There’s been some chitty chat about a new phenomenon known as carb depletion training. Essentially you starve your body of carbs during training and then add them in prior to race day. See (http://runningtimes.com/Print.aspx?articleID=19425)
I’m intrigued by this for two reasons. One, I’m a firm believer in training harder than you need for race day. If you train for the worst, you’ll be ready for anything including a bonked out body carb bank. The science makes sense – teach your body to run off of little carbs so it’s forced to use its own fat as energy. As a result, it will get used to this and then do it in the future. Makes sense, sort of. Two, this tactic of deprivation is heavily used in the ultra community for caffeine consumption. Some of the better ultra runners (NOTE: I didn’t say “faster” I said “better”) will stop all caffeine products a month or so before a 100 miler, then start consuming it again the day of the race. Their rationale is that the body “reacts” better to it and its stimulating abilities are far better when one has not had it in a while.
While this all makes sense, the thinking seems flawed in my opinion. First, ultras are not speed races. So trying to compare the notion of deprivation with regards to caffeine is not the same as comparing it to carbs. Caffeine is a stimulant designed to do just that. Carbs on the other hand, are energy sources. Holding back energy sources and then trying to persuade ones body to find a different source isn’t like mining for gold. Your body needs what it needs. In a long distance event, your body needs carbs. Period. During racing, during training, during recovery.
The second big flaw here is that you will fight like you train and as such, if you’ve trained in a starved state, your body may not know how to fight in a non-starved state. Imagine not eating a certain food for weeks, months, years and then suddenly adding it in, the night before a race. Let’s say it’s pasta with meat sauce. The amount of work your body now has to do to try to process that meal is a shock to your normal system. It probably will react, and my guess is in a way that isn’t conducive to a peaceful pre-race night’s sleep. Do you really want to be running to the toilet every 30 minutes with your pre-existing race jitters? Didn’t think so.
Finally, training is tough. It is placing a certain amount of stress on your body, and then withdrawing that stress in order to recover. This happens over and over again. When a significant amount of stress is placed on the body without adequate fuel, the body will do what it needs to – it will essentially cannibalize itself. By that I mean, it will use whatever it can find to make its energy. Some of us have lots of fat to use up and our body will use that where it can. But others, well, not so much. As a result, with less “fuel”, comes more fatigue. With more fatigue comes more injury. Virtually every injury I have sustained over the years (and trust me, I’m well into double digits) has come from over-training and under-nourishment. Nourishment in the form of rest, stretching and you guessed it, enough fuel.
So while I see some merits in this approach, especially for those looking for shorter races or better performance in the gym, this is not for my long distance friends. My feelings are to go with what makes you feel good. You should have enough energy to get out there, and perform to your very best. To do that, you need carbs, period. I’m not saying to shove a bunch of GU in your body an hour before the gun goes off. No, you can find plenty of good carb sources, naturally and sometimes maybe not so naturally (hey, we all cheat occasionally). We’re going to continue to explore those here but for now, peace out, run strong and go on, eat a bowl of GF granola from time to time.