Early Season Recap: Bearathlon, Giro di San Diego, Coveskipper, and NCAA Nationals

It’s that time of the year again: collegiate triathlon season, the eight months of the year that college students travel near and far to test the limits of human endurance in swimming, cycling, and running. Yes, they pay to do this. Yes, they claim it’s “fun.”

Bunch of masochists.

Now a little over a month in, I wanted to write an update on the season so far – and it’s been busy! I’ve raced in three WCCTC points races and finished a Gran Fondo, my first bike-only race. I completed a track cycling course at the San Diego Velodrome (and now have to buy another bike). And last weekend, I went to Tempe, Arizona to cheer on B as she raced 80 other qualifiers at the women’s NCAA Triathlon National Championships.

Below, I write about my season opening double-double at Berkeley (and I’m not talking about the In-N-Out burger), the Giro di San Diego Gran Fondo, UCSD Triathlon’s Coveskipper, and NCAA Nationals.

Bearathlon

This year’s painfest kicked off at Bearathlon, hosted by the UC Berkeley Bears, nominated for “Most Original Race Name” along with Stanford’s Treeathlon, UCLA’s Ironbruin, and UCSD’s Tritonman.

When signing up for this race a few months back, Coach Kim suggested I compete in both the Draft Legal and Classic. Each race is half the distance of our championship race in April, so it would be good early season training, he suggested. “What a great idea!” I thought.

Fast-forward to the brief, one-hour gap between races. “What a terrible idea!”

But this story begins a few hours earlier, back when I was still feeling confident about my decision to race twice on the same day. Or maybe I was just too delirious from waking up at 4:30 AM to worry about it.

Anyway, our team had to show up extra early for the draft legal briefing, and if you’ve ever been to one, you’ve been to them all. Didn’t put all equipment in the bin provided? Penalty. Didn’t have on your helmet before touching your bike? Penalty. Dismount after the dismount line? Penalty. They even use the same damn PowerPoint presentation. “We woke up early for this?!”

In all fairness, Bearathlon served as the regional qualifier for the Women’s NCAA Collegiate Triathlon National Championships, so everything had to be legit. And it was legit. From the customized caps to the laminated transition spot markers to the body markings to the free shirts and socks to the awards after, everything was one step above a typical club collegiate race. Like the men’s race.

Left: women’s transition. Right: men’s transition.
Left: matching caps. Right: BYOC. 
No comparison photo possible.

The women started first, and I’ll leave it to them to write about their race (see race reports on UCSD Triathlon’s website). Spoiler alert: B took 6th overall and qualified for NCAA Nationals! More on that later.

Once the women finished, we swapped bikes in transition and readied at water’s edge to start. I met some ex-varsity swimmers from North Central College who came all the way to Berkeley from Naperville, Illinois for their first ever draft legal triathlon, so I figured the swim was going to be fast. And it was. The first swimmer was out at 9:38.0 whereas I came out at 10:30.6 in 7th. 3rd – 15th were only about 30 seconds apart, so going into the bike leg it was still anyone’s race.

The run from the waterfront to transition was about a quarter mile on mostly uneven, rocky pavement, probably one of the most painful transition runs I’ve ever experienced (remember, we’re barefoot after the swim). I don’t know how they were able to run so much faster, but the leaders gained about 20 seconds on me during the transition run, and I started the bike in 11th. Catch-up time.

PC: Andy Jessop

Now on the bike course, I immediately had two other cyclists in my draft pack, and we began closing quickly on those ahead. We passed one, then another, and they didn’t hold on – maybe they were the first-timers from Illinois? Almost at the first turnaround, we could see the lead pack not far in front of us. My pack pushed ahead, closing on the lead pack, encouraging each other as we did so – part of the reason I love racing draft legal. At turnaround #2 (of 6) we saw we were still about 15 seconds behind the leader, when suddenly the racer behind me crossed my back wheel and went down. “Are you okay?!” He immediately got up and hopped back on his bike, but by then our pack had already dropped him.

By turnaround #3 I could tell we were going to catch the lead pack, which we did halfway to turnaround #4. Anyone’s race. Some of the competitors attacked, attempting to pull away from the group, but none succeeded in separating for longer than a few seconds. Although we dropped a few athletes, our pack held mostly together, eventually heading down the home stretch five-deep. Now I attacked, but the other four stayed with me. We entered T2 together, only seconds apart.

PC: Andy Jessop

I left transition in 4th place. I could see all three competitors ahead of me: Cullen Goss, Jose Gonzalez, and Kevin Jervis, all from Cal Poly. Cullen was sick, and halfway into the first lap of the run course he pulled off to breathe. Kudos to him for pushing so hard despite not feeling well. Jose and Kevin seemed to be pulling away, but I kept my pace steady at 6:00/mile, the fastest I thought I could hold for the 5K. By the halfway point, Kevin had pulled far enough away (he was holding 5:22/mile pace) that 1st place was no longer in contention, but Jose and I were fewer than 15 second apart. I started to descend, and as I passed Jose, he increased his pace with me. We ran neck-and-neck for a quarter mile or so, but I could hear his breathing was much harder than mine. About a tenth of a mile from the finish, I pulled ahead and went on to take second place. First race done.

PC: Andy Jessop

In the hour between races, I ate, swapped race wheels, cassettes, and brake pads, wrote new race numbers, and regretted my decision to race twice. Too late to back out, I headed to the waterfront for the start of the classic sprint. I elected not to re-warm up.

The classic was much less exciting: no accidents, fewer lead changes, no sprint finish. Of note, I did have the fastest swim split, only 20 seconds slower than in the preceding race. Sadly, thanks to already bruised feet, I gave up nearly 40 seconds to the leader running barefoot to transition. Bike was just over a minute slower than earlier, and the run only 40 seconds slower. I finished in 3rd, overall pleased, and thoroughly exhausted.

Still aero, right?? (PC: Fan Ny)

Giro di San Diego Gran Fondo

Two other students in my department, Mauricio and Patrick, talked me into doing my first ever bike-only race with them: 113 miles and 11,100 feet of climbing. Sure, why not?

The route includes a summit of Mount Palomar, one of the highest points in San Diego County (4,500 feet of climbing over 13.5 miles)

For the first ten miles or so, all the participants stayed together as one group, the largest drafting pack I’ve ever been part of. The wind resistance was so negligible we were holding 20 mph with virtually no effort required. Our police escorts left us and the pack scattered. My teammates and I stuck together for the first climb, and then onvthe downhill I lost sight of both. We had agreed earlier that should we get separated, we’d meet at the top of Mount Palomar, so I pushed on, drafting with a group of seemingly experienced cyclists including one impressively strong one-legged cyclist.

I saw the first rest stop – AKA stuff-yourself-full-of-cookies-and-bananas-and-Nutella-sandwiches stop – and enjoyed some refueling as I waited for my teammates. Eventually Mauricio arrived without Patrick who had flatted a couple miles back. I would have been surprised had he not flatted every training ride we went on before the race (but don’t feel bad, Patrick). A couple cookies later and still no Patrick, we decided to begin climbing and hope he would eventually join us at the summit.

Part of the draw to this race is the timed 13.5-mile, 4,500-foot climb of Mount Palomar with “King Of the Mountain” (KOM) awards given to the fastest climbers. I’d not been averaging much if any elevation gain in my training in weeks prior, but given it was a race, my competitive side got the best of me and I took it a little harder than I should have. I ended up finishing the climb in 4th overall, which is great, except 1) we still had 2/3 of the race left and my legs were shot, and 2) I missed the podium in a 1-hour and 15-minute-long time trial by 2 seconds. Womp.

A post shared by Zack Goodman (@iron.professor) on

 

Team Econ Cycles eventually regrouped at the top, at which point the temperature was in the mid-90s (and not a cloud in the sky!), our legs were shredded, and we were significantly behind the leaders after three flats between us. Needless to say, there was some talk about doing the metric century instead of the full thing, but the sunk-cost fallacy ruled in the end.

With the hardest part behind us – no, there were still 70 miles left! And now my hamstrings were cramping, so severely that I had to stop pedaling. I dismounted and tried to relax, stretch, shake, and nothing would work. Eventually the cramping subsided long enough that I could one-leg pedal to the downhill portion of the mountain. Then my favorite part: descending.

The rest of the ride, our team stayed together, sharing the wind, helping fix flats (we ended the day with three for Mauricio and two for Patrick), and trying not to get killed by the bike-hating drivers of east San Diego county. After 9 hours and 41 minutes and who knows how many calories, we finally finished. Then off to Green Flash for some celebratory drinks (we drove there).

Mauricio fixing flat #2

Coveskipper 

UCSD Sports Clubs asks that after each race, one or two representatives from the team submit race reports. The following is mine for this year’s Coveskipper.

I’ve come full circle – this time last year, I was writing my race report for my first ever race as a Triton. And what a great year it’s been! *Happy tears*.

Coveskipper is the first of two races that our team hosts, the second being Tritonman. Coveskipper is an Aquathlon – a swim-run – which means no bike racks in transition. Which means setup and breakdown is a breeze. Happy volunteer here.

For most races, I try to taper at least a few days before the event, but I blew that this go-round. After missing a few workouts during an unusually busy week, I didn’t want to lose fitness by tapering. So race morning, muscles were pretty sore. And by electing to not “carb up” for the race, burst speed was pretty much non-existent. You could say I had low expectations going into the race. My strategy was to take it relatively easy on the swim and hold zone 4 pace on the run.

I’ll be the first to admit that strategy sucked. If anything, the conservative swim mentality spilled over into the race start as I ended up in a sea of kicking feet and thrashing elbows rather than out in the front where I like to be. Coveskipper has a two-lap swim course with a beach turnaround between laps. I exited the water after lap one feeling pretty beat, which by my lackadaisical entry for lap two was obvious to everyone watching on shore.

Fortunately, by the time I passed the first buoy, the pack had broken up enough that I could comfortably draft off the leaders without getting hit in the face. After a couple of sighting strokes, I noticed that the swim leaders were my teammates, Barry and Torin. We turned buoy number 2 with Barry and Torin leading neck and neck and me right behind drafting along. Heading into shore, I picked up the pace, positioning myself next to my teammates. We exited the water essentially together, but after missing the first of two timing pads entering transition, doubling back to cross both, getting my wetsuit caught under the timing chip, and stopping to take a breath and drink some water, I left transition quite a bit behind. Oh well, time to play catch up.

PC: Chris Lee & Andie Hosch

Given my diet and recent training emphasis on longer distance events, I knew I needed to stay beneath lactate threshold, less I’d burn up the little glycogen in my body. I started off holding a 6-minute mile pace with a comfortable two steps in, two out breathing pattern. San Diego State’s Graham Root and I rubbed elbows all the way to the first turnaround, where I counted two other SDSU athletes in first/second and Barry close behind in third. Heading back towards the second turnaround, Graham pulled ahead, catching up to Barry in the process, now about ten seconds in front of me. I hit the halfway point in 5th place, still holding a comfortable pace.

Last lap. Now I started to descend, aiming to hit lactate threshold somewhere near the last turnaround. I saw ahead of me that Barry was dropping Graham in 4th. I hit sub 5:45/mile pace, eventually passing Graham. Almost to the last turnaround, I catch up to Barry, and we exchange some words of encouragement. We hit the last turnaround with 2nd place in our sight. LET’S GO!!!

On a day in which I had not been sore, depleted of glycogen, or botched my transition, second place would have come down to an exciting all-out sprint at the finish. Sunday was not that day. Sorry for being anticlimactic.

So, I finished third, Barry close behind in fourth. Overall, a better performance for UCSD than last year when Barry and I took sixth and fifth, respectfully.

PC: Chris Lee & Andie Hosch

Then, everyone’s favorite part: food. Jason’s grilling, and it’s cheat day. Which means burgers WITH buns. AND non-sugar-free ketchup. Booyah. Everyone’s a winner.

Special thanks to Race-Director Andie for yet another flawlessly directed race, Chris for mad photography skills, APX and Zoot for the podium awards, the UCSD Tri Team for volunteering, and the other teams for racing!

NCAA Triathlon Nationals

I’m wrapping up this blog post as B and I drive back from Tempe, Arizona. As I wrote above, B qualified at the Berkeley Bearathlon to compete against 80 of the fastest women in the country at the NCAA Women’s Triathlon National Championships. Though I did not race this weekend, I think I had more fun than most of the participants, watching incredible displays of athleticism and soaking up the suspense throughout. And for once I got to cheer on Coach Kim (usually the reverse) in the age group draft legal preceding B’s race.

I underestimated Tempe. Before this weekend, my only experiences with Arizona cities were from flying over Phoenix, so I expected Tempe to look like a sandy petri dish growing a human colony. Instead, I found a city with energy and character, beautiful Buttes, funky shops, delicious food, and perfect weather. Basically San Diego without an ocean.  But before I commit to move there I’ve been told I need to experience the 110+ degree summer heat.

As if the food and weather weren’t enough: self-driving Ubers all over Tempe

Coach Kim raced first, and after a monster swim, strong bike, and descent on the run finished first in his age group. A couple hours later, the nation’s fastest – including some varsity athletes, previously varsity athletes, and a top-10 Olympic Trials swimmer  – took off for the swim. With so many swimmers and only 100 yards until the first turn buoy, everyone wanted to sprint ahead of the pack to avoid the masses of flailing arms and legs. As fun as it was to watch, I was glad to be safely ashore for this one.

As a spectator, position on the bike course is always a surprise. One can see each racer for two short glimpses per lap, but the rest is out of view, making each pass suspenseful. B started on the bike course caught in “no man’s land” between two large packs, but by the second time she passed by, she had some drafting help. She held her distance behind the leaders, but with a drafting pack half the size of the one in front, was unable to close the gap.

Now to the run, and at almost noon on a sunny fall day in Tempe, the temperature reached the mid-80s. I was sweating just standing there – imagine the poor athletes! At the aid station next to where I was spectating, athletes were taking a couple sips of water and dumping the rest on themselves. B looked uncomfortably hot, though still holding up better than most. A little over an hour on the course and B finished, 9th among Division II athletes and 31st overall, beating out some varsity athletes. Did I mention she’s only been doing triathlon for a year?

At the finish, B didn’t seem too pleased, mostly because of her less than ideal position on the bike course. But that’s part of the game in draft legal: sometimes you get a fast pack, sometimes you’re stuck time-trialing alone. Regardless of the result, B felt lucky to take part in an NCAA-sanctioned national championship – only the fourth one ever for triathlon. As the sport continues to grow, hopefully more schools will field teams and eventually produce Olympic-caliber athletes as consistently as we do for swimming and basketball. And with Gwen Jorgenson retiring from triathlon to focus on marathon running, hopefully soon!

My n=1 Cyclical Ketogenic Experiment

Mini life-update:

On all accounts, this summer could not have been better, and thanks to UCSD’s quarter system, it continues for another week before classes resume. My research group finished designing a pilot experiment now awaiting funding and IRB approval. Run conditioning is improving, and I finished my first continuous half marathon injury-free a couple of weeks back. Collegiate triathlon season starts next weekend at UC Berkeley’s Bearathlon where I will be competing in both the draft legal and classic sprint triathlons (my legs ache just thinking about that). I’ve decided to heed the advice of my coach and not compete at Ironman Maryland this year, but I have not yet ruled out competing in my first in 2018.

Besides research and training, I had the opportunity to travel back east for a pair of weddings, between which I was able to visit home and spend time with family and friends, part of the reason for the delay rolling out this post. The other part is my mistaken belief that it would be better compiling all my findings on the cyclical ketogenic diet into a single entry instead of a series of shorter posts. Hence, what follows is longer than a typical blog post, so to make it more reader-friendly, I’ve broken it up into three parts:
1. An introduction to cyclical keto, for those who have no idea what this post is about
2. A review of the relevant research, for my particularly curious readers, and for me to quickly locate resources later on
3. A bloggy part, for those wanting to read about my results so far.

– –

In-N-Out 4×2 Animal Style, Protein Style. Ohhhh yeahhhh!

If you’ve shared a meal with me over the past few months, you’ve probably observed something strange in my eating habits. Depending on the day, you might have noticed me avoiding carbohydrates like the plague – no breads or buns, pasta or potatoes, starch or sugar. Or, if you joined me on a carb refeed day (otherwise known as “Faturday”), you likely stared half puzzled, half amazed as I inhaled sushi like I hadn’t eaten for weeks or polished off an entire quart of ice cream by myself.

Below, I bring you aboard my nutrition expedition that began as a casual search for improved performance and turned into a borderline obsession spending every free minute dissecting articles, listening to podcasts, and reading about people’s experiences with ketosis. For the first time in my life, I’ve taken an interest in something biology-related (sorry med school friends).

 Disclaimer: Talk to your doctor before making any substantial dietary changes. I am not a doctor, nor am I qualified to give medical advice. This post is for entertainment informational purposes only.

Cyclical Keto: Why, What, How

“Put good in, get good out.”
“You are what you eat.”
“Let food be thy medicine and medicine be thy food.”

Diet matters – we all know that. What we don’t know is which diet enables us to perform at our best, though it’s probably something with vegetables and probably not Bojangles/Cookout/Chinese (i.e. my undergrad diet). Every body is different, and what is best can only be determined by experimenting. “Best” depends on our goals. For me, I want my diet to:

1. Improve Ironman triathlon performance
2. Improve cognitive performance

However, I have no interest in increased performance if I’m left feeling deprived and “hangry” all the time. And I’m not willing to sacrifice long term health for short term performance gains, so my diet needs to both leave me feeling satisfied and maintain or improve my health biomarkers (e.g. cholesterol, triglycerides, etc.).

It’s unwise to use research alone to craft something as individual as one’s diet, but my review of recent nutrition studies suggests that the cyclical ketogenic diet (CKD) may be promising for my purposes. And now, five months in, here’s some anecdotal evidence:

  • Swam 7 miles in the ocean after an overnight fast, biked 50 – 100 miles multiple times without consuming any carbohydrates, and ran a half marathon after consuming only one serving of UCAN Superstarch, all without bonking on any occasion.
  • 3 PM slump is gone, mental fog is nonexistent, and hunger-induced irritability is a thing of the past.
  • Triglycerides and total:HDL ratio are lower and far below any appreciable level of heart disease risk, blood pressure dropped from borderline high to normal, bodyfat (measured by DEXA scan) is just under 11%.
  • Typical keto day is 4,000+ calories of satisfying meals, snacks, and dessert – tonight’s was chocolate mousse with coconut and macadamias.

What is the cyclical ketogenic diet?

Most of the time I follow a ketogenic diet: a very high fat, low carbohydrate, moderate protein diet – see the pie chart below. On occasion (currently once every two weeks), I’ll cycle/cheat/refeed and eat anything I want, including pie. Most likely Chinese food and ice cream too.

Low carb?! Shouldn’t endurance athletes be piling on the carbs?!

While it’s true that athletes need glucose or glycogen (stored glucose) to perform high intensity exercise, endurance athletes who operate at a moderate intensity for long periods of time (e.g. Ironman competitors) can power their workouts using mostly fat if their bodies have been adapted to burn fat as the primary fuel. This is where the ketogenic diet comes in. It triggers complex changes in the body that raise the rate at which fat is oxidized, enabling one to use more bodyfat and depend less on consumed food, which is especially helpful when carrying or stomaching enough food is difficult. I will call these changes “fat adaptation,” which takes weeks to begin and months to plateau.

Fat adaptation begins with glycogen depletion. Step 1 is restricting carbohydrates and somewhat protein (since the body can turn protein into glucose), which forces the body to use its glycogen stores. The body can only store 2,000 or so calories of glycogen. Step 2 is burning off that stored glycogen. Once the stored glycogen is gone, if not replaced, the body will enter a state of ketosis in which the liver turns fatty acids into ketone bodies – the chemicals Acetone, Acetoacetic acid, and Beta-hydroxybutyric acid – to be used for energy. Ketosis is an adaptation that has enabled humans to survive starvation. Fortunately, one does not have to starve to enter ketosis. Instead, one can achieve ketosis by eating a high fat, low carbohydrate, moderate protein diet.

I glossed over the biology and chemistry involved in ketosis, but the following three videos will give you a better understanding. The first covers the nuts and bolts, the second is a bit more in depth, and the third might as well be a medical school lecture.

This video covers the basics of ketosis:
Peter Attia, MD, does an excellent job briefing the biology of ketosis:
This video describes what’s happening chemically during ketosis:

Everyone has ketone bodies in their bloodstreams, but physicians only consider those with concentrations greater than 0.5 mmol/dL to be in ketosis. One can check ketone concentration using a ketone meter, which works like a glucose meter. I use the Novamax ketone test kit since the strips are the cheapest (about $2 each) among the reputable brands. Other options are urine and breath tests, which are reportedly less reliable. When I tried the urine strips, I tested negative for ketones even though my Novamax meter read 1.7 mmol/dL (below).

Novamax ketone meter 
 
Example urine ketone test taken immediately after above blood ketone test

Don’t you need carbs to live?

There are essential fats (omega 3s and 6s), there are essential amino acids (from protein), but excluding fiber, there are no essential carbohydrates. The body can be almost completely fueled by fat, and the few cells that require glucose ( e.g. red blood cells, thyroid) get enough from the conversion of glycerol (from fat) and some amino acids (from protein) into glucose. Thus, one can survive without consuming any carbohydrates other than fiber. Fiber is the exception since it’s fuel for your gut flora and promotes proper gastrointestinal (GI) function, but because fiber does not generate an insulin response, fiber need not be limited on a ketogenic diet. Instead, fiber consumption is encouraged, especially diverse sources of fiber. More on this below.

What do you eat on this diet?

One key to success on this diet is lots and lots of vegetables…coated in fat. Before this diet I struggled to eat enough veggies. Take any vegetable, cover it in butter or cheese, and suddenly something hardly palatable becomes delicious! Remember that on this diet, fat is good. And since I’m not interested in losing weight, I am vigilant about getting enough fat. Vegetables, dense with fiber and micronutrients, are my fat shuttles of choice.

I eat a similar breakfast almost every morning: 2 eggs and 2 cups of spinach sautéed in olive or avocado oil with a side of olives, avocado, or tomato, sometimes with cheese. Occasionally in the morning I’ll have a double espresso with cinnamon and either heavy cream, butter, or MCT oil. I’m still not sure how I feel about putting butter or oil in my coffee…

A typical breakfast at home 
 
I was pleasantly surprised by the keto-friendliness of the hotel breakfast buffet

Lunch and dinner vary, but I consistently include some form of leafy green vegetable. I’ll often make an enormous salad (bigger than my head) with mixed greens and romaine topped with cheeses, chopped nuts, hardboiled eggs, avocado, bell pepper, cucumber, olives, tomato, broccoli sprouts or florets, high-fat low-carb dressing or EVOO, salt and pepper, and some form of protein, ideally a fatty fish like salmon. When I have a busy week ahead, I’ll batch cook cheese and cream-based casseroles with veggies and some protein.

So good I forgot to a take a picture before diving in
 
Cheesy, creamy goodness 

When I’m craving a particular dish, I can usually find keto-friendly recipe online. One of my favorites is a keto-friendly General Tso’s meatballs, which I served over cauliflower rice once and Miracle Rice another time.

It ain’t China Queen, but it hits the spot

The ketogenic diet is a macronutrient balancing act. Too little fat and one feels lethargic, too much and one gains weight. Too little protein and one loses muscle, too much and one is knocked out of ketosis (since protein can be turned into glucose). Too little carbohydrates and one is probably being too strict with vegetables and not getting enough fiber, too much and one is knocked out of ketosis. A good rule of thumb is 70/20/10 fat/protein/carb ratio, but this is only a guideline. A better plan is to first determine protein and caloric need, which varies depending on activity level. Phinney (2004) suggests eating at least 1.2 grams of protein per kg of body weight (0.55 g protein per lb) and no more than 1.7 g/kg (0.77 g/lb) – that’s between 75 and 130 g of protein per day for someone my size. Next, plan foods that provide enough fiber (I aim for 30+ grams per day). Finally, try to meet the remaining calories with fat and as few carbohydrate as possible.

For more meal ideas, check out this 14-day keto-friendly meal plan.

Aren’t you going to clog your arteries with all the fat you’re consuming?!

I could write an entire post on this topic alone (and plan to), so I’ll only briefly comment here. If you’re afraid of fat, read this article, which explains how the sugar industry has propagated a pro-carbohydrate public perception by selectively funding research aimed at making fat the enemy. Fortunately, public perception is shifting as conflict-of-interest-free research continues to reveal that fats are essential to a healthy diet. More and more frequently I come across the phrase “healthy fats” in pop-health articles. However, even proponents of avocado, salmon, and walnuts seem to demonize the saturated fats common in meats and animal products. Indeed, the American Diabetes Association, American Heart Association, Cleveland Clinic, Food and Drug Administration, Mayo Clinic, and World Health Organization all recommend limiting saturated fat intake. Convinced?

But “saturated fat is bad” does not tell the whole story. First, consider that there are ten types of saturated fatty acids (SFA) processed differently by the body. Researchers have demonstrated that some medium-chain SFAs like Lauric acid may lower the total cholesterol to HDL ratio, correlated with reduced risk of heart disease (Mensink et al 2003). Other SFAs like Palmitic acid, the most commonly consumed SFA in the U.S. (Ervin et al 2004), may raise the “bad” LDL cholesterol (Zock et al 1994). SFAs are more nuanced than the single blanket category “saturated fat” seen on nutrition labels.

Second, consider the endogeneity problem with saturated fats. Who eats a cheeseburger without a bun? Besides a large dose of SFAs, one also consumes a ton of refined carbohydrates when eating a typical American burger. The body is complex, and the interaction between simple carbohydrates and SFAs in the body may drive the ill health effects presumed to be caused by the latter. More research is needed to determine the health impacts of SFAs in isolation and in the context of low carbohydrate diets. One recent study, Forsynthe et al (2010), found that when carbohydrates are restricted, participants with diets high in saturated fats (from dairy and eggs) experienced no change in inflammatory markers. Though promising, more research is warranted before one can make claims about the safety of saturated fats when following a low carb diet.

How could such a radical diet be healthy?!

The ketogenic diet is only “radical” when compared to the modern Western diet. Compared to the diet of our hunter/gatherer ancestors, the Western diet is far more radical than the ketogenic diet (see table below). If evolutionary theory is correct, it follows that our ancestors’ genes, which we carry today, were crafted by natural selection to thrive on the diet available at the time. The implication is that we should expect to be healthier eating like our ancestors once did.

From Simopoulos (1999), modified from Simopoulos (1992)

Certainly our ancestors did not eat a ketogenic diet or even the “Paleo” diet as worshiped by the Crossfit community (here’s what they actually ate). But our ancestors, without grocery stores, restaurants, or even refrigerators, did periodically starve and enter ketosis. Compared to the typical Westerner who eats three or more high carb meals per day and never enters ketosis, those who follow a ketogenic diet likely experience metabolic states closer to that experienced by our ancestors. In addition to providing energy, ketones function as signaling molecules capable of altering gene expression, therby altering metabolism and risk of some diseases (Newman & Verdin 2015). Some scientists believe the ketogenic diet may prove useful for treating/preventing some neurodegenerative diseases and perhaps cancer (Seyfried 2014).

To be clear, there is evidence that low glycemic diets that emphasize fiber-rich whole grains and minimize sugar and refined carbohydrates can be healthy and well-tolerated (Barclay et al 2008). Additionally, grains are extremely cheap, so both your waistline and your wallet may benefit from a diet that allows carbs. Hence, I’d only recommend the ketogenic diet if you seek the unique performance advantages of ketosis, which I present next.

Ketogenic Research

Below, I present some of the research that prompted me to experiment with the ketogenic diet. The medical literature is rich with observational studies that fail to establish causality. While it is tempting to use observational studies to support arguments, I try to stick to clinical trials whenever possible, which do a better job testing causal relationships. Ethics, time, and cost can make human trials infeasible, so researchers often test animals (usually mice) instead of humans. Again, the results should not be ignored, but one must take caution when generalizing the results of animal studies.

Keto for endurance performance

An Ironman athlete of my size burns 600-800 calories per hour during a race lasting anywhere from 8 to 17 hours. An athlete who averages 700 calories per hour for 10 hours will have burned through 7,000 calories by the time he finishes. Our bodies store about 2,000 calories of glycogen in our muscles and liver, leaving a deficit of 5,000 calories that must come from sources other than stored glycogen, namely bodyfat and food, otherwise…bonk!

A person my size carries with them more than 75,000 calories of bodyfat. That’s enough to fuel almost ten Ironmans without eating anything. The problem is that the rate at which most athletes burn fat (less than 30 grams per hour) is not enough to sustain race pace intensity. Consider an Ironman athlete who burns 700 calories per hour and eats nothing. He can fuel 270 calories per hour from bodyfat and the remaining calories using glycogen. Sadly, his limited glycogen stores will deplete in under five hours, about halfway into the 112-mile bike segment.

To avoid bonking, this athlete must consume around 300 calories, or 75 grams, of carbohydrates per hour. That’s about 8 ounces of Gatorade and a gel every half hour, which sounds to me like a recipe for GI discomfort.

I’ll borrow an analogy from Peter Attia that reveals the irony of carb-dependent bonking: imagine a tanker truck that has run out of fuel. The tanker carries a virtually unlimited supply, but alas, it can only access the fuel in its smaller, primary tank. Likewise, most athletes carry tens of thousands of calories as bodyfat that cannot be accessed quickly. Instead, they have to continuously eat carbohydrates to sustain effort.

If only it were possible to tap into that endless supply of fuel…

Enter fat adaptation.

Research suggests that sustained carbohydrate restriction increases fat oxidation rates, i.e. induces fat adaptation and reduces need for consumed carbohydrate. Consider the graphs below, created from data from the FASTER study out of the University of Connecticut, and the different fat oxidation rates between highly trained endurance athletes who eat low carbohydrate diets (LCD) versus high carbohydrate diets (HCD).

The data indicate two suggestive phenomena. First, peak fat oxidation is higher for those in the LCD group (published numbers are 1.54 +/- 0.18 versus 0.67 +/- 0.14 g/min, a 2.3-fold difference), enabling them to use more fat at all intensity levels than can those in the HCD group. Second, peak fat oxidation occurs at higher intensities for the LCD group compared to the HCD group (published numbers are 70.3% +/- 6.3% VO2 max versus 54.9% +/- 7.8%). Ironman athletes race at about 70% – 80% of VO2 max, which is right on the money for peak fat oxidation in the LCD group. Hence, a LCD may reduce an athlete’s dependence on consumed carbohydrates during endurance races.

Back to our previous athlete example. If he managed to increase his fat oxidation rate from 30 to 60 grams per hour, he would be able to supply just shy of 700 calories per hour from bodyfat. Now, instead of 8 ounces of Gatorade and an energy gel every half hour, he could sustain exercise on just 6 ounces of Gatorade every half hour.

Theoretically, our athlete could go 10+ hours fasted and not bonk, but his starting glycogen may be reduced. For a factor of safety, it would be smart to add some exogenous carbohydrates. Additionally, actual fat oxidation rates and caloric needs are not necessarily linear (I assumed 60 g/hour of fat oxidation and 600/700/800 calories/hour for the swim/bike/run, respectively), but the model provides a ‘good enough’ approximation of fuel needs to illustrate the point.

Want to learn more about the FASTER study? Check out Volek’s presentation here:

The FASTER study does not prove that LCD causes increased fat oxidation since the recruited athletes were not randomly assigned to either diet. There could be something omitted among those who chose to go low carb, perhaps genetic differences, that is causing the observed difference in fat oxidation. Fortunately, other scientists have tried to demonstrate the causal effect of LCD on fat metabolism.

In a study by Phinney et al (1983), five cyclists were first given a balanced diet with a 1:1 ratio of fat to carbs by calories. Then, for four weeks, the cyclists maintained a diet with a 9:1 ratio of fat to carbs. The researchers compared a host of performance measures before versus after the dietary change. Most notably, they found that the cyclists, after adapting to the new diet, had no significant change in submaximal performance. Under the surface, however, the cyclists experienced reductions in muscle glycogen mobilization by more than four-fold and blood glucose oxidation by three-fold. Instead of glucose providing most of the cyclists’ energy needs, fat became the primary source of fuel.

Granted, this study’s sample size was small, and the effect on each cyclist was highly variable. But the magnitude of the change is large enough that self-experimentation is merited. I’m not the first athlete to try restricting carbohydrates for improved endurance performance. Tim Olsen is a keto-adapted ultramarathoner who holds the course record for the Western States 100, a 100-mile trail race in California. Zach Bitter is another keto-adapted ultrarunner who holds the world record for furthest distance run in 24 hours. Other keto-adapted high performers include Kevin Grabowski, Ben Greenfield, Sami Inkinen, Mike Morton, and the list goes on.

Peter Attia, MD is a marathon swimmer/cyclist and self-experimenter who conducted elaborated tests after switching from a HCD to LCD. In his lecture below, he explains his experiments and how researchers figure out how much of each macronutrient is consumed during exercise.

Ketosis is not without its performance downsides. Multiple papers and anecdotal evidence suggest that all-out, top-end power is reduced while following a ketogenic diet. Hence, it would not make sense for sprinters or shorter distance triathletes to follow a ketogenic diet. Considering that humans of my size store about 2,000 calories of glycogen and burn under 1,000 calories per hour during endurance exercise, athletes would probably not benefit from a ketogenic diet when competing in events lasting under two hours.

Other areas of ketogenic research

Starting in the 1920s, doctors began proscribed the ketogenic diet to patients with epilepsy to help prevent seizures (Kinsman et al 1992). Since then, researchers have examined the diet for treating metabolic diseases, neurodegenerative diseases, and cancer (Seyfried 2014). Additionally, there is evidence that ketones are the preferred fuel for the brain and that ketone production increases while exercising in ketosis, thus enhancing focus (Volek et al 2015). The opposite is true for carb-dependent athletes who begin to feel foggy as circulating glucose diminishes during exercise.

I’m already pretty deep in the literature for this entry, so I’ll hold off the remainder of my findings for a future one.

The “cyclical” part of the diet: carb cycling

Most existing research has focused on strict ketogenic diets, not cyclical ketogenic diets like the one I am following. As such, it remains a question whether I will reap the full benefits of the ketogenic diet when including regular carb-cycling. I would consider carb-cycling less frequently, but I love bread, pasta, and other carbs too much to sacrifice them ad infinitum. Additionally, adding carbs once per week replenishes glycogen stores and aids in hormone production and hence may improve short-run (and possibly long-run) performance when consumed strategically.

Because carb cycling in the context of ketosis is not well studied, carbohydrate “dosing” remains something to be fine-tuned as I continue with the experiment. I hope to figure out how often I can eat high-carbohydrate meals and still benefit from ketosis. My current carb consumption method is the following:

  • Refeed day: eat enough carbs to exceed glycogen storage saturation, i.e. more than 500 grams of carbohydrate. 500 grams would only be necessary if glycogen stores were totally depleted, which if not the case may lead to weight gain. However, I can live with moderate short term weight gain for the improved diet adherence on low carb days.
  • First few days after refeed day: eat very low carb, moderate protein and complete higher intensity workouts (e.g. interval training, hill repeats, sprints, lifting), ideally while fasted, to burn off excess glycogen and resume ketone production. If followed correctly, ketone levels should be back to above 0.5 mmol/L within 3-4 days.
  • Intermediate days before next refeed day: keep carb consumption low and only supplement with targeted, low quantities of slow-release carbohydrates when needed (e.g. for race days)

I need to experiment further, but now that I’ve become fat adapted, it seems that cycling once every two weeks does not impair my ability to oxidize fat. More to come soon.

Special considerations on keto

Microbiome

Although much is still unknown, evidence suggests that a diverse microbiome plays a part in health including immune function, hormone balance, and weight management (Flint et al 2012). Most GI experts recommend a lifestyle that promotes diverse gut flora including eating an array of fiber sources, fermented foods, and avoiding oral antibiotics.  Kimchi, pickles, sauerkraut, and most vegetables are keto-friendly and make your gut happy. Personally, I’ve had experienced better GI comfort while on keto than ever before, but only after I made a concerted effort to increase my fiber intake. Even my desserts contain fiber when I include 100% cacao (nibs or powder).

Sodium

When following a low carb diet, lower levels of insulin cause one’s body to excrete more sodium than usual through a process called natriuresis (DeFronzo 1981). Low sodium can lead to headaches, dizziness, low blood pressure, cramping, and poor athletic performance. Phinney (2004) recommends that those following a ketogenic diet consume upwards of 5 grams of sodium and 3 grams of potassium per day to maintain healthy electrolyte levels. Before concertedly adding salt to my food, my blood pressure dropped to 100/60. Now I consume at least 5 grams per day, more when exercising, and no longer experience symptoms of low sodium.

Hypothyroidism


Research has shown that carbohydrates play a role in thyroid function, and when carbohydrates are substantially restricted, serum T3 levels may decline (Spaulding et al 1976). Fortunately, reducing T3 hormone may slow the rate of aging (Fontana et al 2006). Unfortunately, reduced thyroid hormone can negatively affect athletic performance, so for now, I’m prioritizing having sufficiently high T3 levels. I’m hoping the intermittent carb influx is enough to keep the thyroid happy, but I will continue to monitor through regular blood panels. So far so good.

Results so far

My diet pre CKD in one word? Garbage. Here’s a typical week of lunches while a senior at NC State:

  • Monday: General Tso’s chicken and white rice (gotta start off the week right)
  • Tuesday: 3 Wendy’s chicken sandwiches (bunned and battered) plus a Frosty
  • Wednesday: Cookout tray with Mint Oreo & PB milkshake (don’t deny it ’til you try it)
  • Thursday: Chipotle burrito bowl (healthy? Not really – my go-to bowl has 141 g of carbs (50 from the tortilla alone) and 1,200 calories…and that’s before the chips! And likely an underestimate since I employ some Chipotle hacks)
  • Friday: An entire medium Pokey Stix from Gumby’s. Or General Tso’s chicken again because you can’t beat perfection.

Friends often commented on my food habits, but why should I care? So long as I regularly exercised, I could stay fit…but body composition only tells part of the story. Under the surface, my blood pressure was high enough that my doctor suggested reducing sodium intake. Additionally, I had to eat every three hours or so, lest I release The Hanger (duh duh duh!). To stave off the hanger, I would always leave the house with some snack on hand to spike my blood glucose if needed. Not exactly ideal.

My training also revealed a need for a dietary shift. During an event, I had two options: 1) consume sugary gels and drinks and feel ill but have energy to finish the race, or 2) eat less, have a happy gut, but bonk. Neither option seemed suitable for finishing an Ironman, let alone being competitive, so I opted to add a third option.

First Weeks

I began following CKD in May after collegiate triathlon season ended. The first two days on the diet were hard, to say the least. I crrraaaaved carbohydrates, especially chocolate toaster waffles for some reason. But after getting over the two-day hump, the cravings subsided. And then the weirdest thing happened – I stopped feeling hungry, at least not the same ravenous “I could eat an entire cow” hunger common before. I could skip breakfast or work through lunch and not think about food incessantly, a wondrous change from my high-carb past.

Four days in, feeling psychologically strong, I bonked on my three-mile bike commute to campus. I could hardly pedal at half the speed as usual. “What the hell?!” Hill repeats the day before had left my glycogen stores mostly depleted, and only four days in to CKD my body still needed glycogen to function. I felt like I was fighting a headwind regardless of the direction I traveled. Reading about others’ adaptation phases, I knew I’d experience some temporary performance decline, but I had no idea it would hit so hard.

At last, my first “Faturday.” I started the morning with a bagel, waffle, toast, and a pain au chocolat. Lunch was (you guessed it) Chinese food at a buffet that had both General Tso’s chicken and sushi, and I finished off the day with half a large pizza and a pint of mint chip ice cream. Glycogen stores replenished.

Time to train. I felt like superman on the bike: averaged 22.5 mph on a 30-mile route with stop lights. Next day, same thing: crushed it. But by the next day, I once again felt as if I were pulling a ball and chain, shackled by glycogen depletion.

So the cycle went: tired muscles and sucky workouts most of the week, until refeed day and the day after when I’d feel unstoppable. The performance decline that would inevitably ensue was discouraging, but I continued the experiment hoping fat adaptation would set in eventually.

Three weeks into the experiment, I was still struggling physically, but commutes started getting easier. I was no longer stuck in the granny gear and could manage a somewhat faster pace. Psychologically, I was pleasantly surprised by my focus and lack of hanger. The best part: I could eat a huge lunch and have zero 3pm slump – extremely helpful when your job involves reading papers on complex economic models.

Several weeks later

The morning of my carb-cycling day, I decided to skip breakfast and go for an ocean swim. At that point, I had restricted carbs for seven straight days, and I wanted to see how far I could swim before bonking. I started north from La Jolla Shores, hugging the coastline should I need to stop. I felt like I could hold a moderately-high pace forever and ended up swimming nearly seven miles. Despite moderate dehydration, I felt great and could’ve continued a while longer. Breakthrough! I celebrated with three plates of Indian food for lunch.

Fast forward to today

While on keto, top-end, all-out power is still limited, but my sub-threshold endurance is stronger than ever, even without eating before or during workouts. And when I do eat carbohydrates, I gain back my ability to climb and sprint, which begs the question: do I eat carbs before or during a race, or am I better off avoiding carbs and staying in ketosis?

I’m attempting to find the answer by experimenting with “strategic” carb consumption. I purchased a sample pack of Generation UCAN Superstarch, which contains hydrothermally treated waxy maize, a carbohydrate absorbed so slowly that insulin response is minimal. The product was initially developed to treat Glycogen Storage Disease (GSD), which requires patients to consume a near constant flow of glycogen (Ross et al 2016). While sleeping, patients with GSD must wake every few hours to consume a source of glucose. With Superstarch, however, patients could sleep nearly eight hours on average since the slow absorption provides a constant source of glycogen throughout the night.

Later, Generation UCAN began marketing Superstarch to endurance athletes who want to replenish glycogen stores without spiking insulin and shutting off fat oxidation. Roberts et al (2011) conducted a clinical trial with superstarch and demonstrated its efficacy for providing a continuous source of glucose without spiking insulin or reducing fat oxidation compared to consuming the same calories as maltodextrin.

Peter Attia explains the science behind Superstarch in the video below (he claims no affiliation with Generation UCAN):

Looking forward

I have a host of experiments in mind to test my body’s response to particular foods or lack thereof. I’d like to test the effect of MCT oil, artificial sweeteners, and moderate carbohydrate foods (yogurt, carrots, chickpeas) on my blood glucose and ketones. I’m also interested in how intermittent fasting and larger, less frequent meals affect ketone production. Another future experiment involves exogenous ketones, which may help me get back into ketosis following a day of carb-cycling.

When I reexamine my diet in December, I imagine I will stick with some variant of this diet. At the very least, I will continue to restrict added sugar and refined grains to one day or less per week. Since I will be racing shorter triathlons January through April, which require more high intensity, anaerobic efforts (and more glycogen), I may add some whole grains, beans, and fruit back to my diet. Even then, I may experiment with restricting carbs a few days before a race and then adding carbs back on race day.

Concluding Thoughts

You might think after reading this post that I’d recommend trying CKD, but it’s is not for everyone, and good thing too – it’s not a globally sustainable diet. Maize, rice, and wheat, none of which are keto-friendly, provide about two-thirds of the world’s food energy intake (Cassman 1999). What I would encourage you to do is to be mindful of your nutrition choices and how they align with your goals – educate yourself, read labels, track your diet for a week with an app like MyFitnessPal. Even if you’re in excellent physical shape, adjusting your diet may give you the edge you need to compete with the best in your sport. Or perhaps you’re interested in reducing your risk of developing neurodegenerative diseases, which may be accomplished by reducing intake of added sugars (Cherbuin et al 2012).

Too often we think of a “diet” as something temporary. When you ‘go on a diet’, you risk erasing all the work you put in as soon as you go off the diet. Instead, make your diet part of your lifestyle, and keep adherence in mind when setting dietary goals. When a diet is too restrictive, adherence is nearly impossible (are you really never going to eat cake, cookies, or ice cream ever again?). The psychological factors of one’s diet are as important as the physiological factors.

This is not a post about weight loss, but I recognize weight loss is a top dietary goal for many. In general, if permanent weight loss is your goal, I urge you to acknowledge that temptation will always be present. Schedule refeed days as outlets for temptation when you permit yourself to eat whatever the heck you want. Otherwise you will feel deprived, eventually cave, and gain back the weight you’ve lost. When only once per week or less, a binge day makes up in psyche what it loses in weight loss progress. I’ve found I rarely feel deprived allowing myself carbohydrates once every two weeks. If I have cravings, I write them down and eat those foods the next refeed day. I also look for keto-friendly recipes of foods I crave including pizza bake, cheddar biscuits, chicken parmigiana, and ice cream.

Pizza pizza
All the taste of Red Lobster biscuits with none the carbs
This batch included egg yolks, but I found the recipe tastes just as good using only cream, stevia, and vanilla extract

Recommended podcasts

If you’re a podcast junkie like me and want to learn more about the ketogenic diet, check out the following:
Dom D’Agostino on the Tim Ferriss show #1
Dom D’Agostino on the Tim Ferriss show #2
Dom D’Agostino on the Tim Ferriss show #3
Dom D’Agostino on FoundMyFitness
Peter Attia on the Tim Ferriss Show
Peter Attia on FoundMyFitness

 

 

New Summer, New Goals

One year ago I dipped the front wheel of my Trek 520 in the Atlantic Ocean, 40 days and nearly 4,000 miles after dipping its rear wheel in the Pacific, marking the end of a physical and personal journey that was perspective changing, to say the least. I doubt I’ll have the chance again in the near future to embark on quite the same kind of journey, and I follow with envy the cyclists making their ways across the US this summer.


ICYMI: a Snapchat video compilation of last summer’s trip

Some use New Year’s as a personal reset point, a time to reexamine goals and make new ones for the future. Starting ten years ago when I began swimming competitively, eating healthily, and subsequently lost more than 40 pounds, I realized the summer was better suited to be my reset point. Many of my fondest experiences – competing at Long Course Nationals, serving with OCBP, traveling through Europe, and of course last year’s bicycle tour – occurred during the summer. As I enter my 19th year of schooling this fall, the time between semesters remains a luxury with flexibility and opportunity for unstructured activity not possible otherwise. So, what is the big adventure this summer?

The first portion of this summer was spent studying for Qualifying Exams: three three-hour long exams encompassing the entirety of the material covered in the first year of the economics graduate program. Although one gets three attempts to pass before getting kicked out of the program, passing enables one to focus on research (why I’m in grad school) and less on the nuances of dated economic models that have minimal applicability to my dissertation. Hence, the incentives to pass on round one are strong, and I spent most of June in the books. My cohort took Quals at the end of June, and we found out last week the results. I’m thankful to report that I passed, though I’m skeptical and am still awaiting the “We regret to inform you that there’s been a mistake” email.

With Quals in the rearview, I have three additional goals for this summer:

  1. Complete a summer research project
  2. Progress towards completing an Ironman
  3. Better define my service goals

Goal #1: This summer I am working with a UCSD professor and another at CMU (who is a UCSD alumna) on a research project investigating sleep, habit formation, and behavior change adherence. So far most of my work has entailed examining the existing literature and ideating potential pilot experiments, which we hope to run by the end of the year. While applying to graduate school, I had dreamt (pun intended) about working on a sleep-research project like this one. Excited? Heck yes!

Goal #2: work towards overcoming my largest barriers to finishing an Ironman – the run, mid-race nutrition, and cost. The last leg of the Ironman is a marathon distance run, which by itself is an endurance feat, let alone after swimming 2.4 miles and biking 112. This summer I am spending most of my workout time running and completing “prehab” exercises for injury prevention. I am progressing faster than I had anticipated, and perhaps I’m being optimistic, but I believe by this fall I will able to finish a marathon (though it won’t be pretty). Combined with my swimming and cycling background, this last bout of training should be enough to handle the endurance rigors of the Ironman. The next challenge: fueling during a 140.6-mile race.

Fully rested, our bodies store about 2,000 calories of glycogen in our muscles and liver. The typical Ironman athlete burns 7,000 – 10,000 calories, a deficit of 5,000 – 8,000 calories. Racers overcome the deficit in two ways: eating copious amounts of food and using body fat. More of one implies less dependence on the other. Given my history of GI distress after eating sugary gels during past triathlons, I am experimenting with diets that raise fat oxidation rates and hence lower dependence on consumed energy sources. To avoid opening a can of worms I will not go into detail here, but I promise to write more on this in the future.

If I can handle the physical and nutrition challenges of the Ironman, then Ironman Maryland would seem like the perfect race to attempt my first. The race is held in Cambridge, a short drive away from my childhood home. The course is super flat, and come October, the temperature should be ideal in the mid-60s. Another consideration (though definitely a longshot) is that this year’s race is the last Ironman Maryland in which I may qualify for Kona in the 18-24 age group, which is less competitive than the 25-29 age group. So why not go for it? The registration fees for Ironman Maryland total more than $850. Flights add another $400, and throw in training expenses and gear and we’re over $1,500. For one race. Wow.

So maybe it makes more sense to save my pennies and register for my first Ironman in 2018. Or maybe not. To be determined…

Goal #3: better define my service goals. Time and money are both scarce resources, and if I’m going to contribute either, I want to be sure they 1) enact as much social benefit as possible and 2) help a cause that resonates with me. I’ve discussed with a few of you effective altruism and the importance of considering the value of the enacted change per dollar donated (if you’re unfamiliar, read about effective altruism here). Governments, if providing aid, must consider opportunity cost and seek to maximize social benefit. While I’d suggest considering bang for the buck when giving, private entities, on the other hand, should contribute however they’d please, even if their contributions go to causes that are less than efficient.

Consider this example: few would argue that feeding a starving human provides less social benefit than feeding a starving animal, and hence it is logical for governments to provide aid to victims of famine before giving to animal rights groups. That said, I pass no judgement on the pet owner who, after watching miserable, caged animals on TV set to Sarah McLachlan’s “Angel,” donates to the ASPCA instead of the Red Cross. Similar to why (absent of being asked for my opinion) I would withhold telling someone what they should eat, where they should live, or how they should spend their time, I would not tell someone what causes they should support because our core values may differ.

Maximizing social benefit and giving to causes that resonate with me are often contradictory objectives. Many of the causes I have supported in the past, including drowning prevention, financial literacy, and educational attainment, produced less social benefit than could have been generated if I provided my resources elsewhere. Or at least I believe that to be the case (social benefit can be difficult to measure). I don’t regret supporting those causes, but the economist in me desires to at least in part contribute in the future to causes that produce the best returns. This is a poorly defined goal and one that is unlikely to produce much tangible social impact, hence the meta-goal. More research to follow, but for now, I will write about a charity I believe does more than most in terms of social benefit per dollar invested.

Evidence Action (EA), a charity that emphasizes “evidence-based interventions” in Africa and Asia, works to eliminate parasitic worm infections, particularly among children, through their Deworm the World initiative. The poorest populations living without access to sanitation are most susceptible to these infections, which inhibit sufficient nutrient absorption, hinder brain and other bodily development, reduce school attendance, slow economic development, and perpetuate the cycle of poverty. Although parasitic worms take an enormous toll on their hosts, treatment is ridiculously cheap – 55 cents or less per child when administered in school and only necessary twice per year. The Copenhagen Consensus (read more about it here) regards deworming school children a top-5 global development priority and estimates a 10 to 60-fold return on investment (i.e. each dollar invested produces 10 to 60 dollars in social benefit). GiveWell, a nonprofit that is dedicated to identifying the charities that best maximize social impact per dollar spent, recommends EA as a top-rated charity. Despite being a smaller charity, EA spent more than 96% of its donations on programming in 2015 – compare that with the Boy Scouts of America Trail’s End popcorn fundraiser, which spends 70% on programming and 30% on non-scouting related expenses.


The END Fund, which grants money to Evidence Action’s Deworm the World initiative, put together this video on Schistosomiasis, a parasite that affects many residents of Lake Victoria.

I lied – there’s a fourth goal: to practice writing more, hence this blog. The nature of blogging implies the content will be personal, but more than talking about myself, I aim to write content that spreads useful knowledge backed by research and less by untested (or poorly tested) theories. Especially with regards to training and nutrition, it can be difficult sorting between what’s good and what’s crap. Exhibit A: Netflix documentaries. Some filmmakers, like those from “What the Health,” spread pseudoscience by finding people with MD after their names (I dare not call them professionals) willing to make unsubstantiated claims that aid their own causes (e.g. promoting veganism – read this article for a thorough debunking of “What the Health”).

Anyhow, I appreciate feedback, and if I’ve ever discussed a topic with you that you think would make an interesting blog piece, let me know!

That’s all for now. Until next time,
– ZAG

Snapchatting Across America on a Bicycle

Experience my trip through a Snapchat video compilation that my goofy self put together:

41 days of cycling condensed into a six minute movie comprised entirely of Snapchat videos. I’m no Steven Spielberg, but it should at least give you a taste of the immense geographic diversity of the US (and possibly a laugh, too).

Arriving at the Atlantic Ocean

The post below was written a year before I started this blog and originally published on my personal Facebook page. I’m reposting it here as my “first” blog post since, although it’s now a year later, the lessons remain as relevant as ever.


I wanted to post my final check-in last night but sleep overtook me before I could finish.

I’m home! Justin joined me for the last 25 miles of the day and distracted me from the heat and headwinds with some much needed bro time that I’ve been missing all summer. Could not have asked for a better way to finish off the journey.

When I started this adventure, I had a few goals other than “make it from coast to coast without getting killed and take a photo in front of every state welcome sign.” I wanted a reflective summer, one that would challenge me to think critically about purpose, existence, (insert other philosophy-sounding concept here). I wanted to read the equivalent of what one might in Philosophy 101 to somewhat close the gap in my math and hard science dominant education.

It turns out I’m not much a fan of the Greek classics. But I did manage to spend much time thinking (not like there’s a whole lot else to do while biking solo in the wilderness). After reading Daniel Gilbert’s “Stumbling on Happiness” (thanks Sarah for the rec), I began thinking about “seeing what isn’t there,” the seemingly inhuman ability to observe what is absent in the present. Sherlock Holmes has this ability. For example, after observing that a dog particularly vocal around strangers had not barked during a burglary, Holmes deduced that the thief must have not been a stranger at all but rather someone the dog knew well. Alas, it seems this ability is common only among fictional characters.

I’ve realized that like most humans, I do not have the ability to see what isn’t there. I am biased by information made easily available to me by friends, media, academia, and so on, which becomes a problem when trying to make predictions or draw conclusions about something. After watching a news broadcast plagued with stories of violent crime, displays of social injustice, and threats of terror, one may be tempted to think that we live in a time more treacherous now than in previous years. Indeed, I have read posts over the past few months containing some variants of “People these days,” “We need ___ now more than ever,” and “What is the world coming to?” Being as the US is experiencing its most technologically advanced era ever with record high per capita income, access to and quality of healthcare, relative record low violent crime, etc., statements like these are products of overlooking what isn’t there, blindness to the good that fails to make front page news.

My trip removed me from my usual environment and exposed me to things I may not notice at home or in the media. Most notable were the innumerable examples of human goodness that I encountered. Although I camped quite a bit, I frequently stayed at houses of strangers who I met through an online resource called WarmShowers. It’s a platform like CouchSurfing but exclusive to touring cyclists. During nearly every WS experience I was taken aback that my hosts were willing to give me, someone they’ve never met before, a safe place to sleep, use of bathroom and laundry facilities, home-cooked meals (feasts would be more accurate), and genuinely welcoming and friendly company. Even the smaller examples of human goodness – the group of elderly people having breakfast who invited me to sit with them when they noticed I was alone, the truck driver who stopped on his way home from work to offer to refill my water bottles, the random cyclist in Milwaukee who changed his route to show me some of the highlights of the city and help me find my destination – remind me that people are generally good and that events prominent in the media are the exception. Yet not one of these significant acts of kindness will make the news, and all will go unnoticed by the rest of the world. It’s hard to see what isn’t there.

I am not encouraging ignoring the news altogether, even if times now are truly the best they’ve ever been. No, real injustices exist, and we must be made aware of these injustices if we are to address them. And to further clarify, not everything I observed on my bike trip was necessarily positive. As a student in the Research Triangle, I had lived in such a microcosm of progressive thinking that it was inconceivable to me that Trump could garner enough support to win the GOP nomination. After traveling through the rural areas between Seattle and Minneapolis where I noticed cumulatively fewer than a handful of people of color, I am no longer surprised by the results of the Republican primaries.

So please stay informed – do not ignore the news. An informed populace is critical to a functioning society. But keep in mind the bias that exists when our information comes from limited sources. If we cannot see what isn’t there, then the solution is to seek out wherever “it” is and see it. And, if you truly care about addressing injustice, I would encourage you to learn more about the injustices happening outside our borders, particularly those affecting children in developing nations, which seem to get a disproportionately small amount of media attention relative to the magnitude of their impacts.

So many thanks are due that I’m not sure where to begin. Thanks to my parents for allowing me follow my adventuresome spirit despite the inherent risks of a solo cross country bicycle trip. Thanks to the many wonderful people (Phil, John, Lisa, and several others) who graciously welcomed a stranger to their homes purely out of kindness and in support of touring cycling. Thanks to Paige, Liv, and Mike for hosting me and showing me around three awesome cities. Thanks to Matt for housing me, going to Cedar Point with me, and for being my personal guardian weatherman (you should Like his page, he’s pretty funny). Thanks to Keara for cycling with me and for baking cookies that I’m sure would have been delicious if the raccoons had not stolen them. Thanks to the touring cyclists I met along the way (Emily, Jenny, Robbie, Susan, Shayl, Shira, and others) who made me forget I was biking solo. Thanks to Emily who deserves a medal for putting up with me nearly 24/7 for ten days straight. Thanks to my friends who texted words of encouragement, kept me company on the phone, and sent motivational Snapchats (you know who you are) – I could not have gotten through the especially rough days without you. In my attempt to see what isn’t there, thanks to the tens of thousands of motorists who did not hit me, especially those who moved over a whole lane or more. And, thanks to all of you reading this for following my journey!

Though I am no closer to a degree in philosophy now than when I started, I am finishing my journey (and this post) feeling very much in harmony with the world. My journey reaffirmed my faith in humanity and belief that the vast majority of people are good and are doing good. Now it’s time to recover and begin packing for my third trip across the country this summer!