After following the success of Timothy Olson, (winner of Western State 100) I decided that I’d go low carb in preparation for my next ultra race, I’ve got four months of long slow running ahead so I thought that a change in diet might help. So as of yesterday I’m week one, day one in to my new diet, and I’m looking for some tips so I Googled “Low carb diet for athletes” and your website came up second hit. After reading your article I’ve become very sceptical about the claims that this low carb diet is any good for athletes despite reams of stuff on the net hyping up the benefits of training low/racing high. I wanted to say a big thanks for helping me keep my sceptical hat on. I don’t think I’ll bother with this low carb bollocks after all.
What do you think about Timothy Olson though? Is he really low carb? Or is it just a big load of BS to aid his VESPA sponsership? Here’s an interview with him:
Before I answer this, I want to make the following perfectly clear: I don’t know Tim Olson, and this article is in no way to be construed as an attack on him personally. From the little bit I’ve read about him, he seems an amicable and humble enough guy. He’s clearly not an obnoxious, sleazy, trolling vegan whose insecurity and insatiable need for attention (not to mention greed for Youtube royalties) leads him to issue challenges to all and sundry that he has no intention of fulfilling, nor is he a boastful wanker who carries on like he’s the greatest drug-free runner and cyclist in the history of life as we know it but then scrupulously avoids competing in even local criteriums because he knows full well he’ll get his ass soundly kicked in the B-category by guys who work fulltime, are ten years his senior, and whose “doping” strategies are limited to caffeine and Enduro powder.
Nope, Tim seems to do things the way I think they should be done: He gets on with it and gets winning results, minus all the bullshit and braggadocio that has become the hallmark of much lesser individuals.
Having said that, I’ll now set about answering your question in no uncertain terms:
Low-carbohydrate diets are a disaster for athletes, and any claim that Tim Olson’s competitive running successes prove otherwise is complete nonsense.
If ever there was a sport in which low-carb nutrition would help or at the very least not harm performance, it would have to be ultra-endurance running. When you run the equivalent of three marathons in a single race, you’d better believe the pace has to be slow and steady and well below the maxVO2 threshold where glycogen becomes the primary and critical fuel source.
Nonetheless, even during low intensity activities like ultra-endurance running, the body uses a mix of fat and sugar to fuel itself. There is no such thing as using 100% fat or 100% carbohydrate to fuel any activity, although there is a spectrum in which fat predominates at low exercise intensities while carbohydrate increasingly predominates as the intensity increases.
So even in ultra-endurance events, carbohydrate constitutes an important fuel source. Which is why Tim Olson relies heavily on carbohydrates to fuel his athletic endeavours, Stephen Phinney’s misleading comments to the contrary notwithstanding.
Yeah, I know this flatly refutes everything Phinney says in the interview you linked to, but if you read Part 2 of Why Low-Carb Diets are Terrible for Athletes, you’ll already know that Phinney has a knack for making low-carb diets sound like they are wonderful for athletic performance even though a mountain of evidence clearly shows otherwise.
Phinney, for those who don't know, is a researcher who has 'tested' low-carb diets and claims they do not impair endurance performance. Phinney has participated in Atkins-funded research, sits on the Atkins Nutritionals "Science Advisory Board", and has a further vested financial interest in the low-carb paradigm via his books The Art and Science of Low Carbohydrate Performance, The Art and Science of Low Carbohydrate Living and The New Atkins for a New You (all co-authored with Atkins-sponsored researchers Jeff Volek and Eric Westman).
During the interview, Phinney again displayed his knack for portraying the effects of low-carb diets on performance in an undeservedly favourable light. As I read through it, my bullshit alarm sounded loudly several times.
It first went off when I read Phinney’s comment, “So among the 350 or so participants in the race, we were able to recruit about 25 people, half of whom said they were following a high carb diet, and the other half were following some version of a low carb diet.”
“Some version” of a low-carb diet? I’ve seen this trick before; it’s when an athlete follows what is absolutely not a low-carb diet, but because he eats peanut butter with breakfast or eats 300 grams of carbs per day instead of 600, the eternally desperate low-carb crowd jump all over him and triumphantly proclaim him as one of their own.
The second time my bullshit siren went off, it was so loud and sustained I had to manually turn the damn thing off before my eardrums exploded. This happened when the interviewer asked Phinney what Tim Olson ate, and he replied:
“I wouldn’t tell you the details even if I knew because it’s confidential research information. And I don’t think he’d want any of the details of what he’s doing to be public, because, realize, all of a sudden this guy knows absolutely that he’s got a remarkable competitive edge.”
How convenient. Loudly proclaim someone as a winning low-carb athlete, but when an interviewer asks you what he actually ate so astute readers can determine for themselves whether this is in fact true, you quickly pronounce his diet a big secret, of which all detailed knowledge is strictly forbidden from the public.
Just imagine for a moment, that I decided to write a book titled Anthony’s Guide to Being a Manly Man and Pulling More Chicks than a Rock Star! And that in the advertising blurb for this book I claimed “I’m about to reveal to you the exact same secret methods I used to seduce over 100 stunning supermodels and actresses, including former Miss World winners and some of the biggest names in Hollywood!” And further imagine that, so impressed with my claims, some joker from a website called MeAndMyHarem.com interviewed me and asked me exactly who these 100 sheilas were, and that in response to this pivotal question I replied, “Oh, even if I remembered their names, I couldn’t tell you, because it’s a SECRET!”
You jokers would be all over me like a rash, calling bullshit left right and centre LOL. And rightly so. Because you just can’t – with any sense of credibility - make outlandish claims that allegedly turn all existing knowledge on its head, then when pressed for details about your claims conveniently start carrying on like they are some kind of state secret.
Yet that’s exactly what Phinney does.
Gels, Sports Drinks, Soft Drinks, Sweet Potatoes, Rice Noodles, Tacos - When a Low-Carber is Not a Low-Carber
Throughout the interview, Phinney repeatedly refers to Olson as a low-carb athlete, and in the comments section Olson himself even claims to eat “low-carb”.
Here’s a few comments by Phinney that are especially pertinent to the discussion that’s about to follow:
Upon being asked to confirm if Olson did not just win, but also broke the course record, Phinney replies, "That’s correct. This is all on a low-carb high-fat diet with relatively little of what people call in-race calories."
In reference to other unnamed athletes who allegedly ate low-carb during the race, Phinney says:
"We don’t have the details of it [again, how convenient…], but typically the low-carb runners eat far less during a race. A high carb racer may eat 6,000 in-race calories. But typically a low-carb racer will eat 2000 calories a day during the race, or less. And the better adapted the racer is to low-carb, they find the less they have to eat."
When pressed for further details about Olson's peri-race intake, Phinney's comments become even more misleading. Whether this is due to genuine ignorance or something a little more sinister, I can't say, but the fact remains that his comments paint a totally false picture. When the interviewer asks "But Olson did eat – so . . . was it glucose gels? Or did he go for butter?", Phinney responds:
"Well typically he probably wouldn’t eat butter or fat anyway because this guy is a super slim, highly efficient, fat-burning athlete. He’s got very little body fat, but if let’s say he’s 7% by weight body fat that means he still has at least 30,000 calories of fat in his body when he starts the race."
Phinney then goes on and on, repeating the well-worn mantra about the body containing limited supplies of glucose but enough fat to allow even the leanest athlete to run around the world a couple of times, or some similar bollocks.
At no point does Phinney mention the fact that Olson does indeed consume ample amounts of in-race carbohydrate in the form of soft drinks, Gu gels, Cliff gels, honey stingers, and the carbohydrate-rich EFS drink made by one of his sponsors, First Endurance.
Tim has posted a pretty inspiring play-by play race report where he clearly states he regularly fuelled up through the race with Sierra Mist, along with gels and even a few orange slices. For the benefit of researchers irretrievably biased in favour of low-carb diets despite the fact that even their own research shows they suck for athletes, here’s some more information about Sierra Mist:
As you can see, the sole carbohydrate source is sugar (sucrose), which supplies 104 grams of carbohydrate per litre. I’m not sure exactly how many litres of Sierra Mist Tim downed during his race, but I’m guessing between the Mist, gels and orange slices, he threw back more carbs during his race than many low-carbers would in an entire week.
While we don’t know the exact amount of carbs Tim downed during the Western State 100, he states in this post that he consumed two Gu gels an hour during his 8.5 hour Bandera 100 race, save for “the last 2-3 hrs”, where he did not consume any calories of any type "as the heat of the day would not allow".
Two Gu gels an hour delivers 50 grams of carbohydrate. Given that sports scientists – the reputable, knowledgeable kind who would rather be caught dead than recommending low-carb diets to serious athletes – have ascertained that 30-60 grams of carbohydrate per hour is the ideal peri-event carbohydrate intake for most folks, Tim Olson’s hourly carbohydrate intake during the Bandera 100 actually sits at the higher end of official recommendations.
So why doesn’t Phinney mention any of this? There are two possibilities, neither of which are particularly reassuring:
--He is earnestly ignorant about Olson’s true diet/supplement strategies, in which instance he really needs to get more familiar with the subjects of his case studies before making grand pronouncements about their nutritional habits, or;
--He knew full well about Olson’s in-race carbohydrate intake, but simply chose to ignore it because it doesn’t conform to his low-carb dogma and the fat adaptation tune he’s become so fond of signing.
If the latter is in fact the case, it might explain why Phinney feels compelled to say things like “[Olson used] relatively little of what people call in-race calories”. If called out on his highly questionable claims, this would allow Phinney the escape route of claiming that while fat adaptation didn’t completely alleviate Olson’s needs for in-race carbs, it allowed him to eat a lot less than other athletes. What the other athletes ate is a matter of pure speculation for which Phinney provides no evidence, but if Olson’s carb intake during the Western State was similar to that of the Bandera 100, it was already near the upper limit of official guidelines – guidelines crafted for high-carbohydrate athletes.
This line of rationalization would also conflict with Phinney’s fondness for citing his zero-carb study with cyclists as proof that a 0% carb diet causes such thorough fat adaptation that endurance activity does not suffer.
If that’s true, why does someone like Olson need to take in any carbs at all during a race?
Ain’t Nothing Going on But the Carbs
What about Tim Olson’s baseline diet? What does that look like?
Well, I’ve not been able to find anything resembling a sample daily menu on his website, but in the comments section at the aforementioned interview, Tim chimes in with the following (reprinted as it originally appeared, spelling errors and all):
August 19, 2012 at 10:32 am
I do stick to a low arb diet which I believe helps tremendously. I took out grains over a year ago. I still have some carbs like sweet potatoes, but I try to eat them before a big run or race. Basicli I eat lots of vegetables, fruits, nuts and meat. I start each day with some hazelnut butter, then I go for a run and one back and make a green smoothly with fruit and kale. Lunch and dinner normally consist of vegetables and chicken or venison. I’m also not entirely strict on my diet, somedays I’ll have sushi with rice or some tacos with corn tortillas. Overall I try to eat a balanced diet and keep the carbs as low as possible.
On race day, I use Vespa which is an amino acid supplement about every 2hrs and a 100cal gel pack ( I like Cliffs vanilla gels) about every hour. Being on a low carb diet helps me to efficiently burn fat as my fuel. The few cal an hour I use allow me to run as fast as I can.
I hope this answers some questions.
Feel free to follow my blog where I talk about my nutrition pretty openly. I plan on writing a nutrition article soon.
Tim claims he sticks to a low-carb diet, but in the same breath admits to eating “lots of vegetables and fruits”, the latter being high in carbohydrate. He also eats sweet potatoes, rice and corn tortillas, although the exact frequency and amounts are not revealed.
I’m guessing that if Tim were to accurately log the exact amounts and types of foods he eats every day, he would be miles above the commonly-cited 100-gram low-carb threshold. And even without knowing the exact amounts, we know right off the bat he definitely ain’t no zero-carber. But maybe he really does eat less carbs than other athletes, leading him to label himself as a low-carber.
Would he do even better if he bumped the carbs back up?
The Western State 100 race was run on June 23. More recently, Tim ran the Run Rabbit Run 110 mile race, and things didn’t go nearly so well. Here’s Tim’s report: http://timothyallenolson.wordpress.com/2012/09/23/run-rabbit-run-100-2012/ :
“Twenty miles into the inaugural Run Rabbit Run 110 mile race and I was cashed. Around mile 24, as i was hiking pretty trivial grade, I couldn’t believe how dead my body was. The surrounding Emerald Mountains were breathtaking, the single track was very cruise-able and I floundered around gasping for air wondering what in the hell was going on. I’m not sure how my body and mind were destroyed so early on, but I pushed on.”
Granted, Tim’s now the proud father of a new baby boy, and any parent knows what that can do to sleep habits. But anyone who’s ever suffered the debilitating effects of low-carb diets also knows full well what glycogen depletion will do to their athletic performance and mood. I can’t confidently state what the exact cause of Tim’s mid-race funk was, but the physical and mental washout he describes leading up to the race and in-race sounds a lot like textbook classic glycogen depletion syndrome.
If Tim happens to read this, then here’s my advice for what it’s worth: Tim, if this shit repeats itself, seriously consider upping the carbs. When it comes to athletic performance, carbs are king. That’s not my opinion, it’s the indisputable truth. And let’s be honest, you’re no fool, deep down inside you already know this – why else do you suck down EFS and Gu gels during your races?
And hey, I want to see you again kicking raw fruitarian ass in your next Western State 100 😉
Anthony Colpo is an independent researcher, physical conditioning specialist, and author of the groundbreaking books The Fat Loss Bible and The Great Cholesterol Con. For more information, visit TheFatLossBible.net or TheGreatCholesterolCon.com
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