Sunday, August 19, 2007

Olympic Athlete Questions Whether Low-Carb Diet Proper For Training

Should you train for a decathlon on a low-carb diet?

Since my blog has been online for a little more than two years with nearly 2,000 columns, all kinds of people are finding my older columns in Google searches. In fact, if you want to know if I've blogged about a certain subject, simply type in "livin' la vida low-carb" and whatever topic interests you into a search engine. I use this tool all the time when I need to look up something I've blogged about before.

Because of the sheer volume of traffic my blog receives, many of my columns rank very high in the search engines for various keyword searches. This enables articles I've written long ago to come to the limelight anew when someone finds it for the first time.

Sometimes the people reading these previous columns will have some expert knowledge on the subject they would like to add to the discussion and such is the case today with this blog post I wrote just a few weeks after I started the "Livin' La Vida Low-Carb" blog back in 2005. In that column, I shared about a survey conducted at the annual meeting of the International Society of Sports Nutrition that found most athletes have now shunned the idea of loading up on carbohydrates to boost their athletic performance.

That survey asked marathon runners about their training schedule, their diet, and how it all came together to help them perform their best. The results? One-third of the respondents who had weight to lose chose the low-carb lifestyle over the low-fat/low-calorie diet. Most of these athletes stated that livin' la vida low-carb was extremely effective for weight loss and aiding them in attaining their athletic performance goals.

The point of my blog post was that the idea of carb-loading on energy bars, sugar, pasta, rice, etc. is an outdated way to get your body ready for performing athletically. Sure, you may need to eat a few more carbohydrates than someone who is merely on a carbohydrate-restricted diet for weight loss purposes. But it won't be all those JUNK carbs I listed above.

This is something that countless numbers of highly-respected experts and fellow low-carbers would absolutely agree with me on, including Anthony Colpo, Mark Sisson, Cassandra Forsythe, Ray Kelly, Kent Altena, Adam Campbell, Dr. Jeff Volek, Dr. Donald Layman, and MANY MORE!

Even still, the gentleman who e-mailed me is currently training for the upcoming 2008 Olympics and wanted to add his own personal experience as it relates to the proper diet needed for the highest levels of athletic competition.

Here's what he wrote to me in that e-mail:


I just read the article you posted about "Study: More Athletes Choose Low-Carb To Maximize Workouts."

I agree with the aspect that athletes should not rely on energy bars for sustenance, but I disagree that a low-carb diet maximizes workouts. I am a decathlete, NCAA Champion in the decathlon, and currently training for the 2008 games in Beijing, China.

Your article pumps up looking great much more than athletic performance. I can run a 46-second 400 meters, a 10.6 second 100 meter dash, and a 4:23 1500 meter. As a decathlete that is pretty darn good.

The fuel that feeds the muscles is glycogen, which is found in carbohydrates. This is why carb-loading before a major event is important. How can I race at a high level if I can't train at a high level?

Yes, losing the unnecessary fat is important, but fueling the body during workouts is most important. Eating right even when you aren't training for competition would eliminate the need for so much of this stuff anyway.

My point is this: Cutting carbs may make you look great, cut, and lean; however, for a world-class down to even the local athlete, doing that only robs the body of proper fuel for training which means a really sucky performance. You may look cut crossing the finish line, but you'll be sub-par in your performance. For a sedentary person on the sofa, low-carb may be okay (but only temporary to possibly help you lose weight, blah, blah, blah).

On the flip side a diet that is balanced and high in protein allows for proper protein synthesis. Keep in mind that this can only happen if there is proper balance of carbohydrates in the body! The principle of synergy is crucial for the body to do what it needs to do to the human to win a gold medal in the Olympics or run a personal best in the local Thanksgiving Day 5k. Carbohydrates and protein are both SO necessary.

Thus, I disagree with your article's slant. This article should have been entitled, "Weight Loss for Normal People." Take the word athlete out of the picture. Dr. Stuart Trager is getting paid the big bucks to lie by not telling the full truth. His two cents on power bars and energy bars is a no-brainer, but it is a poor attempt to woo athletes to the Atkins fan club.

What does he have to say about carbs that he didn't or can't say in this article? I know he didn't compete on turkey and chicken two days before a big race. Anyway, that's enough about that.

I'm doing additional research on this matter for athletes. Athletes can't survive and expect to perform well on a low-carb diet. Will they look great? Maybe. But they will undoubtedly suck in training and in competition.

If they want beauty, then they should be a model or something--not an athlete. Models don't run track meets to meet their beatification goals.

Okay, I'm done. Thanks for reading. Congrats on your success.

I requested an interview with this upcoming Olympian, but he never responded to my request. This is obviously an issue that he is looking very closely at right now both personally and for his future in athletic competition. Much of what he espouses resembles what people like Roy Pirrung and others like him feel is necessary for their training routine.

At least I give this young athlete credit for not tee-totally dismissing livin' la vida low-carb altogether. His position is clear: if you need to lose weight, then low-carb may be an option for you; but if you are training for competition, then you need to eat your carbs. The only gray area here is what kind of carbohydrates.

Feel free to chime in with YOUR experiences and I welcome the feedback of experts on this subject to either defend or dissent from the point of view presented by the future Olympian today. This should make for an eye-opening discussion.

8-21-07 UPDATE: I was hoping my friend and fellow blogger Mark Sisson from "Mark's Daily Apple," a former world-class competitive athlete, would respond to this post. Here's what he had to say:

Interesting thread. I was a top marathoner and triathlete years ago and spent years on a carbo-intensive lifestyle. I had to in order to replenish 500-600 grams of total glycogen each and every day. However, it was a choice I made (to compete at an elite level) just like our decathlete friend here. And with those choices come sacrifices, for which I still pay today.

He says it best with this quotes "I'm doing additional research on this matter for athletes. Athletes can't survive and expect to perform well on a low-carb diet. Will they look great? Maybe. But they will undoubtedly suck in training and in competition." This higher carb diet is probably essential to compete at the Olympic level, but it is not without its costs.

For those of you interested in my extended point of view on this, I just wrote an in-depth piece for one of the largest online endurance communities in the world. The piece is titled "Training is no Guarantee of Health."

Needless to say, it prompted a large discussion. Bottom line, while I live, eat, sleep and breathe low carb today for my health AND my vanity, I'm not sure I could find a way to successfully compete at the highest levels without major compromises.

Also, what do you mean, Science, that no one has run faster than Mamo Wolde? The world record is now 15 minutes faster than he ran in 1968 (even I have run faster in my day).

Keep up the great work, Jimmy.

Mark Sisson

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Blogger Bowulf said...

I think the athlete makes two inaccuracies in his argument. First, his events are more often than not sprints with the longest event (1500m) only lasting a little over 4 minutes. In these events, the athlete uses strictly the fastest burning fuel for the greatest reward. Even his mentioned race (a 5k) ends almost before the body recognizes it starts. Change the event to an endurance event (anything of 10k or 30 minutes), and the body transitions to burning fat. For example, I am about to head out for 14 mile run. A normal runner will reach glycogen depletion around 2-3 hours and should be burning fat as well for performance.

The second inaccuracy is that he should look at the Dr. Stephen Phinney studies where after a period acclimation. The world class cyclists has the same performance before and after. Of course, he may choose to not label me an athlete and preserve that tag for those that might win races or their age groups. But I would rather use the tag a little more loosely for those people who are out on the road competing. It may only be against themselves and their own times, but they are still athletes in my book.

8/19/2007 7:26 AM  
Blogger mrfritznyc said...

I think your question "Should you train for a decathlon on a low-carb diet?" should be shortend to "Should you train for a decathlon?" and for most of us, the answer is absolutely NO. Long distance cardio workouts are a waste of time for most normal people. Very time consuming, not effective for weight loss (your hunger increases, you eat more, you negate the benefits), and very damaging to the body.

that said, there are studies out there that show that training on a low carb diet can be very beneficial to an athlete. Your body adapts, gets better at buring fat as fuel, sparing the all important glycogen. That means for a guy like our decathalete, his glycogen stores will last longer during his event. Seems like a good thing to me!

last I heard, Stuart Traeger recommends adding carbs to your diet when your workouts exceed an hour or so...

From my personal experience, from back before I saw the light and knocked off the time and body wasting cardio, I could train for as long as I wanted, and do sprints, etc. on a very low carb diet. Maybe adding some carbs would have helped my performance a bit, but you know, it wouldn't have been worth it to me. That would wreck my triglycerides, LDL subparticle size, and who knows what else.

8/19/2007 10:32 AM  
Blogger Science4u1959 said...

The jury is still out on this stuff. For extremely intensive workouts, like for athletes, there are those that say:

1. Carbloading is the only way to enduring performance;
2. Low-carb dieting (training) and carb-cycling post-training is the only way to enduring performance;
3. Low-carb should be adhered to at all times but needs a longer (several months) adaptation time.

Personally I tend to the latter one, although for example Colpo would more tend to option two. A few months back or so I had a short albeit interesting discussion with one of your readers about that. He/she tends to opt for number one.

Whatever the answer maybe be, it's a highly personal thing. Let us not forget that we're talking extreme levels of performance here, something that most of us would never need to achieve (and probably never can achieve). We all have different bodies, with different metabolisms and nutritional requirements. But I do agree that carbloading is part of that simplistic and utterly false "essential carbohydrates" myth that has automatically doomed so many dieters.

If extreme endurance performance would be impossible without devouring enormous quantities of carbs pre- and/or post workout, it makes one wonder how the heck our ancestors ever survived, thrived and evolved without these carbohydrates. According to these turbo-carb theories, they'd all be wiped out by natural predators, not to mention the difficulties with hunting game in the wild.

In this light, it's interesting to see that, for example, the great hunters from the past, i.e. the American Indians, considered a lack of fat in the diet as nothing short of a disaster and even cause for disease. If they couldn't find any sufficiently fat animals (they would not hunt animals that were not fat for winter) or, worse, nothing at all, they had to resort to rabbits. And that, according to anthropologists and other early researchers, was nothing short of a disaster. Their performance and endurance would drop, something the Indians even had a word for: rabbit-disease. They needed high amounts of proteins and especially fats in the diet in order to perform, endure, and survive.

The Inuit, after extended periods of inactivity during the long polar winter, when hunting was impossible, survived in their Igloos on a extremely low-carb diet (almost zero-carb, actually) and performed incredible feats of endurance immediately afterwards. No carb-loading or carb-cycling necessary - or even possible.

So indeed the jury is still out. Personally, I think it's a matter of adaptation. I also think that it's interesting to keep in mind that the absolute world-record in endurance running of the Olympics was set (and never broken to this date) many years ago by an Ethiopian runner who apparently never heard of "the wall" or the "man with the hammer". All his life he lived and trained on a low-carb diet. He simply wasn't familiar with the concept of "the Wall" where performance and endurance drops to zero as a result of severe muscle-fatigue and/or cramps. Subsequent scientific research proved that his metabolism was perfectly adapted to a high-fat, low-carb diet and he set a incredible endurance world-record on it, which to this very day never has been broken.

8/19/2007 7:52 PM  
Blogger mrfritznyc said...

science, do you know the Ehtiopian runner's name?

8/20/2007 7:26 AM  
Blogger Charles said...

I'm going to post on this in the forum when I finish digesting Anthony Colpo's research, but this really isn't about performance. It's about TRAINING. In the words of the great Olympian Gorden Pirie, "the goal of training is to race, not more training." That's why so many athletes end up injured because they are simply training too hard.
These people are concerned with training because they are under the mistaken impression that more training leads to better results. Yes, a low carb diet can prevent you from sustaining performance from day to day, but that also indicates that perhaps we need to investigate the training model. Training that requires you to turn to sugar is too frequent. When you experience fatigue and over training, you need to back off and come back when you recover. The goal of training is to race, not additional training! Most coaches and world class athletes are beginning to recognize the value of hard/easy workouts and cutting back on training. Many athletes never get to the starting line because they're so worn out with the ridiculous training regimens.

8/20/2007 5:15 PM  
Blogger Science4u1959 said...

Hi Mr. Fritz,
It was Mamo Wolde, in 1968, who won the marathon. Not only was the thirty-six-year-old runner the oldest man ever to win this prestigious event, he did it in a time that has not been bettered to this day.

8/21/2007 1:04 AM  
Anonymous Milko Georgiev said...

All my athletes eat high-fat and low-carb. All of them are national champions of Bulgaria in long jump, high jump, triple jump, 100m sprint, taekwondo, badminton, soccer, basketball, volleyball, biking, swimming and so on.

I eat HFLC since 2002.

12/08/2009 11:03 AM  

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