In the last few years, endurance events have seen a huge resurgence in popularity. There are more endurance events now than ever before and more people are doing it. The great thing is, it encourages people to get out and be active.
But there are draw backs to training for endurance events, most notably a higher susceptibility to repetitive injuries and the lack of weight loss/fat loss.
The first is a no-brainer, whenever you start running or doing anything that involves lots of repetitive movements, you’re going to run (no pun intended) into joint issues. For the most part, joint issues can be resolved by resting, doing proper rehab protocols like mobility exercises, strengthen training and soft tissues treatments (aka. self myofascial release) to maintain the health of your muscles, tendons and ligaments.
The second issue…lack of weight loss & fat loss is more complicated. Here’s what I see happening… it’s difficult to sustain a diet that’s favorable for weight loss and fat loss while doing endurance training. It’s not that it’s not doable, but it’s difficult.
Research indicates that diet which minimizes insulin response is most effective, when it comes to fat loss. Since carbs (especially refined carbs) stimulate insulin to store fat in your body, minimizing carbs curtails fat storage. Easy enough…right? Don’t eat carbs and you’re good to go.
See, when you exercise, you mainly use glycogen (stored carbs) as your primary energy source. And the longer you exercise, the more glycogen you need. So training for endurance events requires alot of glycogen. This is why, you see many endurance athletes consume carb-based sports drinks or gel during the race or training to provide them with enough energy. They do this to prevent their body from running out of energy.
What happens when you do this type of training and eating often, is it increases your body’s glycogen storage, mainly in your muscles (not liver). In fact, it can increase your glycogen storage as much as 60%. This is your body’s way of adapting to the increased demand of energy needed to sustain the endurance training. This is great when it comes to improving your body to become more efficient at performing endurance activities. However, it’s not so great, when it comes to making your body more efficient at burning fat.
Here’s a common scenario. After a long hard endurance workout you crave carbs because you’ve completely depleted your body’s glycogen storage. You’re out of energy, hungry and all you want to is a huge plate of pasta and copious amounts of bread. Although your body has the ability to replenish glycogen, from non-carb sources like protein, you crave carb dense foods because it replenishes your glycogen much quicker and get your energy back faster.
And so comes the conundrum.
- You train more so you can improve your endurance, but that also means increasing your glycogen storage.
- The bigger your glycogen storage, the more carbs your body needs to refuel.
- This means you have to consume more carbohydrate dense foods, which increases your insulin level.
- Higher insulin level equates to more fat storage.
This is why, even though you’re exercising more, it doesn’t mean that you’re going to lose more fat. And that’s not all…here’s a couple of other things to keep in mind…
- Glycogen can carry up to 4 times it’s weight in water, so if you’re goal is to lose weight, it may be more difficult to do as well.
- When you increase your activity level, your appetite increases as well. It’s very easy to over eat and consume way more calories than you need. This will only add to your frustration of not losing weight or burning fat.
This is why, if you’re goal is to lose weight and burn fat as efficiently as possible, the best method is short high intensity exercises combined with a diet low in refined carbs.
As you may have guessed… endurance training is NOT the best way to lose weight or burn fat. BUT that’s not to say that you can’t pursue endurance training and burn fat at the same time. You just need to modify your training and switch to a diet low in refined carb and moderately high in healthy fats. The transition can be challenging at first, but it’s definitely doable and well worth it once your body fully adapts.
In fact, there are plenty of endurance athletes that sustain a very high level performance while adhering to a diet low in refined carb and moderately high in healthy fats. One key is to lower the frequency and intensity of long distance training. For instance, if you’re used to doing 4 - 5 long distance training sessions a week, you’ll need to cut it down to 2 - 3 sessions a week and perform each session at a much lower intensity. You’ll also need to mix it up with short duration, high intensity interval training and strength training through out the week. I won’t get into the details of the training, since it will take way too long and will vary with each individual, depending on their respective age and goals. However, the combination of short high-intensity training, long low-intensity training with a diet low in refined carb and moderately high in healthy fats - seems to be the winning combination for improving endurance performance while re-programing your body to burn more fat.
P.S. Endurance training also increases free radical production in your body. So to combat these cell damaging free radicals make sure that you consume plenty of protein and omega-3 fats in your diet. Getting enough protein in your diet will help minimize muscle breakdown from sustained long training sessions and it’s helps synthesize glutathione - your body’s master anti-oxidant. In addition omega-3 fats is a potent anti-inflammatory compound. Cold water fish such as salmon, trout, herring, sardines and anchovies are all high in omega-3 fats. If you aren’t able to get enough protein and omega-3 fats from whole food, you can also use high quality supplements to ensure that your body is getting the necessary nutrients needed to maintain your training volume.
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