One of the big challenges of being an OCR (Obstacle Course Race) racer is fueling yourself. This is less an issue in the shorter races (the 5K variety, like the Spartan Sprints, Warrior Dash, and most of the one-off races), but even then it’s nice to be able to stay fed. But in the longer races, like Tough Mudder, the Spartan Beast and Super, the Battlefrog Xtreme, and even longer versions of the Savage Race, getting low on energy can be a big problem. And that’s where I think controlling your diet can make all the difference.
For those of you who have “gone Paleo,” or adopted an ancestrally-based diet like Paleo, Mark Sisson’s Primal Blueprint, Whole30, The 21-Day Sugar Detox, etc., you know the benefits of becoming fat-adapted. Fat adaptation is basically weaning yourself off the constant flow of carbohydrate-rich food like bread, pasta, pastries, and the like (as is the norm in our modern society), and transitioning your body to sustain itself on fat intake or, even more preferably, your own body fat. This is how our pre-agricultural ancestors largely sustained themselves, as carbohydrate rich foods were less available and the preparation of which was less efficient a use of time than the largely available fat-rich foods like meats, fish, insects, etc. (yes, people ate insects regularly and without issues in “pre-history”. That’s another topic for another day.).
Using carbs as your primary food source is, as nutritional consultant Nora Gedgaudas says, much like constantly fueling your campfire with rocket fuel. It’s going to burn really quickly and really brightly and have a lot of heat, but then they’re gone, and you need more rocket fuel. Using fat as your primary food source (again, from either body fat or fat intake) will burn more like a big log – slow, steady, and last a long time before you have to throw another log on. It’s why our ancestors were able to operate effectively in a harsh world with a less-steady flow of food than we are accustomed to today.
I think one of the most valuable things you can do for yourself from a health standpoint is to take the time to go through a “Paleo on-ramp” program like one of the ones mentioned above, and I’ve got a five big reasons to do so. And those reasons are even more noticeable when you’re an obstacle course racer.
1. You won’t crash.
You’ve heard of “crashing” or “bonking,” right? That’s when your body runs out of blood sugar and you need to replenish it during the middle of a race. It’s the curse of the poorly-fed endurance racer, and it’s totally unnecessary.
The human body can’t contain a whole lot of blood sugar – at the maximum, you can store about one teaspoon of glucose in your body when you’re completely at rest and fed. That doesn’t last too long – and when you take in more than that amount, your body will turn it to fat for storage, which increases the load you have to carry when you’re racing, among other issues.
When you’re fat-adapted, you don’t need to worry about the amount of blood sugar you have. You will be able to chug along at a good pace, constantly using your own stored body fat as a fuel, and never feel hungry or weak.
2. It’s more convenient.
One of the things you frequently see athletes doing is eating six or seven small meals a day to keep their blood sugar levels constant and keep themselves at a nice even level. But that’s totally unnecessary when your body is processing fat as energy. Your body will just keep chugging along without flagging, and you don’t have to stop every couple of hours to eat something. You don’t have to carry food with you everywhere. You’ll be at a more even keel all day, even if you don’t get three meals. Your body will have the adaptation it needs to keep going and going well.
3. You don’t have to carry food with you as much during a race.
When you’re running a race, the last thing you want to be doing is carrying more weight with you than you need. Climbing walls, crawling through mud, balancing on logs over mud pits and streams, scaling ropes and cargo nets, and running hills are all exhausting, and the less weight you can carry with you, the better. OCR racers spend a lot of time working on their gear – finding the stuff that shucks water the best, is light, and more. Why carry a bunch of gels, energy bars, and stuff like that with you if you don’t need it?
And you don’t need it if you’re fat-adapted. You don’t need all that extra food with you for even the long races because your body contains all the energy you need.
4. The carbs you do take in will give you more of a boost.
There’s no doubt that some races – the Spartan Death Race, World’s Toughest Mudder, and other elite long races – are taxing even beyond the point of fat adaptation. You’re going to need an extra boost on occasion. If you’re carb-adapted, it’s harder to get that extra boost because your body is constantly craving that next blast of rocket fuel to which it is accustomed. That crave is the reason that people get “hangry” or sluggish during the day. Their bodies are craving more carbs like a drug.
If you’re fat adapted, and find you need a boost, eating some carbs is going to work as intended: you’re going to get a big jolt of more energy on top of that slow-burn you’re getting from fat. And when they run out, your body will continue to work off the fat it’s expecting to work from – no bonking or anything.
5. Your mind will be more clear as you race.
This is a big one. The constant up and down highs and lows of carb-fueling make your brain go from hyper to sluggish and back as you keep fueling. That tends to make you less clear-headed and your observation and decision making go into the mud pits at that point.
A clear head is easier to maintain when your fat-adapted body doesn’t experience those ups and downs. Dr. David Perlmutter talks a lot about this in his book Grain Brain: The Surprising Truth about Wheat, Carbs, and Sugar–Your Brain’s Silent Killers. And in this article from The Atlantic, Dr. Perlmutter talks about carbs and their links to ADHD and other hyperactivity issues. The last thing you want when you’re running a race requiring careful maneuvering of potentially dangerous obstacles is a foggy head. At best, you’ll waste time falling off balance logs and such, and at worst you’ll injure yourself or worse.
So there you have it. Research is showing all over the place that higher fat/lower carbohydrate diets and fat adaptation are great ways to improve your health and performance. Check out the links above for great ways to work toward fat adaptation, and feel the burn!