Adopting a low-carbohydrate diet is not recommended as a long-term approach to a high-performance lifestyle. This is because carbohydrates are used as the primary and most efficient energy source while doing high-intensity physical efforts. Without carbohydrates, your body is forced to look elsewhere for energy, which takes more time and can cost you a winning result. Beyond performance, many carbohydrates are nutrient-rich and supply the body with B complex vitamins, fiber, folate and other micronutrients needed to maintain a high metabolism and good overall health.
While most sports nutrition professionals would agree to keep carbs in the diet, there are times when reducing this micronutrient could be beneficial in the short term.
Many people consume additional carbohydrates in the form of simple sugars to help fuel training. While this is a proven strategy to boost performance, it can cause ‘gut rot.’ This is a form of gastrointestinal distress where a lack of quality nutrients and fiber causes the gut to be stripped of its healthy bacteria and leads to indigestion, diarrhea, bloating and contributes to overall poor health. If you’re experiencing this, it will be a good idea to cut back on these simple forms of carbohydrates for a time, maybe two weeks, to allow the gut to heal. During this time, consume more nutrient-rich foods and eat smaller amounts of carbohydrates from starchy vegetables.
For active individuals, carbohydrate needs are determined based on kilograms of body weight and daily volume of training being completed. Those doing more need to consume more, varying from 3g/kg/day to 12g/kg/day. Whether you’re a low-volume athlete, taking a rest, or in the offseason, it is appropriate to lower your carbohydrate intake accordingly. You might even find it beneficial to cycle your carbohydrate intake day to day if your training volume differs largely depending on day of the week. For example, the weekend warrior might want to lower intake of carbohydrate-rich foods during the work week and then ramp up the intake to provide energy for longer weekend activities.
Low glucose training is a fueling practice centered around the concept of training the body to use fat for energy. Theoretically, even a very lean body has endless supplies of stored fat which could provide longer lasting energy than carbohydrates can supply. For this to happen, carbohydrates cannot be present for immediate use. While less efficient, this strategy has potential for endurance and ultra-endurance athletes who need to maintain physical activity for prolonged stretches when carbohydrates might become unavailable or simply intolerable. To reap the benefits, an athlete must complete a hard training session fueled by carbohydrates, avoid any recovery carbohydrates, and then complete a second training session a few hours later in this state of depletion. The second workout suffers in performance, but forces the body to perform without its preferred energy source.
For every gram of carbohydrate your body stores, it brings along 3–4grams of water. This is great when your body needs to be hydrated and have energy ready to burn. However, if you’re trying to reduce puffiness or excess weight for a sport specific weigh-in (wrestling, pole vault, etc…) this is less than ideal as it translates into a higher total number on the scale. Cut back on carbohydrate (both simple and complex) intake for a couple days leading into the weigh-in to help shed excess water weight. Remember to refuel with carbs as soon as the weigh-in is over to help regain last-minute energy to fuel the performance.
Make progress every day while you work on mini fitness and nutrition goals, like walking more steps or learning to track macros. Go to “Plans” in the MyFitnessPal app for daily coaching and easy-to-follow tasks to keep you motivated.