In the triathlon world, there are a wealth of opinions and theories as to which nutritional method is best. For years we were taught that a high carb diet was an athlete’s best friend. Now science is putting that idea to the test.
Metabolic efficiency, a term coined by sports nutritionist Bob Seebohar, is one such method of controlling our nutrition in and outside of training in order to perform better. Metabolic efficiency simply refers to how well our body uses our stored nutrients for energy.
In our body, we have two main stores for energy: fat and carbohydrates. Fat predominates our energy stores considerably more than carbohydrates. The body stores close to 80,000 calories of fat and only 14-18,000 calories of carbohydrates. Therefore, the goal behind metabolic efficiency is to tap into and use our fat stores more efficiently, thus reserving our very limited carb stores for when we really need them.
This is because once the carb stores (or glycogen stores) are depleted, that’s when you’ve “hit the wall.” The body experiences what is called hypoglycemia. At this stage, blood glucose levels are low, which causes us to feel extremely fatigued and at a near complete loss of energy—in other words, we’ve “bonked.”
So rather than constantly fight to replenish our glycogen with more and more sugary “triathlon nutrition” drinks and gels, we could be consuming less carbs in total and use more fat for fuel by becoming metabolically efficient.
How is this accomplished? The answer is by controlling blood sugar. In doing this one thing, you can teach/train your body to use more fat for fuel.
Metabolic Efficiency Training
Blood sugar control is managed most effectively by keeping the ideal triathlon diet. Combining protein, fat, and fiber together as part of your daily nutritional intake best accomplishes this task. If you can eat a ratio of 1:1 protein and carbohydrate then you’ll be balancing your blood sugar. In other words, try to eat the same amount of protein as you would carbohydrates.
This usually means increasing your protein intake, as we happen to live in a very high-carb nutritional culture. Use a food journal and try to roughly estimating how many calories of carbohydrates you’re consuming versus protein in one week. Most likely, you’ll be surprised with how heavily your consumption is on the carb side of the scale.
We also want to stay away from refined sugars and processed carbohydrates. I’m talking about high fructose corn syrup, enriched flour or wheat, and even natural sugar devoid of the fiber from which it came. Those are the enemies.
Fats, protein, and natural fiber (carbs) are our friends. Achieving the proper ratio usually means decreasing the amount of whole grain carbohydrates we eat and increasing fruits, veggies, lean proteins, and healthy fats.
You can also teach yourself to become more metabolically efficient in training as well. A product known as Generation UCAN was designed to control blood sugar levels in the midst of triathlon training and racing.
The problem with most sports energy drinks is that they break down rapidly, creating a cycle of spike and crash in your blood sugar. Moreover, they also elevate blood insulin levels, inhibiting your body’s ability to burn fat.
UCAN’s main ingredient is what they call a “SuperStarch.” This is a complex carbohydrate that breaks down slowly over time. It sustains energy levels without spikes and crashes and has virtually no reaction from insulin. The result is what we’ll talk about next.
What are the Positive Results?
For those who have trained their bodies to be metabolically efficient and to use fat stores more than carb stores, you will have preserved your carbohydrate stores to a greater degree during intense, long duration triathlon workouts and, therefore, avoided glycogen depletion. And with sustained blood sugar, you’ll also suppress your response to insulin, allowing more fat to be burned as fuel.
As an added benefit, this increases recovery time from training because you no longer have to dump carbs back into your body after depleting them. “Your body is able to use protein to repair and restore your muscles rather than for energy, since blood sugar is stable” [Generation UCAN].
Additionally, a high intake of carbs in order to replenish carb depletion is what usually causes GI distress. So by avoiding this process you’ll also decrease your susceptibility to GI issues.
And lastly, of course, burning fat for fuel keeps your blood sugar level. Therefore, triathlon performance is steady and consistent. When you’re burning carbs and constantly trying to replenish the depletion, blood sugar tends to spike up and down causing the body to go through dramatic highs and lows. Obviously, that’s not what we want as endurance athletes. Consistency is always faster and more successful.
Much more could be said about triathlon nutrition and metabolic efficiency, but the basics are ingrained in hard science. Train your body to burn fat for fuel and you’ll keep your blood sugar level. Keep your blood sugar level and you’ll burn fat for fuel!
By becoming metabolically efficient, you’ll sustain blood sugar levels and preserve your carbohydrate stores for better performance, faster recovery, and the elimination of GI issues!
TALK WITH TRIDOT: What are your thoughts on metabolic efficiency? Have you changed your diet in favor of this idea?