Russell Winwood is an avid runner who manages his Chronic Obstructed Pulmonary Disease with the anti-inflammatory properties of a ketogenic diet. I interviewed him the day before he ran the 2017 London marathon. Here is his story.
Chronic Obstructed Pulmonary Disease (COPD) is a lung disease that includes chronic bronchitis and emphysema. Most cases are caused by smoking but approximately 20% of cases are caused by other things such as genetics, occupational exposure to dust and chemicals, second hand smoke or frequent lung infections in childhood. Having COPD makes it very hard to breathe. One would think it would make it impossible to run, let alone run a marathon, but Russell has run many.
Russell was diagnosed with (COPD) in 2011. He had had chronic lung infections and Asthma as a child and as he got older his breathing got harder.
“I had become sick, all the time with chest infections. I was always on antibiotics. I was tired all the time, after just a few hours at work my energy would be gone. I couldn’t do much of anything anymore, to tell you the truth. I was pretty much at rock bottom.”
So the diagnosis was not a surprise, but it was still a blow to the avid runner. Russell decided that not even a severe respiratory disease would keep him from the racecourse.
Between 2011 and 2015 he began to reduce his carbs naturally. His wife was following a more paleo approach and so he had been reducing his carbs as well. Russell had not yet heard about a ketogenic diet or the impact using ketones as a fuel source could have on both his level of inflammation or on his athletic outcomes.
In 2015 he travelled from his home in Brisbane Australia to run the New York marathon. Shortly after that race he would be set on the path of discovery and change his diet forever.
Unlike so many people I have interviewed, Russell actually came to the ketogenic diet through his doctor. His doctor had listened to a podcast from Tim Ferris who had interviewed Dr. Dominic D’Agostino and he suggested Russell listen too.
“That is what got the ball rolling, I became quite intrigued. The more I read about diet suppressing inflammation the more I realized that this could have benefits for me.”
Russell reached out to Dr. D’Agostino, who suggested that he have some bloodwork done, including markers of inflammation such as C - reactive protein (CRP) and a cytokine panel. Russell agreed.
Four months after starting the diet Russell’s CRP had gone from a very high 10-13 down to 2. His symptoms were better, he was breathing easier and whereas before starting the ketogenic diet he was using 4-5 Ventolin inhalers per month, now he was using just 1 every 4-6 weeks.
The next marathon he ran he cut 31 minutes of his personal best time.
Since then he has run several half marathons as well as three ironman competitions. I commented to him that he must really love running to push through such grueling competitions with a respiratory disease. His response was this, “I don’t know if I am in love with running. I’m just one of those people who like challenges”.
And his next challenge was right around the corner. The 2017 London Marathon.
Russell confided in me that he did not expect to make a personal best time in London. “Due to the course layout and the mass starts it is less conducive to great times but I’ll just put it out there and see what happens”.
When Russell began eating a ketogenic diet he stuck closely to the 80-85% fat, 10-15% protein and 5% carbs. He tracked with My Fitness Pal and ate approximately 2500 calories a day rarely going over 20gms of carbs a day. He took his blood ketones several times a day trying to always stay between 0.5-2 mmol and he played around with adding 4-6 tablespoons of MCT oil a day. Many people find that too much MCT upsets their stomach, but Russell did not have any issues at all. The more he tracked the better able he was to see that certain foods made his blood sugar jump and his breathing get worse. When I asked him what those foods were his answer was “anything to do with carbs”.
Russell explained that before the diet he was not as sensitive to carbs as he is now. “It’s good that I can identify what foods I can and can’t eat. With my disease, there is a lot of emphasis put on controlling portion size. I was told to not eat too much because that would make me breathless. But what I found was, it was not the portion size that was making me breathless, it was the food itself.”
Russell credits his wife for being very supportive but says that he did get some off looks from friends. “In the beginning people would say, ‘you’re mad’. But now they see the difference in my health, they don’t think I’m that silly anymore.”
I asked Russell what his doctor thought of his progress. “I think he’s about 95% convinced. Problem is, and I think it’s probably the same everywhere, when you talk to doctors about a nutritional approach it comes out of left field for them. It is not something they get taught in medical school.”
Russell is passionate about spreading the word on how to live better with COPD through his blog: COPD Wellness. While he was in London Russell took the opportunity to speak to many COPD sufferers as well as a group or respiratory specialists. He asked them how many of them test patients for inflammation, none of them did. He said they were all quite amazed by his story and he hopes they will consider discussing nutrition as a way to reduce inflammation with their patients in the future.
Russell has also dabbled in intermittent fasting. He frequently does a 24 hrs fast weekly as well as long runs (18km) in a fasted state. “I feel really energetic when I do that, I have heaps of energy and I don’t even feel like eating after the run. The last race I did before I got here to London, I did a half-marathon. Before I went onto a ketogenic diet, I would’ve used 2-3 energy gels in that race. I didn’t have anything at all. And for the marathon tomorrow I’m not taking any gels or anything just a quest bar, electrolytes and water.”
Russell gives a great deal of credit to his pulmonary specialist who first put him onto the idea of a ketogenic dietary approach to managing his disease. “This diet has been life changing for me. Day to day breathing is easier and I like not being dependent on my rescue inhaler, which I have been pretty much all my life. Having energy, being able to do things, it’s made a big difference.” Russell is quick to acknowledge that “this diet is not for everyone. I think people should explore the diet, but do it in consultation with a nutritionist, or a doctor because if you don’t get into ketosis, you won’t experience the benefits.”
Russell ran the London Marathon on Sunday, April 23rd, which also happened to be the day he turned 51. This would be the first full marathon Russell had done in a state of ketosis. In spite of his earlier predictions of not hitting a personal best; he did! In fact he shaved 10 minutes off his personal best time!
Happy birthday Russell!
Resources; Podcasts Dom, Peter Attia and Rhonda Patrick
His Blog: COPD Wellness