I still remember as a little kid having a bowl of white sugar sitting at the breakfast table. My mom would let us pour a couple of spoonful’s on our cereal (which was usually coated in sugar already) and I still remember my eyeballs twitching a bit after drinking the last bit of milk from the bowl with all the extra sugar in it.
Later in the day after running around like a wild child for a few hours I’d get some Kool-Aid with lunch (with extra sugar for taste) and a few cookies for dessert. Add in the candy bar I got an afternoon snack and the ice cream for desert and I must have eaten a bag of sugar a day.
Sugar was, and still is, a major part of the American diet. It doesn’t take a fitness professional to realize that most people eat too much sugar.
And this problem has seeped into the world of sports as well. In fact, we’re told that without eating sugar while we train we will bonk in record time, unable to continue for lack of fuel.
But is this true? Do we as mountain bikers really need to eat sugar every time we ride or train? Or is this over-reliance on sugar unnecessary and actually causing problems?
In this new episode of the BikeJames Podcast, I look into what it means to be a Fat Optimized MTB Athlete and why you may want to consider a different approach to fueling your efforts.
– Being able to burn fat for fuel is about more than just looking good, it is the key to an endurance athlete’s performance.
– The human body is made to prefer using fats for fuel, however we can train it to prefer sugar for fuel. This leads to the need for a constant influx of sugar during training.
– Once you have optimized your body to burn fat you’ll no longer need to constantly consume sugar to perform at higher intensities for longer periods of time. This leads to better performance and better health over the long run. Precision Nutrition told me in an interview that any event under 4 hours long shouldn’t require any fuel during the event if you are metabolically optimized.
– The idea that you “need” sugar to perform well during an endurance event is a new phenomenon fueled by companies that sell sugar to endurance athletes. There is now a whole industry based on telling you how much sugar to consume and when to consume it, leading to a generation of endurance athletes with metabolic issues and other problems brought on by overconsumption of sugar.
– BTW, organic sugar is still sugar to the body and has the same metabolic effects.
– At the most basic level, your body uses ATP to power the muscles and heart (which is a muscle). There is a very limited supply of ATP on hand at one time, which means that your body needs to constantly re-supply ATP to the muscles. No ATP = No ability to contract or relax a muscle.
– The body has 3 energy systems to do this – ATP/ CP Pathway, Glycolytic Pathway and the Aerobic Pathway. Just to be clear, these 3 pathways are always in use, it is just a matter of where the majority of the energy being produced is coming from.
– The ATP/ CP and Glycolytic pathways make up the Anaerobic Energy Systems, which provides energy without the need for oxygen. This pathway uses CP and Glucose for to re-fuel ATP, powering short bursts of hard efforts. It is also not very efficient, delivering only 2 molecules of ATP for every molecule of Glucose used.
– Aerobic Energy System is super-efficient, producing 38 molecules of ATP for every molecule of fat used. It both powers easy to moderate efforts and helps the body repay the oxygen debt, i.e. recover, from anaerobic efforts.
– Since the name of the game is ATP replenishment then the more the aerobic energy system is contributing the more efficient that replenishment will be.
– Another thing to consider is the fuel sources for the 2 systems.
– The Anaerobic Energy System uses glucose as its primary fuel source, which is very limited since your body only stores a limited amount of sugar (glycogen and glucose). It is also metabolically “dirty” since it leaves behind a lot of by-products that must be cleaned up. These by-products both require energy to clean up and their build up helps contribute to fatigue.
– The Aerobic Energy System uses fat for fuel, which is very plentiful even in lean individuals. It is also metabolically very clean as it leaves behind just a little carbon dioxide and water.
– I’m stealing this one from Mark Sisson because it is a great way to think about it. Think of your body as a furnace that burns fuel to create energy. When you use sugar for fuel it is like throwing kerosene into the furnace – it will burn really hot for a short period of time and the system takes on a lot of stress to deal with the extra “heat”. When you use fat for fuel it is like using slow burning coals that create less intense heat but it burns longer and puts much less stress on the pipes and other structures.
– So, if you have two energy systems and one is inefficient, limited and creates a lot of metabolic stress and one that is super-efficient, virtually unlimited and creates very little metabolic stress which one would you want to emphasize as an endurance athlete?
– Not to romanticize the past but our ancestors did some amazing things without constantly shoving sugar in their face along the way. Roman soldiers would march long distance and have to be ready to set up camp and/ or fight when they got there. Vikings rowed their ships under the same circumstances. Reading the history of guys like Spartacus, Alexander the Great and Hannibal tells me that our ancestors were doing things most of us would consider impossible. A lot of what history tells us we are capable of would be considered a fairy tale if it wasn’t for the sources. Science has limited us as much as it has helped us and this reliance on sugar and limitations on what we are capable of (science said it was impossible to run a sub- 4-minute mile until it was done) are an area I think it is holding us back.
– So what do we do? Easy – you train your body to run on fat for fuel and use sugar as little as possible.
– We forget that our body gets used to what we train it to do – if we are constantly shoving sugar in our mouth to fuel our efforts from an external source then our body will get used that external source of sugar and start to crave it. If we don’t give our body an external fuel source then it will learn to run on our internal fuel sources, i.e. fat for fuel.
– Nutritionally this comes down to limiting sugar intake and trying to wait as long as possible into the day to eat them.
– When we wake up in the morning our metabolism is switched over to fat burning mode since we haven’t eaten in several hours. As long as we avoid eating carbs we stay in that fat burning mode so the later into the day you can avoid eating carbs the longer you will stay in that fat burning mode.
– With training you want to workout when in fat burning mode and don’t consume sugar when training (this includes training rides). You also want to focus time on low intensity training to increase your fat burning furnaces in the cells known as mitochondria.
– By maximizing the time you spend in fat burning mode and forcing your body to learn how to use its own internal fuel sources more efficiently you can perform well without sacrificing your health in the process.
– With all of this said, be careful of the Low Carb Rabbit Hole. After hearing all of this a lot of people wonder why you don’t just go low carb all of the time and really focus on this fat burning mode all of the time, even going as far as a ketogenic diet. While this may work for some, mountain biking still requires a strong anaerobic metabolism and carbs can help you recover from and fuel your hard efforts. You just need to limit them as much as you can – don’t find out how much sugar/ carbs you can get away with, find out how few you can eat and still perform well and feel good.
– To wrap it up, keep in mind that you can and should be able to go for a 2-4 hour ride without needing to consume a bunch of sugar along the way. Over-reliance on sugar has metabolic side effects beyond just making it tough to lose fat and with smart training and nutrition strategies you can become a Fat Optimized Mountain Bike Rider and enjoy better performance and health.
Until next time…
MTB Strength Training Systems