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!
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.