There are usually “camps” for thinking about nutrition. They usually take on a name and sometimes a personality. Never has this been more true than in the exercise fueling the debate scene. The age-old question of what to consume while training and racing has been a plague for many athletes throughout their careers.
Unfortunately, as for getting most people clear about what they should be doing nutritionally while training and racing lately, the “camps” have split more than ever, as I see it, and I hope to clarify those camps, and what that might mean for you personally.
Years ago the camp was low carb versus high carb, not so much. The no-carb camp (aka keto, high-fat, fat-adapted, LCHF, etc.) is still around, but the “pro-carb” camp has grown some branches as it begins to win the long standing debate. Understanding each of these lines of reasoning and what they promote has been helpful for me. I think it might be for you too.
So which camps currently occupy the in-training and in-race fueling space?
Fat adaptation by carbohydrate restriction.
The premise is: Burn more fat, avoid carbs, and avoid the gut issues that carb-supplied strategies during exercise abound with.
I promise I know the arguments for fat conditioning like the back of my hand. I wanted to believe. I will provide you with the full physiological foundations because there are books written on this subject. I don’t recommend reading them because they all fall into the “mechanism thus application” fallacy so common among scientists who want to believe they’ve discovered the next performance hack.
Suffice it to say, I wanted to believe Camp 1 was an amazing camp. I then veered into the “maybe there’s a thing for carbs” camp, to same effect. Burn fat, spare carbs, improve performance on race day, reduce gut issues, etc.
It just doesn’t work and it comes with trade-offs. But fat-adaptation isn’t as bad either, in some cases, as high-carb enthusiasts might make it out to be. Keto can work for some people. For others, it’s a disaster, and for a lot of people, it’s not quite up to snuff.
I don’t generally recommend it because hormonal complications, when they do occur, are nothing short of worrisome, sometimes lifting hair…or ingrown hairs, if you know what I mean. Fair warning, there are more hawkers in this camp than in others, so keep your “don’t be sold” radar on high alert if you decide to dabble here.
High carb fanatics
High in carbs all the time. Little attention to personalization. Little lack of interest in anything other than performance.
First, what do I mean by high carbs? I mean hourly carb intakes during training that exceed 60g/hr, and these days there is a group touting 80-100g/hr for the vast majority of training sessions, with more going way up than that.
A reminder here: “intake” means what you put into your body, while absorption refers to what your gut actually moves into your bloodstream, where you need it.
Higher carbs all the time may really improve your performance. And there appears to be strong evidence that exceeding 100g/hr, sometimes in large amounts, is beneficial in some cases.
But using this extreme approach, all the time, will likely work great if you’re 18 and craving full of testosterone. For those of us in our late 20s, 30s, and beyond, at best, it will work just fine. At worst, you’ll be hungry out of training, gain weight, cause an imbalance in your blood sugar, and ultimately hurt your performance too, in roughly that order. You don’t need to eat 100 grams an hour for a 90-minute recovery ride. You will be healthier and perform better in the long run in 99% of cases, if you adjust your carbohydrate intake according to the intensity and duration of your training sessions.
It’s newer. She is making progress with the research. And researchers here seem more adept at turning a blind eye to glaring holes in their sites than researchers in most other areas of nutrition, and that’s saying something. I think I understand though. Reasonably frightened and even angry about the potential side effects of high carbs, especially the “sugar high all the time,” people are in camp 2.
Food First fuels health-focused hearts and minds, and those who care about the long-term effects of sucking up sugar like it’s become obsolete.
This camp likes to believe that it is possible for all people to get all their carbohydrates from solid “whole food” sources, while optimally enhancing performance. It’s a very comprehensive, health-focused response to using sugar during exercise. I understand where this camp is coming from, because there have been and will continue to be very negative effects of excessive sugar consumption.
The problem is that sugar absorption during exercise is very different than at any other time in the human experience. The all-important harm of high blood sugar to the pancreas is not present during exercise because insulin production is minimal. The hormonal environment and cellular signaling in many tissues are fundamentally different during exercise than at rest. It is the high rates of insulin production that tend to be harmful. This does not happen during exercise. There is no need. why? Muscles become 50 times more sensitive to insulin during exercise. That is, they take up 50 times more glucose for the same levels of circulating insulin, largely due to increased GLUT4 activity.
If you don’t remember what GLUT molecules do, they are glucose transporter molecules located on cell membranes. Glut 4 is mostly on the muscles. And with pleasure it acts as a vacuum for glucose, from the bloodstream, into the muscles, during exercise. It is a highly effective vacuum for blood glucose during training and racing.
A food-first approach to training and racing tends to overlook that very high rates of carbohydrate fueling are appropriate, healthy, and enhance performance and fitness for most people, when training and racing last for a very long time. It also ignores that such high rates of refueling would not be possible without the use of simpler forms of carbohydrates. There will simply be more intestinal distress (read: bathroom trips and pain) when you try to consume more than 80 grams per hour with whole food sources of carbohydrates. There’s a lot of fiber, fat, and protein, and each works to slow down the absorption of whatever it’s eaten with.
It’s not good when you have really limited resources and capabilities during your workout.
Eat cyclic carbohydrates
This is the approach I wanted to like.
Cyclic carbohydrate intake was initially formulated as: a method of cyclic training using reduced carbohydrates, before, during, or after training, or periodically reducing consumption before or after a night of sleep, in an effort to increase fitness gains or the ability to oxidize fat during exercise . In short, play with carbohydrate consumption to bring about an advantage in cellular performance.
It certainly seems like a promising antidote to Camp 1 fanaticism. There are a few optimization protocols dotted around the internet, and there are sub-ways within this camp. Basically, every method here targets metabolic flexibility, ie. They are able to burn fat at a high rate but also be able to burn carbohydrates at a high rate.
It turns out that what ends up happening is that you end up getting a little sluggish in some sessions, sometimes you don’t sleep well, and you actually improve in fat burning, but no improvement in that more than you lose in the ability to burn exogenous carbs.
The result: no improvement in performance, sometimes more fatigue, worse recovery and adaptation to training, poor performance, especially when compared to…
I think this is where a lot of old-school athletes who “figure it out” end up falling naturally, with one caveat: they probably aren’t taking their carbs high enough to improve performance when performance is all they care about in something like racing.” a”.
Well, you’re not a high-carb enthusiast, you’re the kind of person who hears the sound of eating carbs periodically and loves the idea of being able to eat more real food but doesn’t want to leave performance on the table. I also. I love to eat delicious foods. I like to have something strong when I’m working out, sometimes. But sometimes, I like to keep it simple especially when gut comfort is a critical factor in my training or racing. I like to enjoy my life and balance.
I don’t like the idea of choking down on sugar and salt all the time, but I will occasionally if it means faster times with less risk of digestive issues. I’m not a hummingbird after all but I can act like a bird if I need to.
Oh, and fat adaptation, can’t we just say we did it? Wonderful.
The individual approach targets higher carbs when it matters, and lower when it doesn’t, for you personally. Intuitively singles, all the time. Holistic, health conscious and performance focused when it counts. The goal is to consider factors that are important in real life, while enhancing performance. Sometimes this means lower carbs during training. Maybe it’s 20g/hr, or maybe it’s 50g/hr. Slightly less than anything “usual” for more quality or longer sessions. The point is, do it intuitively and conveniently, rather than targeting metabolic flexibility or boosting some other metabolic process for performance, through a (sometimes complicated) strategy of carb manipulation. These strategies just don’t work. And it is, in fact, complex, and sometimes even more upsetting.
An individual approach involves learning where the upper limits of carbohydrate intake are during training, and then intentionally cutting back, sometimes, depending on a combination of factors. Start by jumping hard into camp 2: the high-carb intolerance camp. Be one of them. Learn their ways.
Then put aside the hummingbird feeder and reduce your carb intake during training according to your needs and wants, not for some intellectually stimulating concept of metabolic flexibility. And not because “periodized” sounds cool. Actually, it looks pretty cool, right? The carbohydrate period has a nice ring to it.
This single provisioning approach is an emerging trend that you will hear more about over the coming years as technology improves. It’s where the industry is really headed. It will be easier and easier to improve intelligently within this system.
When done well, it takes into account your personal weight history, hunger preferences, physical fitness, training history, blood sugar regulation issues, body size, and specific issues you’re dealing with, such as cramping, GI distress, and more, Then it stimulates your all-out performance (for you) when it matters, but allows for a balanced, nutritious diet when you’re not spending 6 hours on the bike. Sometimes the food first. Straight sugar sometimes. Yes, I said sugar. And salt too. No, it’s not some kind of black magic, but it kind of feels like it when it works for you.
So what does the research actually say, if these are really thought camps? What is your maximum carbohydrate intake for you, while training and racing. And how can you use that to your advantage? Glad you asked. We will cover that in the next article.
Until next time.