When High-Carb Diets Don't Work: Diet and Athletic Training Part 3

This is Part 3 of a three part series on diet and athletic training.
Part 1
Part 2

Laura: "Remember when you ran your first marathon? You looked emaciated back then."

Following our last post on the advantages of a high-carb/low-fat diet, we're going to talk today about a primary disadvantage of this diet: it tends to fail when used along with a heavy-duty training regimen.

Like I said last week, I took the Eat to Win lifestyle to heart while I was training for my first marathon. And during the first few months of training, when I was ramping from very light mileage to perhaps 20 miles a week, this diet worked fantastically. I had never felt better.

Moreover, this was back in my broke grad student days too, so the cost of the diet (or lack thereof) resonated with me as well. I was eating my quasi-vegetarian diet and having modest portions of meat perhaps once or twice a week. Normally this wouldn’t be a big problem if I had been overweight or was undertaking light to moderate exercise.

But I was not overweight to begin with, and I was training for a marathon. I was getting a little bit carried away with the pasta, quite frankly, and I wan't eating enough protein or fat. But why should I? I had never felt this fit before.

Unfortunately, things began to break down as I went above the 25 miles per week mileage level (this is the realm of medium-to-heavy distance training for a first-time novice marathoner). I simply didn’t respect the fact that I wasn’t taking in enough protein and fat for my body to maintain muscle mass and rebuild itself from training.

Don’t get me wrong, I was still fit. My body fat levels were lower than ever before, my resting pulse was 48 beats a minute, and my blood pressure numbers would typically be something like 107/57.

But I started to find myself struggling through runs. I had some training injuries, including a badly pulled calf muscle, and I was much more susceptible to getting sick. I caught a cold in September, and I came down with a bad case of bronchitis a week or two after finishing the marathon itself.

And therein is the primary “con” argument against high-carb/low-fat diets, especially when taken to an extreme, like I did: You just can’t cut your fat and protein intake down to a bare minimum while you’re under an aggressive endurance training regimen.

Because I too rigidly embraced a complex carbohydrate-based diet, my body wasn’t able to restore itself, and it wasn’t able to protect itself from injuries. You’ve got to replace what your body breaks down. When you are doing heavy, strenuous, and long term physical training, your body will be breaking down its fat cells and muscle cells. You have to ingest more protein--and yes, fat too--in order to replenish what your body is burning off.

This doesn’t mean you should head back to the junk food aisle and pick up a dozen bags of Doritos, but it does mean that you can and should take in more lean meats, perfectly boiled eggs, and even consider an occasional Polish kielbasa breakfast like the one we discussed the other day. During my heaviest training weeks for my second and third marathons, I actually drank soy- and whey-based protein shakes every day. This made an enormous difference in my overall strength, endurance and health--although I was kind of disappointed that I somehow never developed a body quite like the musclebound guy on the cover of the protein mix box.

The real lesson here is that everything (diet-wise or otherwise) must be done in moderation. For me, that meant listening to my body and thinking about my diet in the context of of the intensity of my exercise routine.

And that's the great thing about exercise, whether you do moderate workouts three times a week or if you’re doing heavy endurance training 5-6 days a week. It teaches you to pay attention to your body and give it what it needs, rather than shoveling food in first and asking questions later.


Kris said...

Thanks for the link, Daniel! And great post, as usual.

Daniel said...

Thank you Kris! Thanks for reading and for the positive vibes.