Is Sports Science at the back of the fat burning pack?

Posted by on Nov 15, 2014 in Blog, News | 10 comments

Is Sports Science at the back of the fat burning pack?
29 Flares Twitter 0 Facebook 0 Google+ 0 Pin It Share 0 Email -- Email to a friend 29 Flares ×

This question struck me yesterday after an enthusiastic barrage of tweets from sports scientists, nutritionists and carb fueling evangelists reacting strongly to the “Run on Fat” narrative (their word but we like it!).

The exchange went on for some time, gathering new participants, interested followers, and supporters on both sides. Even Zach Bitter (world 12 hour ultra record holder) chimed in.  Aside: Hope to meet him one day – schoolteachers have my respect, but when they can also run non stop for 12 hours faster than anyone on the planet, that’s another level right there. 


Anyway, this all seemed fairly healthy at first even if there was some confusion from the get go. The initial tweet that kicked it all off suggested that “the future of endurance performance is LCHF.” While this would be consistent with our narrative, the reposte (that there is no evidence supporting lower carb fueling for high intensity Olympic sports) that triggered the escalation was a bit like ordering a latte in a tea house – close to relevant but nonetheless misplaced. The tweeter was unknown to me but seems to be a respected Canadian sports scientist.




That being the case, since when does a very qualified sports scientist not understand the significance of the term “endurance” in the context of performance? And since when do myriad others of a supposed scientific persuasion jump in without checking the authenticity and origin of the narrative? 

These are some smart folks, so it strikes me that the only logical answer is when they choose not to. That their pistols are cocked and carb loaded makes sense. Carb loading does what it says on the tin. It works. It’s easy to prescribe, understand and follow. Heck, the science has even supported it since Ron Hill won the European Marathon title as far back as the late 60s. It is the Acropolis of sports nutrition. I have done it myself. Why bother questioning it?

The problem is this. Sports science looks at performance from a very acute, performance centric perspective. The positive implications of a low carb fueling strategy reducing inflammatory markers in an athlete don’t really add up to much in that context.

Or do they?

Athletes and coaches know that nailing it on the day is a multifactorial process. The scientists do too, but they will never 100% replicate the competitive environment in a lab and they know this too. They do what they can with what they have. That they will never have enough is the very reason they get to do what they do.

When Sir Steve Redgrave developed Type 2 Diabetes just 3 years after powering his way to a 5th Olympic rowing gold medal, the scientists were long gone. They were not there because they don’t care. A retired Redgrave is just beyond their scope now. But did decades of carb loading (as would have been advocated by GB Rowing nutritionists) to fuel his superhuman performances contribute to his illness? It is a valid question with implications for athletes and their advisors.



Is there not a duty of care beyond the field of play?

If you ask them they will say Redgrave is an anecdote. But if he is an anecdote now, was he not an anecdote when he won 5 golds? Prof Tim Noakes believes no athlete requires more than 200g of carbs/day. Could Redgrave have trained in a lower carb state with some strategic carb uploading on race day to similar effect? If the greatest Olympian of them all had switched his energy tank towards fat adaptation, would he not now be  diabetic?

We don’t know.

As filmmakers we ask questions and try to answer them best they can. The narrative we use to do so is in our world equivalent to the data our scientifically minded commentators are screaming out for – it is what we use to weave a story, build drama and ultimately reach and deliver a conclusion.

It is revealing, refreshing and welcome when scientists respond as they did yesterday. I hope they come back with the increased heart rate variability required to engage in a more thoughtful exchange.

Sprinters need carbs they scream? Yes, of course they do. Powerlifters? Different. Split second explosive events where power to weight ratio matters enormously are interesting in this context.

Take high jumpers. That’s an Olympic sport, right? If a high jumper can knock 0.5kgs off an already lean frame, improve their power to weight ratio and reduce niggles with those lowered markers of inflammation accessible with a low carb diet, that could be the 0.5% he/she needs to win.

1968 Olympic high jump champion Dick Fosbury (below) did not wait on “science” to identify a quantum shift in the technique of his chosen discipline. The Fosbury flop (the technique you see used to this day) put its predecessor – the “western roll” – to sleep and the sport moved on to breach the 8 foot barrier. More than any scientist, the great Cuban Javier Sotomayor has Fosbury to thank for that achievement. He knows it and the scientists know it too.




Sotomayor competed at 81kgs. At a weight of 80 or 80.5kgs with no loss of power, what could he have done?

How could the possibility of adding 1 cm to the high jump world record not interest a sports scientist?

In the fat adaptation debate, the lazy scientific eye looks to Kenyan endurance athletes who eat 75% carbs. “Look!” they shout. We all need carbs!! Thankfully, the dreamers and the thought leaders look to the sky and think how much higher Sotomayor may have flown with 0.5 kgs less on his 6’5” frame.

Kobe Bryant didn’t wait for a double blind trial to tell him what his body already has. Likewise Mitchell Johnson, ICC Cricketer of the Year and the fastest bowler in the world right now (who happens to be built more like a 400m Olympian) has the skin folds and a fat fuelled 150 mph arm to prove it’s working for him. But there is only one Mitch Johnson. Should he not stop until a double blind trial tells him his low carb, high fat regime is paying dividends?




It’s like this.

The horse has bolted.

The athletes are coming.

And so are we.



Disclosure: The movie Cereal Killers 2: “RUN ON FAT” is not financially supported, endorsed or influenced by any third party commercial or other interests. We are raising funds and pre-selling on kickstarter through Dec 13, 2015. Support us here.





  1. Yesterday I completed my fourth ultra running event in the space of ten weeks having never previously done a single ultra.I went lchf on June 19th 2014.The event yesterday was a 39 miles trail race in one of Ireland’s most stunning forest settings,Tollymore Forest Park.Considering that throughout this year I have done relatively little trail running in training as I prefer the mountains I was delighted to discover that I came 21st out of 49 competitors.As with the previous ultras there was no energy bonk and none of the dreaded heavy legs that used to appear after about 2 hours of running,my time was 6 hours 51 minutes.The only food I consumed was 1 slice of cheddar cheese and I drank about half a litre of water in total at the various water stations.As I write these words it is also apparent that my recovery is much quicker than it was during my carb loading days,so much so that I actually feel as though I could go for a run today.I will make do with a swim instead but thats just me being cautious.I am not a scientist,far from it in fact!At school it was an academic area that held no appeal to me. It did not help that one of the Chemistry teachers chain smoked from his desk. Also the fact that I scored 72% in one Physics exam owed much more to the poor eyesight of the exam supervisor not being able to spot the cogger sitting in the back row.But I would be interested to know how many of the sceptical/non believing scientists ever gave themselves a three month trial of the low carb,high fat way of living.

    • Great stuff Declan. Athletes succeed, science studies why – this will be a case of medals before medicine methinks!

  2. Wendy was pretty quick to brush off health risk concerns for performance.
    How about coronary artery plaque in marathoners?

    The couple that rowed from CA to HII did very well fueled on fats. trips
    http ://

    Would seem the haters gotta hate LCHF without giving it an n=1 for themselves. Sure in some sports it may not work as well. But outside the performance window there aren’t many ways to raise HDL, lower trigs and positively affect every other marker in a lipid profile, lose significant fat without losing muscle mass, correct insulin resistance in T2D…

    Consider the ATP difference ~3x the energy difference. And if theory holds that 1lbs of body fat contains 3500 kcal that is a lot of potential fuel.

    • Interesting times ahead for sure Vaun. The movie should raise a few eyebrows and collective scientific blood pressure I should think (which they could lower on LCHF of course). Sami and Meredith’s row is a remarkable LCHF testimony. Thanks for stopping by.

    • Hi Vaun. Plaque is not related to saturated fat or cholesterol. They are built up from fructose, vegetable oil (omega-6), the protein LDL APOS B with particle size smaller than 25nm and other particles. The deadly LDL is meantioned are only created by the liver if you over consuming sugar.

  3. Nice blog Donal. You may be aware that Jeff Volek has recently completed a study on elite athletes looking closely at all performance parameters and I believe he has found incredible levels of fat oxidation which were previously considered impossible.
    When this is published I believe it will raise the question of do the benefits of fat adaptation increase over time?

    • Cheers Gary. The FASTER study (the one you refer to?) will be fascinating! We got access to some of the research and its incredible. I feel the scientists are looking at glycogen the way doctors have been looking at cholesterol – very narrow minded. There are so many broader benefits to fat adaptation (even if not full keto) that can assist recovery, career longevity and surely performance. Interesting times ahead.

  4. anything that assists mood will enhance performance. IME the sugar rush certainly lifts the sense of wellbeing whether at the start of an ironman swim or 3/4 through 100km trail ultra. But I wonder if that gain is lost when the dump occurs about 30min later – encouraging another hit of sugar to create an up & down vicious circle which only worsens with compounding fatigue? Not to mention the nausea associated with the carbs & their huge fluid intake requirements. My best performances, without nausea, occurred when taking minuscule carbs – nothing more that a drop of gel on the tongue in an ironman or a few paleo cookies + cola during a trail ultra. No sugar highs but also no sugar lows – just consistent energy output & even mood. Having fat adapted prior to these events was the crucial step to racing efficiently, in a good mood, consistent pacing and not experiencing hunger. Ultraendurance is a fat burning discipline & carb loading really has no place for athletes who are fat adapted. I also think the lesser carb requirement means less fluid requirements which has immense advantages on pacing & load carried in the backpack.

    • Thanks for a great contribution Nicole – the point you make about a drop of gel on the tongue is interesting. It appears even rinsing the mouth with a gel/sports drink (but not actually consuming it) can be effective. Sami’s schedule in Cereal Killers 2 should interest you :)

  5. The glycogen theory will tumble, the house of cards it’s stacked on is already pretty shaky, but just like cholesterol it won’t die off as a theory until it’s main proponents do.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>