects, but this article in Today’s Times puts that argument to the sword.

Put simply, the number of people that need to be prescribed Evolocumab (at more than £10 a day) to prevent one of them having a stroke or heart attack is 74. Yes, 74 people need to take the drug every day for two years, in addition to a statin, to prevent just one of them having a stroke or heart attack.  

Just to repeat, that is 74 people and £540,200 of NHS funds in order to save one stroke or heart attack every 2 years. 

Does that sound like good news to you? Spend that money on dietary intervention and you might prolong hundreds of lives.

Friday, 3 February 2017

Runner's World - A Spoonful of Sugar Keeps the Advertisers Happy

 I have been a subscriber to Runner’s World for about 12 years now. Over the years it has provided much-needed advice and motivation, a little monthly run-envy and the occasional journalistic howler.  Lately the howlers have started to become louder and a little more grating, to the point where my wife, a successful fitness business owner, now regularly asks why we bother with our subscription.  My answer is that I care what the running world looks like, even if I don't always agree with it.
So many promises
This month’s edition includes a six-page blockbuster about the role of sugar in a runner’s diet by the respected coach and nutritional expert Matt Fitzgerald entitled “Sweet Truth”,  and it has really got my goat!
The devil is in the detail!

After a first scan of the article, which reads a lot like like a sales piece for Gatorade, I thought “I wonder who pays his wages”;  but then I saw that actually the article was really just being all things to all people. It rambled around the usual sugar debates and concluded by saying “Don’t worry about sugar, you need it, but you are a runner and you will burn it off”.  Typical stuff, but 6 pages, really?

Unsurprisingly Matt’s article promised to “cut through the hype with a set of Science-Backed Sugar Rules”. I am always intrigued by the term science-backed, particularly in Runners World where the studies quoted are often ridiculously out of tune with the conclusions drawn by scatterbrain journalists. But Matt is chock-full of experience, surely we can expect some hard truths from a top guy like him. Sadly not.

There was a hollow criticism of Gary Taubes (the author of The Case Against Sugar) for "not being a scientist". It would be childish in the extreme of anyone to read this article and simply conclude that Mr Taubes is not qualified to speak on the matter. Character assassination is an ugly thing and Matt seems to have joined the happy brigade who attempt to gain kudos for slagging off other people. 

Then suddenly the RW article was tempered with recognition that overeating sugar can actually lead to insulin sensitivity and type 2 diabetes - the precise point that Taubes et al. are trying to make.  There was  criticism of certain diets but a recognition that we need to watch what we eat – most people call that dieting.  Mostly though there was the ever present implication that what is good for elite runners should be good for the rest of us.

The readers of Runners World are not elite athletes. If a bunch of elite Kenyans eat 20% of their energy from sugar this should not be used to justify the mass-marketing and magazine articles like this that tell the average runner that they should power every training effort and race with gels, PowerAde and carb-loaded snacks. The article did not mention the effect of this marketing on children, who most certainly do not need to consume sugar to power their sport and yet our schools and leisure centres are subsidised by selling energy drinks to kids.

Recognise this?
Matt then asks “If the best runners in on earth are amongst the heaviest sugar consumers then can it be so bad?”  The simple answer is Yes. The best runners in the world will be burning off this sugar on their morning run. The rest of us will not. This ‘Kenyan  paradox’ is hardly surprising, but Fitzgarald’s conclusion “They ate fewer calories than they burned” is simplistic. Maybe they ate less than they burned because there was a very real chance that by doing so they might become rich. Did the researchers ask how much time they spent feeling hungry? This is not a reasonable guideline for normal runners or the public in general.  The best way to eat less than you burn is to control your hunger. Traditional diets fail at this point; eating carbohydrate based diets does not allow you to control hunger unless you are very highly motivated – an elite runner perhaps. Eating a fat-based diet is crucially different here. People who eat a lower percentage of carbohydrates and a higher percentage of natural fats feel hungry less often and hence consume less. This is why LCHF diets consistently out-perform high carb diets in randomised controlled trials. And this is how intermittent fasting works, your body gets used to fuelling on fat and you do not feel hungry so often.

It should also be mentioned that type 2 diabetes does not normally develop quickly. Insulin resistance grows over decades and the more insulin you have to make the more resistance you are likely to develop. Has anyone measured the incidence of type 2 diabetes in retired Kenyan runners? I doubt it, as we are only interested in how they run so fast. Steve Redgrave may have developed hereditary type 2 diabetes, or it may be the result of consuming very high amounts of carbohydrates over a long and illustrious sporting career.

"Don’t worry about fructose says" Matt. The Harvard study he refers to concludes that eating certain whole fruits can be better for preventing weight gain than some vegetables; he doesn’t mention which fruits. The answer is blueberries and apples, but the implication and matts Rule #1 (Don’t worry about natural sugars) is that fructose is therefore good for you. The study does not say this.  Bad use of science Matt!   Most people don’t know the difference between fructose and sucrose and they don’t know the difference between whole fruit and fruit juice; they gorge on orange juice or smoothies thinking that they are healthy.

Lovely fattening smoothies!
Matt says “eat refined sugar in moderation”. Again this statement is problematic because most people do not know what it means; they don’t know what the recommended amounts are, and so what exactly is moderation? For a Runner's World audience fixated by timeings, measurements, performance improvement and measurability, what does “moderation” mean?  Meanwhile every petrol station, office or shop we go to is bombarding us with sugary temptations and saying ”let me be the one to supply your moderate amount of sugar today”.   If we want people to understand how low the World health organisation recommendation on daily sugar intake is, then we need show them. Give them a glossy picture of one large apple; and make it clear that sugar in general is bad for you.

When you consider that it is not very difficult for runners to switch to burning fat instead of sugar it is a wonder that Runners World covers the subject so little – there is a lot of mileage in the subject! 

Matt is not right when he says that you will not perform at your very best if you skip sugar; some people will and some won’t. But I would suggest that most runners would be somewhat richer, a lot healthier, rather happier, and would enjoy their running a whole lot more if they were to exchange those few extra seconds from  their marathon PB for life of running without sugar.  I simply don’t have to think about refuelling when I run a marathon and I finish happier and stronger than anyone I know (well there might be the odd sub-3 exception here!). I am also a little faster at 51 than I was at 45 having recently knocked 6 minutes off my off-road marathon PB.

Matt also provides an anecdote about Julie Benson and her difficulties with the No Sugar No Grain diet which left her feeling drained of energy during her training. This sounds to me like a typical simple case of not having enough energy; in other circumstances this is known as starving. I could be wrong here, but I don’t see references to replacing your energy intake with healthy fats on NSNG diet web sites. Yes it is true that some people do not adapt to fat burning as well as others but these people are certainly a minority of the readers of Runners World.

He introduces stress as a performance inhibitor and suggests that the worry associated with strictly following a formula diet is a common thing. This can be true. But there is nothing particularly stressful about a Real Food diet and no reason to worry if you accidentally fall off the waggon and eat slice of cake. The LCHF waggon is much easier to jump back onto than most for the simple reason that the food is very tasty! Contrast that with the constant warnings from sports nutritionists like Matt whose “Rules” say we MUST replace energy as we run and we MUST follow every run with the right amount of a mixture of carbs and protein. What if we forget, or get the mixture wrong? Will all our effort be wasted? Worry, worry, worry! 

In fact the “science” behind this post-run recovery advice does not support this widely held conclusion; it is based on runners performing in a fasted state, so of course their bodies needed energy and protein after a run. Most people do not run in a fasted state, do they?  And following this advice is precisely why so many runners put on weight during their marathon training. Personally I never feel hungry after a 3-hour run (although a creamy coffee is nice) and I generally recover fast enough to spend the afternoon gardening and run again the next day should I wish to. No stress there then.

Fitzgerald's declaration that runners fear an insulin spike after consuming sugar while running is interesting. I have never heard of this idea before. As far as I am aware most runners have never experienced an insulin spike and wouldn’t recognise one if it hit them in the head; people who fear consuming sugar during exercise are generally referring to the sugar that they will consume in their life and the possibility that it might lead to long-term weight gain or insulin sensitivity.  Yes, consuming sugar delays fatigue, but teaching your body to burn fat will delay it a lot longer.

Finally the article admits that eating sugar can become addictive, and that effort is required to overcome the affliction of having a “sweet tooth” is non-trivial, and may require the assistance of a qualified nutritionist.  Try to square this with the general advice of “eat less and move more” and you will be left with a head-ache.
Eat less more more?
So much of the advice we read neglects the simple fact that we are all habit-based creatures. Matt presumably finds it easier than most people to train hard and eat well because it has become a habit, part of his lifestyle and there are clear incentives for him to retain these habits.  For most people their lifestyle is far more sedentary and revolves around a constant stream of temptations to eat badly. Cakes in the kitchen, sweets in the jar by the door, coffee (and cake) with friends etc.  These habits are hard to break and nutritionists are bonkers if they think that it is a simple thing to adopt a philosophy of "all things in moderation" as Matt and so many others suggest. If it were that easy we would not have an obesity epidemic. 

I would prefer to call a spade a spade; use simple statements. Smoking is bad for you, so avoid it. Drinking alcohol is bad for you so avoid it. Sugar is bad for you, so avoid it. Un-refined food is good for you, eat it.   I am not saying that that this is easy to do, but having commonly agreed guidelines would be a good start. 

For many it takes a compelling event (such as the doctor telling them they have heart disease or type 2 diabetes) to force them to confront the truth and alter their life-long habits.  These days we all seem to want the moon on a stick, but life is harder than that. People should see LCHF as a way  of life, not a dietary fad. 

I do not have diabetes or heart disease. My compelling event came when I read that I could run faster for longer if I changed my diet. That was three years ago and it worked; my improved health (weight stable and all blood markers improved) is a rather nice side-effect of my competitiveness!

I have only ever read one article on running on fat in Runners World. A journalist took up the diet for a few months to see what effect it would have on her marathon time. She found it hard, but lost weight and did rather well; she then gave it up because she missed beer and pizza !  Desperate to get a sub-four-hour time she introduced carbs back into her diet for the last 3 weeks of training, just as she was reducing her weekly milage she confused her body with un-needed carbs. This was a big mistake and as a result she hit some kind of wall at 16 miles, and despite getting a big PB she was disapointed at missing her target. It's OK to race on carbs, although I have never needed to; but you mustn't undo all that good work by carb-loading.

The benefits of LCHF on running do not come as cheaply as this; over time we adapt to oxidise a steadily higher volume of fat per minute, and our performance improves.Runner's World feeds us with a deluge of expert advice like Matt’s telling us that we will not run like a champion unless we eat like a champion.  The science here is desperately poor and generally financed by sports nutrition companies. I know that a lot of RWs advertising income is from big sugar producers like SIS and Lucozade but I would like to see RW place a stronger emphasis on public health, after all most of its readers seem to have taken up running to become more healthy, not to run a sub-2:30 marathon.

PS - 22nd November 2017.
I thought that this article in The Times today was interesting. If you've read this far then so might you.