Keto for Athletes, Overtraining, Defying Death with Vitamin D & Travel-Friendly Workouts — Q&A

Q: How do I make the keto diet work for an MMA/Endurance athlete?

The easy answer to this question is: “Slowly.”

After working with quite a few athletes on this, I will say it can be a challenge. It’s not as easy as many think and can cause harm if an athlete is not careful. In fact, the experience for many can be a little as I’d imagine aiming to teach a gas powered engine to suddenly run on diesel might be—but, unlike an engine, it can be done, at least in most cases.

The key is proper fat adaption.

For sake of argument, imagine an overweight diabetes patient who spends their days [literally or figuratively], “on the couch”. For this person, abruptly switching from a sugar-rich, high-carbohydrate diet to keto has the potential to have fast-acting, and profound positive effects on their energy levels, weight loss, blood markers, and emotional vitality. Why? Because their low level, consistent and unvarying levels of physical output are not complex physiologically. They are innately fueled by the “emergency reserves” of fat calories, about 80,000 calories worth, that we have hanging on our skeleton.

In other words, sedentary, low-output activities that do not burn a lot of calories, like reading or sleeping, are those which we evolved to use fat to fuel to carry out, given the energy cost is so low. It’s only when we corrupt the system by consuming too many calories, or consume food too frequently, that our body adapts away from nature and “switches” to burning sugar for those activities. In a sense, eventually you’ll make sitting on the couch feel like running a marathon if you eat too many carbohydrates. When you’ve only got a hammer, everything looks like a nail.

Now, let’s compare that patient to a muscular multi-disciplinary athlete participating in a lot of highly variable, and metabolically complex activities. By default, activities that are “high-intensity” or are metabolically or physiologically complex [important] are not fueled by fat but by the stored glycogen and blood sugar from the carbohydrates we consumed in the last 72-hours. In other words, our capacity for high-intensity activities is quite low and somewhat dependent on the amount of carbohydrate in the diet. Hence, things like carb loading before marathons.

Fuel for thought: We burn a limited resource during precisely the activities that put us at the highest risk of musculoskeletal injury.

I suspect the real question being asked here is how do we fuel activities (such as MMA) with this unlimited resource? Or, how do we switch from using our limited glycogen for high-intensity activities (of which we store about 300 grams of sugar worth) and to using those 80,000 calories of fat?!

As I mentioned earlier, the easy answer here is “Slowly.” After working with many athletes with these exact aspirations, I can’t help but bring back the car analogy — how switching to burning fat for fuel is akin to teaching a gas powered engine to suddenly run on diesel. FULL DISCLOSURE: I know nothing about cars or engines, but let’s stay with this.

Imagine a world where you had a gasoline powered vehicle, but suddenly diesel prices dropped to 10-cents per gallon and gasoline skyrocketed to $10 per gallon, and you did not have the means to buy a new car. You would be motivated to figure out how to change your engine’s “diet” — would you not? My guess is, you’d perhaps take one of two approaches:

A) Suddenly start giving your gas engine cheap diesel and hope for the best. First, you go to the grocery store and back without any signs or symptoms. Then, you might try and go a little further, then a little further. Then, you almost forget you switched anything at all and decide to take a road trip. Without warning, your car starts to sound a little funny. Maybe the gas pedal seems to be acting wonky. Then suddenly, on a deserted back country road, your car completely breaks down. You pop the hood and the engine is smoking. You say to yourself “It couldn’t be the diesel - could it?!”

(This is how most athletes experience the Keto switch — negatively.)

B) For the first week you decide to fill the tank with 90% gasoline and 10% diesel and see how it runs. The next week, 15% diesel, the next week 20% diesel, then 30% and so on. You are patiently waiting, without risking your engine, for that exact sweet spot of how much cheap diesel your gas engine can take before any negative symptoms arise. Some people are surprised to discover their engine was a diesel all along and you’d been putting gas in it! Crazy athletes…

Due to the more ideal “long-term” approach to fat adaption, time spent healing from injury actually offers the perfect conditions make the switch to keto. To make the quick switch (scenario A) approach work, an athlete would need 8-12 weeks of living more like a diabetes patient than an athlete. To properly fat-adapt, we have to switch the diet at the precise time we change the demands to innately fat-fueled ones, i.e. low physical output with far less metabolic variability. In other words, the body needs to learn how to fuel low-intensity activities with fat first, and then progress towards fueling more and more complex and intense activities over time. Any athlete reading this will likely see this as basically impossible during a competitive season or pre-season.

An alternative approach, more akin to the little-by-little (scenario B) “diesel switch”, is to simply get crafty with your programming.

Here’s how I’ve done it with the greatest success amongst athlete populations:

  1. Do 3-5 fully aerobic, 30-60+ minute workouts per week fully fasted. This is Z2 Aerobic, or around 180-Age in terms of heartrate, and should include NO “hard efforts”, or as I have warned my athletes, “never run a hill”.

    Naturally, first thing in the morning is best for this workout. This workout is going to fat adapt your body based on the lack of fuel and the overnight fast that preceded it. As a golden rule, when you start to think of this workout as “too easy”, make this workout longer before allowing it to get more intense.

  2. Ensure your first 1-2 meals of the day are fully Keto - something like a Fatty Coffee, then a pile of salad greens with avocado and walnuts drowned in olive oil with 20-30 grams of protein.

  3. Include under 25 grams of carbs in the evening meal, and every third day “backload” about 200 grams worth in the form of starches such as sweet potatoes.

  4. Put your two hardest, glycolytic workouts of the week the morning after a carb backload. Ensure the rest are predominantly aerobic, the 180-Age heart rate is about right. I touch on how to do this with weight training in this article.

Continue this backloading and cycling for as long as you feel amazing doing it or, decide to go swing further in either direction once you prime the pump for a few months. You can swing towards full-tilt keto by eliminating the backload, keep the plan as it is, or go the other way and cut the backload and instead to 50-100 grams of starch at night every night, giving you the fat adaptation gains by day, and the full glycogen stores by night. Whichever way you go, this strategy gives athletes the “have your cake and eat it too” in terms of that delicate balance of proper fueling for heavy physical activity, longevity, and sustainability.

Q: How do you know if you’re overtrained - and what do you do about it?

An important piece of the wellness puzzle that many fail to consider is that overtraining does not occur in a vacuum. In other words, if this person is overtrained, their exercise programming may be perfect for them based on their experience, performance, and fitness assessments. However, they could still overtrain them. Why? Because exercise is a stressor.

Exercise as a stress

Every beat of your heart is influenced by your nervous system. The nervous system’s sympathetic branch, vigilant in every moment, is responsible for maximizing our safety. The sympathetic initiates physiological responses and adaptations to stressors and threats from our environment. Meanwhile, our default branch, the parasympathetic, is striving to quiet the sympathetic and direct as many resources as possible towards optimizing repair, digestion, detoxification, and hormonal balance.

Today, the sympathetic nervous system is frequently overwhelmed with threats coming from all directions—occupational stressors, environmental toxins, unhealthy foods, stimulants, time-zone changes, EMF, faulty breathing patterns, even our own thoughts and high-intensity exercise. An intense training program without a “stress-mitigation program” that tackles the other pieces of the puzzle is a sure-fire way to overtrain.

The Principle of Overload

Improvements in fitness or any form of durability are the result of the body adapting to external stressors. When you break down your muscles by exposing them to more stress than they’re used to, they grow back bigger and stronger. This is called the Principle of Overload and is another commonly overlooked theory important to the “overtraining” conversation. The take-home message behind of this principle is simple, the body must be exposed to stressors that exceed it’s current capacity in order for the stimulus to be strong enough to elicit a change and improved ability to deal with that stress in the future. The area where most people worrying if they are overtrained, or struggling to achieve results in the first place, is the dose response. The stress needs to exceed your current “comfort zone”—it does not need to bury your comfort zone six-feet into the ground. The best results come from a slight “over-reach” that allows the body to interpret the stress and recover from it, not release a massive dose of stress hormones and glycogen like the world is ending every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday.

As I’ve said for 10+ years, “workouts are the gas station, not the race track.”.

How to tell if you are overtrained

Common overtraining symptoms include declining performance, hormonal imbalances, and depression. However, these are downstream effects and are indicative of an individual that’s been overtrained for months or years. The two far more common symptoms of overtraining are:

  1. Decreased desire to train.

    The body is very smart. The first sign of over-training is the mind requesting a day off, pushing you to take a day off the gym. Sound familiar? The rule of thumb is, after a 10-minute warm up if you still wish you weren’t there, it’s probably a day you shouldn’t be. Take it easy, and make sure this workout does not beat you down.

  2. Slower than normal results / fat loss.

    What makes the body store body fat? Fear or anticipation of an emergency or fuel shortage. In other words, stress hormones case fat storage. In my example above, when exercise sessions are too hard, ramp up too fast, or we go from the couch to a gym-rat for the first two weeks of every New Year - the body floods itself with stress hormones. The greater the disparity between the demands of your lifestyle in the previous 12-weeks, what I call your lifestyle-A1C, and today’s workout, the higher the likelihood it’ll be more of a stress than a therapy.

What to do about it

  1. Cut all your “hard” workouts.

    The words “AMRAP” and “For Time” are temporarily stricken from your vocabulary. This is something I have done for nearly every coaching client I’ve had this year — and suddenly they’re all getting the results they’d been chasing for years. The beauty is, you can still workout — just keep your efforts to 60-70% of “max” and try to fuel everything with nose breathing. This helps keep you in a more fat-burning, relaxed state.

  2. Increase your 12-Week A1C score.

    Immediately begin walking 10,000 steps per day and incorporate a daily mobility practice or flow. This will improve circulation and detox your entire body while also reducing inflammation and mobilizing stuck joints.

  3. Sleep.

    As my friend Bobby Maximus says, “there is no such thing as overtraining, only under-recovering.” See the last Q&A recap for my favorite ways to improve your sleep hygiene and maximize the restorative benefits of your bedtime hours.

  4. Nutrition.

    Cut all alcohol, sugar, late-night eating, and junk food from your diet. When you are stuck or in a figurative hole, as you are with over-training, it’s not the time to take a “balanced” approach to these things. You need 100% of the food you eat to be nutritious and vital to your recovering mind and body.

Q: What’s your take on high dose Vitamin D as suggested in the Longevity Paradox by Dr Gundry?

I completely agree with Dr. Gundry and will say that a healthy Vitamin D status might do far more for your health and longevity than any workout or diet plan. A plethora of research supports the idea that Vitamin D deficiency, or having blood levels similar to 69.5% of Americans and 86.4% of Europeans increases the risk of Alzheimer’s, dementia, breast cancer, heart disease, myocardial infarction, and early death from all causes. 

The good news? Vitamin D3 is the easiest and one of the lowest cost biomarkers to improve. Unlike decreasing inflammation or cholesterol, Vitamin D literally requires only that you, well, “pop a pill.”

More on Vitamin D here.

Q: I’m traveling for a week — what are the best workouts to maintain strength and cardio?

Option 1: What you DON’T want to hear

One interesting thing about travel that ties directly into the start of this Q&A, is that I often see clients return stronger and more fit upon returning from occasional travel than before they left. The reason? Well, they finally gave their body a chance to recover. While traveling I thoroughly enjoy a slight break from “hard training” altogether, especially since often sleep is not quite where it needs to be and you may feel a little jet lagged, and instead scout out a Russian bath or sauna or get a few deep tissue massages.

Option 2: What you DO want to hear.

When it comes to maintaining or improving fitness quickly, the strength of the stimulus is everything. This may sound inconsistent with the above, but consider the fact that a majority of the research done on High-Intensity Interval Training (HIIT), including “Tabata”, is done in 2-4 week trials. Research suggests that, for example, two weeks of very short-duration, high-intensity training can improve fitness somewhat dramatically. However, there exists no research to my knowledge of a Tabata-esque style protocol being carried out longer than 6-weeks. In general, there’s a singular explanation as to why there are no long-term studies on a popular topic — participant adherence or safety. This sheds some light on the dangers and ease of becoming over-trained in the modern fitness era.

How to stay fit while traveling

However, as it relates to travel, especially in the context of a properly designed program prior to, and a strong nervous system, very short duration high intensity work may be just what the doctor ordered. Just 2-4 minutes, or 4-6 intervals of 30-seconds each, of an “All-Out” activity will be enough to maintain, and potentially even improve, aerobic fitness while traveling.

How to stay strong while traveling

On the strength side, the equivalent “minimal effective dose” to the 2-4 minute drill, is 10 heavy reps. In other words, 10 heavy reps of any total-body strength or power exercise such as a deadlift or power clean is all it takes to keep your pre-travel strength gains. I borrowed this tactic from Coach Dan John who teaches you can break your 10-reps up into a lot of different rep schemes: 2 sets of 5, 5 sets of 2, sets of 5-3-2, or even 3 sets of 3 (just keep one rep in the bank!).

My favorite workouts

Now, when you travel you’re generally in one of three scenarios, so I’ve outlined a workout for each:

  1. The “Naked” in your hotel room workout: 5+ exercises. 4 sets of 30:30 intervals of each exercise (i.e. 30s of work, followed by 30s of rest x 4) with 1 minute recovery between exercises. For example:

    1. Jumping Lunges. 16+ reps, total not per leg, per :30s workset.

    2. Hand-Release Push-Ups. 14+ rep per :30s workset.

    3. Squat Jumps. 12+ reps per :30s workset.

    4. Burpees. 10+ reps per :30s workset.

    5. Tricep Push-Ups or V-Ups if your arms are dead. 8+ reps per :30s workset.

  2. The “at a family or friend’s house that has minimal equipment” workout:

    • Got a pair of 10-15lb dumbbells?

      • Do 100 Man-Makers for time. The goal is 100 in 20-minutes.

    • Got a 20-30lb slam ball?

      • On the minute for 30 minutes alternate 10 reps of either Ball Slams or Hand-Release Push-Ups.

    • Got a Kettlebell?

      • Do a Breathing Ladder.

        • 24 Swings, Rest: 12 breaths

        • 20 Swings, Rest: 10 breaths

        • 16 Swings, Rest: 8 breaths

        • 12 Swings, Rest: 6 breaths

        • 8 Swings, Rest: 4 breaths

        • 4 Swings, Rest: 2 breaths

  3. Guess Pass at a Gym.

    • Deadlift: 2 sets of 5 easy, then 2 sets of 5 heavy.

    • Superset:

      • Get Ups: 3 sets of 3 per side.

      • Farmer’s Carry: 3 sets of 50m

    • Fan Bike or Row. 6 reps of 30s all-out followed by a 3 minute rest.

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