Monday, June 24

Whole30 Part I: How and Why We Started

In October 2012 I ran my second Chicago Marathon, and for the second consecutive attempt missed qualifying for Boston.  (Oh gosh, here he goes again, talking about Boston – I know, I know!  Stay with me here.  There’s a bigger point to this, I promise!) After the race I dissected what had gone wrong – I thought I had done everything right: endurance runs, speed work, cross-training, weights, foam rolling, massage, adequate sleep, etc.  I was certainly in good enough shape to qualify, which made my result that much more frustrating.

It wasn't until I spoke to my friend Aaron on my way back from Chicago that I discovered what was missing.  Aaron, who is a triathlon coach and endurance athlete, had made it painfully clear I had neglected one of the most important facets of training: nutrition.  My engine I had developed during training was tuned for qualifying; I simply ran out of gas. 

The Chicago Bonk

The intensity of a workout or race dictates the fuel source your body uses to fund the effort.  Generally speaking, the harder you work, the more your body relies on carbohydrate.  Lesser efforts require a lower amount of carbohydrate since your body can utilize its own fat stores for energy.  That’s right, that saturated fat around our bellies can and should be used for energy.  Think of the last time you hopped on a cardio machine at a gym – remember that graphic of the heart rate (HR) zones?  Lower HR is associated with the ability to use fat for energy (hence "Fat Burning Zone").

Because the effort it takes to qualify for Boston (at least for me) is high, I was predominantly –if not 100% – burning carbohydrates.  Technically speaking, I was burning glycogen, which is the storage form of carbohydrate in the muscles and liver.  Often times the goal before a race or strenuous event is to make sure you’ve got enough glycogen.  One way many folks do this is by “carb-loading” the night before by eating a big bowl of pasta.  Using glycogen as a fuel source is great, but we have a finite supply.  Run out of it and you’ll experience what happened to me in Chicago: bonking. 

It’s the point at which you run out of carbohydrate, so your body begins shutting down.  Some people refer to it as “the wall.” Your body essentially forces you to slow down so that it can begin turning your fat cells into energy.  Or put another way, bonking is your body’s way of bringing you into that “Fat Burning Zone” at a lower HR.  

Slow down >> Lower HR >> Burn fat for fuel.  The problem with this, however, is that Boston-qualifying requires me to run a marathon in a certain time.  I don’t have this luxury to slow down.

What if, though, I could begin to train my body to burn fat for energy more often than carbohydrate? 

This would certainly reduce my risk of bonking since we all virtually have an endless supply of fat cells that yield energy.  It would also require less mid-race fueling (like Gatorade or Gu) which is infamous for causing gastrointestinal issues.  Interesting concept, I thought: train your body to prefer fat over carbohydrate for energy.

The Whole30

Within a few hours of hanging up with Aaron I had an e-mail from him in my inbox.  I forwarded it to Jessie and then started working through it on my own.  It contained a list of resources and hyperlinks, the first of which was a book called It Starts With Food.  I ordered a copy immediately.  Just after the book was a link pointing me here.  I had clicked the link, but barely read the content as I was overwhelmed with other information to pour through.  You see, I was determined to learn more about fat-utilization so that I could qualify for Boston once and for all.  I felt ADD – clicking through a ton of different information – reading a lot, absorbing a little.

Jessie then reeled me back in as she re-sent me the link above.  She said “Hey, maybe we should do this?”  I clicked on it again, printed it out, sat down, and read through it thoroughly.  As soon as I finished I sent her a note back: “Yep.  We’re doing this.”

This is how it all started. 

Over the next six weeks I’m going to lay the foundation for the Whole30.  I’m going to reiterate some concepts from the crew at Whole9 who created the program, as well as add my own color.  I’m approaching these next posts like this:  If I had never heard of this way of eating or knew very little about it, what would I want to know in order to get started?  And in hindsight, knowing what I know now, what would be beneficial for folks who want to eat, feel and live better forever?

It is my hope that by the end of this six-week series you will want to become your own scientific experiment and join Jessie and me as we do a Whole30 starting on August 1, 2013.  I’m convinced that if you stick with me on these posts, you’ll come to the conclusion that you owe it to yourself to at least give it a shot.  And at the bare minimum, after reading this series, you’ll be able to make more informed decisions about your diet.

For me, it was performance-driven.  How can I eat certain foods that will help me burn fat for fuel, recover faster and reduce inflammation?  I wanted to leverage nutrition as an asset in training.  But even mid-way through our first Whole30 I began to realize that I was reaping way more benefits outside of running.  I was sleeping better, had sustained energy, no allergies, clear skin, no digestion issues and zero cravings for junk food.  I became leaner while consuming more calories than before.  All in all, I just felt awesome. 

Many of my family and friends have also tried this, and they’ve reported benefits I would have never guessed.  This led me to believe that there’s truly something to this.  I believe it’s a great starting point to re-set the metabolism in a smart way.  There’s no crazy supplemental formula, pill regimen, calorie-counting program or DVD.  It’s simply eating nutrient-dense foods and eliminating some that may be causing harm.

People I know who have tried this have all done it for different reasons.  Some do it to lose weight, others do it to help with chronic digestion issues.  And more and more I'm seeing people who do it for emotional reasons, folks who want to break unhealthy relationships with "food-like products."  I've even seen some do it just to prove to themselves that they could.

What'll be your reason?

Lastly, I ask that you do me a favor, and read the link I called out above.  Don’t make the same mistake I did by skipping over it.  Take five minutes, eliminate the distractions, and read.  We’ll see you back here next week.

Click here for Whole30 Part II.


  1. Hi Brian! Kylie's work friend here :) She passed along your link and I'm so excited to read your series. I think she shared my W30 blog post with you -- I had thought of doing another in the Fall anyway, so I think I'll join in on the 1st!

    One thing I'd love to see your perspective on is living between "the 30" -- that is, what do you do with the food guilt (eating that which you know to be less healthy for you)and how do you balance lifestyle choices (alcohol) when you're not on the protocol? Looking forward to reading!


  2. Hi Chelsie! Thanks for the note. I read your blog about your Whole30 experience and loved it. Hopefully Kylie passed on that feedback! :-)

    I think you pose a great question, it's certainly something I struggle with and I know others do as well. I'll certainly write more about your question and even solicit for others' feedback as well. The obvious cop-out answer is that everyone is different, some things may work for you that don't work for me. Stay tuned!

    In the meantime, were you able to read this?

    I'm a firm believer in the law of averages; I suppose the question becomes how do you make sure your average stays where it should.

  3. Hi Brian!

    I'm right there with you. Staring my Whole30 on August 1. My primarily goals are to lose weight and break my emotional eating habits. I workout so hard and I want to see the results. I'm tired of feeling and looking heavy instead of strong and fit. I'll be here with you!

  4. Hi Brian!

    I'm doing my own Whole30 starting Aug 1 with a friend of mine. My goal is to lose weight and break my emotional unhealthy eating habits. I workout 5-6 days a week and I'm tired of feeling and looking heavy instead of strong and fit. I'm going to document it on my blog if you want to check it out :)

    1. Hi Shelley! So happy to hear you're doing a W30 on 8/1... looks like many people will be in on this together which will be nice. I love being able to lean on others for advice, or on occasion to complain ;-). Just checked out your blog and love it! Keep us posted on your W30 progress!

  5. Started my Whole30 with a friend on July 8, 2013, because she asked me to. I had been looking into the Paleo lifestyle since November, but I didn't have the guts to dive in alone. Whole30 is SO simple and easy to do! I have been a good girl about everything and hope to lose a significant amount of weight this month. I have 93 lbs to get rid of, so I will be doing a Whole30 every month for the next six months MINIMUM. I cannot say that I notice any benefits as of yet, and I cannot say that I have had to deal with cravings and such, just some minor headaches which have been easy to deal with. Tomorrow marks the beginning of week four! I have rock solid, laser focus on accomplishing what I must do to reach my first goal. Let's hope I'm rewarded with weight loss and a reason to encourage others with the hope and ability of taking control of their health and their lives. It IS possible!

    1. That's incredibly inspiring, Robin! Stick with it and I know you'll start to feel and see change. It takes longer for some than others, for sure. Curious, though, what does an average day of eating look like for you?

  6. Great article. I look forward to reading the series. I was 80/20 Paleo while training for my first marathon in December but the night of the pasta party, I took advantage of the free pasta, bread and brownies and woke up for the marathon bloated and feeling disgusting. I ran the entire thing but it took me SIX hours because I had no energy after my "carb-loading" session. I'm in training again for a fall marathon and look forward to doing this the right way.

    1. Oh no! I've done something similar to what you did, but luckily it wasn't the night before the race. I never mess with my pre-race meal, as I'm sure you now know! "Carb-loading" should be done by scaling the percentage of carbs in your diet up the entire week leading up to the race. I typically do tons of white potatoes, sweet potatoes and fruits. Which marathon are you doing this Fall?

  7. Interesting article Brian! I arrived here from the whole30 Facebook page, as I've started my whole30 last week Monday. (On day 9 now) and so far it's easy to follow andi love the food. No real change yet except for some change in my allergies. There not gone, just behaving differently.... Less aggressive. So promising anyway! I'm curious to see how it progresses from here and I'll be following your story here too!


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