By Dr Adam Collins, Form’s Head of Nutrition and Program Director for the MSc and BSc Nutrition courses at the University of Surrey. A qualified nutritionist for nearly 20 years Dr Collins is also a PhD in energy expenditure and body composition. His research interests lie in exercise nutrition, body composition, exercise intensity and energy balance, intermittent fasting and timing of food around exercise.
How Athletes Differ
It is important to appreciate that the needs of an athlete are potentially very different from those of an average exerciser. Conventional sports nutrition is really focussed on nutrition for performance – as outlined in the first parts of this series – with emphasis on fuelling up, keeping fuelled and refuelling/recovering after to maximise performance.
Though it may be appealing for some to consider themselves 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 everyman. 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 the aforementioned goals are related to the body’s ability to burn energy and manage fuel (carbohydrate and fat) and are therefore similar to the conditioning phase of training in athletes mentioned in the previous section. Improving the muscles’ 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 into a “metabolic sink” for the disposal of surplus energy and fat.
“In many ways, the ethos of ‘training low’ does apply to the average exerciser, but on a more basic level, it is more important to avoid overdosing on carbohydrate”
In this way, more surplus lipid (non-esterified fatty acids [NEFA] and triglyceride-rich lipoproteins [specifically VLDLs]) can be cleared and oxidised by muscle. In turn, this 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 fat); particularly reductions in visceral fat (that around your organs) and ectopic fat (in your organs), 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, 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 carbohydrates altogether as in low carb or ketogenic diets, 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 could be preventing the body’s need to use the alternative back-up fuel, fat, and thus losing 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 into this to explain how feeding affects the benefits you get from exercise, and how men and women are not necessarily the same.