Are carbs the enemy? Or are they king? Top Performance Nutritionist David Dunne explains why they are in fact both, depending on the context of course, as he introduces you to the topic of carbohydrate periodisation.
Imagine understanding your nutrition; wouldn’t that be great? You know the simple things, like knowing why you chose an omelette over a bowl of porridge for breakfast, or even why you had breakfast at all. The crazy thing is, there has actually never been a more difficult time to do so. Sensationalised headlines continue to dominate the nutrition sections of magazines and newspapers offering quick fixes and new diets to improve your performance and physique. Couple this with the rapid growth of social media and the surge in content and (mis)information generated by users and unqualified bloggers and you can see why nutrition has become far more complicated and confusing than it needs to be!
This is, however, where I hope the first in my series of articles for This Space can help! My aim is to break down the science and deliver clear, strategic and effective nutrition and lifestyle advice that can not only improve your performance, but also aid your weight loss endeavours and physique goals without causing you too much stress or hassle!
The first topic I want to tackle is one of the more taboo areas of nutrition, carbs. Instead of focusing on the flaws in various diets or fads, I want to introduce you to future of sports nutrition, periodisation.
What is Periodisation?
By definition the term periodised refers to a structured or planned process. For many of you who work closely with your PT or carefully plan your training, this will not be a new term. For decades athletes and individuals have, session by session, week by week, phase by phase, manipulated the specificity, intensity and volume of their workouts to maximise their training adaptation and performance. What you might not realize, however, is that your approach to nutrition should be no different.
The type, timing and total amounts of food you eat should be strategically adjusted day by day and meal by meal depending on what type of training you are doing, what the goal of that training is (e.g. adaptation vs performance), as well and the nature of your work/lifestyle (sedentary vs active).
Here we are going to focus on the purposeful periodising of carbohydrates to not only fuel personal best performances on a specific day but also amplify the adaptations initiated by your exercise or training!
Ok, so let’s start with performance! When it comes to endurance and high intensity exercise, carbs are still king. A solid 50 years of research has proven that carbs are your body’s number one high intensity and endurance fuel source and without them, or enough of them, your performance will suffer. So, if you play an intense sport, are an endurance athlete or regularly stare down the barrel of a super tough or lengthy WOD, carbs are the best fuel to limit fatigue and improve performance. The question comes in deciding whether performance in that session alone is your goal.
Fuelling the work required
Now this is where things get interesting. If performance in that given session is not the goal, meaning you are instead focused on improving your performance in the long term, then refraining from carbohydrates before, during and/or after the session may actually enhance the aerobic adaptations you are trying to achieve in the first place.
To explain this further I’ll need to take you on a trip down memory lane and remind you of a word you would’ve learned at school, mitochondria. Don’t panic, I’m going make this super easy! Mitochondria are your body’s energy producing factories. The more factories you have, the fitter or more endurance trained you become. The question is how can we build more factories in a time and work efficient manner? Well by deliberately restricting carbohydrate intake around your workouts you can amplify your training response to build more mitochondria, without increasing your workload in the gym! This is referred to as ‘Training Low’ and teaches your body to use fat for fuel.
How to train low
It is important to note there are a few specifics around training low. It is not only the meal before the session that determines whether you are “low” or not. It is determined by the preceding 24 hours. For example, if you eat high carb meals and snacks today it can top up your muscle glycogen (stored carbohydrate). This fuel will be readily available for your muscles in tomorrow’s session. So, even if you wake up tomorrow and have a low carb breakfast or even no breakfast, your muscles will still have plenty of carbs ready to fuel the workout.
Research has shown that performing a high intensity workout can deplete this stored carbohydrate. Completing a HIIT workout in the evening, followed by a low-carb dinner, such as a baked salmon fillet and green veggies – which provides plenty of protein and micronutrients to aid muscle repair and support immune function without topping back up your carbohydrate stores – helps you wake up in the morning with low glycogen stores so you are ready to use fat for fuel. Training in this nutritional state also places an additional stress on the working muscle helping you build more mitochondria. It may be tough to grind through that morning’s session (nothing a double espresso won’t help though), but in the long term you’ll receive a noteworthy boost to your endurance capacity corsetry of these new energy factories.
When carbs become essential
If you train low all the time your muscles learn to use fat efficiently but will struggle to use carbs. The problem here is that for race wins, WOD PB’s and man or woman of the match sports performances you need to be using carbohydrates for fuel, because that’s what makes you go fast and what fuels high intensity work and limits fatigue in endurance events. As a result it is crucial that we teach our bodies to use carbohydrate to fuel performance. Put simply if you don’t practice “Competing High”, you set yourself up for failure by doing something on race or competition day that your body simply isn’t trained for or efficient at doing.
That is, I admit, a lot of information to digest. But the take home message for those of you looking to shred some fat and improve your fitness whilst maintaining muscle is to borrow a term from Dr. James Morton of LJMU, the world’s leading researcher in this area – “fuel the work required, day by day and meal by meal”. Your outlook on carbs should not be black or white. It should be periodised to the context and requirements of your session, goals and day. A simple tool to use is a traffic light system, green (high carb), amber (medium carb) and red (low carb) which we will show you how to use in our upcoming seminars.
Sadly, specific recommendations on grams per kilo of bodyweight, loading and timings are all individual and beyond the scope of this article. I do, however, hope that the information here has done enough to spark some interest, as well as dispel some of the misinformation surrounding carbs. If it has and you want to find out more about this exciting training topic, and how you can personally periodise your diet, make sure you come along to the upcoming seminar series at Third Space.
For more facts, tips and recipes check out David’s social channels @thenutritionisr