Train low, race high – Ironman Nutrition Strategy

On this edition of The Kona Edge we touch base with Dr Daniel Plews and chat about his Ironman nutrition strategy. He shares his views on training and racing with on the low carb high fat diet (LCHF). He gives advice on how to live on this lifestyle and offers recommended literature to improve your Ironman nutrition and performance.


BRAD BROWN: Welcome back onto this edition of The Kona Edge, great pleasure to welcome our guest on today and I’m really interested to chat a little bit about nutrition strategy and thinking about what he does particularly when it comes to Ironman, but it’s a great pleasure to welcome Dr Daniel Plews.

Dan, welcome thanks for joining us once again.

DANIEL PLEWS: Yes, thank you.

Can a low card, high fat diet improve performance?

BRAD BROWN: Dan, you mentioned in our first chat, a little bit about nutrition and just the difference following a low carb, high fat diet has made to you personally. It’s been a bit of a game changer for you hasn’t it?

DANIEL PLEWS: Yes, it definitely has and I think I said in one of our previous chats is that if I could have my time again and I was in my early 20’s I’d definitely be focusing on that type of diet and I really do think it makes a big difference in terms of performance and very much so in recovery.

BRAD BROWN: What have been some of the biggest changes you’ve made from a dietary perspective moving across that way?

DANIEL PLEWS: Well, I guess it’s on and off the bike and I introduced a lot more whole foods and I actually remember, I watched that, I don’t know if you’ve ever seen the film, “The Sugar Film”, I think it’s called and the very best scene in that, he had Just Right cereal and low fat yoghurt and that was the very breakfast that I would have every single morning as a young athlete and mostly because I was in EIS and the nutritionist there said it was a good thing to do. And I thought I was doing the best thing possible, but in reality it was a terrible thing to do. I was always hungry and my weight would go up and down quite a lot. Whereas now I’m much more stable, I feel much more energetic during the day, I don’t have slumps and I recover a lot better from the training that I’m doing, especially when I’m under a high workload as well. I find I can cope with training and work at the same time much more effectively.

BRAD BROWN: One of the things that I see people struggling with when they do start making the switchover is fuelling during the race on a high fat diet. What sort of stuff would you typically, and let’s talk Ironman because I think it’s one thing to go out and do a two hour ride and an hour and a half run, that’s pretty simple but when you start looking at long events like an Ironman. That’s when people really, they just have absolutely no clue about how to fuel for those things. What’s your sort of thinking and advice to someone who’s considering making that switch but they’re worried about what they should be putting in their bottles and what they should be eating and that sort of thing?

Nutrition for health, training and performance

DANIEL PLEWS: Yes, well I guess this is where I probably differ from a lot of conventional thinking in that for me, nutrition, it’s not about you have one nutrition, you eat one way and you eat that way all the time.

Nutrition’s about three things. It’s about nutrition for health, nutrition for training and specifically training adaptation and then nutrition for performance and there’s no way that one diet fits all three.

So when it comes to performance you get as much carbon as you could almost tolerate or as much as you need because then it’s by no means, it is, I don’t think that high fat diet is better for performance on a race. I really think that having carbohydrate during the race and even just a little bit before is a beneficial thing. But for training and health to be chronically on a high fat diet is much more beneficial because you adapt better to training, you recover better from the training and you also maintain lower glucose levels, lower blood insulin levels and you’re a much healthier person.

So yes when I do an Ironman triathlon I’m racing, I’ll be taking 60 grams of carbohydrate per hour and that will be in the form of gels and all the things that a normal person would eat.

BRAD BROWN: It’s interesting, I remember reading something somewhere and I can’t remember who it was, I must think of it, where they’re talking about sort of eat low and race high when it comes to carbohydrates and that’s pretty much what you were talking about, is sort of keep it balanced normally, but then it’s almost like throwing gasoline on a fire during race day.

DANIEL PLEWS: Yes and lots of the nutrition people will say “Oh, it’s bad for your stomach and you might get an upset stomach if you’re not used to the carbohydrates”, but I don’t think there’s any evidence to suggest that. I think our bodies know what to do with the macronutrient called carbohydrates, it’s not stupid. So yes, that train low, race high strategy, it’s out there but what, if you look at the read section of the literature, it’s actually the opposite way round it. It’s more that you are chronically on a high carb diet and you restrict carbohydrates now and again for specific sessions, whereas I’ll be more of the opposite, is that you’re chronically on a low carb diet and you introduce carbohydrates for maybe races or a specific session that you want to do well at or you want to hit a target on. So it’s kind of a bit of a different way of thinking about it.

BRAD BROWN: Doc, there’s been lots of talk and I’m not sure if it’s like this in New Zealand, but particularly here in South Africa there’s been a lot of controversy around the low carb, high fat diet. I think particularly around a guy like Prof Tim Noakes, but obviously you can read scientific papers from both sides of the fence and everyone cites an argument that they feel is the be-all and end-all, but there is a lot of confusion around it. Your thoughts, from a scientific point of view, what’s your opinion on it?

DANIEL PLEWS: Yes, I know, but the thing is with the literature is it’s all about Louise Burke’s is probably just a study they were doing in distance runners, but you know it was only for three weeks and one of the things that I know with this diet is that you have to be on it chronically for quite a long time before you really start reaping the rewards. I’ve been doing this since pretty much 2012 and I’m still, I think it was really last year or the year before that I really started to see, you start to get a real benefit and I could actually, it wouldn’t affect me. I’d have no negative side effects, even my high intensity stuff had returned to pretty much what it was before. So yes, I just especially for, I understand the argument for guys doing really high intensity.

Of course, having a high carbohydrate oxidation that is relative to oxidised carbohydrates is more important that having a high fat oxidation, but for age groupers especially, and for people doing Ironman I don’t see how having a superior fat oxidation can be a negative thing. If your Ironman race pace is at say, on the bike is at 280 watts and at 280 watts, you’ve got 50% of your energy coming from fat, rather than say 30% of your energy coming from fat, I know which one I would rather take. So having that metabolic flexibility to only burn carbohydrate when you really need to, I think it’s very hard to argue against.

Literature for athletes

BRAD BROWN: I know a lot of people are interested in this sort of lifestyle and way of eating. If you could point someone in the direction to pick up some literature or something to read or something to listen to, what would you suggest? Who should people be following and checking out if they want to find out more about racing on a low carb, high fat diet?

DANIEL PLEWS: Well, me and my colleague, who I call Prof Paul Lawson, he’s a good friend of mine and a colleague, you can find us both on Twitter we’ll be more than happy to answer questions via email. We’re really happy to spread the word and help people out. Also a real good go-to book, there’s as new book that’s just come out by Prof Grant Schofield who is a professor at the Auckland University of Technology which is where I did my PhD and more, so an associate that just brought about a book that’s called What the Fat, Performance and it’s a high fat low carb specifically designed for athletes.

I’d definitely encourage people to look at that. That’s probably one of the first books out there that’s really designed for athletes. It’s quite holistic. I know Geoff Volek had “The Art & Science of Low Carb Performance”, which was also aimed at the athlete a bit more, but he’s quite severe and he’s quite ketogenic in some of his beliefs and I think it’s quite hard for a lot of people to follow. So this “What the Fat Performance” book is more holistic and I definitely encourage people to pick it up and have a read.

BRAD BROWN: Awesome, we’ll put the links to those in the show notes of this episode as well. Doc, thank you so much for your time. Safe travels, enjoy Kona 2016. And let’s hope it’s a good one for you and your athletes and we look forward to following your progress and the return, the comeback in 2018 for you personally.

DANIEL PLEWS: Great, thanks Brad. is a news aggregation service that brings you best of world articles to you for your consumption.

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