Boyhood has an interest in stories about folks who are crazy enough to climb Everest (like my friend Eileen who recently made it up to Base Camp!), so of course I clicked through to this article from Men's Journal about alpinist Adrian Ballinger and his success summiting Everest without additional oxygen (summiting is one thing; summiting without O2 is quite another - only a few hundred people have managed it).
Surprise! The key to his success on his second attempt without O2? KETO.
“Adrian was heavily reliant on eating some kind of high-energy bar, gel, or similar product at once-an-hour intervals. ...” Basically Ballinger constantly fed his body carbs, so that's the fuel it preferred. And like a lot of elite climbers, he didn’t see anything wrong with that.
“I’ve been completely dependent on carbohydrate for all of my climbing,” he says. “I was always hungry, morning to night, but I also had this line I would tell everyone, you know, ‘I never gain weight, my metabolism must be so high, I can eat a loaf of bread a day.'”
When you’re a carb-burner, you have about 45 minutes of fuel storage in your body — glycogen — at any one time, and after that your body runs out; you have to feed yourself constantly to keep it up. But while that system works fine on most peaks, in the punishing altitudes of Everest — above 25,000 feet is dubbed “the death zone” because of the lack of oxygen — suddenly your digestive system shuts down, you feel nauseous, and you can’t put food in your mouth, Ballinger says. When his hands went icy, it’s because he was depleted of glycogen; his body went into protective mode, and sent more blood flow to his gut and away from his extremities. “All of a sudden I didn’t have those carbs stored — I needed my body to burn fat for fuel.” But his body wasn’t primed to do it, Johnston guessed.
With the help of his training team and a team from UCDavis, he goes keto and re-does his training regime to become a better fat-burner. There are two great takeaways from this article: one, that the nutrition sets you up for hours of bonk-free endurance; and two, that by slowing down your training sessions, you can raise your aerobic threshold (where you're still in an aerobic state at a higher BPM).
Great news for those of us venturing into keto training - and reassuring to me that my 13:00/mile pace will be just the right way to train for my next race!
And as Ballinger says, this great slow burn rubs off on all areas of your life:
“A few weeks into training, I started to feel entirely different — I could go for long workouts and not bonk, wake up in the morning and go for hours without eating,” he says. “I used to be the kind of person who would wake up and couldn’t send a text until I’d eaten some food. I was that short of energy.”
Ballinger’s fat-burning metabolism and revamped training approach proved that the hunger cravings he’d had on mountains before, the highs and lows based on constantly needing to eat or feeling fatigued, wasn’t the most efficient way to do what he wanted to do: climb 8,000-meter peaks, trail run, and ski. “This past ski season was the best I’ve ever had, and not only because the snow’s been amazing — I directly credit this,” he says.