Originally posted by Dr. Davis on 2015-04-21
on the Wheat Belly Blog,
sourced from and currently found at: Infinite Health Blog.
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Wheat Belly for athletes
Many people have fallen into the trap of believing that carbohydrates are necessary for exercise. This is why you see marathoners and triathletes hosting pasta dinners the night before an event, while sponsors of high-sugar sports drinks and energy bars line up to tell them that their products enhance performance. But carb loading or carbs during exercise are not only unnecessary, they have harmful effects that eventually catch up with you—-despite years of engaging in the healthy practice of exercise.
It all started about 50 years ago when exercise researchers noted that, when athletes following an unrestricted diet were deprived of carbohydrates, exercise performance during the first week dropped: lower time to peak exhaustion, longer times to complete a specific biking, running, swimming or other task. This was corroborated many times and led to the belief that loading up on carbs before and during exercise improved performance because of the observations of reduced first week performance.
What those early studies failed to recognize is that, if carbohydrates are sharply restricted, but then 3, 4, or more weeks are allowed to pass, then athletic performance recovers and can can even exceed the level of performance present before the carb restriction (though true mostly in non-athletes). Even trained athletes maintaining a no-carb, ketotic state do not suffer impaired performance.
Carb loading and exercise carbs are therefore used to restore muscle and liver glycogen as it is depleted. Glycogen is the lengthy chain of sugars that can be “burned” for energy on demand. The average person has no more than around 40 minutes worth of energy stored as glycogen. Once depleted by, say, biking vigorously for 12 miles, a dramatic drop in energy will be encountered that some call “hitting the wall” or “the bonk.” Conventional wisdom is to therefore load up on carbohydrates and sugars ahead of the effort or to carry rapidly-absorbed sugars from ripe bananas, sports drinks or bars, energy gels and other commercial products. While these strategies do indeed provide a constant flow of sugar to replenish glycogen, they also result in surges in blood sugar to high levels, leading to glycation (glucose-modification of body proteins) that, if it recurs over and over again over time, results in cataracts, visceral fat accumulation, degradation of joint cartilage and arthritis, early dementia and other effects. Repeated ingestion of such sugary products also exerts an osmotic effect in the gastrointestinal tract (pulling water in). This is part of the reason why there are so many portable toilets along a marathon route or people experience vomiting and diarrhea. It also keeps you dependent on a constant flow of sugars to replenish muscle and liver glycogen, while turning off the capacity to draw from stored fat for energy.
One of the goals of engaging in the Wheat Belly lifestyle is to become less reliant on the sugar stored as glycogen in liver and muscle. A better solution consistent that will not impair health but enhances health and does not impair your ability to lose weight: avoid all such sugary products before and during exercise. But this approach only works if you have engaged in the Wheat Belly lifestyle of consuming no grains or sugars, have limited carbohydrates to no more than 15 grams net per meal (net carbs = total carbs – fiber), have endured your several day-long detoxification/withdrawal process, then waited an 4 to 6 additional weeks. This last component of waiting a month or longer represents the time required for your body to convert from relying on glycogen as a primary source of energy to that of fat mobilization for energy. In other words, while muscle and liver contain energy sufficient to sustain around 40 minutes of vigorous physical effort, energy stored as fat—-even on a slender person—-is sufficient to provide energy for weeks. High performing athletes therefore should be preferentially burning fat, not liver glycogen. (Imagine living in the wild, having to chase down your next meal of, say, an injured animal, over 4 hours of a chase—-do you think you’ll have energy drinks or gels to fuel your body? Doesn’t it make more sense to draw off the considerable energy in your body stored as fat? That’s how humans have done it for millions of years, and that’s how healthy modern humans should do it–until misinterpretations of the evidenced screwed it up.)
You may have fallen into this trap noticing that, even after wheat/grain removal and limiting carbohydrates, taking in some additional carbohydrate source was necessary to achieve your prior level of performance, maybe even required to allow you to finish your workout. But this effect disappears by continuing to stay on the low-carb course for 4-6 weeks, the time required to maximally ramp up your ability to mobilize fat for energy.
So if high physical performance are part of your ambitions with the Wheat Belly lifestyle, there is an obligatory 4-6 week long period during which your exercise performance will be impaired. After this time, performance rebounds, even occasionally exceeds pre-Wheat Belly levels.
The only time I have seen that some form of carbohydrate or sugar might be helpful is during extreme endurance efforts, such as mile 14 of a marathon, mile 50 of a bike trip, or similar intensive, long-term effort, but never for an hour of Zumba or a 5-mile run. Even then, only a modest quantity of sugars are required in the midst of the effort, e.g, 25 grams as needed to maintain energy as a banana or sip of a sports drink.
As this newer concept of sustained low-carb performance is catching on among a greater number of elite athletes, more are observing that they need nothing more than water and electrolytes to fuel their effort–not carbohydrates or sugars–yet are able to sustain optimal effort for hours, not just 40 minutes. Throw in the other health benefits of wheat/grain-free living, such as greater joint and muscle flexibility, less water retention in the legs and elsewhere, clearer thinking, less gastrointestinal disruption, and accelerated post-effort recovery, and this lifestyle will become the new standard for athletic performance.