Fat Intake Important for Endurance Athletes

By Katie Rhodes | April 25, 2016, 4:09 p.m. (ET)

AvocadoYou are training for a much-anticipated event. You have your training schedule. Check. You possibly hired a trainer for plan personalization. Check.  Now you are searching for the perfect balance of calories, carbohydrates, proteins and fats to improve your performance and achieve weight goals to improve your time. One nutritional element often pushed aside when evaluating a nutrition strategy is dietary fat.

Fat. If you were a blossoming adult in the 1980s you cringe when you hear the word. Fat was blanketed as the culprit responsible for metabolic disorders and diseases, namely type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease and heart disease. To be honest, my undergraduate and graduate education in nutrition didn’t paint a favorable picture of fat either. It wasn’t until I was approached by Ben Stone of Sigma Human Performance to be Director of Nutrition that I started to look at fat differently through his research, guidance and our work together coaching athletes. I was skeptical because my sports nutrition education focused primarily on carbohydrates for fuel, protein for recovery and fat fell to the wayside. But after working with athletes, the results are there and so is the research. Increasing fat in your day-to-day nutrition improves performance.

Let’s start with the basics. For the most part, fat is categorized as animal-based, plant-based (mono-unsaturated and poly-unsaturated) or as trans fat. Animal fats are considered saturated fat and include animal proteins and dairy products. Plant fats are primarily unsaturated and include avocados, nuts, seeds, olives and oils. Trans fat is a saturated fat found in mainly fried foods, baked goods, and in shelf stable processed products. Now I am not saying eat a bunch of steak and butter, but more research is surfacing concluding the correlation between saturated fat and heart disease risk is not as staggering as once believed and in many cases non-existent. Trans fat, however, can be eliminated. Trans fat raises “bad” cholesterol (total cholesterol and low-density lipoprotein or LDL) and lowers “good” cholesterol (high-density lipoproteins or HDL). So far, you can see not all fats are created equal. Which fats are best when increasing them in your diet? This is why I saved mono- and poly-unsaturated fats for last. I like consistency in conclusions and what is consistent are the health benefits of mono-unsaturated poly-unsaturated fats, which is why I recommend them as your main fat source when increasing fat in your diet.

Now that you know more about the breakdown of fat, let’s look at the benefits mono-unsaturated and poly-unsaturated fats have on your health and performance. There are a multitude of benefits that could be explored and discussed regarding fat intake and performance, but we will just look a just a few here.

Your Body Utilizes What is in Abundance for Energy

If you consume fat, you burn fat. At rest, your body wants to use fat as an energy source. Your Basal Metabolic Rate (BMR) is the energy needed to function adequately at rest and makes up 60-75 percent of your daily energy expenditure. That is a large percentage of energy better expended utilizing fat. The energy yield of carbohydrates and fat work independently of each other to define an individual’s BMR. Increasing mono- and poly-unsaturated fat consumption allows your body to metabolically rely on fat as an energy source, decreasing body fat mass and your dependency on carbohydrates. Stone explains it well in his blog: “By putting your body in a chronic nutritional status which demands fat usage, you are putting a stimulus on the multitude of systems responsible for breaking down fat which force them to, effectively, get better a doing their jobs… Even while you are sleeping. It’s the exact same adaptive process (call it ‘usage principle’) that forces your muscles to get bigger and stronger in response to continual stress applied to them.”

Improving Performance by Increasing Fat Utilization

If your body is comfortable using fat as a fuel source, it will burn it more efficiently at higher exercise intensities before your body switches to carbohydrates as an energy source. Why is this important? First, your brain and your muscles are competing for carbohydrate during endurance activity. When you are able to utilize fat as an energy source more efficiently, you gain a mental edge. Secondly, the adaptations your body makes by consuming more fat creates a glycogen sparing effect during exercise by decreasing carbohydrate dependency. And finally, the more trained you are in endurance activity the better you are at oxygen consumption (evident through VO2 max testing), which is a key component in fat oxidation. If fat is in abundance, the increased oxygen in your bloodstream will be readily available to break fat down for energy. The increased capacity to oxidize fat is related to increased exercise capacity and improved performance.

My Experience with Athletes and Dietary Fat

As an athlete you are already ahead of your fat game. Regular exercise enhances your ability to oxidize fat through adaptations in fat metabolism pathways. Being able to oxidize fat efficiently decreases inflammation, insulin resistance, hypertension, LDL concentration and chronic deposits of fat tissue. What I have seen across the board with clients that adhere to my meal plans is an increase in energy, improved sleep, decreased hunger, a decrease in carbohydrate cravings and improved performance capacity. It is very important to note that everyone is different. I recommend you work with a registered dietitian to tailor a nutrition plan that works for you, and consult a medical doctor before significant changes are made. I tell my clients that by week three with me, we should have their nutrition needs dialed in.

Katie Rhodes, owner of OWN-Nutrition, is a registered and licensed dietitian in Little Rock, Arkansas, with a Master of Science in clinical nutrition. Through her experiences training elite athletes and working in the clinical setting at Arkansas Children's Hospital and the Central Arkansas Veterans Association, Rhodes understands that what we are putting in our bodies directly affects our performance, quality of life and longevity. She's worked with triathletes for six years on their nutrition year round as well as focusing on race day nutrition. Rhodes primarily works with clients remotely, through phone calls and Skype for communication, to supplement unique, personalized nutrition plans.

The views expressed in this article are the opinion of the author and not necessarily the practices of USA Triathlon. Before starting any new diet or exercise program, you should check with your physician and/or coach.