Completing my First Ironman - PART 1:  LOW CARB - LOW HEART RATE TRAINING

I was asked to write about my journey into endurance sports, joining Team Triumph and more specifically low carb endurance training and racing. I will start at the end and then go back to the beginning.


I limped into my first meeting with Julia in January of this year. At that point, I hadn’t been able to run for about 4 months because of a bad case of plantar fasciitis. Time was running out and I had to find a coach and get started if I was going to meet my goals for 2018. Fast forward to 8 months later, I ran my first marathon, did my first full Rideau Lakes Cycle Tour and completed my first Ironman at Mont Tremblant.

My journey began about 3 years ago when, like many people, I read “Born To Run” by Christopher McDougall. Inspired by this book, I quit smoking, took a Chi running class with Eric Collard and began logging miles. As I’m prone to do, I went a little overboard. For most of that year, I averaged 10K a day, 7 days a week. No days off! Dumb. 
In the fall of that year, I bought a bike and started commuting to work. I now enjoy riding year round and winter riding has become one of my favorite activities. Now that I was running and riding I guess it was inevitable I’d end up doing a triathlon. “Born to Run” also introduced me to Dr. Phil Maffetone who has had a huge influence on my diet and training for fitness and endurance.
Although I’ve incorporated a number of different variations of low carb training approaches including Mark Sissons’ Primal Endurance, they’re all based on Maffetone’s fundamental tenets:

  1. Nutrition - It’s a bit of a common misconception that the Maffetone method is synonymous with keto or ultra-low-carb diets. It’s actually a very holistic approach to endurance. One of the many benefits of his eating plan is an increased ability to burn fat for fuel. There is a strong emphasis on a healthy diet that supports the body’s desire to burn this clean, abundant source of energy. The concept is to eat whole foods and avoid unhealthy oils found in most, if not all, processed foods. This combined with reducing the number of carbs found in the typical western diet to a more sustainable level and replacing those calories with healthy fats. As you burn more fat with increased aerobic training it will help provide the fuel your body is now looking for.

As for the level of reduction of carbs, that’s the core debate that everyone loves to argue about. There are lots of scientists a lot smarter than me that have strong opinions on both sides so all I can comment on is how it affected and worked for me. I’ve done all of the ranges and find less carb is better for me but my recommendation for anyone interested in trying this approach is to go slow and do what makes you feel best with an eye to lowering carb intake gradually. I’ve been in ketosis and I felt fine but overall I think I feel better with a slightly higher carb intake than ketosis. Low carb also makes it easier for me take weight off which has obvious endurance performance benefits.

  1. Exercise – My workouts generally include large blocks of aerobic base training combined with lower carb intake to fire up that fat burning engine and build an aerobic base. For this reason, I train with heart rate only. I don’t even use watts on the bike, just heart rate (I love debating this with Julia !). Phil Maffetone’s MAF formula is 180 - your age to establish your top end of the aerobic zone with a few caveats based on some other factors, but that is basically it.

Training is polarized, characterized by large blocks of aerobic work. Anywhere from 2- 4 months or whenever you plateau, followed by a smaller speed block of usually 1-2 weeks, a recovery block, and then back to base. 

  1. Stress- Less is More. Stress properly applied in the correct amount is healthy and necessary. Trying to reduce and manage stress that is within your control is essential to the Maffetone method. Understanding that anaerobic training is stress, that a poor diet that causes a host of inflammation issues is stress, overtraining and lack of recovery is stress, physical imbalances, and related injuries are stress……you get the idea. I use resting heart rate while sleeping as the main indicator of my stress levels. When I see it trending up I take a break. Amazingly, usually, one day off will do it. 

In Part II of his journey, Steve will describe how his diet and training got him to the finish line of his first triathlon and then the Ironman.

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