Taking the scientific approach has resulted in two European championships for Belgian runner Pieter-Jan Hannes.

In the summer of 2012, the then-19-year-old middle-distance runner Pieter-Jan Hannes broke his foot. For the aspiring Belgian professional athlete, this was a tremendous setback.

Just a couple of years before, after completing secondary school, Hannes had decided to make a serious go at becoming a professional athlete, while concurrently studying for a degree. So, he packed up and moved from his hometown of Antwerp to enrol in the University of Leuven (better known as KU Leuven).

Hannes explains in an email interview: “The Flemish Athletics Federation had started a programme a few years earlier, to offer young student athletes a chance to combine studies with sports. In a small country like ours, there was only one university where a programme like this was available – KU Leuven. So, I decided to move to Leuven in order to optimise my chances of becoming a professional athlete.”

In the beginning, Hannes studied full-time while training on the side, as his parents were supporting him financially.

Then, after two years of hard work and training, he succeeded in getting onto the Atletiek Vlaanderen, the athletic team of the Flemish government. (Belgium has three levels of government: federal, community and region. The Flemish community and region are administered under one government.) This meant that he was now a semi-professional athlete, receiving financial support from the Flemish government.

Knowing what, when and how much to eat and train – thanks to help from science – has helped Pieter-Jan Hannes harness more of his potential as a runner.

“With that money, I could live and pay for school without help from my parents. So, I decided to step up my training and study only part-time instead of full-time,” he shares. His decision paid off. Within a few months of making it onto the Flemish team, and exactly a year after he broke his foot, Hannes became the European Under-23 champion for the 1,500m, his main discipline.

His success did not end there. A few months after winning the 1,500m, he went on to become the European Under-23 champion for the 8km as well. “To become European U23 Champion exactly one year after the fracture, I consider my biggest achievement. Not only by me, but by my entire crew. Then, to get European U23 Champion a few months later in what’s not even my discipline, was just the cherry on the cake,” he says.

Fitness, science-style

A big part of his success can be attributed to the scientific approach that was applied to his training at KU Leuven. “The know-how from the athletics federation and the sports scientists in the university here, were combined and put into my training schedule by the federation’s coach,” he says. “It took some time to get used to this different way of training, but it definitely worked out.”

One approach was to implement lactate measurements during his training sessions. Lactate, or lactic acid, is produced by the muscles during periods of activity when energy requirements exceed oxygen intake, leading muscles to produce energy anaerobically, i.e. without oxygen.

An athlete’s lactate threshold, particularly those in endurance sports like long-distance running, is an important indicator of their performance level. This threshold is the point at which lactate starts to accumulate in the body, as the muscles are unable to metabolise it as fast as they produce it. Once lactate starts to accumulate, the body will naturally start to slow down, thus, decreasing performance. 

Pieter-Jan Hannes often cooks at home, and prefers to use natural ingredients as much as possible.

The addition of lactate measurements to Hannes’ training provided a monitoring and feedback system that allowed him and his trainers to try out new methods to improve his performance.

“With a great feedback system, it’s easier to try new things. New methods provide a new kind of stress on your body and physiology, which is the key to improvement,” he says. “Don’t get me wrong, it is not like we are changing training or diets all the time. The changes are rather small, but it all comes down to the details in the end. We try to make training about knowing, not trial and error. That’s what I call science!”

Another new method his trainers implemented to improve his fitness was by simulating altitude while he slept. Spending time in a simulated higher altitude allows his body to adapt to an environment with thinner air and less oxygen. This means that he would naturally perform better at normal altitudes, where the air is richer in oxygen than what his body has become used to.

Eating right

The other crucial aspect to training is nutrition. As Hannes says: “In the end, a car can’t run without fuel, right? So, just like training, it’s as important to find ways to improve your running and general health by improving nutrition.” He adds: “Most people think improving nutrition will result in a rather small improvement in fitness. But the opposite might be true actually.”

The Chemistry student has two main rules when it comes to nutrition: Eat what you need and combine the right foods at the right times. “A direct result from the first rule is: never ever eat short carb(ohydrate)s, unless it’s 15 minutes before, during or after exercise. Aside from long training sessions, nobody needs short carbs. Plus, they interfere with a lot of other essential nutrients,” he says.

Short-acting or simple carbohydrates are easy to digest and provide a lot of energy quickly, making them useful for training, competitions and hypoglycaemic (low blood sugar) episodes in diabetics.

The second rule is harder for people to grasp, says Hannes. He explains: “In Belgium, our meals usually combine a big portion of meat or fish, with a big portion of carbs like potatoes, pasta, rice, etc, and some vegetables. And it is actually this combination of protein and carbs that is almost always bad for proper digestion. Proper digestion means that your body needs less energy to digest your meal.”

“In short, by combining the right nutrients in the right meals at the right moments, your body won’t have to work as hard to process all that food we eat in a day, leaving more energy for other activities like training.”

Fuelling up with fat

With his high daily energy requirements, Hannes does not buy into the bad press on saturated fats.“Most athletes try to avoid fats in their food at all times. As fat is, after carbs, the number two fuel for an endurance athlete during training, I think it would be pretty stupid to avoid fat,” says Hannes.

Fat provides almost twice the amount of calories per gram that carbohydrates do, but our bodies preferentially source energy from carbohydrates, before moving on to fats and proteins.

He points out that too much of anything is never good, and notes that neither his doctor nor his own research have warned of any unhealthy consequences of consuming saturated fats in normal amounts in a balanced, healthy diet.

“A better option, I think, is to use fats in a proper way, rather than to avoid them,” says Hannes. It’s pretty clear that not every sort of fat is processed in the body the same way. Saturated fats with a rather short chain would be processed very efficiently in the human body, making those fats a very clever nutrient to eat as an athlete. It can even lead to weight loss instead of weight gain, and offers plenty of energy for training.”

Much of his saturated fat intake comes in the form of oil, in particular, palm oil. His preference for palm oil is due to the fact that it is available in its natural form, unlike many other vegetable oils, which have to be processed in order to increase their shelf life and improve their texture. This processing usually includes partial hydrogenation, which results in the creation of artificial trans fats.

These trans fats have been deemed so unhealthy that the United States Food and Drug Administration has preliminarily determined that partially-hydrogenated cooking oils are no longer “generally recognised as safe” for use in food. Says Hannes: “Compared to other oils, natural palm oil is easily found. And if I have the choice between natural products or processed ones, the choice is easy.”

All his efforts are slowly, but surely, paying off. He is currently ranked 25th worldwide in the 1,500m, and has a personal best of three minutes and 34 seconds. “Although I know 3:34 is still far from the world record (of 3:26), but as a 21-year-old, it sure ain’t bad. It puts me at this moment at 25 worldwide, so, we’ll get there.”