Note: This is a guest post from Johnny B. Truant, of JohnnyBTruant.com.
I’ve got way too much going on.
First of all, I’m a budding endurance athlete. I decided to train for my first marathon last fall, and spent a long Ohio winter clocking runs in the freezing cold before the sun was up.
Second, I’m a seasoned athlete in other fields. I play a few sports when I get the chance; I’m a recreational powerlifter (I’m casually strong but not competition-strong with a max deadlift of 475); I’m a recreational Olympic lifter; I’m getting pretty serious about yoga; I’ve done a lot of Crossfit; I’ve dabbled in crazy stuff like strongman, parkour, and gymnastics.
Third, I’d like to lose a bit of weight — maybe 10-15 pounds. This is my narcissism goal. I’m lean enough now that this represents the fabled “last few pounds,” which are notoriously difficult to banish.
But the trickiest part of this complex amalgam is item number four: I’m an insulin-dependent diabetic.
Training and diet are hard enough by themselves. Add the need to fuel for performance while losing body fat (and add to THAT a desire to balance endurance with strength and to keep blood sugars steady) and pretty soon you’re tracking enough variables that it’s akin to getting a degree in nutritional biochemistry… or perhaps launching a spacecraft.
I’ve got too much going on, but there’s a big upside to all of it.
Diabetes — and the need to check blood sugar and measure insulin doses — means that I can tell when I’m screwing things up. I can tell when I’m taking in too much fuel, or when I’m woefully under-recovering after an activity. These are things that you non-blood-sugar-monitoring nondiabetics may never know.
And guess what? Those things you don’t know are dangerous. The bad things that are happening when you don’t recover properly are dangerous to your workout capacity, to your ratio of lean mass to fat mass, to your energy levels, and even to your health.
But it’s cool. Fortunately, I’m happy to share what I’ve learned as a diabetic with the insulin-producing crowd. I’m cool like that.
A primer in diabetes, blood sugar, diet, and what it means to you
When I started running last fall, weird crap started happening to my blood sugars.
See, exercise is supposed to lower blood sugar. You exercise, your cells need fuel, and so glucose moves from your blood into the cells. Exercise also enhances insulin sensitivity, meaning that less insulin is required to lower blood sugar.
But what actually happened to me was that my sugars would stay down during a run, but then afterward would explode upward and stay there all day, totally resistant to my efforts to lower them.
At the time, I was experimenting with the “Slow-Carb Diet” from Tim Ferriss’s book The 4-Hour Body. And why not? It was a fat-loss diet, and its goal is to keep blood sugar levels steady. For nondiabetics, this meant preventing insulin spikes, and for me, it would mean preventing blood sugar spikes that required me to take more insulin. Less blood sugar variability? Win. Less insulin? Win. More fat used for energy and less sugar stored as fat? Win.
And a lot of the time, it was a “win” situation. My blood sugars were rock-solid. I used a lot less insulin. My energy levels felt good, and I spontaneously gave up coffee during the week as an interesting side effect.
But when I went running, it all fell apart.
I couldn’t run for more than a few miles without totally running out of gas. My sugars became erratic throughout the day. After running, I got the blood sugar spikes I’ve mentioned. And, interestingly, I didn’t lose any fat at all. But something was changing in my body composition, and I knew it when my masseuse commented that it did look like I’d lost weight.
“Here,” she said, touching my tricep. “And here,” she added, touching my hamstring.
Muscles. Getting smaller.
So I started reading. Calling people, like my doctor. Talking to trainers. I’d fought hard to gain that muscle, and I’ll be damned if I was going to give it up — while keeping my stubborn fat — without a fight. While, by the way, losing control of my blood sugars.
People run marathons and triathlons all the time. I wasn’t willing to stop training. I wanted to know what was happening. and eventually, through trial and error, I did.
Let’s just say this: You know how you hear that you should fuel up before, during, and especially after a workout?
Well, it’s true. It’s very, very true.
How to lose performance and lean tissue
I was doing the Slow-Carb Diet because of its great effects on my blood sugars, so I tried to eat well during non-workout periods and to fuel my workouts where possible with lower-carb sources: vegetables, nuts, maybe beans or hummus. Or, I wouldn’t really eat much at all around workouts. My reasoning was that if I could get through the workout and feel okay, there wasn’t much need for fuel.
But what I realized eventually was that it was this very under-fueling of my workouts that was the reason for the blood sugar spikes.
And I thought: UNDER-fueling is causing SPIKES?
This seemed ridiculous. A rise in blood sugar, in my experience, always came from food. You drink a glass of juice or eat a potato, your blood sugar will spike. You then release (or in my case, inject) insulin to move that sugar somewhere else. Your blood sugar returns to normal; the juice or potato goes into storage, and life goes on.
So if I wasn’t eating much — and particularly not starches and sugars — then where was all of that blood sugar coming from?
Answer: It was coming from me. From my lean mass — exactly the place I didn’t want it coming from.
See, your body won’t simply “do without” the fuel it needs. It also won’t effectively pull calories from your fat stores if you’re out of carbs and sugars (more on that later). So if you’re not fueling up properly and you’re exercising with any real vigor, your body is getting that fuel, and it’s getting it from your lean tissues.
So pay attention, because this is a pretty important point: If you’re not giving your body what it needs to operate effectively, then your workout is eating you alive.
Most of what follows comes out of The Paleo Diet for Athletes , which I happened upon at our local Barnes & Noble. What was crazy was that through trial and a whole lot of error, I had reached the same conclusions as the authors of the book had. It was as if these guys had stolen all of my findings, but had backed them up with actual science instead of random anecdotes.
(By the way, I’m a meat-eater, so I take Paleo as written. But you can do the Paleo diet as a vegetarian, or you can take the principles from the workout chapters of this book (where the rules change) and ignore the parts that deal with “normal Paleo” and still get the point I’m making here.)
The diet you eat most of the time is up to you. I chose Paleo, but the debate over which diets are healthiest outside of the “workout window” is a discussion for another post. What we care about here is that window.
And here are the three parts of the window:
The goal before you begin is to ensure that your glycogen stores are topped off. In my own experiments, I actually found that (don’t judge me) Pop Tarts worked best. I’ll be changing that habit now that I understand all of this better, but it did the job.
Think carbs, but try to keep them to a few hours before your workout or immediately before. If you have a bunch of carbs in that in-between time, your body will respond with a big insulin spike and cause a bout of low blood sugar, which won’t help you out at all in the energy department.
2. Peri-workout (fancy term for “during”)
I actually nailed this one almost exactly myself through trial and error, but science backed me up. There are variants on how best to refuel during an endurance workout or event for different durations, and The Paleo Diet for Athletes spells them all out. But, in brief:
For workouts under 60-90 minutes, you probably don’t need anything during the workout itself because your glycogen stores will be sufficient to carry you through. So, you can just drink water.
For longer workouts, you’re going to need to try to keep up with your rapidly-depleting glycogen stores by taking in sugars during a workout, preferably in the form of a sports drink. If you don’t, expect a hard bonk when your stores run out.
You have about 30 minutes immediately after a long workout in which to give your body the carbs it needs to start refilling your glycogen stores. The authors of that book I keep mentioning recommend 0.75 grams of carbohydrate per pound of body weight, plus around 1/4 as much protein. (You need the protein to repair the muscle you just damaged during your workout.) This “immediate post-workout” nutrition is best consumed in the form of a recovery drink rather than solid food.
In addition, for workouts or events longer than 60-90 minutes and up to four hours long, spend as much time feeding recovery as the workout lasted. So if you ran for three hours, you’d have your immediate recovery drink in the 30 minutes right after you finished, and then generally carb-up and replenish protein for an additional 2.5 hours.
I didn’t use this level of precision originally. When I was figuring this stuff out on my own, I just ate a bunch of normally forbidden foods (and took a lot of insulin) afterward because I was so hungry. What I found was totally consistent with this idea of a window in which you’re just tossing everything into the creation of new glycogen, though.
After a long run (2 hours or more), I could essentially do no wrong as far as blood sugar was concerned for a few hours after finishing running. It was like I had a buffer. Instead of playing that delicate balancing game of matching incoming starch and sugar with insulin, it was as if all those carbs just vanished and didn’t spike my blood sugar at all.
And of course, it turns out that that’s exactly what was happening. I was refilling glycogen stores. Why would those carbs hang out in my blood? They had places to go.
So that’s what you do.
But here’s why you need to do it.
Carbs = good
See, I eventually stumbled and flailed to the conclusion that for me as a diabetic, I could and should do some form of low-sugar, low-starchy carbs diet (at the time Slow-Carb, today Paleo), but that I’d need to break the rules of that diet during the times surrounding long endurance workouts.
Once I figured this out and started fueling properly before, during, and after my runs, all of my issues went away. I no longer had the blood sugar spikes and my workouts felt great.
The problem I had with Slow-Carb was that it’s a diet meant for people who want to lose weight without having to exercise. Ditto the normal version of Paleo, and ditto most low-carb diet books and plans.
But there’s more. These diets are designed to help people lose weight without exercising, but the P.S. is that too much exercise will work against them.
Here’s what I mean:
The thought behind lower-carb plans is: Deprive the body of dietary glucose, and it will turn to fat as a source of energy.
But we’re endurance athletes. And the truth for us is: The body needs glucose to function during exercise (under most circumstances).
For me — and for anyone who wants to avoid the carb roller coaster while still fueling workouts — the trick is to find a way to combine the blood-sugar-equalizing benefits of lower-carb diets with the higher-carb needs of an athlete.
Hang on tight. This is where things start to get geeky.
If you’re taking in adequate carbs in your diet, your body will store dietary glucose in reserve as glycogen until your glycogen stores are full. You might have 1500 to 2000 calories stored this way, and all of that energy is ready for use when you need it during a workout session. If your session is short and if you begin fully loaded up on glycogen, you will have sufficient glycogen to fuel you during the workout. If your workout is long, you will eventually run out. And if your reserves are low to begin with, you run out very fast — which is what happens if your diet is one intended to deplete glycogen stores (like most low-carb diets).
When you run out of glycogen, you bonk.
When this happens, your body will try to burn fat for fuel. The problem is that this process is slow and inefficient, and also doesn’t work right when you’re totally glycogen-depleted. There’s a saying that goes “fat burns in a carbohydrate fire,” which means that you can only efficiently use fat for fuel if it’s being used in addition to glucose from glycogen.
But if you don’t bonk?
Then, by the end of a workout exceeding 60-90 minutes, you’re pretty glycogen-depleted. As soon as you stop moving and rest, your body scrambles to recover, to make repairs, and to refill those glycogen stores. So it needs carbs, stat. If you don’t provide them, it’s going to start taking them from wherever it can. (This was the source of my huge glucose spikes. Diabetics, who self-administer insulin, simply can’t control one of these panic glucose-producing spikes the way a nondiabetic can.)
If you want to perform well as an endurance athlete, establish and keep a favorable body composition, and be able to recover fully between workouts so that you don’t burn out, your goal should be to top off glycogen stores and to keep them topped off until you need them.
But, over-eating starchy carbs does seem to be a sure-fire recipe for fat gain, so the trick is to get in and get out. Refill the carb stores at the right time, then back off.
But… is it REALLY necessary?
Can you get away without optimal recovery nutrition? Sure. People do it all the time, and that’s part of the problem.
If you can’t see what’s happening (say, by uncoupling the sugar-insulin hormonal connection and having to do it all manually, like I do), you’ll feel as if most of the time, you sail through fine. You’ll feel okay, and you’ll have done the run. You won’t know what’s happening inside. You won’t know that you’re robbing lean tissue to try and recover, and you won’t know that you’re less than repaired when your next session rolls around.
If you don’t recover properly, you’ll be spent when you begin your next workout. Eventually, you’ll suffer performance declines and burnout. You’ll lose muscle to waste that you’d do better keeping. You’ll run on fumes when you could be sailing.
I’m lucky. When I tried to cheat on recovery, I got immediate feedback in the form of out-of-control blood sugars. You might not have that feedback… but trust me, the damage is there.
Questions? Comments? Let’s hear ’em! (People are always asking me about business and marketing, so I’d love a chance to discuss this stuff for a change.)