“Fat-Adapted” Metabolic State
“Fat-adaptation” or the “Keto-adaptation” is the foundation of OFM. The proper term is Nutritional Ketosis (NK) and should not be mistaken for Starvation Ketosis or Ketoacidosis. Via NK the human body makes a profound shift toward burning “fat as fuel” without catabolizing muscle protein for glucose as is the case for Starvation Ketosis (OFM athletes actually gain lean body mass!).
This is a shift back to the energy source our bodies are designed to use for aerobic activities. When in a fat-adapted metabolic state the body actually prefers to metabolize saturated fats, does so easily and at much higher rates than are considered possible by conventional standards of sports physiology. So now, rather than accumulate in the body, saturated fats become the most potent aerobic energy source.
To achieve this metabolic state the athlete has to sharply restrict carbohydrate consumption, principally concentrated forms of carbohydrates. Many of the staple foods athletes use need to be eliminated at this phase of the OFM program in order to induce Nutritional Ketosis. This is a simplistic answer so, to make this work, the actual execution of carb restriction to induce NK is much more complicated. It is NOT recommended one attempt to induce NK when “in-season” or when training volume is high. The ideal time is in the off-season or during the recovery period from an ultra-endurance event.
Here are some common issues:
- Not enough carbohydrate restriction to induce NK. While some athletes can actually get away with 100-150 grams / day, others may need to be below 50 gms/day and some below 30 gms/day.
- Attempting to maintain training volume during this transition/induction phase of fat-adaptation. Because you are making a fundamental shift in energy substrate there is metabolic “re-tooling” going on so trying to train through is a recipe for failure. Some athletes will actually experience extreme fatigue, while others mild fatigue so attempting to exercise can potentially increase stress thus cortisol levels which inhibit fat-adaptation and favor glucose burn. In more extreme cases adrenal fatigue can occur.
- Adding too much Protein and not enough fat. Most people naturally tend toward thinking to add protein simply because of the instilled fear of fat. A high Protein Diet has issues in that un-assimilated protein will be converted to glucose and excess methyl groups placing a higher than optimal load on the kidneys. What many athletes do not know is protein is best assimilated in a high fat environment, the way nature intened it.
- Not bringing in enough fat into the diet and not the correct types of fats (see Fats & Oils Primer) Fats & Oils should constitute 65-85% of calories during this period.
- Not consuming enough salt. Again, due to the fear of salt people restrict their salt and end up with low blood volume.
- Not dealing with or managing lifestyle issues which create undue chronic stress thus triggering a Cortisol response. This is one reason the OFM program emphasizes the athlete use their senses and feelings over a serum ketone monitor and why counting calories and weighing food are generally not recommended.
- Magnesium deficiency: Most athletes are somewhat deficient in this critical mineral because it is easy to deplete with any volume of exercise and relatively tricky to replenish compared to Sodium, Potassium, Calcium, Zinc, Iodine etc. Making the transition often exacerbates this deficiency resulting in muscle cramping. It is recommended the athlete take a bio-available form of Magnesium like Magnesium Chloride or Magnesium Gluconate or Glycionate. Because Magnesium is taken in slowly do not overdose to make up for the deficiency or you will find yourself with loose stools/diarrhea. Topical Magnesium Oil and/or Epsom Salt baths also are effective.Duration of initial adaptation / transition to fat-adaptation:The initial period to induce this physiological shift varies from 3 days to 3 weeks depending upon a variety of factors.
What you should notice:
During the initial transition when carbohydrates are severely restricted the athlete normally will feel lethargic, some to the point of simply being unable to get out of bed or off the couch! Along with this lethargy many people experience severe carbohydrate cravings which often include obsessing about carbohydrate rich foods. You will also be irritable so warn your partner, co-workers, family, friends etc. this is coming ahead of time and to not take anything personally.
These are very real withdrawal symptoms from carbohydrate dependence which your body’s physiology will drive until basal insulin levels decrease to the point where the proper low insulin level will signal the liver to begin producing ketones (ketosis) and even glucose (gluconeogenesis). At the same time receding insulin levels will allow fatty acids to be released from adipose tissue into circulation to provide calories.
Using VESPA during Phase 1: VESPA can play a critical role to help bridge the energy gap in going from a carb-burning physiology to a fat-burning one. Even though you won’t be exercising at a high level, perhaps not at all, using VESPA can help “jump-start” fat metabolism to take some of the edge off the carb withdrawals. You can use VESPA in lieu of a snack or an hour after a meal while in transition. Using a VESPA prior to light exercise during transition will not only help drive the exercise but the post-exercise ketone surge which will help tremendously in suppressing carb-cravings and appetite control.
At work take a VESPA at 9:00 am and 2:00 pm instead of a snack at 10 & 3. This is also a great strategy to use when you are looking to shed excess weight and cannot exercise all the time due to work.
Once the initial transition is made you are only halfway there but have made the biggest step of all in terms of “fat-adaptation”. Phase 2 takes 6-12 weeks for most athletes. Subsequent phases are more incremental and subtle and take place over a continuum of time usually ranging from 6 months to 2 years.
You will know you have hit phase 2 of fat-adaptation when the lethargy, obsession/cravings for food and irritability have subsided and you are not climbing the walls. You can function and train, however, this phase is far from great and physical performance metrics are still far below what they were.
At this point while insulin levels have receded the entire suite of hormones and enzymes necessary for the high levels of fat driven performance seen in OFM athletes are not yet fully up-regulated. This process can take 4-10 weeks to see the results.
At this point in fat-adaptation the athlete can begin to “strategically” bring small amounts of concentrated carbohydrates back into their diet and fueling, however, the frequency should remain sparse and separated. This will aid in evaluating the impact of carbohydrate re-introduction on fat-adaptation and isolate it in case the athlete needs to continue restriction.
Training in Phase 2:
This is your aerobic base building phase. As you adapt in this phase many of the changes will go unnoticed and you may “feel” like you have plateaued because, in many cases, it won’t seem like you are getting your HR and effort level up.
Early in this phase avoid pushing too hard to avoid disappointment. A great tool is The Maffetone Method of HR Training developed by Phil Maffetone, a pioneer in fat-adaptation. However, as you move into the later stages you can push the pace/power but, while you will not feel like you are working that hard, your power meter or watch should tell a different story. Many athletes report a lower HR (3-5 BPM) at the same perceived effort level or power or being able to maintain a pace or power effortlessly at levels which previously felt hard. So this ease of training can be deceptive to the point the athlete does not think they are improving.
An excellent case in point is this post by 6 time Kona Champion, Mark Allen:
Using VESPA during Phase 2: VESPA use helps shorten the time necessary to transit this phase of Fat-adaptation. This allows for a greater volume of exercise and provides quick recovery from each training session. The other major benefit of using VESPA during this phase is it will dampen some of the negative impacts on fat-adaptation due to re-introduction of concentrated carbohydrates and sugars into the diet and fueling.
At this phase of transitioning to a fat-adapted metabolic state you can really start to push intensity levels for sustained durations for all levels and types of athletic endeavors. This is where the patience pays off. You now have much greater and more robust aerobic base system giving you much greater capacity for intensity and volume.
- Intensity: How this relates to intensity is this: Now that most of your aerobic pathways are driven by beta-oxidation and ketosis the athlete does not have the same levels of oxidative stress and lactate load and the glucose driven portion of upper aerobic and into threshold/anaerobic power has a sustainable supply of glucose because it is not being burned through for a huge part of the aerobic portion. The combination of the two allow the athlete to push further longer.
- Volume: Fat-adaptation taps into a virtually limitless supply of energy, one that also provides flexibility. We know this. However, the lower oxidative stress, lactate load and inflammation provided by this metabolic state reduce the negative impacts of training and competition so the athlete can handle a significantly higher volume of training / competition and adapt faster to the stress response provided by the training load. This is corroborated by observational evidence and feedback from athletes who are able to make remarkably rapid returns to training/competition after severe bouts of ultra-endurance competitions.
- VESPA use during Phase 3:At this point in fat-adaptation VESPA will be a performance catalyst only because, at this state of fat-adaptation, you should not need it to prevent energy lows or hunger pangs during the day because you probably won’t have them or at least not at the level while transitioning. Apart from competitions, VESPA use should be focused around long duration exercise, key intensity workouts or race-simulation training blocks where you will be bringing the tempo/intensity up to race levels for sustained periods and also fueling with “strategic carbohydrates”. VESPA can also be utilized for early morning training bouts that are followed by important professional/work obligations that require focus and endurance like an all morning meeting or presentation.To better understand and employ Nutritional Ketosis purchase “The Art & Science of Low Carbohydrate Living” and “The Art & Science of Low Carbohydrate Performance” available on the VESPA website. These books will give you both the science behind Nutritional Ketosis as well as strategies for achieving it and maintaining it including recipes.Summary:
- Following this sort of sharply reduced intake of concentrated carbohydrate sources allows your body to make this shift.
- One of the main changes will be the decrease in plasma insulin levels and, generally, a big increase in insulin sensitivity.
- Once the athlete is in this state generally other aspects of hormonal balance favor the up-regulation of the enzymes (lipases) and hormones necessary to burn fat at high aerobic levels.
- Once you have made that physiological shift which Nutritional Ketosis provides not only are you now using fat for most of your aerobic needs, but carbohydrates now play a much more effective and sustainable role. Our speculation is that insulin now plays the role it is intended for; that is to quickly transport sugar into cells and quickly convert it into energy.
- Mental clarity/focus: Ketones provide a cleaner, more stable energy source that is completely interchangeable with glucose for most brain & nervous system functions. Fueling the brain with ketones allows the body to provide a sustainable and stable supply of glucose for glucose dependent brain function and at a level which does not create the inflammation and oxidative stress seen in the up & down glucose levels of a glucose dependent athlete. The wide swings in glucose levels most conventionally fueled athlete experience in their exercise is responsible for the mental “fog” they experience late in an extended bout of exercise and, more importantly, is now being implicated as a contributing factor in the development of dementia/Alzheimer’s Disease.
- An under-appreciated yet vital aspect of fat-adaptation is the nutritional benefits of metabolizing the fat soluble Vitamins A, E, K & D and their co-factors found in animal fats.
- The “Fat-Adapted” Metabolic State is not only the Foundation of the OFM Pyramid but the solid stable metabolic foundation most every athlete should build their program on.
The next Step is the “Nutrition NOT Calories”