Wednesday, June 11, 2008

The Mummy Returns

Yes, after managing to keep a safe distance between me and the pavement for the better part of a year and a half now (since my last crash in which I broke my hip and a couple of other things), my streak came to a crashing halt last Tuesday when I ran into some relatively immovable object on the roadway and came off second best.

Let me tell you, broken fingers aren’t too far down the pain scale from broken hips, but thanks to my friendly nurse with his morphine drip on hand, the pain was relatively short lived. Unfortunately, my ER doc’s attempt of ‘popping’ one of my fingers back into place didn’t work out and I wound up in surgery getting my finger pinned in place and my fractured elbow drained.

It maybe a little sad to admit that the first thought that went through my head after hitting the deck was “How much fitness am I going to lose this time?”. After my last experience of going from lifetime best fitness to completely starting over, after 3 months of bed rest, I must say, having to do it again is one of my greatest fears.

As it turns out, the answer to my question was 1 week (it would have been sooner but my doc made me promise not to work out until I was off the pain meds!!) I just got back from my first workout back, 1hr on the bike trainer followed by 30 minutes on the treadmill. After pushing a dismal 160W in my aerobic zone (50W less than usual), I am reminded yet again of the power of consistency. Avoid time off at all costs. Keep the engine ticking over at all times. Even in recovery cycles, movement is good!!

But, I digress. As promised, the topic of this week’s post is a follow up to my post 2 weeks ago on practical ways to improve fat oxidation. I will present a brief (typing with one hand sucks!! :-) case study of the athlete that we have witnessed the greatest improvement in fat oxidation thus far and I will highlight some of the practical methods that we have used to get him to this point.

I have been coaching this athlete for a little over a year now. He came to me as a relative ‘newbie’ to the sport (2yrs), with no experience over long-course triathlon (but a tendency for a performance drop off with increased duration, if we compare his best single sport efforts with his best longer duration tri efforts). Incidentally, this profile describes the majority of male athletes coming to me to prepare for their first Ironman. When we look at this athletes first substrate profile, it is not hard to see why many athletes do great over short duration efforts but have a hard time fuelling long duration efforts, e.g the Ironman.

As many of you know, my rule of thumb for best case Ironman (and day to day) pacing for an intermediate triathlete is ~10kcal of CHO/min. This is based on the simple math of average glycogen stores going into the event plus the maximum rate of glycogen sparing if the athlete fuels appropriately. Based on this athletes first test, even at his slowest pace he was expending >10kcal of CHO/min. If he raced at this level of fitness, clearly he would be in for a very long day with a best case scenario of walking the marathon. With very respectable ‘top end’ performances of 18:15 for a 5K and sub 60min for a 40K TT, clearly fat oxidation was the big limiter.


Nutrition: Our 2 goals for this athlete were (A) an improvement in fat oxidation at all intensities (B) a reduction in bodyweight. In order to accomplish these goals, I put this athlete on a diet of 400g of CHO/200g of (lean) Protein and 100g of (good) Fat. This represents 3300kcal/day and 48%/24%/28% macronutrient breakdown. Irrespective of whether the diet is eucaloric or not, I have found these percentages to be ideal in the base phase of training. This is (indirectly) also supported by the literature, e.g. Bergstrom et al. (1967) – check this study out. Lots of practical implications for the endurance athlete!!

Training: To support our objectives, training volume was quite high (20-23hrs/wk) but initially of a very low intensity (with most sessions having a cap of 50 beats below max!!) Incidentally, this is the sort of training that a very successful German ex-pro triathlete advocated when I was fortunate enough to chat with him about how he reached the pinnacle of the sport. It is what Dan Empfield called in an article about how the Germans trained “ridiculously slow”.

Our key sessions each week were a 4hr long flat bike (usually a trainer session due to weather constraints) followed the day after by a long, relatively flat hike of 4+ hours. Other sessions during the week were an aerobic maintenance brick, a strength maintenance session and several technique focused swims.

A couple of important caveats to the athlete looking to undertake such a program:

1. The athlete is a graduate student with limited commitments and therefore has ample time to devote to such a program without losing sleep.
2. The athlete is one of the most focused and compliant athletes in my stable. The above program is for the athlete intent on improving performance whatever it takes. This is not for everyone.
3. This athlete had one of the widest gaps between his ‘top end’ performance and his ‘all day’ performance. Most of the programs for my other athletes, while similar in overall emphasis are more ‘balanced’ across the intensity spectrum.

So, what results did 9 months on the above program yield…….

Simply, the highest rate of fat oxidation that we have seen to date (elites included) and, the first athlete to achieve the golden number that Professor Tim Noakes hypothesized that Mark Allen must have averaged to support his Kona performances, i.e 10 kcal of fat burned per minute!! In some ways to us, that barrier was like the 4 minute mile, something that sounded theoretically possible but something that we wouldn’t really buy into until we witnessed it first hand. Well, we witnessed it and it was glorious!!

This is not to say that I’m expecting this guy to be challenging Macca for the Kona win anytime soon. If you look at the charts you will see that while his overall economy is dramatically improving, he is still a big guy that chews up a good amount of juice to hold a given pace. However, having a physiological quality that very few people on earth possess (if our sample is anything close to representative) is a great starting point!!

With the sort of base that this athlete has patiently and deliberately taken the time to establish, I will be expecting big things from him in the coming years.


KP said...


CRAP, hang in there, mang.


KP said...

... and thanks for sharing your athlete's data. Best wishes to both of you.


BRFOOT said...

Sorry to hear about the bum wing, been there, it sucks, but it could have been worse.
3 questions about this post.
1.did you do any MAF testing?
2.did his paces increase? you think his response was more related to his consistancy or the duration of those longer sessions?

Ryan D said...

Big A-

Sorry to hear about the arm man!

This is a great post on fat oxidation, but I have a question.

You mentioned: "I put this athlete on a diet of 400g of CHO/200g of (lean) Protein and 100g of (good) Fat. This represents 3300kcal/day and 48%/24%/28% macronutrient breakdown."

What was his breakdown before you put him on this? I know that his training plan must have had a lot to do with his increase in fat oxidation, but I am curious what his diet was before.

Ryan Denner

Jason said...

Went from 8:57/mi (July '07) to 7:40/ mi last week.
The improvement is not due to any appreciable weight change (still a struggle)

Jason said...

diet before was all over the map. There was no consistent plan. One common element however was a large amount of starchy foods (sometimes 3 bagels per day!)
I don't eat grains anymore. The only exception would be following a big day of training (>5hrs).

GZ said...

Very interesting post, and sorry to hear of your woes with your spill.

Regarding the heart of your post ... I am interested in your take on the following:

So the objective of these aerobic (ridiculously slow) efforts are to increase fat utilization at all paces in a longer event like a tri. At what point do efforts above aerobic effort impact the body's ability to shift its fuel burning mechanism to from fat to cho? In other words, if this athlete had a day in the period in which you had prescribed this program where they did work that was aerobic, how would impact their ability to leverage fat versus CHO and how would this effect their development over the term of your experiment.



Alan Couzens said...

Jason (jd), meet the gang, gang meet Jason.

I need to work harder on this anonymity thing :-)

First of all thanks for all the positive vibes toward a quick recovery. I'll be back in the game with an even firmer resolve ASAP.

Now to the qu's:

Brfoot: Actually Jason and I made a conscious effort to switch AMAP to 'one-a-days' as opposed to split workouts. I know Lydiard was a big fan of this and it makes sense given the shift in substrate we have seen with longer duration workouts.

Ryan: I firmly believe that both nutrition and training need to fall into place. You need the diet that will liberate as many FFAs as possible then you need the mitochondria to take up the FFAs and burn them.

GZ: The athletes individual profile can gives us the best indication of when fatburning 'shuts off' for each individual athlete.


Ruley said...

what kind of test do you perform for the substrate usage analysis? is it an incremental one with gas analysis?(co2:h2o)????

Scott said...

Alan, So sorry to hear about your fall. Hope your recovery is as smooth as can be!! I broke my clavicle in Feb.08 and my first thought, as I agonized in pain, was "oh no My training!"
too funny,

Alan Couzens said...

You got it Ruley.

Incremental test w/gas analysis (VCO2/VO2).


Alan Couzens said...

Thanks Scott.

(Knock on wood) That's one bone I haven't broken yet but after seeing the sort of pain the roadies are in when they go down on the clavicle, doesn't look like much fun!!


TJ said...

Fractured my left elbow in 06 in a crash. I was able to get back to it fairly you have, but it took a while (months) for my full range of motion to return and for the stiffness to go away.
Hope you continue to improve and heal up quickly.

Alan Couzens said...

Hey TJ,

I can relate. I fractured my radial head during the last crash. Doc said I just chipped it this time. He drained the fluid and so far ROM is coming back quick.

Last time I was doing some pretty intense therapy for 3mths before elbow ROM was anything close to normal.

Thanks for the support.


Ward said...


sorry to hear about your accident, to a speedy recovery.

Another excellent post. Your athlete had a huge improvement in fat oxidation - impressive. I would be curious what other type of results you are seeing in your other athletes. I presume the athlete you profiled is 'genetically-gifted' in his capacity to be trained. I think all of us would get a better general picture if you in the future, if you have time, to give us a greater range of results, or average results.

I would like to thank you for your posts and blog. I am learning a great deal. Hopefully at the end of summer I will can make arrangement to get myself tested.



Oh man! Hope you have a speedy recovery.
Question about the fuel testing...
is there a website that shows places within a state (specifically around Medford, Oregon) where I can get this done?

Alan Couzens said...

Thanks Ward.

We are just now getting to the point that we are repeat testing some of our initial athletes.

I'm not sure that I ascribe Jason's results to genetic gifts as much as I do to 'gifts' of discipline and willpower, and I guess to be fair, time availability to do the requisite training. This is a rare combination that I believe led to the very good results.

Thanks for your continued interest. More to come.

Best regards,


Alan Couzens said...


Unfortunately I don't know of anyone else doing the sort of testing that we are doing (outside of research studies).

Short answer: Come to Boulder :-)



Matt said...

I've been a fan for a while. I've become a fan of MAF via the blogosphere -- Tim Luchinske has guided most of my journey, but you ChuckieV and Gordo have been fairly invaluable as well.

This fat oxidation discourse is BIG. I love it. My wife and I are starting to mess around in the "laboratory," the kitchen.

I really liked one of your answers here regarding the need to "liberate as many FFAs as possible . . [and developing]. . . mitochondria to take up the FFAs and burn them." Outstanding.

To simplify, can we then reiterate 1) that one's best/healthiest diet would consist of the elimination of bad fat and carb and consume much good fat (olive oil, fish oil) and veggies and lean protein? and
2) to maintain a steady "diet" of MAF work-outs?

Matt said...

Ooops, I wanted to ask if you could elaborate (a little) on how the increased fax oxidation affects daily performance. The body functions more effectively/and longer burning fat than burning glycogen, yeah?


Alan Couzens said...


Thanks for the kind words. It always feels good to have an impact.

Before I get to you qu, I want to make one clarification. As athletes, we're shooting for appropriate Carb consumption (both in quantity and timing)rather than 'elimination'. Bad fats on the other hand, esp trans fats, elimination is definitely the goal.

In terms of daily performance, the biggest change that comes from becoming a 'fat burner' is that, since you're no longer using Carbs at rest and during lower intensity training, your capacity for high intensity training (speedwork) and racing is greatly increased. This is the whole concept of laying base. Unfortunately, we're not talking about a multi-week adaptation here. Developing this base takes a long time but it is the only way that you can, when the time is right, undertake the sort of training that will enable you to discover your true potential in this sport.

It's not a popular message but it is a factual one.

All the Best,


JimmyC said...

Hi Alan, thanks, quite interesting.

If fat oxidation rate is your thing, some recommended reading: Stepto et al, MSSE, (2002), 34:449-55. This is where you will find the highest rates of fat oxidation recorded in published, peer-reviewed literature: a group of endurance triahtletes/cyclists ranging from quality age-group, to world-class ironman. At 65% of VO2peak they record a mean of ~70umol/kg/min, or translated, ~1.5 g/min FAox rate (or ~14 cal/min). Note the error: some obviously far above (and below) this.

Last thing, check your units: if you're going to stick with non-interenational standard units, you mean cal/min, not kcal/min (1000x too high)...

Alan Couzens said...

Hey Jimmy,

Thanks for the reference.

While interesting, studies involving acute fat loading aren't terribly applicable to my athletes. If the subjects in the study exhibited a significantly increased RPE after a 60min training bout, my guess is they wouldn't be feeling too 'chipper' after a 10-12hr Ironman :-)

I'll stand by the units. I mean kcal in the large "C" calorie sense, i.e. 4.184kj



beth said...

NOOOO! i can literally feel your pain....coming from a girl who broke her hip (arpil) and THEN radial head (september) last year, i assure you i am sending healing wishes your way...
and i'm sure you'll be back
heard this the other day..
"when life kicks you in the ass, just make sure it kicks you forward..."

JimmyC said...

Thanks for your response Alan,

Note that in the study above, those subjects had increased RPE because the training bout was 8x5 min at ~80% of VO2peak (eg, ~90% of max HR). The oxidation rates I listed were while @ 65%, certainly manageable for longer periods for this group (although they did stil have extremely high FAox rates while at 80%).

I take your point about being acute, but worth noting that it was ~4 days. Probably another good reference is Carey et al JAP, 2001. The same group, same study, different data set – note that the data at hand are after eating one day of carbs (post 6 days high fat, but I presume you would get your guys to do this too before an ironman?), but even so you can see they do reach a mean of ~8 cal/min (again, some more, some less) by 3 hours at 65% into a 4 hr ride.

Basically, while it’s “acute”, some of them definitely do get oxidation rates around 10 cal/min, and can do so for long periods, and is sustainable on this diet for >6 days – the authors note that subjects feel better while training later in the 6 day high fat period too. If they weren’t fed the morning of this ride, and during the ride, they would get even higher rates as well. The point of this is just that 10 cal/min is very much achievable in the long term, in well trained guys that are ~normal weight (eg ~75kg).

All the best with that busted arm…..

Alan Couzens said...

Thanks Beth.

When it comes to bike crashes I always seem to fall forward.

When you have a true passion for the sport (like we do there) is no choice but to get back on the horse.

Thanks for your healing wishes. See you out there SOON!! :-)


Alan Couzens said...

Ah yes!!!

Much more applicable reference. One of my faves!!

For those who want to read along:

Note: Full text free.

I take your point, Jimmy;

For well-trained athletes who undertake a short term fat load prior to competition, improvements in the vicinity of ~3-4kcal/min FAT can be witnessed.

However, we have seen 'well-trained' athletes with 'baseline' fat oxidation ranging from 2-10kcal/min. Clearly, even with fat loading the athletes starting point must be in the 6-7kcal/min mark in order to reach the competition levels of world class long course athletes. It is this 'chronic' adaptation that we are very interested in.

Great food for thought!!



BRFOOT said...

After reading the abstract above and this one J Appl Physiol, January 1, 2006; 100(1): 7 - 8 it seems to me that training your body to preferintially choose fat over carbs is much more effective globally than forcing the body via diet. As a comparision, I could increase your HR say to 140 with a whole host of drugs ie epi,atropine etc. but increasing the HR that way will not give the same global effect that an easy run will. I think, but could be wrong, that a balanced diet along the sustained easy-moderate excercise will give greater benefit.

Alan Couzens said...

Good analogy, brfoot.

I would go a little further however to say that if you are in a position that you cannot elevate your HR via exercise and therefore your ability to get 02 to the muscle is limiting, using some of those ergogenic aids that you talked about may enable you to train the muscles at a higher intensity.

In a similar way, using an ergogenic 'fat burning' diet enables you to train fat burning at higher training intensities.

Short answer: Athletically, nutrition and training are equally important.



Elliot Fullwood said...

How much systematic error is there in gas analysis? I did two VO2 max tests one year apart and RER _increased_ despite doing almost exclusively "slow" 150bpm training. I am wondering whether the VCO2 is particularly sensitive to the mask position/strapping? (Obviously I couldn't _tell_ any difference or feel any gaps else I'd have fixed it).

Alan Couzens said...


Any leak in the system can dramatically alter the results. I'm a big fan of the mouthpiece vs. the mask for this very reason.

Also, pre-test nutrition can come into play. For truly accurate results it is important to keep this variable constant.

Best regards,


Simon Thibeault said...


I'm 58kg so in theory I should eat ~115g of protein per day.
(2g per kg of body weight)

If I stay with 115g per day of protein, should I increase my CHO intake or my fat intake, knowing I'm in my base period? What % of fat it too much? Right now my avg is 50% CHO, 30% fat and ~20% protein (115g)



Alan Couzens said...

Hey Simon,

The % CHO/PRO/FAT that you wind up with will be heavily dependent on total training volume and body comp goals.

The protein goals outlined, along with sufficient CHO to meet the glycogen repletion needs of your training (~150g/hr of training)come first.

After these two goals are met, the balance of calories (sufficient to equal expeniture) should come from healthy fats (first) and low glycemic carbs (second).

Therefore the actual % breakdown will result in higher %carbs for higher volume athletes.

Hope this helps.

Best regards,


Simon Thibeault said...


I'm not sure I fully understand the 150g CHO/h rule.

With that rule, if I train only for 1 hour I would need to eat more fat(%) than CHO, which doesn't make sense to me. Myself as an example:
1hour of exercices = ~600kcal.
PRO intake (57kg*1.5g)=85g
2100kcal=150CHO/85PRO/130FAT or 28.4%/16.1%/55.5%

So I've come with a new rule of 100g CHO as baseline + 150g CHO/h. I will use that for my base and probably 175g CHO/h for my more intense bloc. Can you explain more the 150g/hour rule and what do you think of my baseline?

Thank you very much,


Alan Couzens said...

Hey Simon,

The 150g rule represents a physiological ideal where the athlete is generating close to 100%of their energy from fat at rest. While I believe it's possible for most athletes to get to that point it takes some time and a progressive taper down from current CHO intake if the athlete is to sustain their current training and not turn into a grump :-)

I think your baseline is a good starting point. Try it out and see how it goes. The proof will be in the pudding, i.e. your ability to sustain your training load.



Φλύαρος said...

I have been following your excellent blog for some time now and this is my first question. I have the same problem as your athlete (although I am slower) since I burn 4 grams of CHO per minute at my "aerobic threshold" speed. My question is what to eat during the long rides and long runs? Do you drink only water, or use the same ratio of 48/28/24 ? My goal is a half-Ironman race in 7 months and I desperately need to improve my fat oxidation, your help will be greatly appreciated!

P.S. I will consult a dietitian before I change anything radical with my diet, I am sensible enough to avoid experimenting on my own.