On the 31st of May 2015 at 5:30 am, 23 000 men and women embarked on the oldest, largest, and arguably the toughest footrace in the world – the 90th Comrades Marathon. Among the thousands of participants putting their minds and bodies to the test, two runners dared to add yet another level of uncertainty to the challenge – running the marathon on a low carbohydrate diet.
Two months prior to the race, Alfred Motaung and Marc Bester – two complete strangers – each decided to switch from a traditional carb-heavy runners’ diet to Banting – a fat-reliant dietary lifestyle virtually unheard of in the endurance sports community. Their reasons for making the change were different, but the results the same – more energy, less body fat and a fantastic race.
As a Comrades veteran with 13 Marathons under his belt, 46-year-old, Parts Inspector, Alfred Motaung had started to notice a decrease in energy – during training as well as everyday activities. The sport of running that was once so rewarding had become a chore; and recovery after training a lengthy and painful process.
Then, two months before the 2015 Comrades Marathon, Alfred decided to turn his life (and his sporting career) around. A colleague had told him about Banting; and the promise of extra energy, quick recovery, weight loss and mental strength was enough motivation for Alfred to quit carbohydrate cold turkey. He went from a diet of high carb snacks and “anything that was available” to eating highly nutritious carb-free foods. “My new diet was mainly eating food on the green list such as fried chicken, boerewors, eggs, avocado, spinach, cabbage, cheese, tomatoes, and so on.” says Alfred. “I drank plenty of water, and used palm oil and animal fats for frying.” What is really remarkable about Alfred's story is that he managed to adopt a Banting lifestyle for little more than R30 a day, proving the Banting isn't the expensive lifestyle choice it is often believed to be.
"My greatest moment during the race was knowing that I am among the few athletes finishing the Comrades on the Banting diet, and proving that it can be done.”
Yet it wasn’t always easy. Alfred faced the same temporary withdrawal symptoms that many other Banters complain of during the first weeks. “I struggled with headaches and sugar cravings, but my recovery after training sessions was quick, my weight loss was effective, and my breathing during training and racing improved. I also felt mentally energised.” As his body became fat-adapted, the headaches and cravings went away, leaving only desirable effects behind. In just two months of Banting, Alfred had lost 7kg and 1.5 inches off his waist.
During the race itself, Alfred fuelled on droëwors and water for the first 50 of 90km, after which he added supplements and bananas for extra kilojoules. He had good energy levels during and after the race, and a remarkably short recovery time of three days. “Being fat-adapted has helped me so much,” he says. “My greatest moment during the race was knowing that I am among the few athletes finishing the Comrades on the Banting diet, and proving that it can be done.”
Among the swarm of runners, another Banter was testing his new lifestyle against the Kwa-Zulu Natal heat and the seemingly endless road. Marc Bester, a 40-year-old ex-paratrooper and Iron Man triathlete, had decided to try the Banting lifestyle out of curiosity and an affinity for new challenges. Marc’s mother had lost 25kg of excess body fat by cutting out carbohydrate, so he felt confident that this controversial dietary revolution would at least help him shed a little weight - if nothing else. So, after talking to friends and doing some research, Marc said goodbye to carbohydrate two months before the 2015 Comrades Marathon and proceeded with training for the big day.
Unlike Alfred, Marc experienced no withdrawal symptoms, and has loved every facet of the Banting lifestyle. “I have so much energy.” he says. “I eat amazing food and cut out all the junk I was eating on a daily basis.” Not only did his energy levels increase, but he hasn’t experienced muscle cramps since he started Banting – something he had struggled with regularly during training and races.
“Knowing that my body burns fat so easily, whether I’m training or at rest, is amazing. I won’t train any other way.”
Instead of carbo-loading before the Marathon, as he used to do, he stuck to the Banting basics, and found that he didn’t miss the sweets and energy gels he used to depend on. “It was cheaper, I felt stronger, and I understood the science behind what my body needed and how it produced energy.”
On the day of the Marathon, Marc had eggs, bacon and avocado for breakfast, and during the race he fuelled on macadamia nuts, biltong, chicken, berries, and a protein shake for the last stretch. Marc ran one of his fastest times in years, and enjoyed himself thoroughly despite the rough conditions. Marc describes his greatest moment as crossing the finish line and knowing that he had fuelled himself for 11 hours during trying conditions, having tested his mind and body, and finishing a champion. “I never gave up,” he says, “I pushed myself to my limits. I had so much fun as well, chatting to runners and spectators. It was my most enjoyable race to date and my proudest achievement.”
Both Alfred and Marc consider their experiment a roaring success. “I would never have believed it,” says Alfred. “I would advise all athletes to give it a try.”
Marc is equally proud of his achievements. “I was able to prove that I had enough energy to fuel 11 hours of strenuous exercise at 35°C.” says Marc. “Knowing that my body burns fat so easily, whether I’m training or at rest, is amazing. I won’t train any other way.”