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Olympic Athlete Questions Whether Low-Carb Diet Proper For Training

Posted Sep 11 2008 6:18pm

Should you train for a decathlon on a low-carb diet?

Since my blog has been online for a little more than two years with nearly 2,000 columns, all kinds of people are finding my older columns in Google searches. In fact, if you want to know if I've blogged about a certain subject, simply type in "livin' la vida low-carb" and whatever topic interests you into a search engine. I use this tool all the time when I need to look up something I've blogged about before.

Because of the sheer volume of traffic my blog receives, many of my columns rank very high in the search engines for various keyword searches. This enables articles I've written long ago to come to the limelight anew when someone finds it for the first time.

Sometimes the people reading these previous columns will have some expert knowledge on the subject they would like to add to the discussion and such is the case today with this blog post I wrote just a few weeks after I started the "Livin' La Vida Low-Carb" blog back in 2005. In that column, I shared about a survey conducted at the annual meeting of the International Society of Sports Nutrition that found most athletes have now shunned the idea of loading up on carbohydrates to boost their athletic performance.

That survey asked marathon runners about their training schedule, their diet, and how it all came together to help them perform their best. The results? One-third of the respondents who had weight to lose chose the low-carb lifestyle over the low-fat/low-calorie diet. Most of these athletes stated that livin' la vida low-carb was extremely effective for weight loss and aiding them in attaining their athletic performance goals.

The point of my blog post was that the idea of carb-loading on energy bars, sugar, pasta, rice, etc. is an outdated way to get your body ready for performing athletically. Sure, you may need to eat a few more carbohydrates than someone who is merely on a carbohydrate-restricted diet for weight loss purposes. But it won't be all those JUNK carbs I listed above.

This is something that countless numbers of highly-respected experts and fellow low-carbers would absolutely agree with me on, including Anthony Colpo, Mark Sisson, Cassandra Forsythe, Ray Kelly, Kent Altena, Adam Campbell, Dr. Jeff Volek, Dr. Donald Layman, and MANY MORE!

Even still, the gentleman who e-mailed me is currently training for the upcoming 2008 Olympics and wanted to add his own personal experience as it relates to the proper diet needed for the highest levels of athletic competition.

Here's what he wrote to me in that e-mail:

Jimmy,

I just read the article you posted about "Study: More Athletes Choose Low-Carb To Maximize Workouts."

I agree with the aspect that athletes should not rely on energy bars for sustenance, but I disagree that a low-carb diet maximizes workouts. I am a decathlete, NCAA Champion in the decathlon, and currently training for the 2008 games in Beijing, China.

Your article pumps up looking great much more than athletic performance. I can run a 46-second 400 meters, a 10.6 second 100 meter dash, and a 4:23 1500 meter. As a decathlete that is pretty darn good.

The fuel that feeds the muscles is glycogen, which is found in carbohydrates. This is why carb-loading before a major event is important. How can I race at a high level if I can't train at a high level?

Yes, losing the unnecessary fat is important, but fueling the body during workouts is most important. Eating right even when you aren't training for competition would eliminate the need for so much of this stuff anyway.

My point is this: Cutting carbs may make you look great, cut, and lean; however, for a world-class down to even the local athlete, doing that only robs the body of proper fuel for training which means a really sucky performance. You may look cut crossing the finish line, but you'll be sub-par in your performance. For a sedentary person on the sofa, low-carb may be okay (but only temporary to possibly help you lose weight, blah, blah, blah).

On the flip side a diet that is balanced and high in protein allows for proper protein synthesis. Keep in mind that this can only happen if there is proper balance of carbohydrates in the body! The principle of synergy is crucial for the body to do what it needs to do to the human to win a gold medal in the Olympics or run a personal best in the local Thanksgiving Day 5k. Carbohydrates and protein are both SO necessary.

Thus, I disagree with your article's slant. This article should have been entitled, "Weight Loss for Normal People." Take the word athlete out of the picture. Dr. Stuart Trager is getting paid the big bucks to lie by not telling the full truth. His two cents on power bars and energy bars is a no-brainer, but it is a poor attempt to woo athletes to the Atkins fan club.

What does he have to say about carbs that he didn't or can't say in this article? I know he didn't compete on turkey and chicken two days before a big race. Anyway, that's enough about that.

I'm doing additional research on this matter for athletes. Athletes can't survive and expect to perform well on a low-carb diet. Will they look great? Maybe. But they will undoubtedly suck in training and in competition.

If they want beauty, then they should be a model or something--not an athlete. Models don't run track meets to meet their beatification goals.

Okay, I'm done. Thanks for reading. Congrats on your success.


I requested an interview with this upcoming Olympian, but he never responded to my request. This is obviously an issue that he is looking very closely at right now both personally and for his future in athletic competition. Much of what he espouses resembles what people like Roy Pirrung and others like him feel is necessary for their training routine.

At least I give this young athlete credit for not tee-totally dismissing livin' la vida low-carb altogether. His position is clear: if you need to lose weight, then low-carb may be an option for you; but if you are training for competition, then you need to eat your carbs. The only gray area here is what kind of carbohydrates.

Feel free to chime in with YOUR experiences and I welcome the feedback of experts on this subject to either defend or dissent from the point of view presented by the future Olympian today. This should make for an eye-opening discussion.

8-21-07 UPDATE: I was hoping my friend and fellow blogger Mark Sisson from "Mark's Daily Apple," a former world-class competitive athlete, would respond to this post. Here's what he had to say:

Interesting thread. I was a top marathoner and triathlete years ago and spent years on a carbo-intensive lifestyle. I had to in order to replenish 500-600 grams of total glycogen each and every day. However, it was a choice I made (to compete at an elite level) just like our decathlete friend here. And with those choices come sacrifices, for which I still pay today.

He says it best with this quotes "I'm doing additional research on this matter for athletes. Athletes can't survive and expect to perform well on a low-carb diet. Will they look great? Maybe. But they will undoubtedly suck in training and in competition." This higher carb diet is probably essential to compete at the Olympic level, but it is not without its costs.

For those of you interested in my extended point of view on this, I just wrote an in-depth piece for one of the largest online endurance communities in the world. The piece is titled "Training is no Guarantee of Health."

Needless to say, it prompted a large discussion. Bottom line, while I live, eat, sleep and breathe low carb today for my health AND my vanity, I'm not sure I could find a way to successfully compete at the highest levels without major compromises.

Also, what do you mean, Science, that no one has run faster than Mamo Wolde? The world record is now 15 minutes faster than he ran in 1968 (even I have run faster in my day).

Keep up the great work, Jimmy.

Mark Sisson

Labels: athletes, blog, carbohydrates, competition, decathlete, diet, health, low-carb, Olympics

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