Or you could call it “Fasting, Feeding, and Fitness.” Or a “Festival of Exercise and Feasting.” Or not.
Let’s get right into this perspective on how what and when we eat (or don’t) can impact our workout performance, recovery, and conditioning gains. In this week’s podcast, PK and I discussed several factors surrounding the topic of strategic dining, and all this was prompted by reader, viewer, and listener questions. I also offer a brief insight into the subject in this week’s video on The Lifetime Body YouTube Channel. The information is available in different formats so that you can consume and digest it (couldn’t resist) most effectively.
Fasted cardio, or going into a low-intensity steady state (LISS) workout having not eaten for a few hours, is usually a good idea. This is particularly true if an exerciser is metabolically fat-adapted, or in other words has developed the metabolic efficiency to use bodyfat for fuel as opposed to being excessively carbohydrate-dependent. The fasted state gets you more quickly into fat-burning, and this fuel source provides all the energy you need for several hours of training as long as you don’t go too hard. Plus, it’s more comfortable than having a gut-bomb seven-layer burrito in your belly as you train. In fact, most workouts, unless they are very intense, will go just fine without pre-emptive fueling.
On the contrary, fed training, or working out in the fed state, can be beneficial for some athletes. This is often the case when the workout is both of longer duration and higher intensity, and especially if the exerciser tends to perform these sessions frequently, as in back-to-back days. Because these higher output training bouts involve some degree of anaerobic work, or are glycolytic (burning stored sugar known as glycogen), a little extra fuel on board can supply some energy to the working muscles and help to spare the muscle glycogen temporarily, possibly increasing work capacity. Foods or shakes that are carbohydrate-based and easily digestible are popular, and probably just a few hundred calories consumed 30-90 minutes pre-training is adequate.
However, those last two paragraphs represent very general practices and there is much room for individual experimentation. I personally eat a low-carbohydrate diet and do almost all of my training in a fasted state. This works great for me most of the time. The one exception is when I really want to hit a mark or put up a number, say in a weight workout or a sprint training session. In those cases I have found that a little carbohydrate from fruit or root vegetables (I prefer whole foods to processed ones most of the time), taken in advance of the workout, helps me to squeak out a few more percentage points in performance when I’m seeking them. I’ve tested this quite a bit and it’s more than just placebo. But I also respect the opinions of a number of athletes using carnivorous and ketogenic diets who eat practically zero carb and still perform well. The best answer here is “it depends” and that pertains to context. Each person’s genetics, metabolism, body type, sport choice, and workout parameters (frequency, duration, intensity, volume) will dictate his or her nutritional requirements.
The same type of thinking goes for post-training replenishment. One benefit to being fat-adapted, metabolically efficient, and on a low(er) carb diet is that one does not need to be in a rush to eat after training. In these cases, research supports that the body can refuel very effectively by eating in a natural pattern once hunger returns after the workout. This situation is usually a little different in the sugar-burner, as a carb-dependent metabolism will demand rapid refueling and this will practically be a necessity. However, muscle glycogen will be rebuilt in any case because the human body can synthesize glucose from the amino acids of protein or the glycerol of fats, so there is no medical requirement to ingest carbs post-training. That stated, the athletic body likes to restore its glycogen fairly rapidly as these energy stores are treated as high-octane, emergency reserves in our ancestrally-patterned function.
I like to encourage all my clients to tune into their body’s inner messages. Usually a craving for a certain type of food will appear and it should be trusted (once a person gets off junk food which hijacks the brain’s receptors for food and keeps us carbage-addicted). Here’s my personal experience and I have a lot of clients of who have noted similar phenomena. If I do an intense, glycolytic workout, like a CrossFit WOD, or an interval workout on the track, I find myself hungry earlier than usual the next day, and I crave carbs to some extent. So I add more veggies to my omelette or something along those lines. If I do heavy strength training, I’ll have an earlier hunger again but this time the craving is for protein, and the same omelette will contain more eggs and probably meat of some type. Resistance training creates a strong stimulus for muscle protein synthesis, and we are driven to eat to that need, getting the necessary building blocks to complement our training.
I think that’s enough for today. I just wanted to get you thinking, and hopefully experimenting, on this topic. I am constantly researching and testing these applications and these principles are heavily concentrated in my books as well as my work with clients. We’ll never know it all, but if we can tweak our eating to match our training a little better, our results in health and performance can be optimized. Thanks for reading and catch ya next time!