Nutrition as a Modifier
It’s well known that routine in the repeated sense, regarding physical fitness soon leads to stagnation. We have figured out over our essentially short existence that stress is the father of progress, and adaptation occurs when and if the cruel mistress compensation appears. No athletic endeavor is under taken without this sort of ebb and flow. We are told to eat for performance; high quality food, timed correctly with proper macronutrient proportion, in appropriate amounts usually does the trick, don’t forget to dogmatize with the appropriate amount of elitism. That pretty much sums up what thousands of Internet gurus scream at each other in varying ways in daily battles hosted by an online comments box.
Eating is a tool, and like any other tool it can be wielded correctly to manipulate a higher level of adaptation. I’ve seen a few posts here and there about “fat adaption”, I have even mentioned it in a previous article. But most of what I see is just a cult-like approach to diet that uses scientific references to be carb-phobic. Like any other stimulus when we apply routine the outcome is generally stagnation. So why is it that your physical protocol is constantly varied but your nutrition is a carbon copy of the day before? I understand it may be scarier than just switching up what type of protein powder source you use, but the risk comes with many rewards. Applied correctly it should be easy to adapt to specific goals such as, fat adaptation, increased glycogen storage, hormone adjustment, mass loss, fat loss, improvement of lactic buffering, the list goes on, you might as well just say “performance”. The similarities in properties that you can manipulate mirror that of physical training, which is the reason we should not ignore their use.
The basics of understanding how to use diet and recovery as fitness modifiers starts with knowing the direction of the application. Depending on the sport I generally see protein use predominantly pre-workout to ensure protein synthesis can occur after we break down the fiber through exercise. This practice in itself has taken quite a while to catch on, as those that know very little still use protein after stress, which is too late to influence the immediate signal for protein synthesis. In endurance sports we use CHO to fill glycogen stores prior to training. As some camps have caught on to and encourage training on empty in order to adapt more fat utilization. This style was even popular in some bodybuilding circles for cutting weight before competition. In general for recovery purposes, we know that an easily available source of CHO/protein approximately 3:1 post workout effectively helps the recovery response especially when ingested within 45 minutes of training. All of these are correct and none of them are correct, It’s like exercise selection, it depends. The thought of “why?” controls the means. I notice a trend in most “fitness sport” athletes to be chronically glycogen depleted; this isn’t necessarily a bad thing unless you leave it unfulfilled going into competition. Drink all the GU you want, on the day your body will be unfamiliar with the process, and most likely reject it. This is easy to explain, as the aesthetic of fitness is a big draw, to do this most cut CHO as a way of reducing easy calories in order to “look” fit or their Diet brand hasn’t elaborated use of any CHO besides sweet potatoes. What they have actually accomplished is a signal to the body that CHO is alien and its usage will be treated as such. Glycogen storage is an adaptable feature and likewise a perishable ability. On another spectrum always training with glycogen will lessen your ability to use fat, so when the glycogen empties, and it most likely will if the event is long enough, or the events numerous enough the lights go out, proverbially.
This subject can get complex and is in no way fully understood, when first hearing of it it may all seem confusing. When I first explain this process to people their first reaction is panic, like they’ve done something wrong their entire life. They feel like they have the urge to flip and eat in a completely opposite manner, this would be wrong. Liken it to having never lifted weights as a runner, if I suggested lifting some weights and explained the benefits you would not stop running all together to reap the adaptations from lifting, you would simply add a day or two a week and see what happens. And just like that process it would be slight, over time though the benefits seep through, you become more adapted to the signals you send. If you’ve sent the signal to train on empty enough eventually it becomes normal. And that’s really what expression we are looking for, for each and every scenario to feel normal: empty, fed, full, depleted, given nutrients to recover and taking them away. The key here is planning nutrition to act as a modifier for physical training, which means it is neutral until we push it in a specific direction. The most common example of this is with fat adaptation, reduce the overall amount of CHO during a given block of training, more so before workouts, and your body will respond temporarily with a signal to use a different form of fuel (fat). Do this too often and the body will start to regulate the “top-end’ of performance as the limited storage of glycogen becomes more and more apparent, and the energy systems’ fuel source less and less available. Like anything in training if you hit the button frequently enough you risk overturning the original signal into an opposite one. To compare monotonous behavior you might attempt maxing out on a certain lift every day. Eventually the signal sent would no longer be “get strong” it will just be “survive”, the reaction from the body is to persevere. Muscle fiber and neurological recruitment will cease and the opposite will occur. In much of a similar pattern "over-recovering" can dull the signal sent and lead to little or even no progress. Stimulate the body in a way that is progressive and compensated for with recovery, and that signal becomes a feeling for the body to see as normal. This action of periodization is well understood, it’s just that the action of nutritional stress is not so direct, and the adaptation less known.
We might also examine post-workout nutrition. We can use the depletion of glycogen to our advantage by pushing a stimulus another direction. By avoiding recovery between training sessions we can ultimately increase the stress of the next workout without risking increasing intensity or having to progress the workload. Eventually the piper needs to be paid but when used in an intelligent manner you multiply the tools available for adapting to specific fitness abilities. Numerous different sources have touted the benefits of recovery practices, and I have to agree it has its place. But the common overly sold idea that you cannot “over-recover” is a shot gun approach to training and is simply being ignorant of what our body actually adapts to…which is stress. This counts for just about every modality out there, starting with nutrition. We can easily prove our body’s ability to become more efficient with various macronutrients as we pull them out of the diet. Our bodies have an excellent way of taking small negative doses and composing a better version of ourselves. Likewise our bodies can nullify the effects of a positive stimulus just as easily. Recovering is the only way we can actually adapt to the stress we expose ourselves to, but we limit the work we put in by trying to needlessly extinguish it through excessive routine. The trick is controlling and pushing the antagonists in the proper direction and at the right times, using the tools of nutrition to increase our ability to adapt. Most endurance adaptations occur off of the process of oxidation, this exchange causes leaps and bounds in the ability to limit fatigue. We all but kill the process by nutritionally dosing ourselves in super-copious amounts of anti-oxidants. If with too much regularity Icing reduces the inflammation we incurred from training what good will the ice provide when we need to actually increase recovery between events of a real competition? We also have to realize that our bodies have adapted over the past few million years, and in doing so have a reason to be “inflamed”. Cutting this process down by NSAID use and ice is arrogantly taking the helm of a process that works in a certain order and for a reason.
Training and preparation for specific sporting goals requires a plethora of stimulus. It should be all but obvious that our bodies need constant but consistent fluctuation across the board in order to take advantage of hormesis. Learning to use all tactics and tools in correct order is a huge undertaking, and could quite possibly take a lifetime to comprehend. As the science to “why” and “what” are behind actual sporting usage by nearly a decade, we must be careful with our antidotal experience, but also persistent in the exploration and use of unconventional training ideas. There is not one “package-deal”, no “magic” workout and for sure not an exact diet that should be followed; there are just various actions/reactions that we might try and harness in order to move in the direction we hope to.