Running on fat without sugar

The Sugar Drop protocol – a layman’s method of maintaining blood sugar without carbohydrates during long runs

May 2019: I’ll soon be adapting this method following further revelations, to become a personal protocol to naturally raise ketones and normalise blood sugar prior to long exercises to prevent hypoglycaemia (“hitting the wall”, or “bonking”) for as long as possible whilst consuming absolute minimal carbohydrates.

See also A marathon – just add sugar

Having met my target weight on a ketogenic diet back in 2016, and having discovered many health benefits of this lifestyle I had no desire to go back to my old ways. However, I continued to lose (too much) weight. After some research I discovered the solution was to start working out (particularly resistance / weight training). Having been sedentary for most of my life I found this quite daunting. But in 2017 I discovered that my new diet provided me with more energy than I had felt in decades. I started weight training which stabilised my weight, and later with my excess energy I started treadmill running. In September 2017 I headed to the gym before breakfast and randomly ran 21k over 2:12, stopping not because I could not continue but because I had to get to work. It was then I discovered the nature of “fat-adapted” energy delivery. Since then I have been studying, testing and experimenting to work out the optimal method to keep myself running – without carbs or sugar.

Conventional thinking (based on research going back to the 1970s) suggests that loading up on carbs before an endurance event, then “topping up” during and afterwards is a requirement. My feeling now is that this is a requirement – if your metabolism is “configured” to use dietary glucose [from carbohydrates] as a primary source. However, if you remove carbs for long enough, the body generates its own glucose “on demand” along with ketones, which are predominantly used to fuel the brain. This isn’t a new concept and numerous athletes, body builders have proven this. One of my favourite and most inspiring stories is that of Meredith Loring and Sami Inkinen who rowed 24 hours a day for 45 days over 2,765 miles on a 70% fat diet with less than 10% carbohydrates: Fat chance row

There is no end of further examples online. However, I cannot fool myself into believing I am a top athlete, at forty years old I have only just started exercising. So, the question is:

How far can I go with this?

Before I began, I was simply told it would not work at all. “You need carbohydrates to exercise.” I started working out and running without carbs (in fact in a fasted state) without a hitch.

“But you NEED CARBS!!”

I then planned a half-marathon, I was told “you won’t be able to do a half marathon without carbs”. In December 2018, I did a half marathon in 2:10 – again fasted, no sugar.  I was then told that’s fine, but I definitely won’t be able to run for over 3 hours without sugar… My record so far is 30km over 3.5 hours without sugar or carbs.

Maybe “they” are right? There is only one way to find out and so on 6th May 2019 I am entering my first full marathon (42km / 26 miles), which I hope to complete in 4:30 or less, using the following protocol.

Note that this process is all about diet and doesn’t discuss physical training, which I am doing in addition to this. Most of my training is performed in a fasted state, but I generally only do 2-3 days fasts ahead of competitive runs.

10th May 2019 update: see A marathon – just add sugar

The process

Get as fat-adapted as possible

Becoming adapted to burn fat rather than carbs as a primary fuel source takes time. It is not an on/off process either, personally I found it takes at least 3 or 4 months of a low carb, sugar-free diet to get there. I believe the longer the better. I have been on a low carb diet for three years now.

To achieve fat-adaptation, assuming there are no underlying medical conditions (particularly metabolic or hormonal issues such as diabetes, obesity, liver disease) fat adaptation requires persisting with a low carbohydrate diet (<20%). The process can be expedited by reducing carbohydrates further (<5%) and / or intermittent fasting.

When there aren’t sufficient carbohydrates in the diet to sustain energy demand:

  • A process known as Gluconeogenesis (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gluconeogenesis) generates glucose from proteins and some types of fats
  • Insulin production reduces to almost zero, providing unhindered and efficient access to fat stores
  • Glucagon is raised – a hormone which triggers the liver to efficiently convert stored glycogen into glucose without excess

What are the benefits of this?

  • Glucose is supplied on demand, vs. carbohydrate consumption which usually results in over-supply, raising insulin and blocking access to fat energy
  • The human body can only store about 1,500-2,000 calories of carbohydrates. Even a very thin person can have at least 30,000 calories of fat on their person – a regular person can carry 80,000 – 100,000
  • Fat energy is far less inflammatory, more sustainable
Gluconeogenesis
“Gluconeogenesis generates glucose from proteins and some types of fats”

How did I know it worked?

The obvious markers are:

  • I lost weight!
  • I have a lot of energy in my mind and body
  • I don’t want to eat as much as I used to
  • I don’t get cravings for sweet or carby foods. In fact, I now find sweets repugnant!
  • Things that used to taste bitter or taste of nothing now taste sweet (like vegetables, very dark chocolate, etc.)
  • Can exercise for extended periods without any significant drop in blood sugar

Some blood test markers are:

  • The presence of ketones in the blood over 1 mmol/L
  • Fasting blood sugar levels lower than previous baseline
  • An increase in HDL
  • A reduction in triglycerides (blood fat)
  • An increase in LDL particle size (“pattern A”). I also had an increase in LDL particle count
  • A low hsCRP measurement (High Sensitivity C-Reactive Protein – body inflammation)

In the three months before a long run (>20k)

The aim of this preparation is primarily to reduce insulin and blood sugar levels, stimulate glucagon, and increase ketone production.

Particular attention to electrolytes, salts and fluids is critical, because with less insulin, more fluids (and electrolytes) are lost.

  • Further reducing carbohydrate consumption
  • Regularly consuming more nutrient- and electrolyte-rich foods (my favourites are meat, spinach, eggs, nuts, bone broth, and dairy products – preferably organic, local produce)
  • Ramping up slow-release magnesium supplements over the period (300-450 mg per day)
  • Adding more salt to diet – particularly mineral rich salt such as pink Himalayan. I also use small amounts of “lo-salt” for added potassium
  • Drinking more water

How do I know this worked?

  • I should feel energised and well
  • I should not feel overly thirsty, my appetite should be normal
  • My fasting ketones will likely be in the range of 1-3 mmol/L
  • My blood glucose will likely be around 4.0 mmol/L

In the week before the run

The aim this week is to concentrate and maximise more of the same as the above preparation.

  • Continuing magnesium supplementation
  • Days 1-4: 2 to 3 day fast (electrolytes only, bone broth, salt, water, black coffee)
  • Days 4-7: Very low carbohydrate ketogenic diet (<5% carbs, 10 to 15 g daily)

How do I know this worked?

  • I should feel energised and well
  • I should not feel overly thirsty, my appetite should be normal
  • My fasting ketones will likely be in the range of 3-4 mmol/L
  • My blood glucose will likely be around 3.5 mmol/L

On the morning of the run

On the day of the run, I do not eat anything. I drink a bone broth for electrolytes, perhaps have some plain black coffee. I drink 500ml of water about 20 minutes before the start.

During the run

On the run itself I take with me 1.5 to 2 litres of water that has added 1/8 tsp of pink salt and 1/8 tsp of lo salt. I will consume a few mouthfuls of this every twenty minutes.

I run at a constant pace within a predefined heart zone. I avoid going slower, stopping or sprinting (well unless the finish line is in sight!) 🏁

My aim in staying in this zone is to maintain an aerobic state, where my brain is fueled with ketones, my muscles fueled via Gluconeogenesis whilst keeping their glucose consumption minimal.

Heart rate zones
My heart zones have been defined from two years of data. Zone 4 (170-189 bpm) is my aerobic zone (higher than average). I can sprint in zone 5 and take a break in zone 3 – but not for long!

How do I know this worked?

  • I make it to the finish line

I believe my biggest challenges / risks are physical problems (e.g knee failure!), hypoglycemia, and hyponatremia. I will be taking precautions.

In the coming weeks I will discover if I can use this method to run a marathon – provided I am physically fit and able enough to run this distance (having glucose doesn’t mean your joints keep going!). I am very excited to see the result. If it works, of course my next goal will be to try the same with more distance. If it doesn’t, then I will make adjustments and try again to learn more.

10th May 2019 update: see A marathon – just add sugar

All the above was established from several years of research and self experimentation, and will likely change a great deal over time.  I strongly recommend the following resources if you want to learn more:

The Art and Science of Low Carbohydrate Performance
by Stephen Phinney, Jeff Volek

The Diet Delusion
by Gary Taubes

All material by Tim Noakes

See more recommended resources

Related articles

Half marathon in a fasted, low-carb state

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