On May 27th 2017, Adrian Ballinger summited Mount Everest without supplemental oxygen. This is an accomplishment that less than 200 people have achieved and followed a failure to summit the previous May of 2016. The 41 year old seasoned climber attributed his failures to the cold, which could have been aided by more muscle and fat content, better insulated jacket and gloves, but he wondered why his climbing partner, Cory Richards so easily made it to the top. Ballinger came to realize it that wasn’t his gear or body composition, but it was that Richards had a different approach to training and nutrition that gave him the edge to summit. Richards trained with a organization called Uphill Athlete that trains its athletes to become a fat burners. After hearing of Richard’s training regimen Ballinger was determined to pursue the same for a another summit attempt in 2017. Ballinger was a carb burner, which means he was relying on burning carbohydrates for energy. When he attempted to summit Everest being a carb-burner, he simply ran out of energy to fuel his body through the last grueling stretch. This was due to depleted glycogen levels that a carb-burner relies on. The average human can only contain enough carbohydrates to supply glycogen stores for about 45 minutes. Once your glycogen stores are depleted, you need to refuel, which in Ballinger’s case, would mean pulling a hand out of a mit in the frigid Everest air to replenish his energy every 45 minutes. This is also known as “bunking,” which means completely exhausting your energy supply, which is what happened to Ballinger. Richards on the other hand, was a fat burner. With alterations in Ballinger’s nutrition and training regimen, he was successful in 2017.
But what is a fat burner?
A fat burner is an athlete that primarily uses fat for energy, and this metabolic process is called fat oxidation. When an athlete is exercising on a typical high carb and low fat diet, they are burning about a 50/50 mix of carbs and fats during steady exercise. If that athlete decides to sprint at full speed being a carb burner or a fat burner, they are primarily burning carbohydrates, known as glycogen. This is the body’s evolutionary design to have instant energy to run away from the tiger when it storms your cave. In Ballinger’s scenario, the high intensity of Everest climbing was like a sprint, depleting all of his glycogen stores causing him to “bunk”.
Why is a fat-burning diet better for climbing?
Being a fat burner for a long distance endurance athlete is beneficial because it eliminates the need to refuel every 45 minutes, which is bothersome. Ever wonder why there is a plethora of fancy sugary “sports” drinks, gummies, and energy bars at sporting stores? They are called “energy” foods, because they are loaded with simple carbohydrates and sugar. On the other hand, a fat burner does not need refueling foods or drinks during exercise, but relies on the extensive supply of fat throughout the body. Even the most elite athletes with very low body fat will have enough to supply the body energy for a event. Picture this, there is a giant fuel tanker truck cruising on I-70. The truck has its own fuel tank which sits below the cab of the truck, which will be depleted in a couple hours. What if the truck could access the large tank that it’s hauling? That would give the trucker a enough fuel to drive for days! In the context of nutrition and your body, the small tank is the your glycogen storage and the large tank is fat storage. This is why some people can fast for days without skipping a beat; they have tapped into their fat supply.
What does it take to become a fat burner?
To become a fat burner, it’s quite simple: cut the carbohydrates. Well, I guess some may think it’s not so easy. You have to cut out pizza, bread, candy, tortillas, and all that good tasty stuff. When a person limits their carbohydrate intake to less than 10% of caloric intake, and increase fat consumption to 70% of their intake, their body shifts into a different mode of creating energy, by burning fat instead of carbs. The by-products of fat oxidation are called ketones. When a person converts to being a fat burner, it is called being in ketosis. This process may take a few days to weeks, which varies from person to person.
Is there any research behind this crazy idea of eating all the bacon and butter you can handle?
Yes, yes there is!
In the research article by Volek et al. (2015), the authors wanted compare a low carbohydrate ketogenic diet and a typical high carbohydrate diet in 20 elite endurance athletes. The authors tested the athletes with a 180 minute, moderate intensity (64% VO2 max), treadmill run.
VO2 max is known as the capacity of your cardiovascular system and its ability to distribute oxygen throughout the body. Higher means a stronger cardiovascular system, so 64% of your maximum effort would be considered moderate exercise.
A 64% VO2 max to you or I would be a brisk walk or a slow hike up that beautiful 14’er, but for these Ironman athletes it was an easy run on a treadmill. The authors compared the rate of fat oxidation and carb oxidation between the two diets, as well as their ability to recover and replenish their glycogen stores. The authors found that the fat adapted athletes had 2.7 times the rate of fat oxidation than the high carb diet athletes. The low carb group also had fat oxidation at higher VO2 max, meaning they could go faster without tapping into their precious glycogen stores. The study also found that after the exercise, the athletes in both groups had similar glycogen level in their muscle. This is significant because the classic rule of thumb with exercising is that you need a post-workout shake with protein and carbs to replenish your muscles, or your exercising efforts are gone to waste …
It turns out your body has its own way of replenishing its glycogen stores without the post-workout carb load. That means after you climb that 14’er, you don’t necessarily have to stop at the local brewery for carb-tastic IPA, but I won’t judge you if you do.
In another research article by Hetlelid et al., they wanted to compare the levels of fat and carb oxidation levels between nine well-trained (WT) runners and nine recreationally-trained (RT) runners during a high-intensity interval training session (HIIT). There was no difference in diets amongst the participants in the study. The study found that the WT runners had a three times higher rate of fat oxidation than RT runners and increased performance with higher VO2 max. The author attributed the increased performance due to the higher rates of fat oxidation. These athletes were consuming a normal carb-ful diet, which makes me wonder what the difference would have been if they were fat adapted.
So, let’s get down to why all this mumbo-jumbo is important to your next trip to the high country. Many outdoor activities that we enjoy in the summer like hiking, biking, climbing, etc. all require significant energy to supply for all day fun. Take climbing a 14’er, for example. You will most likely be climbing for several hours, depleting your energy stores as you climb being on a high carb diet. You have to stop, refuel, start up climbing, stop and repeat. As a fat adapted climber, you could sail past your carb-comrades with ease, not depleting your glycogen stores all day, all while burning some of that winter Christmas cookie belly in the process. As we examined the two research articles, we also found that higher fat oxidation could mean higher VO2 max levels.
What does this mean for your next trip to high altitude?
That’s right, better usage of the less available oxygen in the high country and improving oxygen delivery throughout the body. If you want to be the best Balliger you can be on the mountains this summer, rethink your energy supply and consider life in the fat lane!
So, here are some personal tips to becoming fat adapted:
-Give your body at least 3 weeks to become adapted before any highly strenuous activity, like climbing a 14’er
-Hydrate, hydrate, hydrate with water, and balance it with electrolytes
-Consult with your physician before drastically changing your diet
-Choose foods high in natural fats (eggs, nuts, olive oils, avocados, meat, fish, dairy) and stay away from unhealthy trans fats
-Intermittent fasting can help you transition into ketosis faster (12-16 hrs)
Hetlelid, K. J., Plews, D. J., Herold, E., Laursen, P. B., & Seiler, S. (2015). Rethinking the role of fat oxidation: Substrate utilisation during high-intensity interval training in well-trained and recreationally trained runners. BMJ Open Sport & Exercise Medicine, 1(1). doi:10.1136/bmjsem-2015-000047
Volek, J. S., Freidenreich, D. J., Saenz, C., Kunces, L. J., Creighton, B. C., Bartley, J. M., . . . Phinney, S. D. (2016). Metabolic characteristics of keto-adapted ultra-endurance runners. Metabolism, 65(3), 100-110. doi:10.1016/j.metabol.2015.10.028