Fitness minus the sugar

by Jennifer Fugo on May 31, 2011

If you’ve ever trained for an event (like a 5K run or a triathlon) or typically push yourself hard during workouts, it can be extremely unnerving to be asked to change your diet.  What the heck are you supposed to eat when what you currently eat seems to work with your body just fine?  And what if that change involved removing most of the sugar you’re eating, now what?  I know…scary.

I recently concluded a 10-day sugar cleanse with a group of awesome women and found that one of the most pressing questions that came up was around sugar and fitness.  The pervasive idea of the necessity of a sugary diet fueling high athletic performance concerns me.  Yes, having sugar in your athletic regimen is important, but most people are consuming way more than needed.  I suspect that part of the reason you rely so heavily on sugar for fuel is because you’re already tired.  Another reason is that you just don’t know what else to eat.

To get some clear answers to this dilemma, I turned to my good friend and athlete, Laura Pappas.  She’s a health coach as well as triathlete who trains by blending endurance sports and CrossFit.  Though I’m not paleo (aka. primal diet / Eat like a caveman) myself nor am I suggesting here that you should go paleo, Laura is.  From her own dietary journey, she knows just how much removing processed sugar from her diet has excellerated her success as an athlete landing her in the prestigious CrossFit games last summer.  No, she’s not a professional athlete- she lives a regular life with a great husband and goes to work every day like the rest of us – but her passion for combining food and fitness are something to be respected which is why I’d like to share with you her personal experience of removing sugar from her diet.

Do you feel that reducing your sugar intake has helped to improve your performance?

LP: Yes, once your body learns to utilize energy from protein and fat rather than sugar, you’ll notice an increase in your performance because you don’t need to constantly fuel during your workouts. Often runners, bikers, and triathlete over-consume products like Gu, Gatorade or Cytomax thinking that they need it to keep them going.  I know from experience that a proper whole food pre-workout meal and post-workout snack provides me the energy to make it through my workout without depending sugar.  You will find that you’re less likely to hit a wall or “bonk” when your body is burning protein and fat instead of sugar as your primary fuel source.

Can you offer any sugar-reducing tips for those who work out hard or are training for an event?

LP: Focus more on your overall nutrition during the course of the entire day and stay hydrated verses worrying about food specifically to fuel your workout.   Eating cleanly provides your body with enough energy to fuel your workout without adding unnecessary sugar as an energy source.  Staying hydrated before and after your workouts will help sustain your body to run optimally.  Remember to drink water throughout the day as you’re thirsty.  Try starting the day with a full glass of water and watch your caffeine intake.

How do you balance eating with working out?

LP: When you cleanse your body, you’ll learn that you operate better without sugar both in your normal everyday routine and in your workouts.  I personally don’t use fuel during my workouts unless I’m exercising for more than 1.5 hours. I have learned that my body works best without over-loading it with sugar commonly found in sports drinks before and during a workout. I feel better and recover faster if I eat real, clean food after a hard workout, like lean protein (eggs, chicken breast) and a sweet potato or squash, followed by a real meal (depending on the time of day and length and intensity of the workout) shortly after.

To use or not to use Sports drinks…

There’s the question about using some sort of mineral-rich, sweetened liquid used by many during long training.  Laura shared with me that she’s rather new to the coconut water scene and, for most of her training, water is her go-to beverage of choice.   It’s only when those 90+ degree days roll in or during very intense, long workouts when Laura will reach for coconut water.

What’s the experience when you first shift your diet away from sugar?

When you first start changing your diet, your body will naturally need some time to adjust. Obviously if you’ve got a race you’re trying to win, don’t start this sort of thing the week of the race.  Just like the old adage ‘Don’t try new things on race day’, don’t try a new diet for race week.

I suggest easing your way into removing excess sugars in order to reduce your body’s dependency on sugar as fuel. Overtime you will re-train your body to operate without sugar as your primary source of energy and, in a few days or couple of weeks (it varies by individual and the level of sugar/sources of sugars you consume), you’ll find that you’re training at the same level or improving upon your workouts, you’ll feel better during the workouts, and your body will recover faster.

You don’t have to change your training routine because you’re reducing sugar intake.  Just keep an open mind and let your body adapt.  Know that it may be a little difficult at first, but with time your body adjusts to the dietary shift so that this new way becomes normal.  Plus, you’ll look, feel, and perform better!

Final Word…

One of Laura’s big accomplishments was completing an Olympic Tri.  For this, her diet consisted of no added sugars and no dried fruits.  She allowed herself limited low GI fruits like berries of about 1-2 servings per day.  It can totally be done.  Both Laura and I believe this firmly.  Give yourself the chance over the course of this summer or consider shifting your diet this fall and winter.  Either way, your body will thank you.

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{ 5 comments… read them below or add one }

Morgan May 31, 2011 at 8:09 am

GREAT information! 🙂

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Laury@TheFitnessDish June 2, 2011 at 8:42 am

Great article. I hate sports drinks and how much they are indorsed by popular athletes. Last summer, before I was pregnant I ate pretty much no sugar except for natural fructose in fruits and very minimal in home made raw vegan desserts. The end of my pregnancy and breastfeeding upped my sweet tooth and time to time give into things I rarely ate before. I worked out til the end of pregnancy but was not allowed and couldn’t workout after baby for 6 weeks so I can’t compare. However, I know that I felt and looked my best and performed best when the added sugar wasn’t there!

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Jennifer Fugo June 6, 2011 at 11:05 am

Thanks for sharing your wisdom, Laury! It’s still only a handful of people that really understand how bad those sports drinks are…however I think the bigger reason is that money talks…and endorsements are hard to turn down for ppl who do have a voice.

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Jennifer (The Gourmetour) June 6, 2011 at 9:42 am

I just “finished” the sugar detox at Laury’s blog (which you may very well be referring to above, I was linked here from there!) and had an unsuccessful week.. not due to sugar cravings but rather a week full of festivities! I have found myself not craving sugar anymore (I previously [although I dare say previously because this is so new] used to have a mean sweet tooth). Anyways, I am continuing on with the sugar detox because frankly I know how much sugar is added to things that we don’t even realize and it scares me! I have had one sweet craving in the past maybe 3 weeks and it was quickly resolved with one date and a glass of water!!
I love your blog and I am recently taking on some major shifts in my diet, so I plan on referring to your blog daily!
Thanks!

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Jennifer Fugo June 6, 2011 at 11:09 am

Hi Jennifer!
Thanks for checking out my blog!!! I love seeing new faces commenting and certainly loving sharing info. As for Laury’s detox, I was not actually referring to that here…I lead groups through cleanses which I did at a bootcamp facility near me. It was longer and more extensive than Laury’s, though I did contribute some ideas to how Laury ended up doing hers.

I totally understand what you mean about a busy week (and festivities) derailing your progress…but keep in mind that this is a process and it sounds like you are making some real progress. So good for you!

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