Yesterday I was hiking around the “Cinq Lacs” until 8pm so today’s 5:30 am rise to go cycling was difficult – especially when considering the logistics involved. The cols we would be climbing are in the Maurienne valley – not the Tarrantaise where we live – so that would be a 115 km car ride before even starting. Chris had organised it all and he really does enjoy the whole logistics process – including the route planning and creation with GPS route/track files being shared for mobile devices. The more people who have the exact map route on their Garmin or mobile phone system the better.
Breakfast at 5:45 am was another cooked ketogenic delight – with no carbs. I’d have nothing else to eat now until we stopped at lunchtime as part of an on-going experiment in ketogenic nutrition. Last week I’d participated in the “Les 2 Alpes Granfondo” and survived the first scary test – but had fed myself with carbs after the first two hours. That race was seriously daunting as a debut for racing in a ketogenic state. Success from that experiment had encouraged me to remain with ketosis and continue the experiment. During the week it had been very difficult to recover from the extreme demands from the Sunday race. Both running and cycling efforts had been sluggish and tired. Hiking on Saturday – almost a week later – was also affected and devoid of energy. Twice during the week I gave in to temptation to eat more carbs than I should have – it was a bit of a struggle altogether. Although I justified the carbs under the pretext of filling a “carbs debt” due to exercise – that was not the reality. Once you start eating carbs that old sweet tooth immediately takes over again – a bit like a recovering alcoholic being given a drink. When the alarm clock went off at 5:30 am I had no idea what state I’d be in physically – especially having been struggling with hiking the evening before. The cycling would be with fit people – all cycling club members and endurance sport enthusiasts – and all chugging down carbs galore all the way!
For once my personal organisation was good. Wearing the cycle clothing beneath street clothing gives protection from the cold in the morning but makes it simple when arriving at the departure point for the cycling. All my stuff was placed in one shoulder bag and the bike was fully prepared – with magnesium/sodium rich mineral water already in the bottles –just one bike and one bag! On arrival at St. Michel en Maurienne (at the foot of the Télégraphe climb) my bag went into Richard’s van – which would meet us half way around the 220 km circuit. My plan was to only go this far and then to return to the start in the van – due to predicted tiredness and to respect the deeper nutritional experiment that was about to be carried out. My objective today was not only to cycle a very long and demanding climb while in ketosis – but to not eat at all during this –even after the first 2 hours. The theory is that if you are keto-adapted then you are “bonk” proof. I know exactly what everything from mild hypoglycaemia to extreme central fatigue (bonking) feels like. The four other guys would be pacing themselves for the entire 220 km route so they wouldn’t be racing up to the cols – but they are fit and so they wouldn’t be hanging around either. Chris had about 5,500 km in his legs already this season where I was at around 2700 km. Performance is strongly related to quality mileage. Chris also trains with a power meter – which brings an interesting dimension to it all.
Views from Col du Galibier
Right from the start of the climb up the Télégraph, to my great surprise I felt strong. Chris had chosen 230 Watts as his sustainable power output so he set the pace with this. I was comfortable with this workload and had to slow myself down on the steeper sections. It was interesting to see how we had a tendency to let the power drop dramatically on the flatter sections and that this was unconscious. The power meter gives a new objective perspective that is very informative. Stephan was dropped near the start and fell several minutes behind. The Télégraph is 12 km long and we were at the top in 1 hr 3 mins – a good time by any standards. While Stephan was catching up we went into the café for our morning coffee. I’d had mug of coffee in the morning – but several hours earlier. Stephan didn’t stop at the top but carried on at his own pace to descend into Valloire ski station and then begin the long climb of the mythical Galibier. Catching up to Stephan meant ramping up the power band to around 270 Watts (related to Chris’s weight). This is a level difficult for me to sustain at any time but surprisingly I could hang in there. Stephan had managed to pick up his pace so it was like chasing a hare – for about 10 km. I was surprised at my resilience at this pace so everything was positive so far. We caught Stephan just on arrival at the plateau before the steep sections began. I could feel myself exploding with the effort of the past 10 km so elected to accompany Stephan for the remainder of the climb. This was a good choice as together we could ride at a pace that permitted conversation. The very top section of the Galibier above the car tunnel is steep and tough – with altitude now being factored in at 2642 m. When we arrived at the top a few minutes after the others I was feeling good. Stephan had been eating gels and energy bars on the way up. Despite having both a sugar mix and cashew nuts with me I’d eaten nothing. I’d experienced no hypoglycaemia symptoms at all. Towards the summit I was getting a bit low on power but that could have had a lot to do with overdoing in while chasing Stephan or it could have been due to not feeding. Either way the ketogenic principle of “bonk” immunity was holding up. The total time spent climbing was around 2 hrs 40 mins.
One other benefit of ketosis is that by burning fat you only produce 0.7 litres of Co2 per litre of O2 consumed – instead of the 1:1 ratio when burning carbs. Also you do not create lactic acid. When you generate high Co2 and Lactic acid levels the body makes you hyperventilate to lower blood acidity levels and keep acidity in it’s critically extremely tight functional range. This is why you breathe hard during anaerobic exercise – whereas the hard breathing from aerobic exercise is just to supply O2 as a metabolic catalyst (O2 supplies no energy). It’s quite difficult to sense the difference between the two aspects of breathing but I’m starting to recognise the difference. The dramatic difference for me was felt on this final stretch - there was no panting or gasping for air and no sense of being at altitude. After stopping there was none of my habitual “post exercise asthma”. Until now I’d been forced to use nasal breathing to prevent hyperventilation in such situations, but here there was no need. It seems that the key to all of this is to develop the fat burning metabolism and be careful with overdoing the anaerobic, carb based metabolism.
Views from Col de la Madeleine (Short cut driving home)
From the Galibier it was a fast and long descent via the Col du Lautaret towards Briançon. This ended up on long flats along the valley plains – where Chris did all the pulling. I was able to stay with him all the way and felt mentally alert and physically fine – though felt a bit hungry and as if this hunger was bringing a drop in motivation or strength. It can take a year for a body to become fully keto-adapted so it’s a bit ambitious to expect to get very far without eating anything at this stage and asking the body to supply all the necessary fat and ketones for the job from its own reserves.
Lesley met us with the van at the entrance to Briançon but we then went altogether by bike through the outskirts of Briançon to a restaurant for lunch. I chose to have a salad based meal with no carbs – drinking only mineral water and coffee. The others all had spaghetti bolognaise, cokes, sweet deserts and sweet coffee – with only Lesley avoiding the Cokes. After lunch I felt a bit recovered – but still not highly motivated. In the morning my breakfast had been cooked in coconut oil to give access to ketones directly – but here I was doing nothing to either recover my carbs debt or supply ketones or fat for metabolising. I agreed to climb the next col – a 20 km climb – before returning to the van and heading home. This next climb was a gradual, steady climb, led against the wind by Chris at a strong pace. Only the final 2.7 km would be properly steep and here I found that the break we had for lunch had sort of switched off my fat burning metabolism. It was a struggle to find strength to climb now, though I know that if the climb was longer I’d have recovered. As it was i got to the top only about 30 seconds behind Stephan – but even mentally and motivationally I was struggling. This was however only happening after 4 hrs 30 mins of exercise without any appropriate nutrition for either carb loading or ketosis. Resisting the invitation to continue I said my goodbyes and headed back off down the mountain. There was still a need to push on the gentler slopes of the descent and I was surprised at the work I could still output when not digging too deep for strength. Mentally there was no carbs “buzz” driving me along – and there was a desire to get to the end – but not all that bad.
Once again the ketogenic theory had clearly stood up to experimental scrutiny. There was no bonking or even any hypoglycaemia despite going completely against the current dogma of stuffing yourself with high energy carbs even days before the event. With this second test in the pocket it became clear what the next one would have to be. I would have to find out how to feed properly for a sustained ketogenic state during exercise. When Ranaulph Feinnes walked across the Antarctic pulling a sled loaded with his food he carried only fat. This decision was taken because it is less than half the weight of the carbs necessary to provide the same caloric energy. Fat provides 9 calories per gram and carbs only 4. Feinnes had blood samples taken daily and eventually had blood glucose levels so low – practically zero – that a non keto-adapted person would have not only been comatosed a long time before but would be dead. In contrast to this Feinnes was able to burn 12,000 calories per day – a level only normally attained in extreme ultra-endurance events by elite athletes. The point is that FEEDING is necessary. One obvious advantage here on a bike is that if you need to carry food then it is only half the weight! That now implies both a weight advantage and breathing advantage. Over time this should also bring a body weight advantage – something that for me was not attainable when eating carbs for energy. I’m currently down to 65.4 kg when fully hydrated – compared to 77 kg only 3 months ago. Removing the deepest and longest stored body fat is proving to be slow but gradual.
Experiment number two appears to have been another success for ketosis.
Briançon (Napoleonic era fort)