Tim Noakes: I've made a mistake

by Claire Keeton
SA's top sports scientist isn't afraid to admit his mistakes, writes Claire Keeton.
If you haven't yet heard of Tim Noakes, you must have been buried in a sack of potatoes eating those carbohydrates he has now declared taboo.

Noakes's new crusade against carbs is making waves across the media. In person he blazes with conviction about how carbs are fuelling the obesity and diabetes epidemics. Whether he's right or wrong - as he today says he was when he punted carb loading - he is passionate about ideas that can change lives, and follows through in his own life.

"I experiment on myself," says South Africa's top sports scientist. "The truth is not static. I do not have the final answers."

Noakes, 62, who comes across as a gentleman not a caveman, these days consumes a "Paleo diet" of fish, meat, fats, eggs, nuts, dairy products and leafy vegetables.

He is carb resistant and was pre-diabetic before he switched his eating habits and lost 15kg. "I had every reason to do it. I saw my father die in appalling condition."

Predictably, reactions to Noakes - whose Newlands headquarters he dreams of turning into the first sugar-free building in the world - are more heated than the hottest dish in MasterChef. But the head of Sports Science at the University of Cape Town/MRC Research Unit for Exercise Science and Sports Medicine is cool under fire - and lean in running shorts.

"What we believe about nutrition is so ingrained that it has become like a religious belief. So when you raise questions about it, for some it is as if one is questioning whether God and religion exist."

Rugby icon Morné du Plessis, co-founder with Noakes of the Sports Science Institute of SA, says: "When I first met Tim in the early days (18 years ago) of setting up the SSISA, he told me science is nothing more than asking a question and finding answers to that question. Ask the questions he does, and the answer is sometimes controversial and not to everybody's liking."

Noakes is determined to expose contradictions in nutritional advice. "People are drawing up opinions on nutrition and health on the basis of only a very small part of all that is known. When you do that, chances are you will get it wrong."

In his research career, which spans almost 40 years, the acclaimed scientist has thought out of the box and been outspoken - and when facts emerge to change his mind on an issue (he reads scientific literature, no fiction) he is the first to admit it.

For example, Noakes - who has run seven Comrades, winning four silver medals, and 15 Two Oceans, lifting one silver medal - has done a u-turn on carb-loading ahead of a race. He says it is "time to tear up" this chapter in his book The Lore of Running.

Early versions of the bestseller line the shelves of his office, which also holds a collection of running shoes dating back to the 1970s, and rugby jerseys autographed by the champions with whom he has worked.

Noakes treats everyone like a champion. Cape Town physiotherapist Mark Nathan gives this example: "There was a football match between a World 11 and an African 11. Noakes was doctor for the World 11.

"The famous Brazilian footballer Dunga didn't know who he was, and asked him for a leg rub, thinking he was a physio. Instead of putting the player right, Noakes got stuck in and rubbed his leg."

He also remembers in the early 1980s accompanying Noakes as a student to do tests on surf-ski marathoners.

"As officials we were afforded the luxury of hotel accommodation, whereas the athletes, some of the best surf-skiers in the world, had to stay in tents. Noakes offered his room to the athletes."

Noakes's latest book, Challenging Beliefs: Memoirs of a Career, co-authored with journalist Michael Vlismas, relates how he has tackled established beliefs with the determination of a Springbok fullback.

Noakes was inspired to become a doctor by heart-transplant surgeon Chris Barnard, but he joined UCT's heart disease research laboratory in 1976, wanting to explore more than conventional medicine.

"My dad was very adventurous and my mother was a great thinker. They were both always asking questions. Neither had an official university education, but both were very clever," he says.

Noakes says his strength is "formulating important research questions and designing experiments" and he gives generous credit to his "winning scientific team" for pursuing the answers.

Back in October 1976, he stood up in front of a "hall of (sports science) giants" in New York and presented evidence that marathon runners were not exempt from heart disease, as was believed then. Three years later the UCT researchers were proved right.

When Noakes was developing the theory that the brain ultimately regulates exercise - not the muscles or oxygen supply - he was not taken seriously. It may sound obvious, the power of the mind to control the body, but at that time it was revolutionary.

Exercise is central to Noakes's life and he clears his head by running most days. He was a competitive rower as a student, but once he discovered running it took over because he revels in the solitude and the inner challenge.

His next research frontier is to explore "how to keep the brain going as long as possible". "We know what nutritional elements keep the body functioning well. What will do that for the brain? Alzheimer's is like diabetes of the brain," says Noakes, who is adding a nutrition chapter to the second edition of Challenging Beliefs.

Du Plessis says: "We are both in what could be termed our senior years of sporting and scientific involvement. I understand his urgency and frustration at the many theories, policies, convictions, teachings, creeds, doctrines and persuasions we have been exposed to through the years that have turned out to be wrong.

"Even Tim's own 'teachings' have not escaped his own scrutiny. The difference is that he can admit his mistakes and rewrite the chapter, which he cannot do for others."

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Sunday Times
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