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MCT oils - Can they boost endurance?

Author:Britt Maughan
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coconut fat and mct oilsBenefits to Athletes
Among other benefits, MCT oils can help an athlete increase endurance and energy by tapping into a readily available source of fuel in the form of fatty acids while sparing glycogen stores. Read on to find out more.

What Are They?
Medium chain triglycerides (MCTs) are unique fats that contain between 6 and 12 carbons. All oils contain short chain, medium chain, or long chain fatty acids, which range from 2 to 22 carbon atoms in length. The carbon chain is important to note, as it plays a role in the energy required to use, store, and digest the fat.
How They Work
With a shorter chain of carbons, MCT oils enter the cell and the mitochondria and are converted to energy through the Kreb's Cycle. What makes MCT oils so unique is their ability to convert to energy without the presence of the amino acid, carnitine. This allows the process to move much faster, converting MCT oil directly into Acetyl CoA. This accelerated conversion to energy results in MCT oil converting quickly and efficiently into fuel for use by both organs and muscles. "Scientists attribute the increased energy from consumption of MCTs to the rapid formation of ketone bodies. MCTs are thus a good choice for anyone who has increased energy needs, as following major surgery, during normal or stunted growth, to enhance athletic performance, and to counteract the decreased energy production that results from aging" (1).
Several research studies have been conducted to test the theory of extended endurance with the use of MCT oils. The theory was that by supplementing with MCTs, an ergogenic effect would take place that would boost energy output, spare carbohydrate, and extend overall endurance.
"An early study on the swimming endurance of mice seemed to provide evidence for this effect (7). The mice were fed a diet containing 80g of MCTs plus 20g of long-chain triglycerides (LCTs) per kilo of their dietary feed, for six weeks, while mice fed a diet containing 100g of pure LCTs per kilo were used as controls. When forced to swim to exhaustion, the MCT-fed group showed significantly greater swim capacity than the control group (89.5 vs 80.2 minutes). Moreover, the researchers also found that enzymes associated with acetyl-CoA and the Krebs Cycle were boosted, as predicted by the theory.

In the same year as the mice study, a Dutch study looked at the effects of supplementing MCTs, with or without carbohydrate (8). Eight well trained athletes cycled 4 x 180 min at 50% maximal work rate, and drank either a pure carbohydrate, pure MCTs or carbohydrate/MCTs solution. The results indicated that more MCTs were oxidized when ingested, in combination with carbohydrate, and that the oral MCTs could serve as an energy source, in addition to glucose during exercise, because the metabolic availability of MCTs was high" (3,4).

MCT oil has also been associated with weight loss and maintaining low levels of body fat. MCT oils provide roughly 10% fewer calories than long chain triglycerides and have been shown to suppress appetite more than other fats, such as animal lard and soybean oil (1). Again, with the fat being quickly converted to energy, it is more readily available for use as fuel versus storage.
Diet Supplementation
There are a few ways you can increase your MCT oil intake through the diet. Coconuts offer an amazing source of MCT oil and contain an important fatty acid, lauric acid. Coconut oil contains about 50% lauric acid, which has been found to be a powerful antimicrobial agent. Olive oil is also rich in MCT oils, and should be consumed at low or room temperature to preserve the oil properties and avoid oxidation (which happens with high heat). Other food sources include milk fats and palm oil, but their percentage of MCTs are low in comparison to the long chain fatty acids also found in these products. MCT oils that have been produced for supplemental use undergo a process called 'fractionation', which separates the MCTs from the other oils (short and long) and are then concentrated for a higher dose of pure MCTs.
With new research still in the works on MCT oil's direct effect on athletic performance, athletes are testing out the use of MCT oils as part of their nutrition strategy for pre, post and during race. In addition to pure oil supplements, MCTs are included in gels, bars, and protein powders (see Related Products on the right side of this article for suggestions of products that contain MCT oils). As always, at FTM we suggest you give it a try and see if it's right for you. Every athlete is different, and you can only know how your performance is improved by trial and error.
3. J Nutr 1995 Mar; 125(3)531:9
4. J Appl Physiol 1995 Sep;79(3):756-62

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