Eat smart, train hard; train smart, eat hard

This post was also going to be called “No excuses”.

I started thinking about writing something on the subject last night, when a gym member admitted at the end of a fairly gruelling circuits session that he hadn’t eaten anything in 24 hours and had been at the gym for 6 hours. Why? Because he heard intermittent fasting was a good way to kickstart fat loss.

Now ever since the BBC ran a multitude of features on intermittent fasting at the end of last year, everyone has heard about it and it seems everyone has misinterpreted it. I have heard everything from people knowingly explaining that gorging yourself Man v. Food-style isn’t actually that bad if then you eat less or not at all for a couple of days after (as you would probably want to, after one of the infamous Food Challenges on the show), and that that’s why presenter Adam Richman isn’t “as fat as you’d think he would be” (that statement alone makes a little part of me die inside… for too many reasons to go into right now), to, well, matey telling his coach that it’s alright for him to train on an empty gas tank because he watched a video on YouTube.

For me to validate or debunk the benefits of intermittent fasting would be far beyond the scope of my knowledge, available free time, or purpose of this blog. There is a lot of information out there, most of which is quite nicely summarised and framed in some solid common-sense by the NHS.

Personally, I am convinced by what I’ve read so far on intermittent fasting. However, as soon as I read the press articles which had dribbled out of more thorough peer-reviewed studies I got that horrible sinking feeling in my gut that this was going to cause more harm than good. I tried to convince myself that the knot in my stomach was related only to the realisation that it might do me good to spend a day or two per week getting by on only one small meal – and it worked for a bit. Unfortunately I am starting to think again that we are going to see some quite tragic cases of intermittent fasting gone wrong.

Ben summed it up perfectly to my fellow gym member the other day by telling him, “When you faint and crack your head open because you’ve been training on an empty stomach, I’m going to have to call an ambulance that could have been going to someone having a heart attack.” And while that may seem harsh, I think it would be a mistake to underestimate the risks associated with any dietary adjustment not solicited and monitored by a health professional.

But I’m not writing this as a lecture – as I said, I’m no authority and lecturing doesn’t work on anyone anyway. What I do know, though, is the following – and if people won’t listen to health concerns or scientific scepticism, maybe they will take heed of this. If you don’t have any fuel in the tank, you’re not going to be able to activate all your musculature and energy systems. In other words, if you don’t eat enough, you won’t be able to train hard enough. And if you don’t achieve overload, you don’t progress. And if you don’t progress, you don’t get fitter, you don’t get stronger, you don’t gain muscle, and you can’t work harder. And if you can’t work harder, you don’t burn more calories, more calories get stored, and you put on weight.

More importantly, who wants a slim or even lean physique if you can’t actually use it for anything?

This was the tack I took with this poor bewildered intermittent faster. He was my partner for our circuit – 3 sets of an upper body component, 3 sets of a leg component, and 3 sets of a full body component. Partner 1 did one set, then Partner 2 did one set, then Partner 1 again, and so on. There were 3 pairs, so it was implicit that we were racing each other. Now I get that some people aren’t competitive, but even if you don’t need to be the best, most people want to do their best. And even if they don’t even particularly care about pushing themselves, who can resist the cries of a desperate partner shouting at them to go that little bit harder, that little bit faster, go on, 2 more reps, come on, we’re the second-last ones, go, jump, NOW!

Don’t get me wrong, I had a pathetic moment in the middle of that too, that sticking point where you go, “Oh man, this really hurts… Please make it stop”. Then you realise it’s not going to go away, you’ve just got to do it. And you’ve done it before, there’s no reason you can’t do it.

Now you see why this was going to be called “No excuses”. Give me a day of fasting any day of the week. Just not on my training day. I know it’s possible to train on a low-calorie diet whilst losing body fat and mass, I have seen professional MMA fighters do it – eating less than me and training harder than me. I’m not going to kid myself that my diet is precision-engineered and that I don’t overeat more often than I’d like to admit. But it’s in those moments of doubt that I think, “Hang on a sec, I have absolutely no reason not to complete this session”. And believe me, I have had days where I have ended up at the gym without having eaten enough – and the first thing I tell myself when the lactic starts to burn is, “Well you probably haven’t eaten enough, so just do your best and get out of here”. That’s OK for your average occasional gym-goer who just wants to shake their legs out after a day sat at a desk. It’s pretty much useless for anyone who wants to achieve anything.

So my point isn’t that intermittent fasting is good or intermittent fasting is bad. But I really wish people would start to assess their needs before jumping into a new regime . More importantly, I wish the press would remind people of this – and more assertively than a half-hearted disclaimer at the end of an article.

What are the different variables that come into play?

  1. Activity levels – Food is fuel. More activity needs more fuel, or you hit the point of diminishing returns.
  2. Training goals – Being strong and powerful requires pushing the boundaries. You can’t push anything if you’re hanging onto the edge of a blood glucose cliff.
  3. Psychology – If, like me, you like to break your day up by snacking, well you’re going to have a miserable few days, is it really worth it? Especially as, ideally, intermittent fasting should be adopted as a life-long lifestyle if it is to deliver the tantalisingly wide range of health benefits it promises besides temporary weight-loss.

At this point I would like to remind everyone that a decade ago or so, everyone was being told to eat 6 small meals a day. Then we were told that was rubbish. Then it was conceded that, OK, maybe that works for you, it won’t do you any harm. Why would intermittent fasting be any different?

We need to move away from the mindset that bodyweight and bodyfat levels are the be-all and end-all. It is that mindset that perpetuates the appeal of fad diets and crash diets, because it is very easy to lose weight very quickly so, hurray, result achieved! When did our body stop being a highly functional machine and become a clotheshorse?

I’m not going to pull out the old, “Eat to live, don’t live to eat!” because that would be laughably hypocritical of me. If anyone lives to eat, it’s me. But I would really love it if people could take a moment before adopting any new diet and assess why they are doing it, how it fits in with their health or sporting goals, and how it fits in with their lifestyle. We need to learn to respect our preferences – you’re allowed to hate being hungry, you’re allowed to hate being full, you’re allowed to not be able to eat breakfast within 30 mins of waking up, you’re allowed to not be able to sleep on an empty stomach – and we need to learn to respect our bodies. If we don’t give them what they want (fuel), they won’t give us what we want (performance). If you have a coach, they need to respect your preference and your body too, and you need to trust them to do so.

I know it all sounds very basic, but it seems to me that people think basic life skills – trust, respect, common sense – wait outside the gym for you. They don’t.

So use your common sense, respect yourself, trust your coach.

Don’t believe the hype.

Survival of the fittest isn’t a battle between magazine covers.

There is no single solution to any life problem, so why would there be one for weight loss, health, and fitness?

I could keep going with the catch-phrases… But if nothing else remember that as vegan athletes we need to be stronger, fitter, smarter, and eat more cake than everyone else!