Intermittent fasting for athletes. Is it a no-go? Or is it a useful tool to add to the athlete’s nutritional arsenal?
Intermittent fasting is becoming a more popular way of eating. Many people, including doctors and internet experts, have embraced intermittent fasting. It allows you to reduce the amount of food you eat, or your eating window to a set number of hours. The average eating window is eight hours. Individuals eat their first meal around noon and their last meal around 8 PM. Therefore, fasting for 16 hours.
Research on animals has shown that those who consume fewer calories (caloric restriction) live longer. This has made fasting a popular topic for research. Research has revealed that regular or semi-regular periods of low food intake can still provide important health benefits.
There is a limited amount of research available in regards to intermittent fasting. Nevertheless, earlier findings and results show promising signs — including behaviors that are associated with weight loss and other metabolic indicators. Amusingly, these developments take place when calorie intake matches with non-intermittent fasting, which shows the improvements are not solely due to consuming lower calories.
Sharing of insights from athletes who observe Ramadan
Athletes look for ways to get an edge over their competitors. Intermittent fasting may be a way to gain an advantage. As you might expect, it is hard to draw solid conclusions from the limited research on intermittent fasting among elite athletes.
Good thing, there’s a group that can serve as a natural participant in experiments to further understand the effect of intermittent fasting on their athletic performance. Ramadan is observed by millions of Muslims every year, and this religious holiday prohibits people from eating any food or liquids between sunrise and sunset.
Obviously, this is not a good representation of intermittent fasting. Intermittent fasts are more likely to eat later or earlier in a day, having the freedom to consume liquid anytime. On the other hand, it is forbidden for observers of Ramadan to drink liquid. This may cause some discrepancies in the results as they often eat much at night, which leads to some sleeping problems. Even so, there are still many lessons to be learned on this matter.
What can science tell us about the effect of Ramadan on their performance? It is evident in some studies that there is a degrading performance during these times. Those athletes that have soccer as a profession discovered that Ramadan affected their speed, agility, and dribbling speed. Three days of Ramadan intermittent fasting significantly reduced speed and power. A 2009 research study shows that a number of different athletes indicate a significant decrease in their performance. We can say that altered eating habits indeed have a great impact on one’s athletic capabilities.
Recent research concluded that athletes can perform well if they can keep their micronutrients and calories in check and get a good night’s rest. The International Society of Sports Nutrition also agrees on nutrient timing that both total energy and nutrient intake matter. People don’t really care about these factors as long as they have enough food and fluid intake.
Intermittent fasting and adaptation
Recent research shows that athletes can benefit from eating less, or none at all. Endurance runners need to be able to produce new mitochondria in a process known as mitochondrial biogenesis. Endurance athletes’ bodies recognize when their energy reserves are low and activate several signaling pathways, including AMPK. These elements stimulate positive adaptations to exercise endurance such as mitochondrial biogenesis.
Training with low energy can lead to enhanced adaptations for certain training methods. It is important to note that these research studies are based on a low carbohydrate diet and not intermittent fasting.
Recent research suggests that resistance training might be beneficial. Intermittent fasting (carbohydrate restriction) can reduce muscle hypertrophy, and permit longer training sessions. This is common in elite athletes. Low carbohydrate intake may also increase or decrease training adaptations, depending on the overall goal.
Your training adaptations will be affected if you train in the morning and don’t eat until after midnight. You will also have a reduced ability to train if you skip eating before doing high-intensity exercises like sprints and resistance training. This can cause poor performance in competition. If you train later in the morning, intermittent fasting is acceptable. It doesn’t seem like it causes any harm as long as you get enough nutrients and energy in your pre-and post-training meals.
One problem is protein intake. While total daily protein intake is important, there are some indications that 20-40g could be beneficial for muscle protein synthesis. This could have an impact on muscle growth and recovery. This could have a major impact on elite athletes.
High-level athletes need more nutrition than others, so this time-restricted approach may not be the best. These athletes must spread these nutrients throughout the day, which can prove difficult when they are doing many sessions per day. However intermittent fasting may be appropriate especially for weight management for recreational athletes who train for shorter durations with less intensity and lower energy demands.