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Health Considerations for Age-Group Athletes: Is Your Nutrition Strategy Worth the Squeeze?


Introduction

As an age-group athlete, optimizing your nutrition strategy is crucial for achieving peak performance and maintaining long-term health. Dr. Dan Plews and ultra-endurance athlete Zach Bitter have shared valuable insights into the impacts of high-carbohydrate and low-carbohydrate, high-fat (LCHF) diets on athletic performance and metabolic health. This blog post explores their perspectives, the scientific evidence they discuss, and whether the potential performance gains from commercially promoted high-carb diets are truly worth it.

Personal Narrative

I am a 47-year-old retired Green Beret with more injuries than uninjured joints. Throughout my career in special operations, I was an endurance athlete, often training 20 to 30 weeks a year for both work and competitive endurance hobbies. Like many athletes, I was always told to fuel with high-carbohydrate, low-fat diets. I would consume loads of pasta, carbs, and protein while limiting fat to achieve top performance. This strategy fueled many adventures and competitions, but it took a toll on my health.

In recent years, as I worked to regain my health and fitness, I reverted to high-carbohydrate eating. Despite seeing some performance gains, my joints and injuries were inflamed, my muscles burned and ached after training, and my overall health was poor. My labs were terrible, I wasn't sleeping well, and I felt awful. I started by eliminating processed foods and sugary junk, thinking this would help. My diet consisted of protein, nuts, coconut oil, olive oil, butter, vegetables, fruits, sweet potatoes, and occasionally white rice. Despite these efforts, I still felt terrible.



After extensive reading and studying, I decided to try a ketogenic diet, despite my previous failures due to a lack of proper training adjustment. This time, I slowly adapted my training and diet. I aimed to stay below 50 grams of carbs, which was challenging but achievable. Over time, my speed and performance returned, my inflammation decreased, and I felt amazing. I completed a 10-hour nighttime adventure race fueled only by homemade pemmican bars and had less than 50 grams of carbs in the days leading up to the race. I placed second and felt great, with no muscle soreness or inflammation.

Here's a great podcast with two professionals, Zach Bitter and Dr. Dan Plews, who discuss a 2023 study that led me to consider the ketogenic diet. This study found no significant difference in high-intensity performance between high-carb and LCHF diets but noted improved metabolic health with LCHF. Below, I share links to the research and the podcast for you to explore.

Performance and Health: Balancing the Equation

  1. Performance EquivalenceRecent research discussed by Dr. Dan Plews and Zach Bitter indicates that both high-carbohydrate and LCHF diets can support high-intensity performance when calories and training loads are controlled. A 2023 study titled "Low and high carbohydrate isocaloric diets on performance, fat oxidation, glucose and cardiometabolic health in middle-aged males" found no significant difference in high-intensity performance between athletes on high-carbohydrate diets and those on LCHF diets. This challenges the traditional belief in the superiority of high-carb diets for athletic performance (Prins et al., 2023).

  2. Metabolic HealthOne surprising finding from the study was that athletes on high-carbohydrate diets exhibited signs of insulin resistance, with glucose levels consistent with pre-diabetes. Conversely, the LCHF diet improved glycemic control and increased fat oxidation rates. This suggests that while high-carb diets might provide immediate fuel for high-intensity activities, they may pose long-term health risks, particularly related to metabolic health (Prins et al., 2023).

  3. Fat Oxidation and EnduranceLCHF diets have been shown to significantly increase the rate of fat oxidation, even at high exercise intensities. This adaptation can be beneficial for endurance athletes, as it allows for a more sustainable energy source during prolonged activities. Dr. Plews himself employs this approach in his training and coaching, emphasizing its potential for enhancing endurance performance.

Insights from Experts

Dr. Dan Plews and Zach Bitter discuss the practical applications of these findings in their podcast appearances. In the Inside Sports Nutrition podcast episode, Dr. Plews highlights the significance of individualized nutrition strategies and the potential long-term benefits of LCHF diets. He states, "It’s not just about the immediate performance gains but about how we can maintain metabolic health and longevity as athletes" (Plews, 2023).

Zach Bitter, known for his success in ultra-endurance events on a low-carb diet, emphasizes the importance of metabolic flexibility. He mentions, "A lot of athletes could benefit from training their bodies to be more efficient at burning fat. It’s about finding what works best for your body and sticking with it for the long haul" (Bitter, 2023).

Long-Term Considerations: Building a Strong Foundation

While specific dietary strategies can offer immediate benefits, building a strong aerobic base and focusing on overall nutritional quality is crucial for long-term success. Here are some key considerations:

  1. Aerobic CapacityDeveloping a robust aerobic base is essential for any endurance athlete. This involves consistent, moderate-intensity training over an extended period, which enhances the body’s ability to utilize oxygen efficiently and improves overall endurance.

  2. Nutritional QualityRegardless of your chosen dietary approach, prioritizing whole, unprocessed foods is vital. This includes a balance of macronutrients, adequate micronutrients, and sufficient hydration to support overall health and performance.

  3. IndividualizationEvery athlete is unique, and what works for one may not work for another. It’s important to experiment with different dietary strategies and monitor their effects on your performance and health. Continuous glucose monitors (CGMs) and regular health check-ups can provide valuable insights into how your body responds to various nutritional approaches.

Conclusion

While high-carb diets have traditionally been favored for endurance sports, emerging research suggests that LCHF diets can be equally effective for performance and may offer additional metabolic health benefits. As an age-group athlete, it’s essential to consider both immediate performance needs and long-term health outcomes when choosing your nutritional strategy. Building a strong aerobic foundation and focusing on high-quality nutrition will ensure sustained success and well-being in your athletic endeavors.

Call to Action

Right now, it is about six months away from New Year’s Eve. Make a commitment to yourself and contact ryan@commandoculture.com because we are accepting applications for individuals who, like me, are older, possibly injured, but still eager for adventure and to reclaim their health and fitness. Instead of sitting and drinking on New Year’s Eve, set a challenge and start training now. We offer multiple coaching plans tailored to your needs.

Contact ryan@commandoculture.com to fill out the athlete interest questionnaire and schedule your free 30-minute consult. Start your challenge now and make January 1st a day of kicking ass and taking names. Don’t wait until December 31st to start your resolution. Start now so that by January 1, you’re already on the path to success.

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