I’m currently studying nutritional therapy, and one of my big interests-of course-is sports nutrition. However, I find the sector to be a bit of a minefield, with a huge range of varying opinions on all sorts of topics, particularly in terms of pre/post workout nutrition.
I have always been of the opinion that long distance endurance activity of any type is best fueled with carbs, carbs before hand, carbs during, carbs with some protein for recovery. Carbo-loading-which I love-for days before a race. Lately I’ve come across a lot of information that has challenged this view, so I’ve been trying to do some research and get my head around this area.
Initially my interest was peaked in the carb vs. fat debate when I listened to the marathon talk episode with nutritionist Barry Murray. Although he comes from a paleo perspective that isn’t really in line with my views in dietary terms, what he was saying about being fat adapted actually made a lot of sense to me. Basically he suggested that anything that is long endurance steady state based rather than high intensity is fueled by our own body fat stores, and if we pump our bodies with carbs beforehand and during we are affecting our bodies ability to access and burn these fat stores. This really makes a lot of sense when you think about it, as our body can only store limited amounts of carbohydrates, but we have a much bigger store of fat.
I went to a talk by Shona Thomson a while back at Ellis Brigham Mountain Sports, and again her PT David Arnot suggested that anything endurance based needs to be fuelled with fat- great more nut butter I thought!! Of course I need to be careful nutrition wise because of my Vegan diet to ensure I’m getting all my nutritional needs met, but I don’t see any reason why I couldn’t switch to trying to become more fat adapted. Of course I’m never going to make the complete jump to being fully fat adapted as that requires a total diet overhaul, and ultimately for me I love carbs, and they provide me with so many nutrients for my Vegan diet, however I am hoping that tweaking the way I fuel before and during a run might have benefits, particularly in longer distance races.
Over the last few months (when I have been running) I have been gradually trying to incorporate things on this front to try and get my body switched over into fat burning mode. Instead of having fuel before every single workout, I now try and run shorter low intensity workouts on no fuel first thing in the morning. It’s a hard thing to get your head round initially because the habit is so engrained. I found it tough at first because I don’t tend to eat late at night and usually wake up hungry, so it’s taken a while to get used to just heading straight out the door. If I am super hungry then I try to have a spoon of coconut oil, instead of grabbing some dates or a banana like I used to.
For longer runs I find that getting out of the habit of eating porridge is a hard one, as it has always worked for me, and is part of the pre-long run routine. I have stopped taking on extra fuel during runs though, and have run up to 12 miles without any extra gels or anything else during the run, again it’s just about getting used to it, and getting out of the mindset that you need fuel just because it’s what you’ve always believed to be true. It’s just about realising that the body has enough fuel to sustain you, but you just need to access it, and by constantly taking in carb/sugar before a workout this process is blocked.
I think it’s a long process to switch over and get your body used to doing something differently, and ultimately it’s just something I’m testing out to see how it works. I don’t believe in approaches being one size fits all, and I think everyone should do what works for them, so whether that is fuelling with carbs or fat do what is right for you. I’ll be really interested once I get back to running properly injury free, whether I notice any real benefits or differences by trying to make the switch.
Thoughts on fuelling with carbs vs fat?