Changing Nutrition Landscape for Endurance Athletes

 

Changing Nutrition Landscape for Endurance Athletes

As many of you know, the commonly held belief of carb loading for endurance events has been a nutrition mainstay for many, many years.  Unfortunately, there is a lot wrong with this approach and the landscape is changing for the better. 

The point of this article is to share some of the recent thinking about low carb nutrition protocols that are really beginning to catch on.  Most of the data comes from Dr. Jeff Volek, who has dedicated the past 20 years of his life to this topic.  He is currently a professor at the University of Ohio, and was formerly an Associate Professor at UConn.

Endurance exercise is the ability to exert force over time, and is important because it develops slow twitch muscle fibers, increases blood circulation, and is great for cardiovascular health.  A lot of people believe that endurance training means running, and this is just plain wrong.  There are various types of endurance training and they are all beneficial.

  • Long Slow Distance (duration = 20+ minutes) – walking, jogging, cycling, swimming, elliptical, rowing
  • Interval Training (duration =30-60 seconds at high intensity, repeated often) – sprints in running, swimming, cycling, rowing
  • Metabolic Conditioning (duration = 15-90 seconds at high intensity, repeated often) – frequently involves the use of training implements such as kettlebells, battle ropes, dumbbells, and also includes calisthenics
  • Strength Endurance (duration = 12+ reps per set, with at least 3 sets) – barbell, dumbbell, kettlebell, or suspension training methods

Nutrition for Endurance

For years, experts have been telling athletes that they need to eat a high carb diet to fuel their training.  In addition, they have been erroneously telling athletes that fat is bad, and that carb loading is a must prior to an event.

Unfortunately, there are literally thousands of endurance athletes who are slightly overweight, battling blood sugar diseases, and are on the verge of type II diabetes and/or other significant health problems. Many think that they can continue to eat copious amounts of carbs and that exercise will keep them healthy, but they are wrong.  This thinking is backwards.  Nutrition always trumps exercise, and over time, poor nutrition will lead to compromised health, no matter how many marathons you do, or what the scale says.

Dr. Jeff Volek

I was first introduced to Dr. Volek’s research a couple of years ago when I watched a video of a presentation that he gave at the American College of Nutrition.  I was absolutely fascinated.  He presented real, scientific evidence of the benefits of high fat, low carb diet  protocols for endurance athletes.  And today, there are many high level endurance athletes who are abandoning the pasta and cookies for high fat eating.  And the results are impressive – improved health and performance.

One of his latest studies looked at endurance athletes who consumed 10% of their daily calories from carbs, 20% from protein and 70% from fat.  The study findings were published in the journal Metabolism:  Clinical and Experimental in 2015.  They found that the notion of “carb supremacy” for endurance athletes is completely over-stated, regardless of whether the athlete was an elite or recreational athlete.

According to Dr. Volek, “over-consuming carbs really counteracts a lot of the positive effects of exercise.  Keeping carbs low optimizes the health benefits of exercise in achieving better glucose control, having more energy and staying lean.” 

Not to mention, lower carb is especially important in the battle against diabetes. As many of you know, we have an obesity epidemic going on in the western world, and that is correlated closely to a rising epidemic of type II diabetes, which is essentially a glucose/insulin control problem.  And the latest studies now show that 38% of Americans are pre-diabetic, and many don’t realize it.

How to Implement

If you are interested in implementing this type of diet, the first question is how low should you go?  That really depends on your individual situation.  If you are currently eating a very high carb diet with lots of sugary foods, making a drastic change to 10% carbs will be nearly impossible. 

My recommendation would be to start improving the nutrient density of your diet by reducing low quality carbs and replacing those foods with high quality carbs over a period of 3-4 weeks, while slowly and steadily reducing the total quantity of carbs.  In other words, replace the Captain Crunch with oatmeal.  Stop eating quaker oats granola bars and instead have an apple.  Replace rice at dinner with potatoes or sweet potatoes.  No more cookies, cake, pies, ice cream – opt for fruit, nuts, dark chocolate.

Eventually you will want to target less than 120 grams of carbs per day for a few weeks and then drop even lower.  The holy grail seems to be around 100 grams of carbs per day, in my opinion and experience.  Throughout this process, keep your protein intake at approximately 1 gram per pound of bodyweight. 

The types of fats that you eat are really important. Try to balance your fats between saturated fats, monounsaturated fats, and polyunsaturated fats.  Here are some good choices below.

  • Saturated Fats – from meat, dairy, eggs, coconut
  • Monounsaturated Fats – olive oil, nuts, seeds, avocado, olives
  • Omega-3 Polyunsaturated Fats – cold water fish, walnuts, flax seeds

Stay away from include trans fats.  ats to limit include seed oils, particularly soybean oil, canola, peanut, etc….which are present in salad dressing and nearly all processed foods. You have to be a smart consumer, read labels and be careful.

Summary

There is much evidence now to suggest that going low to lower carb can be very beneficial in helping to optimize good health and improve endurance training performance.  However, it may not be for you.  Some people thrive on a high carb diet.  Everybody is genetically different.  You need to figure out what works best for you.  But do it honestly and with the right intention.  Just because you love cake and cookies, don’t use that as an excuse and assume that high carb is for you.  Going low carb can be difficult for some people, and some require assistance. 

Again, be honest with yourself and if you are going to give it a try, give it enough time to see if it really does make a difference.

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