Monday, June 24, 2013

Master Sgt. Mike Morton: Ketogenic Ultrarunner

There’s been lots of speculation about how suitable a ketogenic diet really is for athletes.  Some folks (Robb Wolf) have gone back and forth, but my understanding of physiology leads me to think that it should be superior most of the time. 

Well, now we’ve got an interesting guinea pig:
  • “1994: Old Dominion 100 — 17 hours, 40 minutes — first place
  • “1995: Old Dominion 100 — 16 hours, 55 minutes — first place
  • “1995: Vermont 100 — 14 hours, 8 minutes — first place
  • “1996: Massanutten Mountain 100 — 20 hours, 21minutes — first place
  • “1997: Western States 100 — 15 hours, 40 minutes — first place [course record]”
That’s nice, of course, but what’s he done lately?

He won the famed Badwater 135 race, setting the course record last year.

Then he broke Scott Jurek’s record at the International Association of Ultrarunners Ninth Annual 24-Hour World and 18th European Championships, setting a new record for an American.

And now he’s done this:
“I have made some big changes in my fueling plan over the last five months. Prior to the changes, I was a high carb and low fat eater. I was consuming a large volume of food each day. Large volume in, means large volume out! At Badwater and the World 24 hour Championship, I spent too much time with natures [sic] business. Looking for efficiency, and a more stable energy curve, I researched several different options for fueling. Ultimately, I chose a high fat, moderate protein, low carb diet. This was a tough transition, since I rarely ate meat or fatty foods. I had been avoiding cheese and dairy for years... except for cottage cheese.
“I committed to myself and made the switch. After about four weeks of eating a high fat diet I was "keto adapted" meaning that my liver was making Ketones and the body was using them for fuel rather than glucose. Making that change was tough because I was addicted to sugar and grains! By being in Ketosis, I have made myself "bonk" proof  because I'm not using glucose for my primary fuel. Also, on race day, I can use carbs as a high octane fuel. I will list some reference material that explains the science behind a ketogenic diet. Since switching, I have ran two 100's and they went great; recovery is much easier on a high fat diet!”
He won the Rocky Racoon 100 race on a ketogenic diet, and soon he’ll be running Western States again:
iRunFar: According to your blog, you’ve been honing your diet in the recent year or so, and you now do a very low-carb regimen. What does this actually mean for WS100 fueling? What will you be eating and drinking during the race? 
Morton: The low-carb diet is working great for me. Really, the diet is more about eating high fat and being in ketosis. That does away with spikes in energy and reduces the volume of food that has to be physically eaten. Less in means less out and that equals efficiency during races. I will eat whatever looks appetizing during the race, including carbs. That is another benefit; I use carbs like a high-octane fuel during races. I’ll drink what is provided as well but avoid consuming huge amounts of sugar drinks to keep the stomach happy. My crew (wife Julie, daughter Bailey, and Eric and Noni) will have some of my favorite stuff so, when I’m feeling sorry for myself, I can cheer up looking forward to something.”
He’s racing against the current course record-holder Tim Olson, who also eats a low-carb paleo diet.
Obviously Morton has had most of his success on a high-carb, low-fat diet.  What’s interesting is if he’s able to continue his success with a high-fat, low carb diet.  He’s already noted that he recovers more quickly, we’ll see if he can set a few more records.

Interesting times.

Thanks to Sean.

P.S.  On the second-hottest Western States on record, Morton finished third, setting the Master's course record, Olson finished first, just failing to break his previous course record.