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Carb Loading? Let's Talk Metabolic Efficiency

You probably know by now that your nutrition plan is an extension of your training plan. It’s just as important. Similar to cramming for a test, you can’t really eat a certain way the night before a race to improve your performance during the event.

It’s a common misconception that runners should eat a huge pasta meal the night before a race to top of the glycogen stores. The truth is, one meal won’t fill your stores completely, and overloading your digestive system the night before a race is not a good idea.

Carbohydrates are converted directly into glucose once digested and glucose is the usable energy format for the body. Any glucose that the body doesn’t use is stored in the liver and the muscles as glycogen, which is your body’s first energy resource. Fat can also be used for energy, but the natural process of converting fat to energy is less efficient. During long runs, your body first uses its glucose supply, then utilizes its glycogen stores. Once those are gone, that is when a runner will “hit the wall” and experience the sluggishness and fogginess as a result of the body working to convert fat to fuel.

While the benefits of a diet higher in carbohydrates are justified during times of intense training, it isn’t really a viable option for longer events. Having to focus so much on your carb intake when you’re burning through 10,000 in a multi-day event can become overwhelming, all that food can be difficult to transport and eating enough to support your glycogen stores for long periods of time can cause GI distress. For many long distance, multi-day runners and triathletes, the best bet is to train the body to more efficiently burn fat as fuel, a much longer-lasting energy resource for your body. This technique is referred to as Metabolic Efficiency and was first introduced by former Olympic Team dietician and Runwell coach, Bob Seebohar, M.S., RD, CSSD, CSCS, METS.

In his article, Make Your Body More Metabolically Efficient, Seebohar writes, “Eating and therefore oxidizing more carbohydrates decreases the body’s ability to oxidize fat at higher intensities; therefore, to properly teach the body to utilize fats more efficiently, carbohydrate intake should be more balanced with lean protein and healthy fats. This is not a recommendation to follow a low-carbohydrate diet. The goal is to balance macronutrient intake so proper metabolic changes can be implemented.”

The good news, Seebohar writes, is that most athletes can achieve metabolic efficiency rather quickly, in as little as two weeks, by following the following steps:

1.   Adopt a nutritional paradigm shift. As you approach your daily food selection, prioritize your meals and snacks. First on your plate should be a source of lean protein and healthy, omega-3 rich fat. Second up is a healthy portion of fruits and/or vegetables. Then, save just a little room for those whole grains and healthier starches if you decide you need them at this point in your training cycle.

2.   Nutrition supplements that are high in simple sugars will inhibit your progress of reaching metabolic efficiency. Focus on eating good meals and save the nutrition supplements for when you really need them. Remember, you are trying to teach your body to use its fat stores more efficiently.

3.   Follow the 90/10 rule. Stay on track with these steps 90 percent of the time and allow yourself to “miss” the other 10 percent of the time. Remember, you are human and life happens. Don’t stress out if you have the occasional “miss.” Be honest to yourself and allow some room to deviate.

What should you eat the night before a race?

Stick to what you have been eating during training. If you’ve been focusing on fat and protein consumption being more balanced with your carbohydrate consumption, you are well on your way to longer-lasting energy, no pasta necessary.

Want to learn more about Metabolic Efficiency Training? Coach Seebohar wrote a book about it, and you can purchase it here.

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