Eat like an ath­lete

Keen to bor­row the nu­tri­tion prin­ci­ples of the world’s fittest bod­ies? Turns out time is your new se­cret weapon

Women's Health Australia - - CONTENTS - By Roisín Dervish-o’kane

What we con­sume is cru­cial to train­ing, but now when may be just as im­por­tant

Ever downed a pro­tein shake straight af­ter your work­out, be­fore you’d even left the gym? Per­haps you’ve for­gone the ba­nana and done your HIIT class hun­gry be­cause fasted work­outs are a thing, right? You, friend, have been dip­ping your toe into the pool of nu­tri­ent tim­ing: the idea that it’s not just about what and how much you eat, it’s when that makes all the dif­fer­ence.

While it’s a newish con­cept to most of us, nu­tri­ent tim­ing (of­ten re­ferred to as nu­tri­ent cy­cling) has been around since the early ’00s; based on some 50 years of re­search into the myr­iad ways dif­fer­ent macronu­tri­ents – pro­tein, carbs and fat – af­fect your body. The prin­ci­ples were first ap­plied at elite sport­ing level, where they helped the world’s fittest get shred­ded, and then fol­lowed the in­evitable dis­sem­i­na­tion into gym cul­ture. Ex­perts reckon this method could be the key to the body com­po­si­tion – and per­for­mance – you’ve al­ways wanted.

The most com­mon it­er­a­tion of nu­tri­ent tim­ing do­ing the rounds? Carb cy­cling.

“It es­sen­tially means scal­ing your car­bo­hy­drate in­take up and down in ac­cor­dance with your ac­tiv­ity lev­els,” ex­plains per­for­mance nutritionist Liam Holmes. He uses the prin­ci­ples of nu­tri­ent tim­ing to get elite ath­letes and Cross­fit en­thu­si­asts to their lean­est be­fore com­pe­ti­tions. “If you’re train­ing for an event – be it a cy­cling race or the Cross­fit open games – you’re go­ing to want to shed those last few per­cent­age points of body fat,” says Holmes. “Not only can ex­cess fat hold ath­letes back from their pre­ferred weight cat­e­gory, it makes body­weight ex­er­cises, like pull-ups, that much harder.”


So how is it done? Most ex­perts rec­om­mend a fasted train­ing ses­sion fol­lowed by car­bo­hy­drates. “The body works harder when it doesn’t have carbs as fuel, so it learns to be­come a more ef­fi­cient burner of the fuel once it is there,” ex­plains Holmes. “Eat­ing this way also means you’re more likely to be run­ning off your fat stores.”

The tech­nique is also favoured by nu­tri­tion coach Gil­lian Brun­ton, who says it sharp­ens the body’s sen­si­tiv­ity to in­sulin, a hor­mone made by the pan­creas that al­lows your body to use su­gar from car­bo­hy­drates as fuel. One method Brun­ton de­ploys to get her clients’ bod­ies more in­sulin-sen­si­tive – and ul­ti­mately more shred­ded – is carb back­load­ing. “Es­sen­tially, it means eat­ing carbs at night on the days you’ve done a fasted work­out in the morn­ing,” she says.

The sci­ence seems to stack up. In Is­rael, re­searchers at the He­brew Univer­sity of Jerusalem put par­tic­i­pants on a plan where they ate the ma­jor­ity of their carbs in the evening, be­fore analysing their hunger lev­els, body fat, waist cir­cum­fer­ence and blood-su­gar lev­els. Af­ter 180 days, they dis­cov­ered the group eat­ing carbs later lost more weight, more cen­time­tres around their mid­dle and were less hun­gry than those spread­ing their carbs through­out the day. Cru­cially, the base­line in­sulin lev­els of those eat­ing carbs later on was sig­nif­i­cantly lower, which led the re­searchers to con­clude that “ma­nip­u­lat­ing car­bo­hy­drate distri­bu­tion” could help im­prove in­sulin re­sis­tance.


If we’re talk­ing about timed nu­tri­ent in­take, isn’t pro­tein a thing, too? Early re­search on the im­pact of pro­tein on mus­cle growth and re­pair raised the idea of an ‘an­abolic win­dow’ – a time­frame within which pro­tein is op­ti­mally ab­sorbed – but the sci­ence has since moved on. A re­view by Cal­i­for­nia State Univer­sity con­cluded that the an­abolic win­dow had been over­stated and that the amount and qual­ity of the pro­tein was more im­por­tant than when it was eaten. “Tim­ing does mat­ter with pro­tein,” ar­gues sport and ex­er­cise sci­en­tist Dr Graeme Close. “Rather than be­ing squeezed into a win­dow, it should be sup­plied to mus­cles in small amounts ev­ery four to five hours, af­ter which mus­cle­pro­tein syn­the­sis – how your body re­builds its mus­cle tis­sue – just switches off.”


The ap­proach to nu­tri­ent tim­ing to­day is less pre­scrip­tive. Re­searchers writ­ing in the Jour­nal of the In­ter­na­tional So­ci­ety of

Sports Nu­tri­tion con­cluded the sci­ence it­self doesn’t dic­tate any hard-and-fast rules, and prac­ti­tion­ers should bridge these gaps with their ex­pert “ob­ser­va­tions and ex­pe­ri­ences”.

In re­al­ity, pro­fes­sional ap­proaches vary: Brun­ton keeps her clients’ pro­tein and fat lev­els steady while play­ing with the size of their carb in­take, while Holmes ‘see­saws’ the lev­els of fat and carbs, de­creas­ing the fat con­tent of a client’s meal plan dur­ing the high-carb phase to lessen their chances of overeat­ing on high-fat, high-carb foods.

When it comes to in­cor­po­rat­ing the per­for­mance nu­tri­tion hacks of the fit­ness elite into your own rou­tine, you’re es­sen­tially your own sci­ence ex­per­i­ment. To know what works – and what doesn’t – you’ll need ev­ery­thing ex­cept the macronu­tri­ent you’re play­ing with to re­main con­sis­tent. That means it’s vi­tal to have the nu­tri­tional foun­da­tions nailed first. “You need the three T’s: to­tal food, type of food and, only then, the tim­ing,” says Close. If you’re au fait with the fun­da­men­tals of fu­elling your train­ing – and you have a spe­cific event to strip fat for – by all means ex­per­i­ment with carb cy­cling, un­der the guid­ance of a nu­tri­tion pro­fes­sional. But ex­perts agree that set­ting a sus­tain­able plan to fuel your fit­ness should be your first pri­or­ity. “Fo­cus­ing on the tim­ing of your nu­tri­tion can work, but it also adds a layer of com­plex­ity to the busi­ness of achiev­ing lean and healthy body com­po­si­tion,” says Close. “For the ma­jor­ity of peo­ple, there’s re­ally no need to con­fuse the pic­ture.” Brun­ton agrees that it’s more im­por­tant to nail a healthy rou­tine – food, fit­ness and mind­set – be­fore at­tempt­ing to em­u­late ath­letes. “You can pay close at­ten­tion to the tim­ing, but if you’re eat­ing the wrong things – or do­ing the wrong work­outs – it won’t make a dif­fer­ence,” she says. The truth of the mat­ter is, you sim­ply can’t out-train a bad diet.

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