When everything else is equal, nutrition can make the difference between winning and losing so why do so many athletes get this area so very wrong? It is well substantiated in research that the food we eat not only affects our health and well-being but also has a direct influence on performance and recovery in a positive or negative way. So many of today’s athletes get consumed with marketing driven fads and strive for quick fixes or worse still drive to achieve a perceived performance gain that may not actually benefit actual performance such as blunt top end weight loss (under fuelling with weight loss from muscle not fat) or bragging to say I’ve just ridden a hundred kilometres on two water bottles when it’s clearly not delivering the required and sustained results.
We rarely hear an athlete come back from a ride saying I killed that ride because I fuelled based on my energy availability and recovery goals. More importantly, what we should hear (which is more common in our athletes at The Nadura Clinic) is hearing “I fuelled that ride with the right fuel type and the right amount based on the intensity and volume of that specific session” and based on what I’m trying to achieve from this session.
Let’s get a better understandings of energy metabolism
Energy metabolism involves a host hormonal & neurotransmitter cascades, that allow the athletes body to utilise energy from foods in the form of carbohydrates, fats and proteins. Carbohydrates and fats are particularly important for extended endurance. Mitochondria allow for the conversion of food energy in a usable form, ATP. The presence of oxygen enables mitochondria to utilise more efficient aerobic respiratory biochemical pathways. This results in a greater energy output than anaerobic pathways. Exercise intensity has an impact on the predominant macronutrient used for energy.
- Fat is the predominant source of energy at low/moderate intensity exercise
- Carbohydrate is favoured at higher intensity activity.
Yet most of the athletes initially presenting to our clinics are solely fuelling from sugar and not accessing fat/lipid stores. The body has a limited store of liver and muscle glycogen circa 1700 but has an estimated 60,000 available calories from fat. This fuelling process can be trained and we will touch on this later.
So our energy availability (calories in vs calories out) is made up of what we need at rest (BMR basal metabolic rate) to enable normal bodily function plus how we fuel our general activity such a work and exercise performance. So, individual volume based on what the athlete has on any given day insuring that they understand that it’s not the same every day either in volume or timing of food. The food choices we make as athletes must be based on its hormonal effect at the level of the muscle, mainly insulin.
Without doubt the biggest presenting condition to our clinics is for under fuelling because of
- Marketing driven fads delivered by unqualified individuals or keyboard warriors
- Poor eating habits and avoidance behaviour
- Skipping meals for weight loss
- Un-aware under eating issues due to confusion with fasted training or dietary fads. i.e. laziness to have breakfast and calling it “intermittent fasting” or undertaking a three hour ride with no fuel and calling it a fasted ride.
- Poor recovery and rest day nutrition
- Poor nutritional knowledge and confusing binging with volume of calories
- Inadequate preparedness and cooking knowledge
- Digestive issues
- Poor energy levels and fatigue
- Immune system dysregulation
- Muscle breakdown and fat storage (skinny fat) leading to a drop off in watts per kg
- Sub optimum performance
- Low mood and poor motivation to train
- Not achieving season goals or targets
The macro debate fat Vs carb
For many years there was a rife debate between the high carb and low carb/keto camps regarding the correct way to fuel endurance performance. We have seen many really good athletes over the years who have gotten this very wrong and presented to clinic with many of the above conditions only to tell us that they had altered their diet and were now experiencing the negative effects of that change in both home life and performance.
As a nutritionist at The Nadura Clinic, I never adhered to any specific diet plan or solely focused on any one fuel type as I was always more focused in the concept of “metabolic flexibility” or “fueling for the work required” and applying the concept of nutrient timing and periodisation to the individual athlete based on the needs and limitations of each specific athlete. The concept of metabolic flexibility allows our athletes to fuel from fat when required, carbohydrate when required and switch between these fuel sources depending on intensity. I initially learned of this concept in 2015 from the fantastic work of Dr. Mike T Campbell USA and later seen the practical application by Dr. James Morton and is the basis of our initial plan in clinic.
What’s more important to me is always the athlete that’s in front of me and their consistency and improvement in performance year on year. In collaboration with many of the leading coaches we regularly test the athlete to ensure progression and have been lucky to have a busy phone on a Sunday evening, positive weekend results and not the Monday morning autopsy. Many of the before mentioned camps have now adopted this concept, after seeing many of their athletes with bouts of fatigue, muscle loss, immune suppression and ultimately a negative progression to poor performance.
Understanding Fuel Type & Adaptation
Many athletes and coaches (in the coaches defense they are not nutritionists, like we’re not coaches) across the globe have a massive lack of understanding with one critical word “adaptation”. This lack of understanding leads to many critical errors in training and fueling performance. Thinking that just because they add fat to their diet and eliminate carbohydrate means that they are fat adapted, and the body is fueling from fat which it’s not. Similarly, just because they add a fasted ride to their training plan that they are fueling from fat without taking into account any adaptative process or understanding of a heart rate zones low enough to achieve fat utalisation during exercise. Also, they do not take into account physical load outside of training. When I refer to physical load, I mean stress away from sport, a physically demanding job that has a huge calorie requirement or current health issues such as autoimmunity like IBS, IBD, inflammatory skin eruptions, arthritic flair immune suppression, regular URTI or hormone imbalance which are all so, so common in endurance athletes due to the nature and demands of our sport. Typically, they will lose weight quite quickly, usually from lean muscle mass, water loss or residue from the intestines, but typically see fat levels stay the same or even slightly increased due to the body dropping lean muscle. This is often the initiation of the progression of performance decline confirmed by FTP, critical power test or similar performance indicators with the coach or ultimately by sickness that will just totally shut down training. Now in any of the before mentioned athletes if you reduce a major fuel source such as carbohydrate incorrectly without adaptation it will have a disastrous outcome in both health and performance. A little like starting your pre-season base plan on the bike with Vo2 intervals on week one. This is one of the key reasons why many of the top coaches refer into our service at The Nadura Clinic. We are not coaches, we are nutritionists and our goal is not to affect the training plan but to fuel it.
Quite often we see athletes who can’t do without sugar off the bike trying to achieve a fasted ride which doesn’t make since to me nor to consistent fueling accuracy and adaptation progression. If you’re getting cravings your burning sugar and if you are burning sugar, you’re not sufficiently burning fat and you need to talk to us in clinic about the hormone insulin and balancing your blood sugars before you start trying to fuel from fat. Before you begin fasted training, learn how to manage blood sugars off the bike. This is something that we can quickly improve and show results in energy, body fat, performance and power to weight ratio within a relatively short period of time. This gives the athlete a massive amount of control and understanding of their own physiology and a better education on the demands of their sport leading to much better adherence and compliance to our programs at The Nadura Clinic.
Science, testing and progression
So we have herd this so many times, what can be tested can be managed and as a progressive clinic we have always utalised the many areas of performance gains for our athletes to ensure our focus and direction is actually progressive and correct (such as athlete DNA testing, Vo2 max testing and metabolic testing and sports supplements/ergogenic aids). When it comes to specific fueling one of the biggest additions in the last number of years to help our clinic confirm the accuracy of our fueling model and get specific proof that the food that we put in our mouth is actually fueling the athlete’s specific performance (be that from fat or glycogen as required) is INSCYD testing (power performance decoder) which I initially had training on with John O Gorman from INSCYD over a year ago. INSCYD is a simple remote test completed by the coach that will measure exactly where the athlete stands “currently” with the ability to accurately project where the athlete could be in a few short months, with the correct training and fueling. Now with INSCYD the athletes threshold and training zones are more accurate than ever.
The test is completed remotely by the athlete either outside or via an indoor trainer. The file is returned, interpreted and reported on by the coach before being implemented into a targeted training plan by the coach and fuelled by the nutritionist delivering exceptional individual results in terms of a training & nutrition combination. As a nutritionist the biggest benefit here for our clinic was conformation that our model of fueling and nutrient timing was not only accurate but extremely effective in performance improvement and recovery and that each individual athlete has different needs in training and nutrition. But now we can actually assess energy metabolism and target both training and fuel.
INSCYD look at the following parameters
- VLA max – Glycolytic capacity
- Vo2 max – Max aerobic capacity
- Carbohydrate & Fat combustion rates
What this simply means to the athlete is that we can now more than ever accurately offer extremely tailored training programs based on the exact weakness of the athlete. We can help the athlete transition over to fueling to fat when needed and the enable the athlete become more metabolically flexible avoiding any of the sub-par consequences of low carb diet, instead achieving optimum periodisation with both glycogen and fat. We can fuel the programme more accurately than even before and regularly assess both performance gains and fueling over time.
It’s not good enough to do your best you need to know what to do and then do your best
The Nadura Clinic