How are athletes different?
It is important to appreciate that the needs of an athlete are potentially very different to that of an average exerciser. Conventional ‘sports nutrition’ is really focussed on nutrition for performance, as outlined in the first part of this series, with emphasis on fuelling up, keeping fuelled up and refuelling/recovering after, to maximise performance.
Whilst it may be appealing for some to consider themselves as athletes, and therefore in need of the same performance nutrition, the truth is that for most exercisers, this approach is, at best, counterproductive. Having read the previous section on periodisation of nutrition for exercise in athletes, it is not unreasonable to suggest that similar thinking is needed when considering what is appropriate for the “average exerciser”. Indeed, for most people who exercise, the goal is often one or more of the following: be healthier, get fitter, lose body fat/improve lean mass, lose or maintain weight.
All of these goals are related to the body’s ability burn energy and manage fuel (i.e. carbohydrate and fat), and are therefore similar to the conditioning phase of training in athletes mentioned in the previous section. Improving the muscle’s ability to utilise fat as a fuel will spare carbohydrate and improve endurance, but for the average exerciser, improving the ability to burn fat as a fuel importantly turns muscle in to a “metabolic sink” for the disposal of surplus energy/fat.
In this way, more surplus lipid (Non-esterified fatty acids (NEFA) and triglyceride rich lipoproteins (specifically VLDLs)) can be cleared and oxidised by muscle. This in turn can lead to improved metabolic health, (i.e. reductions in blood triglycerides and LDL, especially small dense atherogenic LDLs). At the same time, you are likely to get improvements in adiposity (body fatness), in particular reductions in visceral fat (around your organs) and ectopic fat (in your organs where it shouldn’t be), significantly improving your health.
Timing is everything
But exercise alone is not a guarantee of getting all this benefit, it depends on how you feed around this exercise, especially carbohydrate. In many ways the ethos of “training low” does apply to the average exerciser (see periodisation piece), but on a more basic level it is more important to avoid overdosing on carbohydrate.
When it comes to fuel hierarchy, carbohydrate will take preference over fat, so if you are constantly awash with carbohydrate and/or never diminishing your glycogen stores, then you will predominantly be burning carbohydrate instead of fat. That is not to say that you need to aggressively remove the carbohydrate altogether (such as a low carb, or ketogenic diet), but that you need to create, and adapt to, some carbohydrate deficit.
Exercise, by its nature will create some carbohydrate deficit, but feeding carbohydrate will alleviate this deficit. Whether you feed this before, during and/or after, you can be preventing the body’s need to use the alternative, back up fuel, fat. Hence all the benefits you get from becoming better at burning more fat in the short and long term.
In the next sections we will delve deeper in to this to explain how feeding effects benefits from exercise, and how men and women are not necessarily the same.
Gabriel BM, Zierath JR. The Limits of Exercise Physiology: From Performance to Health. Cell Metab. 2017 May 2;25(5):1000-1011. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.cmet.2017.04.018