For the next 12 weeks, I am going into self-experimental, bio-hacking guinea pig mode in preparation for Ironman Canada in Whistler on August 25.
It’s called the “Great Ketogenic Ironman Experiment”, and in just a moment, I’m going to spill all the beans for you. I’ll show you a sample ketogenic training diet, a sample minimalist training week using time-saving underground training techniques, and reveal the secret weapons I’m going to use to enhance my fat-burning and training results.
But first…why the heck would YOU even want to try a low-carb, ketogenic diet for something like an Ironman triathlon? Or a marathon, Crossfit training routine, hard swim workouts, multi-day cycling stage race, or anything else that is energetically demanding and requires moderate doses of endurance?
There are three main reasons for using a low-carb, ketogenic diet.
1) Metabolic superiority of using fats as a fuel.
Peter Attia really gets into this in the excellent blog post on “Ketosis – Advantaged or Misunderstood State?“, in which he explains how being in a ketogenic state vastly enhances your lipolysis (fat burning efficicency), your aerobic capacity and your muscular endurance, including significant increases in aerobic power and efficiency in several groups of elite athletes (e.g., Olympians) across multiple physical tasks maximally stressing the aerobic system. Go read his post to dig into this stuff.
For this very reason, the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), has been investigating ketogenesis as a secret weapon for boosting soldiers’ mental and physical performance under battlefield conditions. Why? Because as a soldier’s blood glucose drops, they became confused and sometimes ended up shooting their own side. So they tested a highly ketogenic fuel source on rats and found it boosted physical and mental performance – and the rats became much healthier, lost body fat, had lower levels of triglycerides (fatty acids) in their blood and lower blood sugar levels, with zero harmful side-effects. That same fuel is now under development for soldiers, although I have no clue why they don’t just give them canteens full of Medium Chain Triglyceride (MCT) oil, since it does the same thing.
2) Health and longevity advantages of controlling high blood sugar.
To illustrate these advantages, I scanned and pasted here a compelling image from Life Extension Magazine (I don’t know about you, but I want to be around to see my grandkids, and considering my 23andme.com genetic testing revealed higher risk for Type II Diabetes, I doubt that shoving any more gooey gels and sugar sports drinks into my gaping maw is going to do me any favors).
3) Mental Enhancement
This is also a brain-hacking technique that goes way above and beyond smart drugs. Ketones are an potent source of fuel for your brain neurons, and when you’re ketogenic, you have higher levels of brain derived neurotrophic factor and an enormous upregulation in brain neuron regeneration, focus and mental acuity (once you get over the “hump” of those first 10-14 days of making the fuel switch). If you want to learn more about why ketones are a a high power brain food, listen to this “Marvel of Ketone Science” interview.
Finally, I’m not just messing around here and doing this Ironman at a slow, aerobic pace. Instead I’ll be attempting for an Ironman World Championship qualification, and a total time of 9:15-9:45. We’re talking pain cave stuff here, with lots of hard anaerobic efforts thrown in – no lolly-gagging – a hard and heavy swim, 300-400W power efforts on the bike sprinkled throughout a 112 mile ride, all finished off with a 26.2 mile run (marathon) in 3:00-3:15…
What Is Ketogenesis?
Here’s the deal: I’m not even going to try to comprehensively explain this when so many other resources already exist. Here are the best 4 resources for you to become a ketogenic ninja:
1) My recent low carb and ketogenesis podcast on Jimmy Moore’s Livin’ La Vida Low Carb Show (in which we also tackle all the questions that are probably going to end up as comments on this post anyways, such as “Aren’t You Concerned About Your Thyroid” and “How Does Your Body Make Glucose If You Don’t Eat Carbs”, etc., etc., etc.).
2) Peter Attia’s excellent series on “Ketosis – Advantaged or Misunderstood State?“. Put on your geeky propellor hat and scientific wading pants and go read it. He’s good.
3) Any of the other podcasts I’ve done with Peter, including: “How To Turn Yourself Into A Fat Burning Machine By Fasting For 24 Hours Then Going Out And Do Monster Workouts Without Bonking” and “Is It Possible To Be Extremely Active and Eat A Low Carbohydrate Diet?“.
4) My Low Carbohydrate Diet For Athletes package (pictured left), which includes a complete low carb for athletes meal plan with fat adaptation, low carb maintenance, race/event week and race/event day blueprints, my low carb guidebook and 24-7 access to a low carb forum (warning, this program isn’t necessarily ketogenic – it has carb re-feed days and stuff like that – but it’s a good resource nonetheless).
The Great Ketogenic Ironman Experiment Overview
OK, let’s get down to the nuts and bolts. Here’s how this ketogenic protocol is going to go.
I’ll be implementing a 100% ketogenic diet (meaning I’m keeping my blood ketones at 1.0 millimolar or higher) along with…
-weekly Talking20 blood measurements to make sure I’m not killing myself, and also to get some interesting data on what happens to thyroid, inflammation, testosterone, cortisol, etc. when combining ketogenesis with hard training.
-daily Ketonix breath ketone measurements to make sure I’m keeping my ketones above 1.0 millimolar (whoopee for smart scientific sounding numbers!)
-All the other “underground training methods” I outline in this article…
-And a bunch of other secret weapons I’ll tell you about below…
In addition to putting weekly updates on my Facebook page and video updates on my upcoming phone app (launches June 3), I’ll be discussing the results of the experiment at this year’s Ancestral Health Symposium during my panel with Jimmy Moore, Robb Wolf, Mark Sisson, and Jamie Scott. And that symposium will be exactly one week before I actually take things into the deep, deep trenches and try to qualify for Kona at Ironman Canada.
Warning: unless you want to seriously “F-up” your body (e.g. adrenal fatigue, joint damage, metabolic derangement, etc.), I do not recommend you combine ketogenesis or low carb diets with any form of hard or heavy training unless you’re willing to utilize the strategies you’re about to learn. I’m not even 100% sure that with all the “damage control” I’m personally going to be doing that I will not experience medical issues while doing this experiment. But SOMEBODY has to find out if elite performance and ketogenesis are compatible, so I’m diving in.
Clear? OK, let’s keep going.
Sample Weekly Ketogenic Ironman Training Diet
Here’s a sample of what I’ll be eating. Basics: 50-100g carbs on an easy day, 100-150 carbs on an average day, 150-200g carbs on a hard and heavy day, along with lots of medium chain triglycerides to keep my body in ketosis. So this isn’t calorie-restricted ketosis. It’s high-fat, high-calorie ketosis (that’s Lesson #1 for you to ensure you don’t destroy your metabolism with stuff like this).
-Breakfast: Piping hot cup of “Upgraded™” organic, mold-free Upgraded Coffee blended with unsalted, organic KerryGold butter and Medium Chain Triglyceride (MCT) oil, with a touch of vanilla powder and Upgraded™ Chocolate Powder.
(if you don’t like coffee, try this “Ketogenic Kale Shake” which is roughly adapted from Dave Asprey’s recipe)…1 bunch of steamed kale…2-4 Tbs grass-fed butter…1-2 Tbs of MCT oil…1 tsp sea salt…2 Tbs of high quality protein powder…1-4 tsp apple cider vinegar…Coconut milk to desired texture…Herbs (i.e. cilantro, parsley, oregano, etc. – great for cleansing gut/liver too). Steam kale about 5 minutes to reduce oxalic acids then blend with all ingredients (add protein last so you don’t kick protein’s ass).
-Mid-morning: TianChi with vegetable juice (I prefer my cleansing cocktail of cilantro, parsley, carrot, lemon and ginger juice, with a few pinches of Himalayan Sea Salt). If this takes me out of ketosis, I’ll leave out the carrots. Sorry, Bugs Bunny.
-Lunch: Large kale salad with extra virgin olive oil, avocado, olives, walnuts, sardines and nori OR my world-famous sexy ketogenic smoothie (kale blended with MCT oil, brazil nuts, cinnamon, coconut milk, Upgraded™ Chocolate Powder, stevia and an avocado).
-Dinner: Grass-fed beef, liver, sweetbreads (yes, that would be thyroid gland), wild salmon, etc. with roasted vegetables.
Rrrrrr – back it up. Liver and sweetbreads? Yes. Here’s the 30 second elevator pitch: your liver needs glucose to convert T4 to T3 so unless you give yourself extra liver support and thyroid support by eating organ meats and sweetbreads, you’ll mess up your thyroid on a diet like this.)*
*Here’s the rest of the reason, taken straight from this Chris Kresser/Chris Masterjohn podcast:
Chris Masterjohn: Yeah, and I think you highlighted something important there that there are a lot of classic symptoms that go beyond the blood tests, and you know, I think even if you don’t see the changes in T3 and reverse T3, there are other mechanisms. For example, if you have increased liberation of free fatty acids beyond what you’re able to utilize, there is some evidence that the free fatty acids will accumulate in the nucleus of the cell at a high enough concentration to inhibit thyroid binding to its receptor, and that will cause all of these symptoms of the metabolic effects, including the high cholesterol, but it might not show up as changes in thyroid hormones in the blood. So, I think if you see those classics symptoms, if you see high cholesterol and low sex hormones, for example, I think those are good clues in addition to T3 and reverse T3 that might signify that an increase in carbohydrate intake might be needed, but I have an anecdote that I think is pretty interesting to share from Nutrition and Physical Degeneration, Weston Price’s book.
Chris Kresser: Yeah, let’s hear it.
Chris Masterjohn: He says: “For the Indians of the far North this reinforcement” — he’s talking about reinforcement of nutrition for pregnancy — “was accomplished by supplying special feedings of organs of animals. Among the Indians in the moose country near the Arctic circle a larger percentage of the children were born in June than in any other month. This was accomplished, I was told, by both parents eating liberally of the thyroid glands of the male moose as they came down from the high mountain areas for the mating season, at which time the large protuberances carrying the thyroids under the throat were greatly enlarged.” So, what he’s saying is when the moose were about to reproduce, they naturally went into a kind of hyperthyroid state where their thyroids were enlarged, and the people there would harvest the thyroid glands so that they could reproduce, and as a consequence, most of their children were born nine months after the moose mating season.
Chris Kresser: Wow.
Chris Masterjohn: And what the indicates to me is — I mean, it’s difficult to interpret it because he doesn’t go into great detail, but I think what we might be seeing here is up in the Arctic circle — and these are the inland people, they’re not seacoast, so they probably don’t have a lot of iodine in the diet, they certainly don’t have a lot of carbohydrate in the diet. It seems like they, as part of their natural adaptation to their environment, they supplemented with thyroid hormone so that they could convert their cholesterol to sex hormones so that they could increase their fertility, and I think what we’re witnessing is perhaps a natural acknowledgement that under those certain conditions where you have an extremely carbohydrate-restricted diet, you may need supplemental thyroid hormone in order to maintain that fertility.
There you have it folks. That’s how I’m going to maintain my yummy, fat-fueled, sweetbread-laden fertility. You can check USWellnessMeats if your local organic farm can’t get you sweetbreads and liver.
Not a fan of the taste? You can actually use liver and thyroid supplements, but you need to be very careful with the source of that dessicated liver and thymus gland. Standard Process thyroid is decent at around two tablets a day and then for liver look for Argentinian and organic. NOW Foods dessicated liver powder is good for this, at 1 rounded tablespoon per day.
Sample Week of Minimalist Ironman Training
Due to time constraints and my desire to avoid chronic cardio overtraining, I’m following a complete 8-10 hour per week minimalist Ironman training protocol, while implementing all the Underground Training Techniques you learn about in this post and this post. This includes extreme isometrics, hypoxic altitude training, overspeed, high intensity intervals, super slow weight training, cold thermogenesis, heat acclimation, greasing the groove, and electrical muscle stimulation.
Here’s a sample week so you can see what this kind of stuff looks like. It may look a little overwhelming at first, but once you establish your daily habits and patterns, it’s pretty easy to fit this stuff in.
-60 minutes yoga and meditation.
–Cold thermogenesis (20-30 minute cold soak in 45-55 degree water).
-Full body foam rolling, 10 minutes inversion table, mobility work for any neglected areas.
-Stay off feet.
-5 minutes hot-cold contrast shower.
-Swim 10×100’s using Wetronome to decrease 100m time by 0.2s per week.
-Run “Hurricane workout”, 10×30 seconds at 10mph and 10% incline. All performed with deep nasal breathing (I highly recommend BreatheRight strips for doing hard workouts/races with nasal breathing).
-Commute bike to gym and back for workout above (total 30 minutes cycling).
-All day: 5 pull-ups every 1-2 hours, entire work day is at standing workstation.
-Superslow lifting: 5x 30 seconds up, 30 seconds down full body lift (e.g. Squat, Overhead Press, Seated Row, Back Extension, Pull-Up). All performed with deep nasal breathing.
-Bike – 8-10 30 second overspeed efforts of 120-150rpm. All performed with deep nasal breathing.
-Isoextreme back foot elevated lunge 2 minutes each side, followed by 1 Russian Lunge every 5 seconds for 2 minutes, then repeat for opposite side (performed in sauna). You can find most of these isoextreme exercises on this YouTube Channel.
-All day: 5 pull-ups every 1-2 hours, entire work day is at standing workstation.
-Litvinov 400m run repeats as 15-30 dumbbell swings or front squats to 400m uphill or flat run. All performed with deep nasal breathing. If tired, no run, but just easy, fun Elliptigo on trail.
-Commute bike to gym and back for workout above (total 30 minutes cycling). All performed with deep nasal breathing.
-All day: 5 pull-ups per 1-2 hours, entire work day is at standing workstation.
-10 minutes inversion table.
-30 minutes suspension trainer workout.
-Easy bike to sauna at gym for 5×20 second on, 5 seconds off isoextreme lunges, 5 minute isoextreme wall squat, and standing hamstring folded dollar bill drill 10×30 seconds on/10 second off. All performed with deep nasal breathing.
-All day: 5 pull-ups per 1-2 hours, entire work day is at standing workstation.
-If time: easy swim drills 30 minutes in cold river (kind of a combined cold thermogenesis with training).
-Run 60-90 minute tempo intervals on treadmill or trail.
And yes, compared to disappearing from my kids, work and social life for a 5 hour bike ride on a Saturday morning, slipping into the garage “pain cave” for a quick Hypoxico session is far superior.
My Ketogenic Secret Weapons
OK, here’s the stuff that I’ll be relying on for the next 12 weeks – the things that will make your life far easier, your training way more productive and your body way less likely to get metabolically damaged if you doing low carb triathlon training. I call these my “Ketogenic Secret Weapons”.
1. Kion Coffee with MCT oil and Grass-fed Butter
Take some Kion, organic & mold-free coffee and blend with grass-fed (KerryGold is a good brand) butter and Medium Chain Triglyceride (MCT) oil. This stuff keeps me in a ketogenic state with me having to feel like gnawing my arm off in hunger halfway through the morning.
Kion Coffee Beans must always conform to the following five health parameters – and less than 1% of coffee worldwide makes the cut:
-Kion starts with the healthiest possible green beans. We test organic coffees from all over the world to find the green beans with the highest antioxidant levels – and we work to maintain those levels all the way through the production process.
-Kion Coffee is always organic. Less than 3% of coffee on the planet is certified organic. At Kion, we will never tolerate pesticide-soaked beans, or grow our coffee in fields that are doused with herbicides.
-Kion requires “near zero defects”. Only the highest quality, specialty grade coffee beans meet our standards. We rigidly test for toxins and never select beans that are chipped enough to risk an uneven roast, or beans that may contain undesirable microorganisms.
-Kion Coffee never contains mold. Ever. When searching for the freshest coffee possible, mold cannot be tolerated. We use an independent laboratory to test for 60 different types of mold – ensuring that our coffee is mold-free at every point of the production chain.
-Kion Coffee is grown sustainably, then hand picked and hand selected. We only choose the BEST coffees from the BEST organic, sustainable farms in the world, where we have a direct relationship with the farmer. The farms that grow Kion Coffee use production practices that are good for the planet, good for the coffee crop, and good for the people who grow the coffee, both economically and ecologically.
The addition of the MCT oil provides a readily available fuel source brain mitochondria, and may help you to excrete toxins from the brain, while the fat from the butter and the oil improves the ability of mind-stimulating terpenes and caffeine in coffee to enter your brain, along with potent coffee-based anti-inflammatories such as cafestrol and kawehol. And adding a touch of vanilla powder and Chocolate Powder makes it all the more heavenly.
Just call it “The Kion Triathlete” breakfast.
If you’re using extreme isometrics or high-intensity interval training and experiencing the massive lactic acid build-up that occurs in the local muscle tissue during a set, then you should know about something called “oxaloacetate”.
Strap on your geek hat for a second.
Most chemical reactions in your body take place in a series of several steps. In chemistry, the rate (or velocity) of a reaction with several steps is often determined by the slowest step, which is known as rate-limiting step.
A significant rate limiting step of converting lactic acid into glucose (a really, really efficient way for your body to get glucose for hard efforts) is the conversion of the molecule Nicotinamide Adenine Dinucleotide (NAD) into Nicotinamide Adenine Dinucleotide Hydrogenase (NADH). So what does this have to do with oxaloacetate? In studies, acute oxaloacetate exposure enhances resistance to fatigue by increasing NAD to NADH conversion and allowing lactic acid to get recycled and converted to glucose at a much higher rate (16).
As a matter of fact, along with calorie restriction (which isn’t much fun, really), enhancing your Cori cycle efficiency is also one of the ways that you can significantly increase the enzyme AMPK, which you learned earlier in this book can upregulate mitochondrial biogenesis and improve both carbohydrate and fuel utilization.
Basically, this means that you can become a complete lactic acid metabolizing endurance beast if you take about 100-200mg of oxaloacetate in supplement form 15-30 minutes prior to a workout that includes either high intensity intervals, super slow training, or isometrics.
The main ingredients that X2Performance contains that directly help the purposes of ketogenic training are…
-d-Ribose, which allows you to rapidly regenerate ATP, even in the complete absence of carbohydrates (especially important since high intensity training depletes your total adenine dinucleotide pool much faster than long slow distance training, and you need that precious pool to make ATP)…
-Pinitol, which enhances uptake of cellular energy, even in a state of low insulin, which you’ll be in if you’re following a low-carb or ketogenic diet…
-Low doses of caffeine, which enhance free fatty acid utilization…
For anyone who wants to geek out on how loading with d-Ribose also allows you to more easily tap into your body’s own free fatty acids as a fuel, read neurosurgeon Jack Kruse’s excellent article that reveals the truth about carbohydrates and exercise performance. I’ll be slamming a shot before my workouts, and also before and during Ironman, and X2Performance has offered you the code BENGREENFIELD to get $10 off a case of the stuff in case you want to do that too.
UCAN Superstarch is for anyone who wants unflavored, 100% pure fuel – in a non-GMO, slow release form for that allows you to use far less carbohydrate and burn significantly more of your own fat as a fuel. SuperStarch causes a very low release of insulin and results in an extremely stable blood sugar profile compared to sugary gels, sports drinks, powders or energy bars.
This stuff puts your body in the ideal performance state and make you more metabolically efficient, thus allowing you to burn more fat as a fuel. To listen to an excellent interview about how to practically use this, and why burning more fats during exercise is good, listen to this interview with Peter Attia.
Also, for more scientific information on Superstarch, read: “A Technological Breakthrough in Sports Nutrition Innovation: a white paper by Professor Jeff Volek, March 2009″...
…or for a less “sciency” explanation, read this article that appears in Feb 2012 Men’s Health magazine.
I’ll be using this during a select few long rides and runs, and of course, quite liberally during the race itself.
How I’ll Be Tracking & Testing
Of course, it wouldn’t be an experiment if I wasn’t gathering data, right? See, I did take a little bit of college at least, even it was in North Idaho.
1. Metron Ketone Breath Testing
That weird tube pictured on the right is a breath ketone monitor. It’s brand new, cutting-edge stuff developed by medical device manufacturer Akers Biosciences to detect levels of acetone in your breath, an indicator that your body is burning fat as its energy source, rather than carbohydrates
It’s just a simple breath test can be performed anytime, anywhere. You get a measurement in 3 minutes, and – most importantly – there’s no blood testing involved. I’ll be doing enough finger-pricking as it is.
This is the same thing my fellow low carb blogger and podcaster Jimmy Moore has been using to test his ketones during his N=1 weight loss experiment, during which he’s lost 78 pounds so far (in one year).
2. Talking20 Blood Testing
In the video How To Test Your Blood Anytime, Anywhere In The World, you learned about Talking20, which is disrupting health as we know it by merging biology with technology to deliver personal health data in a way that I think may actually trigger a personal health revolution.
Here’s how it works:
You send in a few drops of blood on one of their kits, and you’ve opened the gateway to everything happening inside you, anytime you want it. Talking20 is using mass spectrometry to analyze its blood samples, the same technology used by NASA and the Environmental Protection Agency use to conduct their studies of very small samples taken from all over on (and off) the planet. So you can run 100′s of blood tests off a single, convenient drop of your dried blood.
I think this stuff is going to literally blow the roof off personal biohacking and the ability to peer into your personal health and performance in real time as you test anytime, anywhere in the world. For the purposes of the Great Ketogenic Ironman Experiment, it’s going to allow me to test every week without driving to the lab and giving oodles of blood.
If you want to try it, you can get your blood tested by Talking20 in the USA by clicking here or internationally by clicking here.
3. SweetBeatHRV Measurements
In the episode “Everything You Need To Know About Heart Rate Variability Testing“, I introduced you to a cool little phone app called the Sweetbeat.
For SweetBeat HRV monitoring, you need:
Since heart rate variability testing tracks the strength of your nervous system and can be a key sign of overtraining and metabolic distress, this will be a way to track how beat up my body is, and how my nervous system is responding to carbohydrates (or lack thereof, more specifically).
Interestingly, there may also be a correlation between ketogenesis and the “low frequency” number you get when measuring your HRV. I was alerted to this fact in a recent reader comment (copied and pasted below):
Oh yeah, that’s kinda small, huh?
Here’s the full conversation from the comments section on my What Kind Of Damage Happens To Your Body After You Do A Hard Workout, Triathlon or Marathon?
Tom – Some days I have a very very high VLF. say up to 80% of the power. Research is unsure what this means but could be related to diet, stress etc. I have noted that if I take serial readings across a morning I am fasting, till 12 noon usually, VLF gets steadily higher until I eat. It also seems to be higher when I am ketogenic, so could be of interest to you. Also, in regards to your Ketogenic experiment, I take my ketone readings with a blood monitor multiple times a day, I have found from my research that I can consume huge amounts of carbs in and around training (mostly in the form of waxy maise starch) and sweet potato, and still be ketongenic (ketones 1.5-2mmol) the next morning. But If I overdo it on protein and fat later on in the evening and eat my last meal later than say 8.30 pm I have no ketones the next day, down to 0.3 or similar. Food for thought…
…The significance of VLF is still up for debate. I’ve read many theories including infection (this one I have noted in myself, I have predicted my last 3 infections with a sudden surge in VLF noted 2-3 days prior to symptoms). Also there is evidence it is linked to energy expenditure, which could be highly linked to the thermogenic and energy burning effects of MCT/ketogenesis. Such as – http://www.hindawi.com/journals/jnume/2011/715361/abs/ This correlates well with my findings in ketogenesis.
If that spiel was all greek to you, go listen to this podcast episode on heart rate variability testing (or read the transcript). Go ahead, just do it. Once you get it through your head, none of this HRV stuff is too scary, and makes intuitive sense.
How YOU Can Follow & Learn
This is going to be an exciting adventure, and along the way, I’ll be eager to answer all your questions about low carb diets and endurance training, any of my “weapons” or training and diet methods listed above, and anything else you want to know.
The very best way to follow this entire experiment will be by 1) following the BenGreenfieldFitness Facebook page and 2) grabbing the brand new, free BenGreenfieldFitness phone app, which will be released on June 4 (don’t worry I’ll send out an email about it, so be sure you’re subscribed to my free newsletter). I’ll be releasing photos and updates to the Facebook page and insider videos and audio updates to the phone app…
…in the meantime, leave your comments, questions and feedback below.
Also published on Medium.