The morning of April 24, 2018, looked like it would be a really cold one. We were leaving at 3 or 4 a.m., so they told us to put on our down suits, which I was happy to do because it made me much warmer during the night!
I’ve always considered myself to be in good shape. For years, I worked out and competed in CrossFit. If you’ve ever seen the CrossFit Games, you know it’s an intense sport requiring significant strength, typically broken up into shorter workouts. But when I embarked on my journey to climb mountains, I needed to improve my endurance and be able to perform at a high level for longer periods of time. After all, climbing a mountain takes days or weeks, not minutes or hours!
Training as a climber is a process, and I’ll address that in another post. But the research shows (and my own experience proves) that nutrition is at least half the battle. That’s why, when I got serious about reaching the Seven Summits, I also got serious about becoming a fat-adapted athlete.
What is a fat-adapted athlete?
Athletes who are fat-adapted burn fat for energy instead of glucose. The average person, when working out, burns glucose first. This is basically sugar derived from a number of foods, most specifically carbohydrates, and it runs out quickly.
Why should I become fat-adapted?
Athletes who choose to fat-adapt generally do so as a means to improve endurance and long-term performance. It’s popular among long-distance runners and mountain climbers – like me!
In addition to improved endurance levels, fat adaptation is particularly advantageous when climbing due in part to the lack of oxygen available at higher altitudes.
Looking at the numbers, fat contains 9 calories of energy per gram as compared to just 4 calories of energy per gram in carbohydrates. Just by its nature, fat is a denser source of energy, which allows the body to go longer. Additionally, the body can store significantly more fat than sugar, meaning it has more resources to draw from over long periods of time.
How do I become fat-adapted?
It’s a process, so make sure you’re in it for the long haul. Here are some basic steps to follow:
1. Reduce your carbohydrates. (And totally cut out refined sugar.)
This might take some time, depending on your current diet. You don’t want to shock your body too much by immediately and sharply cutting out carbs. And let’s be clear, you will have some sort of withdrawal period! But stick with it, because the less sugar you eat, the less your body will crave it.
When we talk about sugar, it’s important to note that this means any substance that the body will automatically convert to sugar, including many carbohydrates. Refined sugar is a modern-day creation, and it’s never necessary. Do yourself a favor even if you decide not to fully fat-adapt…cut the refined sugar altogether!
Your body does need some carbohydrates, but it’s not the kind found in bread. Carbohydrates are also found in things like broccoli and other vegetables. And that’s probably enough.
2. Increase your (good) fat intake.
Since you’re trying to get your body to burn fat for energy, it’s reasonable that you’ll need to increase the amount of fat in your system. Exactly how much fat you should consume depends on your needs and what you want your body to do. PaleoFX offers a good equation to figure out how many grams of fat you may need per day:
If you’re going for 80 percent of your calories from fat, this equation should help you identify a precise number of grams. Talk to your trainer, nutritionist or health care provider about how many total calories per day you need depending on your fitness goals.
3. Manage your intake of high-quality protein.
Eating a ketogenic diet in pursuit of fat-adaptation doesn’t mean eating ALL the protein you want. Part of the balance is ensuring you’re getting a moderate amount of protein and making sure it’s high-quality. Shoot for an intake equivalent to 0.7 times your lean body mass in grams of protein per day.
What should I eat?
Starting this diet is the hardest part, but once you’ve mastered it, the food is delicious! Here are some examples of what I eat to maintain my fat-adapted lifestyle.
Eggs (the yolks are the best part, but the whole egg is fine)
Bacon or sausage (be careful to avoid processed sausages with added sweeteners)
Low-carb dairy products (hard cheeses like Swiss, Greek yogurt)
Fatty fish (shoot for wild-caught things like salmon or tuna) – this helps accomplish both your fat and protein goals
Steak (fattier cuts, like ribeyes, are better)
Ground beef dishes (hamburgers sans the bun can be a great meal) – shoot for 85/15 fat ratios
Wild game (chicken, duck, quail, pheasant)
Low-carb vegetables (spinach, bell peppers, green beans, cabbage)
Salads drizzled with olive, avocado or other high-fat oils
Nuts – the fattier the better (almonds are excellent!)
Ultra-low training bars and drinks (My sponsor, SFuels, offers some truly delicious options without all the sugar of many “energy” drinks or bars. Use my code, SummitGoLonger, for a discount on your first order!)
Nut butters (stick to higher-fat versions like almond butter – avoid peanut butter)
How will I know when I’ve become fat-adapted?
Ultimately, you should test your endurance. You may still feel tired after an intense workout, but you should be physically able to continue for longer periods of time.
Another obvious sign of fat-adaptation is the ability to go longer between meals. Most people get “hangry” if they don’t eat often enough. But fat-adapted athletes may be able to go six or seven hours between meals and still feel OK, because their bodies are breaking down the denser fat in their diets at a slower pace.
Follow me on Instagram @tom_lawrence3 for more tips on eating as a fat-adapted athlete!
We drove to the Kathmandu airport this morning to catch a plane to Lukla. Lukla is considered one of the most dangerous airports in the world, but our flight and landing seemed rather routine. Check out the airstrip.
Lukla is considered the starting point for the trek to base camp. While we were at approximately 5,000 feet in Kathmandu, we landed at Lukla at approximately 10,000 feet. Once getting settled in Lukla and having some tea, we headed up the Khumbu Valley towards Everest Base Camp, led by our Sherpa team, pictured below.
Along the way, we saw many interesting sites from the region, including this prayer wheel, which was off the side of the path.
Tomorrow, we have a big day of trekking. We will gain 2,500-3,000 feet as we make our way to Namche Bazaar.
Climbing Denali in Alaska, the highest peak in North America (20,310’), was the most difficult and rewarding endeavor I have ever undertaken. The factors within my control were challenging enough, but matters outside my control – namely, the weather – made the climb much more formidable.
The typical success rate to summit Denali is 50 percent. This year, due to harsh weather, the success rate plummeted to 30 percent. I was fortunate to have an experienced guide with the judgment to know when to push for the summit and when to stay in the tent.
I’ve been asked many times about the lessons I learned from choosing to climb Denali, preparing to climb, and actually climbing. I learned that it’s never too late to pursue your dreams. Don’t wait. I also learned that preparation for any goal is the key to success. Finally, I learned that accomplishing challenging objectives requires teamwork, daily engagement and maximum effort.
Pursue your dreams NOW!
I originally planned to climb Denali in 2004, but I canceled the trip. I planned again to climb in 2005. I canceled again, and I did not resolve again to climb Denali until May 2016. When I decided to climb Denali at the age of 50, many questioned whether that was a good idea. With proper training, it was very doable.
Don’t let anybody discourage you from pursuing your dreams. Learn from me and pursue your dreams NOW. Don’t wait 11 years!
Whether you are a CEO or an administrative assistant, whether you want to climb a mountain or learn how to play the guitar, having meaningful goals requires commitment to a plan.
When I decided to climb Denali, I hired the best coach I could find: Scott Johnston with Uphill Athlete. Scott has trained some of the most successful mountaineers in the world. But it wasn’t enough to hire Scott. I followed his plan. From September to June, I only missed one workout, and only then because I was sick. Whatever you want to do, have a plan, identify the best approach you can find and follow it!
My team of six, along with our two guides, flew onto the Kahiltna Glacier from Talkeetna, Alaska, in a plane equipped with skis for landing. We literally landed on the glacier and unloaded our climbing gear – which included enough food, clothing and shelter for three weeks in harsh conditions. Then the plane left. During our briefing by the National Park Service in Talkeetna, we learned that we would be “depositing” all solid human waste into CMC’s (Clean Mountain Cans) and bringing them back with us. That meant I would have more weight to add to my backpack and sled. We spent our first couple of days at the airstrip while we watched the weather and planned for our initial three-mile move from 7,200 feet to 7,800 feet. On this stretch of glacier, we primarily traveled at night. It was heavily crevassed, but the ice would freeze solid at night, lessening the danger.
Every moving day had its challenges. On the lower mountain – below 14,000 feet – we carried big loads in our packs and on sleds that we dragged. The sled and the pack averaged 60 pounds each.
A typical “moving day” involved six to eight hours of travel with these loads up relatively steep terrain. When we arrived at our new camp, we set up tents while the guides melted snow for drinking water.
The food was as good as it could be, although I quickly tired of instant oatmeal. There were bright spots. We had pad thai a couple of nights and it was fantastic. So, we suffered, but not every day!
Doing hard things together
When my son, Will, committed to play football at the University of Virginia, one thing that impressed me about his future offensive line coach was his statement that his group focused on “doing hard things together.” On Denali, I experienced this notion firsthand.
During the first three days, two of our six team members decided Denali wasn’t for them. The
problem was that their share of “group gear” was already on the mountain and wouldn’t be leaving with them. The remaining four of us had to commit to carrying bigger loads than we would have otherwise.
Even without the extra gear, many days were long and difficult; especially our move from 14,000 feet to 17,000 feet and our summit day. The move from 14,000 to 17,000 feet required the most endurance and effort I have ever exerted. Our backpacks were extremely heavy and we had to climb up 1,000 feet of fixed lines on steep terrain, among other things.
The summit day was 12 hours long – eight hours up and four hours down. It also involved a lot of steep climbing. I truly wasn’t sure I could do it. On both of those days – and the days in between – the key was remaining committed to the team and our goal of reaching the summit. I had to commit to myself that I wouldn’t quit unless my guide believed I was in danger of dying. Those approaches worked for me and for our team. We summited in 7 1⁄2 hours, half an hour ahead of schedule.
Your personal summit
Have dreams. Pursue your dreams. Surround yourself with people who help and encourage you. Prepare. Who can help you reach your goals? Be ready to suffer for the just rewards in reaching your goals. If it’s important to you, you’ll find a way.