Real Food for a Fat-Burning Athlete

by Ian Ramsey, Ultra Runner

I’m nearly 50 miles into the Ardennes Megatrail, a 93k race in the Ardennes forest of France, near the Belgian border. Europe, AKA Salomons, spandex and hiking poles. It’s mid-afternoon, 10 hours into the race, and many runners are really struggling on this hot day in late June: walking, stopping, puking. I just passed someone walking backwards up a hill, holding her quads. Several runners mutter what I’m guessing are rich and devilish curses in French.

Thankfully, I’m cruising steady, thanks largely to a longtime practice of metabolic training: what’s variously referred to as “fat-burning” or “ketogenic” or “optimized fat metabolism.” What this means, more or less, is that I’ve trained my body to mostly burn on-board fat instead of the exogenous glucose that most endurance athletes depend on in endurance events. I’m able to take advantage of ancient metabolic pathways leftover from our hunter-gatherer days whereby we can burn our body’s fat stores when we’re not taking in carbohydrates.

What this means for today’s race: instead of trying to stomach endless “apple-cinnamon” and “cake-batter”-flavored gel packets of “I can’t believe it’s not cultured dextrose!” and various other lab-based chemicals, my body can largely subsist on its own endogenous fuel stores. Which means that I’m subject to much less stomach distress and careening energy levels. I do take in a few calories, sipping every few minutes at water mixed with an electrolyte drink mix and eat a Muir Energy “Slow-Burning” pouch every hour or two. But while most others are taking in at least 300 calories of mostly pure sugar every hour, I’m taking in maybe 200 hourly calories that include real nutrition (nut butters, molasses, real fruit, mate, raw cacao, sweet potatoes, kale, etc.): ingredients that we evolved to eat, as opposed to, say refined maltodextrin and magnesium oxide. Taking less sugar into my bloodstream, I have fewer insulin and blood-sugar issues (aka NO BONKS!), I don’t overwhelm my GI tract with loads of sugar. Generally, my body is less stressed and more consistent, less inflamed and more ready to bring it.

If I’m really feeling tired or I have a big climb coming up, I’ll take one of Muir Energy’s “Fast-Burning” pouches for a little extra turbo boost. I certainly can access the sugar-burning pathways that other runners depend on, but I don’t have to. And that feels pretty good, especially as I pass a guy puking up a electric-blue-colored stream looks like it came from Willy Wonka’s factory.

Being an OFM athlete isn’t for everyone: it involves dramatically restricting carbs, grains and sugar most of the time (believe me, trying to explain to people in France that you don’t eat bread or croissants is downright treasonous), and it is a different lifestyle. It means focusing on nutrient-dense whole foods like grass-fed meats and organic vegetables. It means eating a high-fat diet with lots of coconut oil, butter, and avocados. Sometimes it means adding strategic carbs like sweet potatoes. It means searching out real nourishing foods like Muir Energy’s products. It’s not some lonely ascetic puritanical pursuit-I eat lots of dark chocolate and drink more than my fair share of coffee, as well as red wine and artisanal spirits. I make a mean, grain-free chocolate chip banana bread that I smother with butter.  Moose chili. A Brazilian fish stew more rich than ice cream. It means that I spend more time getting to know my local organic farmer and less time in the drive-through window of fast-food places. More time cooking and less time trying to “work off last night’s party.” It also means that I’m in the best shape of my life, feeling like I’m 18 when I’m 42, and having tons of energy. Because I have less inflammation and oxidative stress, I recover faster. As an athlete and cancer survivor, my health is utterly important to me, and this seems to work really well for me. I can only hope other people also find healthy lifestyles that help them to express their full humanity.

For now, I’m feeling good, able to enjoy running these low-lying mountains and forests, the French and Belgian runners who share the trail with me. I’m about to rip open a Sweet Potato Oregano pouch before the next big climb. I can already taste the pink Himalayan salt, the extra virgin olive oil, the oregano essential oil, the blackstrap molasses and raw coconut palm nectar, the sweet potato . . . oh man, I wish everyone was having this much fun.

 

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