Colette's Blog

Atkins and Athletes

November 20, 2014

Last week we talked about when to incorporate exercise into your lifestyle, and the various health benefits of exercise, including helping you to maintain the weight you have already lost on Atkins. Once you’ve made it through the initial couple weeks of Atkins, and your body has adapted to burning fat for fuel instead of carbs, you may be ready to experience all these wonderful health benefits that exercise affords. Although the majority of folks who do Atkins may fall into the recreational athlete category, there are people who have decided to take their exercise habit to the next level.

Maybe it’s because you’ve lost a lot of weight on Atkins, you’ve added regular exercise into your life, and you now have the confidence, energy and fitness level to challenge yourself by signing up for a 5K or 10K race. Maybe you’ve always been an avid runner or biker, but now you’ve incorporated a low-carb diet into the mix. Whatever the reason, you are probably familiar with the longtime tradition of carb-loading before a big race or even an intense workout or the belief that a high-carb diet is necessary for anyone serious about exercising. For a long-distance runner, this very often would involve big plates of spaghetti the night before a race, with the idea that all those extra carbs would give you extra energy during your event. The logic is that a low-carb diet like Atkins would make it virtually impossible to power through a long run, big bike ride or intense hike. The reality? Whether you’re exercising at the gym or competing in a race, you want to be able to burn fat efficiently. As you become accustomed to eating fewer carbs, your body adapts, and starts burning more fat for fuel. In other words, you are simply tapping into a different fuel source (fat instead of carbs). Even better, by using fat as your primary fuel, you are stockpiling any carbohydrate reserves that you have. Running on a fat metabolism is exactly where you want to be during long-distance training or a race. This means you may avoid “hitting the wall”, so to speak, because your body has already made the switch to fat burning. Any carbohydrate stores that you have are saved for exactly this purpose, versus being used up earlier in your training or race.

Endurance Performance on a Low-Carb Diet

Fortunately, there is plenty of research to back this theory up. In one study by Dr. Stephen Phinney, elite cyclists consumed a diet equivalent to the Induction phase of Atkins for four weeks while maintaining an intense training regimen. One would predict that these cyclists were burnt out and exhausted, with a serious decrease in performance by the end of four weeks. In fact, the results were not significantly different than when they were consuming their usual high-carb diet. And, by the end of four weeks, they had trained their bodies to burn fat for fuel during exercise, which means they were able to hold on to their reserves of glycogen (the storage form of carbohydrates in the body). Another study of elite cyclists published in the journal of Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise also showed that while following a low-carb diet, the cyclists also burned fat as fuel, while preserving glycogen stores. Once again, performance was similar among both the high-carb and low-carb group.

Resistance Training on a Low-Carb Diet

And a low-carb diet may be beneficial for people who participate in resistance training as well. Dr. Jeff Volek did a study of overweight men who followed the Induction phase while participating in an intense resistance-training program (three workouts per week). After 12 weeks, the men lost on average of 16 pounds (thanks to the low-carb diet). Meanwhile, their lean body mass actually increased by 2 pounds, credited mainly to the resistance training.

What Does This Mean To You?

Whether you are training for a competition or would just like to perform better in the gym or on your morning jog, a low-carb diet like Atkins won’t negatively affect your performance. You can continue to enjoy all the benefits of a low-carb lifestyle while making the most of each workout.

Share and Share Alike

How has Atkins affected your workouts? If you’ve ever competed in a running or biking race, how do you incorporate Atkins into your training? I’d love to hear! Please share your thoughts with the Atkins Community and also let me know what you’d like to hear about in the future. 

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