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Training on “empty” — i.e. with low carbohydrate stores — is one of the hot topics in sports nutrition these days. (I’ve posted on it a few times, for example here and here.) Louise Burke of the Australian Institute of Sport has a good summary of the current thinking in the ACSM’s Sports Medicine Bulletin.
Traditionally, athletes have approached their daily workouts to train as hard as possible, using strategies that promote good performance, just as they would in a race or match. In many sports, these strategies involve fueling up with carbohydrates before, during and between workouts to sustain the capacity to produce power. Recently, however, scientists have proposed an alternative approach…
I won’t bother trying to summarize the whole thing, because Burke is already compressing a lot of information into a small space — if you’re interested in the topic, it’s worth a read. A couple of minor points to highlight, though:
While some publicity surrounding this study suggests otherwise, the outcomes from [training low] weren’t achieved by following a low carbohydrate diet.
This is about having low carb stores for a short period of time, for instance by depleting carbs with a prior workout, not being in a chronically low-carb state. And a very interesting point:
It makes sense that sessions completed at lower intensity or at the beginning of a training cycle are best suited for, or perhaps least disadvantaged by, [train low] strategies. Conversely, quality sessions done at higher intensities or in the transition to peaking for competition might best be undertaken with better fuel support.
In other words, nutrition should be periodized. What you eat — and how you think about the relationship between your food and your performance — should be different in base phase than it is come competition time.