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Dec. 14 2009 - 2:31 pm | 263 views | 0 recommendations | 3 comments

The Atkins-friendly endurance athlete

Gatorade bottle with new 2009 rebranded label

Image via Wikipedia

For most of us, long runs and lots of sugar go hand in hand.  To head out for a 20-miler without a stash of gels and a fuel belt full of Gatorade is asking for trouble, right?  Maybe not.

A few weeks ago, I wrote a post about ultramarathoner Stu Mittleman and his philosophy (among a few crazier ideas) of training the body to burn fat instead of sugar.  The amount of energy available in stored fat far exceeds what we’re capable of storing in the form of sugar, Stu reasons, so we can run much longer — hundreds of miles, even — by breaking ourselves of the dependence on sugar.

Turns out Stu Mittleman isn’t the only one who believes this.  Greg McMillan, a running coach and Runner’s World contributor far more mainstream than Stu (no muscle testing here), prescribes depleted-carbohydrate long runs for marathon training.  His reasons for doing so go beyond training the body to burn fat; McMillan also finds benefit in the fact that initially, training without carbs causes the body to fatigue faster.  The result: more time training in a tired state leads to stronger legs and higher tolerance for pain.

The idea has promise, and it might be just the thing to help you achieve that New Years resolution to PR in your distance.  If you decide to give carbo-unloading a try, do some research (at the very least, read Greg McMillan’s take on it) and ease in slowly, since running without sugar will be unfamiliar to your body.  When I first became interested in the idea last year, I went carb-free cold turkey on a 16-miler.  After about 12 miles of fast running with no fuel, my muscles were so useless that I had to resort to this awful hobble/shuffle thing, and I’m lucky I didn’t get injured.  Here are five suggestions to making the transition as smooth as possible and avoiding the worst bonk of your life:

1. Phase out sugar and starchy carbohydrates gradually. If your body is used to burning sugar, it won’t be a happy camper when you take it away.  Decrease your pre- and during-run carbohydrate consumption over the course of several long runs, not one.

2. Do your carbohydrate-depleted runs slowly. When you run fast, you burn sugar.  When you’re in a carb-depleted state is not the time to run at race pace or do an interval workout.

3. Be sure to take in water and electrolytes. When you ditch the sports drink, you’re losing more than just sugar.  Be sure to replace lost fluids and salt by drinking water with electrolytes added to it.

4. Low-carb doesn’t mean low-cal. Believe it or not, there are foods that aren’t sugary that you can eat while you run.  When I asked Stu Mittleman what he eats on runs, he said almonds and vegetable purees.  I’ve even heard of people eating baby food!

5. Carry a gel, just in case. You never know.

Now get out there and make Atkins proud!


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  1. collapse expand

    I did a 16-miler a few weeks ago with out gels or gatorade and it was surprisingly fine. I felt tired for the last 2-3 miles, but generally it was a great run.

    But on the other hand, I was running pretty slow. It might have been a different story if I was racing those 16 miles….

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Running Shorts is a part of the True/Slant network specializing in Running News, Trends, Insights and Perspectives. This blog is maintained by Megan Kretz (megan [dot] kretz [at] gmail [dot] com) and Geoff Decker (geoffreydecker [at] gmail [dot] com). Email either us with tips, suggestions or feedback. And thanks for reading!

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