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Off the bat, I should say that I’m actually a fan of eating less. I’m on record as saying that my goal is to figure out how few calories I can eat and still thrive. Still, eating less isn’t always the magic bullet people will hope it will be. There are many ways that eating less can go wrong.
For weight loss, the advice to “eat less, exercise more” often doesn’t work like it “should” on paper. The weight-loss diet industry thrives on repeat customers who struggle to lose weight and keep it off. Dutifully following this strategy has led many people down the road to frustration and dejection, as they blame themselves for their failure to successfully lose weight. This is despite their best efforts to eat less.
From a health perspective, eating less is a double-edged sword. On the one hand, caloric restriction may promote longevity. It certainly does in many animal models. Human evidence is still mixed, but I’m betting that the same is true for us.https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/21677272/‘>2 It tries to tightly ration body fat in case you’re facing a prolonged food shortage.
Let’s back up. The “energy out” side of the energy balance equation comprises several factors:
- Basal metabolic rate – the energy your body expends in the everyday functions of being alive (breathing, circulation, generating new cells, etc.)https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S155041311830130X‘>4 It’s not so great when it comes to weight loss.
Moreover, the body responds to caloric restriction by dialing back activity. “Non-exercise activity thermogenesis,” or NEAT, is the term for the energy you expend through spontaneous movements like tapping your feet or nodding your head along to music. NEAT can vary up to 2000 calories per day between individuals.https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/17197279/’>6 and when they are dieticians.https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/21178922/‘>8 Another small study showed that individuals who were struggling to lose weight underreported their caloric intake by 47 percent and overestimated energy expended by 51 percent, on average.https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5491979/‘>10)
Even if you’re diligently weighing and tracking your food, you’ll probably be off through no fault of your own. The FDA allows a margin of error of up to 20 percent for calories reported on food labels.https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/20102837/‘>12 https://academic.oup.com/jcem/article/82/11/3647/2865985‘>14 In fact, it drops more than would be predicted by body composition alone.https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3296868/‘>16 loss of libido, and infertility.https://academic.oup.com/jcem/article/91/8/3232/2656790‘>18 That said, you can definitely have too much of a good thing. You don’t want to restrict calories to the point where you start experiencing symptoms of hypothyroid such as feeling cold all the time, unexplained weight gain, or fatigue.
When It’s Stressful
I’ve said it a million times: stress is the enemy of health and weight loss. As with so many things in life, calorie restriction can be an adaptive (hormetic) or maladaptive stressor. It all depends on how it’s applied and how your body reacts.
Restricting calories increases cortisol, aka “the stress hormone.”https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5813183/‘>20—and who subsequently struggle to eat enough. If they aren’t mindful, they can easily under-eat to the point they are getting enough nutrients.
If you suspect you might be under-eating, use an app like Cronometer to track your food for a few days. Make sure you are checking the nutritional boxes you need to stay healthy.https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/18589032/‘>22 https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/23446962/‘>24 Your calorie deficit should come from reducing fat and/or carbs, depending on your current diet.
What about Metabolic Damage?
Dieting forums are filled with dire warnings against dieting so long or so hard that you go into “starvation mode” and create permanent “metabolic damage.”
You might be familiar with the highly publicized Biggest Loser study, which followed contestants from the televised weight loss competition.https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/6694559/‘>26 https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/22535969/‘>28
Whether this constitutes permanent metabolic damage is a hotly debated topic. A recent paper called the notion into question. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/15466943/
‘>30. It helps keep your metabolic rate up by protecting energy-guzzling muscles and organs. Protein also has a higher thermic effect than fat or carbs, further contributing to metabolic rate.
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Yesterday, I explained the potential benefits and drawbacks of intermittent fasting for athletes. Maybe yesterday’s post intrigued you. Maybe you’re curious about this whole intermittent fasting thing but don’t want to sacrifice your performance in the gym or on the field.
What are my specific recommendations for athletes who wish to explore intermittent fasting? I’ve got twelve…plus some details about my own fasting and workout routine.
1) Use Restricted Eating Windows Over All-day Fasts
Athletes who want to lean out or maintain strength and performance while lowering body weight might have more success with shortened eating windows than with all day fasts or “one meal a day.” Fast for 12-16 hours, train, and break the fast. Then have 8-12 hours to eat. This will give you a nice block of almost pure fat-burning with enough of an eating window to get the calories you need to grow and maintain muscle and to recover from your training.
2) Small Amount Of Protein Pre-workout May Help
Having a small bit of protein (20 grams whey or maybe 10 grams BCAAs) can help if truly fasted workouts are too hard.
3) Fasted Walks In the Mornings
Whether you skip breakfast or dinner, you’ll have a block of time in the mornings before eating anything. That’s when fat-burning will be upregulated, and brisk fasted walking is a nice way to enhance it.
4) Light Cardio After a Fasted Lifting Session
A heavy lifting session will get free fatty acids liberated from your adipose tissue, particularly if you’re fasted. Doing some very light cardio after your weights should in theory help you utilize all that mobilized adipose tissue. Go for a 20-minute walk, do ten minutes on the bike, or something similar.
5) “Train Fasted, Race Fed”
This is a more intense version of “train low-carb, race high-carb,” a popular and well-researched method of enhancing fat adaptation and increasing fuel efficiency in endurance athletes. Training in a fasted state “forces” the athlete to burn stored fat because, well, there isn’t a whole lot of carbohydrate available. Plus, fasting necessarily increases the circulation of free fatty acids, which can be burned for fuel. This applies to everyone, not just people “racing.” The trick is to train in a fasted state (if you find it helps) and compete (whether it’s CrossFit games, a basketball game, a lifting competition, etc.) in a fed state—as long as it seems to improve your performance.
6) Most Of the Time, Break the Fast Shortly After the Workout
If you’re skipping dinner and eating breakfast, try morning workouts. If you’re skipping breakfast and eating lunch, try afternoon workouts.
7) Every So Often, Continue the Fast After a Workout
This enhances secretion of growth hormone, which fasting already elevates. Don’t make this an every-workout habit, though. Diminishing returns and all.
8) Every Athlete Can Probably Benefit From the Occasional Longer Fast (24 hours+)
This will normalize inflammation, boost growth hormone, and upregulate autophagy, giving you all the necessary co-factors for rest and recovery. Tissues will heal, joints will recover. Do nothing more on these days than easy movement (walks, hikes, bike rides, swims). Time this fast away from competition because your performance may suffer. Do these once a week or every other week.
9) If You Have Joint Problems (or Want To Avoid Them), Take Collagen or Drink Bone Broth Before a Fasted Workout
Fifteen grams of pre-workout collagen or gelatin with a few hundred milligrams of vitamin C has been shown to improve collagen synthesis in connective tissue, and collagen shouldn’t disrupt the fast too much.
10) More Isn’t Better
I see this a lot, especially with endurance athletes who get into intermittent fasting. They start eating breakfast later and see their times drop and their body fat disappear. They feel lighter on their feet, faster, just better all around. So they push breakfast even later and maintain the benefits, even building on them. Pretty soon they’re skipping lunch, and their performance drops off a cliff. When trying to use fasting to improve athletic performance, less is more generally speaking.
11) Realize That Exercise and Fasting Are Additive
For the average couch potato to get the benefits of fasting, he or she might need to go 16 hours without food. The couch potato isn’t liberating body fat through training. The couch potato isn’t getting into ketosis through physical activity. The couch potato isn’t increasing mitochondrial density—the power plants of the cells which actually process fuel—with exercise. The athlete is doing all those things. For the athlete, many of the benefits of fasting will appear with smaller fasting windows.
12) Consider Sleeping Low
“Sleeping low” is an alternative to full-on fasting that actually seems to work well. This is how you do it:
- Afternoon workout. This should be something intense that depletes glycogen—sprinting, metabolic conditioning, high volume strength training, high intensity endurance workouts.
- Eat protein and fat at dinner, no carbs. You’re not refilling your glycogen. You’re reveling in your lack of glycogen.
- Wake up and do low-intensity cardio (walking, cycling, hiking, swimming) before breakfast. Eat carbs at breakfast.
When a group of triathletes followed this protocol, both their submaximal efficiency and supramaximal capacity. High submaximal efficiency means you get more power out of each stroke/pedal/step with less energy required. Your “easy pace” becomes faster and more powerful. High supramaximal capacity means you can last longer at your maximum power output.
It’s likely that full-on fasting could be integrated into this protocol. Maybe with a compressed eating window leading up to the afternoon workout.
A Few Words About My Routine:
A few people have asked, so I’ll give an overview of how I approach this topic for myself:
Every day, I do time-restricted feeding. This isn’t a formal declaration I make with myself every day. It’s not really a schedule. It just happens naturally. I wake up and most days I’m not very hungry for anything but a cup of coffee, so I “skip” breakfast and eat my first meal around one in the afternoon following a workout.
Most of my workouts are performed in a fasted state, and I usually keep fasting after the workout for a few hours. I’ll extend that fast after the workout to really take advantage of the increased secretion of growth hormone. I’m not really trying to “get big” or anything, I’m more interested in maintaining body comp and function and increasing longevity. Natural pulses in growth hormone help with that.
Before most workouts, I’ll do some Collagen Fuel. This doesn’t seem to impair my fast and it helps me keep my joints working well—an important part of aging.
Half an hour before my weekly Ultimate Frisbee game, I’ll also include a little Primal Fuel (my whey isolate powder). This just helps me perform better. I’m not going to lose. (By the way, I’ll talk more about protein types for different functions in an upcoming post.)
That’s it for today, folks. Have you tried any of these fasting workout tips? Have they worked? Do you have any more to add? Let us know down below!
Marquet LA, Brisswalter J, Louis J, et al. Enhanced Endurance Performance by Periodization of Carbohydrate Intake: “Sleep Low” Strategy. Med Sci Sports Exerc. 2016;48(4):663-72.
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To the average person, the idea of elite athletes skipping meals sounds like pure madness. Athletes are fine-tuned, well-oiled machines. Machines need fuel. You don’t see race car drivers running on empty to “promote training adaptations” in their vehicles. No, high performance requires high energy reserves.
Athletes need to eat, and eat well. Right?
But humans aren’t machines. We’re biological. The car doesn’t respond to training stress, but we do. We adapt, grow, recover, and build new capabilities in response to the stress we endure. You expose yourself to a ton of stress, recover from that stress, and end up stronger/fitter/faster on net. That’s training. And sometimes, high stress is exactly what we need to progress—a few heavy sets of squats, some rounds on the Airdyne, a killer CrossFit workout—as long as you can recover from it. A major modulator of our stress is the amount of food we have coming in. At least in theory, exercising in a fasted state could provoke a powerful adaptive response that athletes would find helpful.
So, does it stack up? What exactly can intermittent fasting offer athletes?
Benefits Of Fasting For Athletes
Increases In Growth Hormone
Growth hormone helps spur, well, growth. It improves immune function. It builds muscle, bone, and cartilage. Kids are swimming in the stuff, and they heal like Wolverine. Older adults who inject it enjoy improved wound healing and workout recovery. That’s why it’s a banned substance in professional athletics, and it’s why natural ways to augment growth hormone secretion can be very helpful to athletes of all stripes.
Fasting increases growth hormone, most likely as a way to limit harmful tissue degeneration and preserve muscle; so does exercise. Once or twice a week, I like to fast after workouts to extend and expand the GH release. That’s a slightly more extreme version of post-workout carb abstention, but it’s the same idea: withholding food and forcing your body to adapt. This increases growth hormone (important for fat burning and cellular repair) and speeds up fat adaptation.
Improvement Of Metabolic Flexibility
In experienced male lifters (5-year history of 3-5 days/week training upper and lower body, drawn from advertisements placed in bodybuilding gyms), fasting for 16 hours a day and eating for 8 increased metabolic flexibility.
Metabolic flexibility is the ease with which a person is able to switch between sources of energy—from carbs to fat and back again. For the average person interested in health and longevity, maintaining metabolic flexibility is an important way to live a healthy life. For an athlete interested in performance, health, and longevity, metabolic flexibility is absolutely essential.
If you’re metabolically flexible, you can burn fat for longer before switching over to carbs. You can burn carbs when you actually need them, right away. And afterwards, you can switch back into passive fat-burning mode to keep unnecessary carb cravings and insulin low and improve recovery.
Reduction Of Inflammation
To attain the training effect, an athlete must incur a big blast of inflammation (from the exercise) and then recover from that inflammation. Blunting the initial inflammatory response with drugs and even mega-doses of vitamins will impair the training effect. You can also reduce the training effect by training too soon after a workout, thereby stacking inflammation.
You need the inflammation, but you also need the inflammation to subside. Both sides of the coin matter. What fasting does is improve your natural ability to dampen inflammation. You get the big inflammatory response of a tough workout.
This is where a fasted workout can really shine. When you’re fasted, you’re in a state of very low inflammation. And then you introduce the workout, and inflammation spikes. It’s a big response, a heightened response—and you must adapt to it. Oscillating between fasting, training, and feeding lets you hit those extremes, those margins where peak performance occurs.
Maintenance Of Energy Expenditure
There’s something revitalizing about going without food for a decent period of time and then feasting. You could spend the week restricting calories each day or use fasting to arrive at the same weekly caloric load and the effects will be different. Chronic calorie restriction enervates. Intermittent calorie restriction peppered with intermittent feasting energizes.
For an athlete, chronic calorie restriction spells doom. They need energy. They need to be able to expend energy when they need it. Luckily, studies show that intermittent fasting is one way to “reduce calories” without reducing energy expenditure. Perhaps the main reason is that IF doesn’t necessarily lower calories; it just changes when you get them. In the bodybuilder study, the athletes in both the fasting and the control groups ate about the same number of calories. But only the fasting group lost a lot of body fat, and they did this without suffering a drop in energy expenditure. Pretty cool stuff.
That said, you can overdo it. Too much fasting for too long will depress energy expenditure, as would happen with any kind of chronic calorie reduction. It’s just that fasting seems to stave off the drop in energy longer than other forms of “dieting,” especially if you maintain your calorie intake.
Concerns About Fasting For Athletes
May Reduce Testosterone
In the bodybuilder study, the group with the 8-hour eating window experienced a drop in testosterone. As T is essential for muscle protein synthesis, performance, strength, and general vitality, this could be problematic for athletes (particularly male ones). Despite the drop in testosterone, though, they still gained lean mass, lost fat, and got stronger—so it may not be practically relevant.
May Be Hard To Get Enough Calories To Gain Muscle or Recover
Athletes do need more fuel than the average person. A big draw of fasting for weight loss is that it makes it easier to reduce calories by erecting illusionary barriers that we nonetheless adhere to. If you only have an 8-hour eating window, you can’t eat outside of it. If you’re “fasting today,” you simply can’t eat. It makes things really simple for people who otherwise have trouble limiting food intake.
The flip-side is that it can make eating enough calories difficult, especially for athletes who do need more fuel than the average person. In a recent study, lifters who ate inside a 4-hour eating window had a 650 calorie daily deficit, lost a little bit of body fat but failed to gain any lean mass, while the control group—who ate more calories and protein—did gain lean mass. The fasting group simply wasn’t able to eat enough food or protein. Despite that, the 4-hour eating window group still gained upper and lower body strength, and they didn’t lose muscle mass. I suspect they could have gotten great results with a few hundred more calories of protein.
As is the case with every study that attempts to collate the individual experiences and results of hundreds of humans into “trends” and “averages,” there’s a wide variety of personal responses to fasting among athletes. The name of the game is experimentation—you have to see what works for you. This week I’ll give some specific recommendations for specific types of athletes, as well as my own experiences utilizing fasting in the pursuit of better physical performance.
For now, though, how has fasting worked for you and your athletic pursuits? Does it seem to help or hinder?
Moro, T., Tinsley, G., Bianco, A., Marcolin, G., Pacelli, Q.F., Battaglia, G., … & Paoli, A. (2016). Effects of eight weeks of time-restricted feeding (16/8) on basal metabolism, maximal strength, body composition, inflammation, and cardiovascular risk factors in resistance-trained males.J ournal of translational medicine, 14(1), 290.
Tinsley, G.M., Forsse, J.S., Butler, N.K., Paoli, A., Bane, A.A., La Bounty, P.M., … & Grandjean, P.W. (2017). Time-restricted feeding in young men performing resistance training: A randomized controlled trial. European journal of sport science, 17(2), 200-7.
The post Intermittent Fasting For Athletes: Benefits and Concerns appeared first on Mark’s Daily Apple.
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