I admit it’s been a while since I’ve really trained for any type of endurance event. Nowadays, most of my training involve playing (riding, hiking, climbing) and doing short hard workouts that don’t take much longer than 20 - 30 minutes.
BUT, because I spent the first 20+ years of my life training as an endurance athlete, I have a soft spot for anything related to endurance.
Now ever since I stopped competing and training seriously, I’ve shifted my focus on optimizing my health and that’s also when I switched my diet from a typical endurance athlete diet which is usually focused on getting majority of the calories from dense carbohydrates to a low carbohydrate diet, where majority of my calories comes from fat.
So the question is… is this dietary approach healthy and beneficial for people who are heavily involved in endurance training?
For a long time, many people claimed that a low carb diet could be dangerous for endurance athletes because they needed the carbohydrates to fuel their athletic activities. But, recent information has shown that it is possible for an endurance athlete to reduce carbohydrate intake, as long as they are increasing their fat intake. Tim Noakes is one of the leading athletes in this low-carb movement among endurance athletes, and he has led the way with his own lifestyle. Below, we will explore some of the principles that he has taught.
Benefits of a Low Carb Diet for Endurance Athletes
Many athletes have found that their performance increased, among multiple other benefits, as a result of making a dietary change. When they are eating high protein and plenty of healthy fats, the protein is fueling the muscle growth and the fat can be easily burned for energy.
Some high endurance athletes have made the suggestion that these dietary changes have helped them to extend their careers later in life, and their performance has been optimized when they are following the dietary guidelines precisely. One of the main benefits to a high fat diet is the fact that the fat can be quickly metabolized into energy, providing the athlete with a fast and effective energy source for their workout or competition. Unlike the “crash” that can occur after eating a high-carb meal, most people don’t experience a decrease in energy from high protein, high fat meals. So, the energy levels are more consistent throughout the day.
Another benefit to a low carb diet is the fact that it helps to reduce inflammation in the body, which allows the athlete to slow down the signs of aging and decrease their muscle recovery after a workout. Sore muscles can sometimes hinder future workouts, and high levels of fat consumption can help to minimize post-workout soreness. When carbohydrate intake is decreased below 50 grams per day, the response of the body is to produce ketones, which combat oxidative stress and have anti-inflammatory properties.
This benefit is especially important for high endurance athletes, because the intense training schedule pushes the athlete to their physical limits. As a result, oxidative stress builds up in the body, and can lead to aging. But, with a low carb diet, the effects of oxidative stress can be reduced.
Drawbacks to a Low Carb Diet for Endurance Athletes
One of the drawbacks to following a low carb, high fat diet is that it can take awhile for the body to adjust to the new source of energy. In fact, some athletes have found that it can take as long as several weeks, or even several months, before they see noticeable differences in their performance. As they are decreasing their carbohydrate intake, most people experience lethargy and other uncomfortable symptoms, which often results in the person going back to their old eating habits before they have experienced the benefits of the low carb diet.
When your body is adjusting to the new eating style, you will be going through a “carbohydrate withdrawal” which is the process where you are literally breaking your addiction to sugar. Symptoms of carb withdrawal often include things such as:
- Tiredness and fatigue
- Cravings and hunger
- Flu-like symptoms
So, if you decide to follow a low carb, high fat diet, remember that you need to stick it out for awhile, and then things will start to get better. Once your body has adjusted to the new source of energy, you will feel better than ever!
Tips for Endurance Athletes Following a Low Carb Diet
Here are a few dietary suggestions that you can follow, if you are interested in implementing a low carb/high fat diet in your own life:
- Make sure to include a variety of healthy fat sources in your diet, such as avocado, coconut oil, animal fat from grass-fed beef, ghee, and grass-fed butter.
- Include high quality protein from various sources such as grass-fed beef, organ meat (from grass-fed cattle), wild caught fish and eggs from pasture raised chickens.
- Cut out all sources of refined carbohydrates, which means that your low intake of carbohydrates will come from natural sources such as fruits and vegetables.
- Drink plenty of water, especially in the beginning when you are working through the carb withdrawal symptoms.
- Increase your sodium intake. When you’re on a low carb diet, your kidney increases the loss of sodium and water so you’ll need to increase your consumption. Depending on your activity level you may need an additional 1 - 2 g of sodium.
- Increase your intake of omega-3 fatty acids to help fight inflammation and accelerate your recovery. The best source comes from cold water fish such as : salmon, tuna, herring, sardines and Altantic mackerel. If you can’t eat enough fish, you can also take high quality omega-3 supplements.
Keep in mind that it takes some time to adjust to your new eating habits, and you should put in a little extra effort to find recipes that you enjoy.
One easy way to get a lot of the essential nutrients, minerals and fat you need is by making high fat soups.
Here’s an easy soup I make regularly:
- A bunch dino kale (4 - 5 cups), stems removed and lightly steamed - high in antioxidants and magnesium
- 1 large packet of pre-washed spinach - high in antioxidants and magnesium
- 2 cups of full fat organic coconut milk (try and stay away from coconut milk with carrageenan or guar gum). You can also use coconut cream from Let’s Do Organic or Tropical Tradition and add water to make coconut milk was well.
- 1/2 tsp of salt
- 1/2 tsp of cumin
- 1/2 tsp of turmeric
- 1/4 tsp of cayenne pepper
Put all the ingredients in a blender and blend until smooth. You can add some almond slivers in top and serve it cold or warm.
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