In the world of sport and endurance, nutrition is a variable that is often crafted with a great deal of care. For some, it is a seemingly endless journey of trial and error. One mistake I often see with athletes, whether they be elite or Ragnar weekend warrior, is that they treat their nutrition as a stationary target. They believe they should find what they think works. They plug and play the same general protocol throughout their training plan. I often encourage these athletes to start viewing their nutrition protocol as a moving target.
Moving target? Wouldn’t that just complicate things more? Perhaps, but let me explain a bit. Training intensity and volume typically rise and fall throughout a season or training cycle. Take a minute and back your view out to a full year. Now imagine the variance that you would see if you pick one of your recovery weeks after a goal event versus one of your peak training weeks. You are working with a completely different lifestyle when your priorities go from peak mode to recovery mode.
So, what does this mean for your high fat approach to training and competing? It means you have flexibility. It means you can vary your nutrition. With a moving target, you are never too far from being able to mix up your food options. At first, this may look like a hurdle as many athletes crave routine and consistency, but over time, the mindset will shift, and athletes look forward to the change and absence of monotony.
This leads me to carbohydrates. I’d like to explain where carbohydrates fall in the equation of an athlete who follows a high fat or ketogenic protocol.
The first topic I often address with folks who follow a high fat or keto way of eating is what their thoughts are about carbohydrates. It is always interesting to hear their response. Some want to avoid them like the plague while others reluctantly mention how hard it is for them to abstain. My next comment often surprises them — I tell them to stop viewing carbs as the enemy, but rather a fuel source that has been over-emphasized.
Going low carb for an athlete doesn’t necessarily mean the complete absence of carbohydrates. More often, it just means making fat your preferred fuel source. As the ketogenic diet has grown in popularity, the general template has often been put in place for athletes as well. When I say general template, I am referring to the general guideline of lowering carbohydrates to approximately 30-50 grams per day. This is a great way to get as fat adapted as possible. The next question is: how fat adapted do you need to be when performance is the goal? It varies from person to person, event to event, and whether you have reached your ideal event body composition, so this all needs to be considered when planning nutrition.
What does this mean? It means once you’re at your ideal body composition, prioritizing how you feel and perform is the target, not how many mmol of ketones show up in a blood sample. For example, when preparing for a race, I keep my carbs very low in the early stages of training when volume and intensity are still low. This allows me to develop a strong base for my fat burning engine. I know I am fat adapted enough after my first long run or workout of the training cycle. If I can do it while fasting with just water and electrolytes, then I know I am fat adapted enough. Consider it the fat adaptation field test. At this point, you should start looking at what foods and macros give you the best chance to nail your upcoming key workouts.
At this point in training, I start to raise the volume and intensity, so along with this, carbohydrate intake also goes up. It doesn’t mean going full 180 towards carbohydrates as the primary macronutrient; it means adjusting to your changing lifestyle. If I do a workout and I feel like I don’t quite have that last gear, I’ll bring back a small amount of carbohydrates until that gear comes back. It can take experimenting, but if adjusted slowly, you’ll find the sweet spot. A lot of folks I have worked with, myself included, have found that approximately 10 percent of your daily intake from carbs is a good spot to start.
At this point, you can keep adjusting if your training plan continues to increase in volume and intensity. The key is to always keep fat as your primary macronutrient. This will ensure that your body remains heavily reliant on fat for fuel.
Often during the biggest training blocks, athletes will schedule “de-load” or recovery weeks. These weeks are designed to prioritize rest so that the body can fully bounce back from the previous build-up and be well rested for the next cycle of training. These “de-load” or recovery weeks where volume and intensity are reduced are great weeks for reverting to your very low-carb or pure keto protocol. With the intensity and volume lower, these weeks can be viewed as mini resets towards higher ranges of fat metabolism before beginning the next training block.
As you wind down from your latest event and start getting excited about planning out your next adventure, consider viewing yourself as everchanging. Your lifestyle is a moving target when preparing for an event, and so should your approach to nutrition.
Zach Bitter is an ultra-marathon athlete. He holds the American Record for 100 miles (11 hours 55 minutes 40 seconds), 12 Hour World Record (101.7 miles), and is a 3x National Champion. He’s also an FBOMB Ambassador and uses FBOMB Nut Butters and Premium Oils to fuel his runs.