Tuesday, August 27, 2013

How to cycle carb intake to improve performance

Over the past couple years I've slowly adapted my body to become more efficient at burning fat as a primary fuel source. This has meant that carbohydrates have become a smaller and smaller part of my overall diet. But, that's not to say there isn't a time and place for strategic carb intake, especially to improve performance. So instead of relying on carbohydrates as my body's primary fuel source on a daily basis, I cycle carbohydrate intake around certain times of the day and certain times of the week depending on when I really need them.

Here are the three basic rules I follow:

Limit overall carbohydrate intake on easy days.
Monday is generally a recovery day for me with some foam rolling in the AM, some more in the PM, and usually a 30 minute yoga session in the evening. Because this is my least active day of the week, carbohydrate intake is also at its lowest. As a general rule of thumb, the more aerobic the workouts, the greater proportion of my daily calories come from fat and protein.

Plan carbohydrate intake around hard workouts, especially fasted workouts.
Hard sessions, particularly hard and longer sessions, when I'm really tapping into glycogen as a fuel source, recovery is key. This is especially the case if I'm planning another session that day or even the next day. There's been a bit of research looking at the optimal timing and ratio of macro-nutrient intake post-exercise, and many researchers and trainers will say a carbohydrate to protein ratio of about 3:1 consumed anywhere between 20 minutes to 60 minutes post-workout. I don't measure anything out, count calories, or really track much, but after a long-hard session I'll make I'm eating a good balance of fat, carbs, and protein from all quality whole food sources. Post-exercise nutrition is a lot more important for fasted workouts since almost all of the research to date has been on subjects in a fasted state.

Gradually increase carbohydrate over the course of the week leading up to a race.
The week of a race is when I most often step up the carbohydrate intake -- gradually. As mentioned in the first point, I'll start the week relatively low-carb. Then, as the week progresses, I'll slightly increase carbohydrate intake, usually starting around Wednesday. These usually aren't huge changes: adding a banana to my lunch, a small sweet potato to dinner, or a handful of oats for breakfast. The biggest benefit to this approach is if you're anticipating tapping into a fair bit of glycogen as a fuel source during the race (for example with a shorter olympic distance triathlon, which is at a much higher intensity). In training your body was so used to running on a small amount of carbohydrates that when there's a larger than "normal" influx, there's almost a sensation of increased energy at higher intensities (similar to something like an athlete training at altitude and coming back to sea-level but certainly a lot less pronounced).

Now, what kinds of carbohydrates do I tend to use? Here's a list of a few of my favorites:

1. Sweet potatoes - packed with anti-inflammatory properties and antioxidants, these have quickly become my go-to for pre-race carbohydrates. Add some grass-fed butter and quality sea salt and you're good to go!

2. Quinoa - actually a seed rather than a grain, quinoa is really growing in popularity in health and nutrition circles. Why? In addition to it being a fairly slow release carbohydrate, it contains 14-15 gram of protein per 100 grams and has all nine essential amino acids. (The 20 amino acids are the building blocks of protein and essential amino acids are those that cannot be made naturally by your body.) The major issue before eating, however, is to make sure they are soaked and sprouted to remove the harmful saponins.

3. Nuts - these are one of my daily staples and I will usually have a handful with lunch, especially walnuts, almonds, cashews, or Brazil nuts. Though a great carbohydrate, protein, and fat source, a word of caution to not consume too many, since nuts do also contain decent amounts of pro-inflammatory omega-6 fatty acids along with the beneficial omega-3 fatty acids.

4. Squash - this is an absolute go-to during the fall and winter when squash is in-season. For those who stay away from gluten, like myself, spaghetti squash is a fantastic substitute.

5. Bananas - an endurance athlete's best friend. A single banana can really go a long way for pre- and post-workout fueling. It's simple and easily digested. For longer workouts on the weekend, I might have half before and half afterwards. You really don't need much.

So, give these strategies a try and let me know what you think.

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