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How to Become Fat Adapted and Improve Performance

Author:Peter Defty, GM VESPA Power Products
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Fat as fuelBased upon several consistent & stunning victories by elite endurance athletes who are using a fat-based approach called OFM (Optimized Fat Metabolism) which includes the supplement VESPA , there is a resurgence of interest in fat utilization to fuel endurance athletes. In the words of Jeff Volek RD/PhD to VESPA athletes Zach Bitter & Dan Lentz: “You guys are leading the science…” VESPA and its athletes are developing the new cutting edge for endurance performance.

While mainstream “experts” continue to dismiss the “fat as fuel” approach for performance athletics and continue to advocate a carbohydrate (CHO) based approach very much like the USDA Food Pyramid (and you can see what that has done to the health of the nation), a small but growing group of researchers are studying “fat-adaptation” or “keto-adaptation” as it applies to human performance. The “science” has yet to be published but the data emerging shows a very different picture from what has been established as the limits for fat utilization, one consistent with the performances of athletes who have adopted the VESPA/OFM approach.

So while the textbooks and current body of research say one thing regarding what is possible using fat, the real world of results and emerging data shows a very different picture, one not possible by conventional standards. If you keep in mind there was a time when people truly believed the world was flat and that the sun revolved around the earth, then you can see the change is already here, however, people are resistant to change, especially when they have been brainwashed for over 40 years by mediocre science.

But how does this work when virtually all the current “science” “proves” CHO’s are necessary for high end performance and fat can only be utilized for low to mid-level intensity exercise? Before discussing the scientific plausibility for the "Fat as your Fuel" concept, consider a basic few facts which the sports nutrition "experts" have largely ignored and so many athletes have paid the consequences of not heeding nature.

To start, the human body has VERY limited glycogen storage capacity yet has virtually unlimited stores of fat, more than enough for even the leanest athlete to run 100 miler, complete an Ironman, or ride a double century. So why shouldn't fat make up the vast majority of our aerobic energy source for physical activity?

This is intricately interwoven with the second thing to consider; for most of human existence, humans ate concentrated sources of carbohydrates 3-5 times a year, NOT 3-5 time a day, day after day, week after week, month after month, year after year, DECADE AFTER DECADE. When fruit was ripe or we came across honey for brief periods during the year when these food sources were available, we gorged ourselves on carbohydrates and went back to the main source of calories from animal fats (including grubs).

So, while we are uniquely adapted to being able to consume concentrated forms of carbohydrates in their various forms, this adaptation was not necessarily meant to be utilized constantly because there are "unintended consequences."

We have been led to believe carbohydrates are the answer and eating loads of carbohydrates is necessary for performance and vital health. What the nutrition "experts" missed (or have failed to tell us) are some basics of human physiology. Let's just start with diet and the complex interplay of carbohydrate ingestion and the hormone, insulin.

When you do the math regarding fasting blood sugar in a human, this works out to amount to 1 teaspoon of sugar, as glucose, in circulation. This is normal and this is where your body prefers your glucose levels to be. Blood sugar is VERY tightly regulated. So, say someone eats a whole wheat bagel. Basically they just dumped 8-10 teaspoons of glucose into their blood stream when the body likes to have 1 teaspoon. The body deals with this by secreting insulin so this toxic level of glucose can get back down to fasting levels and do so quickly.

But, just as importantly, to help promote glucose use, high levels of insulin suppress fat burn via beta-oxidation in the cells and use of ketone bodies for brain and nervous system function. On the receptor sites of adipose (fat) tissue insulin functions to promote fat storage and strongly inhibits the release of fat. These are the immediate "unintended consequences" of concentrated carbohydrate consumption. There are many other possible "unintended consequences" that can crop up over time like intestinal issues, insulin resistance, weight gain, energy swings, heart disease, cancer, non-alcoholic fatty liver disease, metabolic syndrome etc.

The alternative is optimized fat metabolism, or OFM. By focusing on optimizing fat burning capacity (which is aerobic only) not only does the athlete tap into the virtually unlimited energy source but even the "strategic" use of carbohydrates becomes a much more powerful and sustainable part of the OFM equation.

Generally carbohydrate sources contain 3.5-4 calories / gram, while fats, especially saturated fats, can contain up to 9.6 calories / gram. But because the pathways to unleashing the tremendous energy stored in fat is so much more complex and not as well studied for sports nutrition, lipid metabolism has only been considered for low intensity physical activity for most athletes and, at best, and moderate levels in well-trained endurance athletes.

Phil Maffetone was one of the pioneers in fat metabolism as a competitive tool with his Maffetone Method of HR training which happens to be an important part of the training component of OFM. Phil, via Mark Allen and others, demonstrated pretty clearly from a results/observational evidence perspective that fat does, indeed, play a vital role. If one follows Phil's writings, you can see his shift more and more into the camp of carbohydrate restriction as another means to enhance this ability to tap into fat at higher and higher levels of physical activity.

So, if consuming lots of carbohydrates induces a strong insulin response, then sharply restricting them obviously brings insulin levels down and increases insulin sensitivity. When this happens at the level we are doing with the VESPA/OFM program the body makes a profound metabolic shift in which it prefers to burn fat aerobically, especially saturates. So now the saturated fats, the ones we have been told are harmful, become our most potent source of base energy.

This level of carbohydrate restriction is termed "Nutritional Ketosis" and the goal is to get an athlete at or near this level for a prolonged period during their base building or off season so this fundamental shift can get set. This is the foundation for the program. To become fat adapted, the initial phase can take anywhere from 3 days to 2 weeks of carb addiction withdrawal, then a second phase of about 6-8 weeks of hormonal up-regulation. The third phase is really about making it a habit (which seems to happen after a year or two of practicing). Recommendations for CHO vs Fat intake to initiate the process vary with each individual and their situation. The baseline daily diet, outside of exercise, should be at least 50% calories from fat, to ideally 65-75% fat. Protein is about 17-30%, and CHO are about 15-25%. Once the shift occurs, the hormones and enzymes necessary for the various pathways of fat metabolism are up-regulated, and insulin levels go down. In metabolic balance, only then can the true power potential of fat be truly realized.

Unfortunately almost all the studies done in the past 60 years utilize a diet which prevents fat metabolism to be fully expressed because there are too many carbohydrate calories in the baseline diet for an athlete to get themselves into nutritional ketosis or a "fat adapted" state. This, by definition means the athlete is going to get a carbohydrate response because the athlete is much more dependent upon carbohydrates for aerobic fuel no matter how much their training has helped them to burn fat.

There are several benefits to a high rate of fat metabolism. First, it is much more efficient from a standpoint of ATP production, producing 4 times the ATP per molecule. Due to this efficiency of oxidation the RQ (respiratory quotient) is lower. When you make a shift toward higher fat oxidation, then you have less oxidative stress and less lactate load. In real world terms, this results in less muscle soreness and the much faster recovery VESPA/OFM athletes see.

More interesting, is that VESPA appears to keep athletes in high levels of beta-oxidation / ketosis even when they take in carbohydrates, so the carbohydrates work even better because they are being used on top of the this huge aerobic fat burning base for threshold aerobic and anaerobic effort levels.

The Emerging Science
This past year Dr. Jeff Volek RD/PhD, his graduate students and colleagues commenced data collection for the FASTER Study (FASTER=Fat-Adapted-Substrate oxidation in-Trained-Elite-Runners) to look at the physiological differences between elite male ultra-marathon runners with one cohort following a conventional high carbohydrate diet and the other following a low carb/fat-adapted strategy (most, if not all, of the low-carb athletes actually practice OFM and use VESPA for their training and racing).

FASTER is a very robust study and includes muscle biopsies, blood and cheek cell analysis etc., but a few basic markers have emerged from the data. Here are a few highlights:

Fat utilization: The current science says the absolute maximum amount of fat an athlete can burn is upwards of 1.0 grams/minute with most highly trained athletes falling into the 0-45-0.75 grams/minute range (Venables et.al.)

FASTER (see charts): The high carb cohort fat burn rate data was precisely consistent with the Venables data, thus was consistent with the existing body of science. On the other hand the low-carb/fat-adapted cohort was on a completely different level. The mean fatty acid oxidation rate was OVER twice the rate of the high carbohydrate cohort.

In real world terms, this means athletes who switch to “fat as fuel” are going to need to take in significantly less calories during their activities. Anyone (meaning most of us) who has experiences some sort of gastrointestinal distress will know the implications of this.

how much fat can humans burn
Venables et.al. data on fatty acid oxidation rate.

Results Peak Burning During VO2 Max
FASTER data on fatty acid oxidation rate

The Crossover Point: The Crossover Point Hypothesis was developed and studied by George Brooks et.al. at UC Berkeley and it basically measured when an athlete would “Cross-over” from burning primarily fat to primarily carbohydrates for exercise. This investigation established that athletes, depending upon level of aerobic training, “crossover” between 42-70% of their VO2Max.

In real world terms, it defined that fat was only relegated to low and mid-level intensity of exercise and did not play a role at higher aerobic intensities as seen here:

Peak Fat Oxidation

FASTER not only challenges the level but coupled with the increased rate of oxidation yields a completely new paradigm for re-thinking how an athlete should approach their aerobic training for energy substrate utilization:

Results: Fat Oxidation Versus Exercise Intensity

As you can see not only does the fat utilization shift into the realm of higher intensity sports, the realm which is regarded as the “sweet spot” for endurance athletes to perform in but at a much higher rate of fat utilization.

There is a lot more esoteric data, but these easy to understand examples pretty well demonstrate a seismic shift is coming and a complete rethinking of how to perform will emerge.

VESPA
VESPA is “Nature’s Catalyst” for fat-fueled performance. VESPA is a synergistic blend of naturally-occurring, minimally processed ingredients. The key ingredient is the Wasp Extract an oligo-peptide derived from the Asian Mandarin Wasp. VESPA is not just another Amino Acid supplement composed of a mixture of synthesized amino acids in their various forms. Naturally-occurring peptides and proteins are very different than a product composed of free branch-chain amino acids that are formulated to mimic the composition of the naturally-occurring substance. That would be like hydrolyzing meat and getting the amino acid profile of the proteins, and then trying to make meat synthetically. It can't really be done. This makes the cost to produce VESPA ridiculously expensive compared to other products and there is no scalability in site.

For the serious athlete, using VESPA in training is vital. Because of the lower oxidative stress and lactate load etc., the recovery is phenomenal which means the athlete can withstand a higher training load (whether it’s in duration or intensity) and be able to recover and adapt quicker, and at a higher level.

A couple of caveats to make this work well: Always do a long slow warm-up to prime the muscles with oxygen so you can burn fat at a high rate. This takes patience and time but pays huge dividends. This includes and is especially important for fat adapted athletes before doing a workout that is high on intensity rather than cardio.

Use VESPA as directed for all training except for easy shorter recovery workouts. The exception would be if you are doing a recovery run in the morning or day and you had to work after. Then we recommend using it so you are not dragging yourself through the day and having to resort to caffeine or sugar to get through.

Stretch out your VESPA use to 3-4 hours along with trying to minimize caloric intake to help train your body to stretch itself in terms of fat burn for your long duration training.

Hydration: When you shift toward higher fat burn you need to be more on top of proper hydration. This means loads of water and electrolytes, with sodium being a major part of the electrolyte profile, while exercising.

In terms of cost, while VESPA seems very expensive on the shelf on a per unit basis, most long term VESPA users actually comment on the value and that it really does not cost that much more than the conventional approach (some believe using VESPA/OFM saves them money!) because when using VESPA you are dramatically reducing intake of calories from gels or shot blocks. This is separate from how much better they feel; that they no longer bonk, get sick, or are sore for days after an event.

What about the Carbohydrates?
Carbohydrates are NOT eliminated but play a key role for race level performance. VESPA/OFM makes "Strategic" use of concentrated carbohydrate calories in the diet and fueling for that synergy translates into game-changing performance. Using VESPA allows the athlete to get that quick boost from carb intake during competition yet remain “locked in” with their performance fat metabolism. Observationally, athletes report now the carbs give them a much bigger, more sustainable boost during competition using less. This is one marker of how good VESPA work--the carbs work much better using less.

So, what we find for many is to sharply restrict carbohydrates in the weeks leading up to an event, especially in the taper, then (depending upon the type of event) "sneaking" some carbohydrates in with the pre-race meals. This is what we call our "Carb sneak."
It is not a carbohydrate loading, per se, but enough to top off glycogen levels without wrecking your insulin sensitivity and fat burning capability. The night before a race many of us eat a medium rare rib eye, NY or T-bone steak with a baked potato buried in butter, sour cream and salt. The fat from the butter and sour cream not only serves to provide loads of fat calories, but more importantly serves to sharply blunt the glycemic load of the starch in the potato. This way, you do not get a sharp and rapid increase in blood sugar, thus no huge insulin response.

When using VESPA and being fat adapted, athletes are advised to use concentrated forms of carbohydrates during their competitions and hard workouts which simulate race conditions. Since the athlete generally takes in significantly less calories using VESPA (and being fat adapted), we want to make this as easy as possible, so we recommend the athlete use whatever calorie sources work best for them (whether it is gels, shot blocks, liquid nutrition, fruit, potatoes, aid station foods, etc.). Using VESPA will help reduce the athlete’s typical carb needs by 25-30%.

The only thing we do say, is to never take in a large slug of food at a time when exerting significant physical activity. This keeps the digestive tract working despite down regulation of blood flow to the internal organs during exercise and prevents any significant spike in blood sugar. During exercise there is an insulin "muting" response, so insulin sensitivity is higher and less insulin is secreted.

When hot, we recommend focusing on hydration and restricting calories to simpler sugars, used as a "sugar drip." This is recommended because at high temps the body sharply down regulates blood flow to the internal organs and sharply increases blood flow from the muscles to the skin surface to sweat and cool the body. The capacity for digestion is simply not there.

During the cool temps we advise higher intake, especially if cold and wet, to maintain core body temps. The athlete is also able to process and digest more complex foods that would have higher levels of fat and protein under these conditions.

Summary
The current paradigm for endurance nutrition and fueling is shifting; however, what is emerging is not very clear, as there are the two camps; conventional high carb vs. ketogenic/low carb, with you, the athlete, caught in the middle.

To help guide the athlete to find their path to Optimized Fat Metabolism, the first thing I suggest is to do your homework and get informed. There is enough information readily available which will suggest that consuming a ton of carbohydrates and restricting fat intake has serious long-term unintended consequences for both performance and overall health. So, some level of carbohydrate restriction and fat adaptation makes sense.

One way to accomplish this is to regularly cycle down your carbohydrate intake to non-starchy vegetables and fruits (avocados, tomatoes) and avoid concentrated carbohydrates in your diet. At the same time, add the butter, olive oil, coconut oil and MCT oil into the diet. Consume the appropriate level of Omega 3 from fish, krill or algae. The Omega 3 fatty acid found in flax or borage oils is not an essential omega 3, contrary to what people have been led to believe.

Protein should be moderate and taken in a high fat environment, as protein is best assimilated this way. Excess protein will be turned into glucose and also work your kidneys.

In short, using Fat Metabolism is a great way to perform endurance exercise but it will only get you 75-85% of the way there, you won’t have that “extra gear” for race level performance, and all the literature and observational evidence is pretty clear, so a strict fat-fueled or keto-adapted state will easily get you to the finish line, but probably won’t take you to your potential.

However, fat-adaptation as a foundation is a very powerful tool for the endurance athlete, one they can sustainably build upon for consistent performance, overall health and allow the strategic use of carbohydrates.

VESPA has shown to yield winning performance in both traditionally fueled athletes and OFM athletes. VESPA is an integral part of OFM. What makes OFM stand apart, is that for many athletes, it has allowed them to consistently perform at peak, set PR/PB, and recover at a rate not previously possible. In elite athletes it has given them the ability to win races, set course record and even American and World records.

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