One of the most common misconceptions about training and in particular, eating and drinking while training is that you must eat and drink constantly before, during and after training. In my experience that’s completely wrong. Most leisure riders, runners and triathletes could do a lot better by eating less both before and during. In particular less sugar. Click through for the good stuff…
I sell bikes for a living and when we get new people coming into the sport particularly in their late twenties, thirties, forties and older one of the most common reasons given for starting cycling was to get fit and loose some weight. After a good start they often then wonder a couple of months later why it’s not working despite training harder and harder. Sometimes they even put on weight despite the extra training. One of the problems is that we are told that in order to be able to exercise we must burn glycogen or carbohydrates and in order to do that we must constantly eat carbs to provide ourselves with the required fuel. The main problem with this as I see it is that we already have a full tank of fuel on board that we are ignoring in the form of stored body fat.
Why would we bother? Surely carbs are just as good or a better source of fuel?
- We have on average 20+ times as much fuel in the form of stored fat as we have in the form of glycogen (stored carbs)
- Fat is a cleaner fuel: Our bodies do much better burning fat when we are adapted than with carbs. I find I recover faster and have less soreness after training if I stay away from processed sugars.
- We need to eat less during races: This makes the logistics of racing easier.
- For anyone looking to regulate or loose weight, then burning body fat as a fuel instead of carbs has to be the holy grail.
In order for us to access the fat and burn it as fuel (one of the reasons we all ride or run) we must stop burning carbs. This is one of the biggest questions, how do we do it?
One of the best ways to switch over to burning our stored fat as fuel instead of adding sugar to power us is to train on empty and it’s very simple to do. During an easy early morning workout go out “fasted, or on empty” drink only coffee or tea or water before training with no sugar. For short and easy sessions you wont need to eat or drink during the run or ride either (unless you live somewhere hot in which case take water)
How does it work?
When we are sleeping our bodies naturally switch to fat burning mode. All we have to do to make the most of this fact and keep on burning fat as your primary fuel is not wake up the sugar monster. Go out do the easy session on empty, we should have more than enough stored carbs from our last meal the night before to get us through a short easy workout. On longer workouts I carry water, bananas, dates and nuts but I usually don’t start eating until well into the ride. Often 2 hours into a long ride. You might notice I don’t use sports bars or drinks for long easy rides. I feel they have their place in certain training and racing situations but my long easy rides aren’t it. I will go into race fuelling and nutrition in another post.
If we keep fuelling with carbs for every training session immediately before and during then we will never give our bodies the chance to switch to burning fat.
So what are the main things to do to switch to burning fats while training?
- Eat more good healthy fats as part of our normal diet; eggs, avocado, fatty meats like bacon, almonds, olives and olive oil.
- If training in the morning try doing your ride or run fasted or on empty. Just have coffee, tea or water before training. Start off with the short easy sessions but over time it’s possible to go faster and farther as the body gets better at using fat as the primary fuel source. The crucial thing is to not switch on your sugar engine before starting so no carbohydrates or sugars, if you feel you have to eat try bacon and eggs, smoked salmon or another healthy fat.
- Eat real food during the ride. I eat bananas, almonds, dates or other dried fruits while on long (3-6 hour) training rides. Consuming carbs during the ride or run has a different effect on the body than if you eat them before training, they will be converted to glycogen and burned as fuel as opposed to causing the big spike in insulin if eaten outside of exercise.
- Damien Shaw the Irish National Road Race Champion from 2015 told me he will eat fats such as avocados or boiled eggs on the bike. The more we eat healthy fats and the less we eat carbs the more we give our bodies the message that fatss are the prefered source of fuel.
- Eat carbs afterwards, but in moderation: If I’m going to eat carbs I try to do it after a long or hard session where I have likely depleted my glycogen stores as well as burning fat. If I’m in work straight after training I will often have a large fruit salad with natural yoghurt and nuts or seeds. This provides carbs, protein and fats. If it’s later in the day and I’m having a dinner then I will usually have potatoes with it if I feel I need them.
- When eating fats reduce the carbs: Carbohydrates are converted into glycogen and stored in the muscles to be burned as fuel but eating carbs will produce a spike in blood sugar which will in turn switch on the production of insulin to counter it. The problem with this is that insulin’s primary function is as a fat storage hormone. Once it’s activated it will convert any excess carbohydrates eaten into fat and store it on the body. So eating carbs in moderation and after exercise is the best time to ensure that it’s stored as fuel in the muscles and not as fat on the body.
- Drink water during training: Ditch the suggary drinks, despite what the sports food companies would have you believe water will hydrate you just as well and without all of the extra calories in an energy drink. Sticking with water will also ensure that you stay in the fat burning zone longer.
As an extra incentive when we access our fat stores and become switched on to fat burning I found I needed to eat less often and my apetite regulated itself much better (with the exception of when I’m training heavily, then the apetite goes back up a bit) My body became much a more efficient fat burner and that’s not to mention the performance benefits that come from dropping any extra weight carried as fat. Even a lean athlete has approximately 60-80 hours of stored fat as fuel in contrast with 2-3 hours being the most we can store in carbs/glycogen.
I have written a report examining how 5 of the most successful Irish Ironman triathletes have qualified for Kona an incredible 29 times. You can access it free here.
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