Training, Racing & LCHF Fueling For Skating And Endurance Sports
One of the best things about making good food choices – whether you align with LCHF or any other higher fat/lower carb label – is that it becomes almost impossible to gain unwanted body weight (ie body fat). I often say that the human body is a miracle shaped by millions of years of natural evolution; feed it with enough good nutrients – macro & micro – and it will thrive. If one makes the effort to replace the sub-optimal, nutrient poor processed foods found in a typical western diet and substitute them for higher quality, natural and unprocessed “real” foods, the body will typically undergo a natural recomposition process, tending towards a natural genetically defined “setpoint” – as Jonathon Bailor, author of “The Calorie Myth”, coins it. This happens absent any additional exercise requirement or the need to actively engineer an “energy imbalance”. Once you have reached your setpoint, you won’t continue losing fat, nor will you grow back the love handles. Your real, actual body composition will, in practice, fluctuate according to lifestyle and exercise, but it will always be based around your genetic setpoint.
So, why is it that, having effectively dispelled the “calories in calories out” argument, I see a disturbing counter-trend amongst the various LCHF/Paleo/Primal (ie food quality) groups who increasing say that “calories still count”? They point out that low-carb diets tend to also be highly satiating; therefore you end up eating less in total, and thus low carb also fall under the umbrella of low calorie over the long run.
Their argument then, is that low carb is just a roundabout way of achieving low calorie.
These people then take this incomplete and misguided notion and run with it… leading right back into the game of actively managing both quality (ie food composition) and quantity (ie food amount). Hence the rise of in trends such as Intermittent Fasting, and the 5:2 diet.
Let me say categorically that I am not a fan of these or any other protocol that advocates the active management of food quantity. Focus solely on food quality and the brain will correctly tell you when satiety is reached. Any eating plan that actively tries to override the signals of the brain is unsustainable in the long term.
Yes, I am aware that there are relational studies that demonstrate a link between fasting and/or calorie restriction vs longevity, but let me say that these are situational at best and do not prove causality; if you are doing a lot of wrong things in your food choices and getting sicker as a result then, yes, restriction is probably going to be beneficial overall. But that is likely to be very different to restriction in a different population that is already doing most of the right things and are not suffering from the diseases of affluence that come with the standard Western diet.
While I think that skipping or missing the odd meal is fine, for someone with athletic ambitions you must keep the bigger picture in mind: eat to provide your body with the fuel and materials it needs for training and recovering, not eat to a protocol that is designed to fight obesity.
That is not to say that what you eat should be the same year-round. I do increasingly believe that it’s possibly to smartly periodize your food patterns both on a macro and micro cycle, but however you do it, satiety should always determine how much you eat at every meal.
If one focuses on the quality of the food, the quantity will be whatever it will be. In nature, lions don’t eat grass, giraffes don’t eat antelope, and chimpanzees don’t eat jam on toast; they stick to food sources that they co-evolved with… none of them count their calories, yet their metabolisms remain in perfect balance. Metabolism is the key; optimize your metabolism by eating real foods that you are evolved to eat, and everything else falls into place.
But what exactly is metabolism? It’s a very good question that isn’t easy to answer in a short sentence. However, I found this presentation that explains it beautifully…
It should be clear from watching this that there are many aspects to human metabolism, but that everything we know and many things we don’t know yet know about have a role to play in the balance of the system. Yet it is common human shortcoming that we tend to focus on a single aspect of such complex systems without any appreciation of how it all fits together.
For the record, I did keep a food diary for 1 week back in January this year.
What did I find?
Between my high-fat meals, creamy coffees, and healthy but not excessive amounts of exercise (avg 1.5hrs/day moderate intensity), my food intake averaged between 4,000 – 4,200kcal/day, and my weight remained absolutely rock stable at 68kg +/- the usual daily water weight variances. In other words, I was (and still continue) consuming at least 160-170% of the daily “2,500kcal/day” intake recommended by so-called health and nutritional exprts. In no way was I actively over-eating to try to prove a point – I was just eating to satiety.
So is low carb just a low calorie diet in disguise? Not on my plate it isn’t.
The phrase “Isocaloric but not Isometabolic” was coined by Dr Robert Lustig to elegantly describe this. Once again… it’s really NOT about the calories.
Practically all athletes secretly obsess about racing weight, but of course what we really care – or should care – about is body composition and (excess) adiposity. Aside from bodyfat, the other key variable in overall bodyweight is muscle, and of course we need and want a healthy amount of skeletal muscle, not just a minimal amount. We also want some fat, and more than just the “essential 3% male / 8% female” that body-builders are trying to get down to. Once again, we return to the idea of setpoints, and that most athletes will tend to race best around their natural setpoint in terms of both muscle & fat adiposity. Go too low or too high on muscle and/or fat, and performance tends to suffer.
We know that Body Mass Index (BMI) is not that useful if you are an athlete because our physiques can differ substantially from the typical less active general population, but nonetheless I still find myself using BMI from time to time, and I suspect that I’m not the only one… yup, still 23.5 last time I checked. Some day I may race down in the 22’s, but as someone with a fairly broad chest and upper body, I know that getting down much below this is not realistic or sustainable – 23.5ish is pretty much at my natural setpoint. So friends please note: a BMI of 23.5 is really not that skinny.. no more remarking that I’m too thin or “about to disappear!” I also know that my bodyfat% at this weight is roughly 9% – knowledge gleaned from a BIA test, and confirmed by skinfold calliper test, which I’ve become a big fan of. The skinfold method may sound crude and tricky to perform, but it is actually quite simple to do and correlates very well with other methods – there are plenty of good guides such as this one which will give you a good idea how to perform a multi-site skinfold test.
What’s I do find quite interesting is where one fits on the BMI vs Bodyfat% scatter chart:
This chart was taken from this study (of general population) which concludes that, BMI is, if anything, less likely to express excess adiposity than compared to the bodyfat% method… so the next time you hear someone say “BMI’s a load of tosh.. it classes Jonah Lomu as obese” – well, yes, it does, but it probably also classes Homer Simpson as borderline-normal, and I’m guessing there’s many more Homer Simpsons than Jonah Lomus to worry about.
When I hear athletes boast that their training allows them to “eat whatever they want” I usually smile and retort (at least quietly to myself) that they are just unwittingly undermining their own efforts. So I take the radical opposing view: the higher your goals and the harder you train to achieve them, the closer to perfect your eating must be if you want to fully absorb all that training.
As my own training ramps up this season, I become inclined to clean up my eating even more than usual; booze consumption goes down, and I try to eat as perfectly – or as close to dammit – as I possibly can during the final training block and taper before an A race.
It’s no secret that bodyweight and sporting performance are intrinsically linked. In most sports it is advantageous to move your butt from point A to point B faster than the opposition, and it figures that the less unwanted weight (fat) you are carrying, the less work is required to move, and hence the faster you will be.
But as already alluded to, everyone has their ideal “racing weight” which tends to be based around your genetic setpoint. Maybe you will a bit lighter or heavier than your genetic setpoint depending upon the demands of your particular sport, but not by much.
However, I have a personal theory that maximizing performance is more than just a question of the number at which you tip the scales: understanding metabolism and how it can work either for or against you is also key to unlocking and maximizing your athletic performance.
Think about this: If you place your body into a high storage (anabolic) mode, where it wants to hold onto (or even build more) body fat, in evolutionary biology terms you are effectively prepping for famine and telling your body to to enter “winter survival” mode. Under this metabolic downregulation, is it reasonable that your brain and your body is also going to contradict itself and also allow maximal upregulation of ATP production under the duress of training or racing? On one hand your metabolism is trying to conserve and create a surplus through a particular hormonal response to your food intake, and on the other it is trying to create an energy deficit through the hormonal response to high levels of physical activity – something’s got to give. Stress will ensue. Your health will suffer.
Contrast that unhappy scenario to one where your metabolism is placed into a catabolic, easy energy-releasing state. Now you are telling your body that winter is over, and there is new game is on the horizon… it’s time to go and hunt. Your body doesn’t want to hold onto any energy – it wants to release all it’s energy from both food and stored body fat reserves. Food gets easily converted to energy and is difficult to store.. physical activity becomes easier because your energy is more readily released. Exercise feels good.
As usual, conventional thinking is incorrect and backwards. You don’t lose fat because you exercise more, you exercise more because you are losing fat.. your brain has told your body to release energy, not to hold onto it. Under this metabolic state, the brain demands more activity from the body – it is impossible not to be physically more active.
Eat to optimize your metabolism, and everything else follows.
As I say, it’s just a theory that has been forming in my head. I have no way to prove it, but in my mind it is clear that metabolism is key in the mind/body connection; it dictates how we feel, and what we do.