Macros in Sports Nutrition: High-Carb/Low-Fat vs High-Fat/Low-Carb - by Paul Ehren

Picking up the reins from Ian Craig’s excellent webinar on the macros debate, I would like to introduce another couple of variables that I believe are well worth considering when dealing with elite and recreational athletes.

We are starting to move into the realms of strength and conditioning training. I think we can expand our skill set as nutritional practitioners by embracing the fundamentals of this discipline.

Let me firstly state that I am in complete agreement with Ian’s statement that entrenched positions within the high-carb/low-fat vs high-fat/low-carb debate will only limit our own understanding and be detrimental to our clients.

Umahro Cadogan says: “Single-track thinking has led to some of the biggest f#*k ups in medicine”. I think we can directly use those sentiments in sports nutrition.

OK, onto my point. When dealing with a sporting client, I would carry out two primary exercises. Firstly, a complete client profile and secondly a needs analysis based on the sport or recreational activity carried out. This second point should provide you with an initial check list on the individual’s training and nutritional needs with regard to attention needed in such areas as strength, speed, endurance, cognitive function and all sub-sets of these.

To state the obvious, you wouldn’t look to fuel a super heavyweight powerlifter in the same way as you would a marathon runner.

It will get considerably subtler than this. If we consider the martial arts, a quick scan through the nature of their contest profile will show:

  • Amateur Boxing: 3 x 2-min rounds
  • Professional Boxing: Up to 12 x 3-min rounds
  • BJJ: 7-min bout
  • MMA: 3 or 5, 5-min rounds
  • Karate: 3-min bout
  • Taekwondo: 3 x 3-min rounds
  • Judo: 4-min bout

Many are similar, but as ever, the devil is in the detail, and a closer look at Judo, for example, shows that the average exchange in Judo will last 20 to 30 seconds with a 10- to 15-second reposition time. We therefore need to be aware of how the three energy systems (phosphocreatine, anaerobic glycolysis and oxidative phosphorylation) inter-react and how we need to fuel to maximise the performance of our athlete.

Another variable is what respiratory exchange ratio testing shows us with regard to energy expenditure and substrate oxidation. My own test reveals that I reach peak fat burning at 90 to 95 bpm, with over 90 per cent of Kcals utilised from fat. However, by the time I reach 106 bpm, I am using nothing but glucose.

This ‘fat bump’ of between 90 to 95bpm is relatively low and reflects the nature of the cardiovascular work I do, which consists of fasted, low-intensity, steady-state power walking despite much of my resistance training being completed at high-intensity… My body has become rather good at utilising fat at this intensity.

The elite Judo players I have tested, all have ‘fat bumps' 20 bpm higher than my own, demonstrating the nature of their training which tends to be much more intense. Again, proving the point that if you ain’t testing, you’re guessing. 

The fasted element has also been debated at some length in strength and conditioning circles. Personally, I have always found that my fat loss protocols and those of my clients have been much more effective completed in this manner, which I believe is due to the respective actions of adrenaline and insulin on hormone sensitive lipase and its role in lipolysis. Please note, however, that these sessions are low intensity, whereas a fasted high intensity session would be a lot harder on the body.

Turning back to our elite Judo players, we therefore need to cover a lot of bases. Firstly, it is a sport carried out in strict weight divisions, so an element of fat loss from off-season training needs to be addressed. I normally like my fighters to be within 10 per cent of their fighting weight before starting the cut. A few kilos will fall off as soon as we tighten the diet, a few more will need to be worked on with fat burning sessions and the last ones will be sweated off. I am quite comfortable with the latter as long as it’s only a couple of pounds.

I don’t need the guys to have the aerobic base of a marathon runner, but we do need to set the bar high, so something akin to repeated 400m runs should achieve this very nicely. With these and anything of shorter duration, we are deep into anaerobic glycolysis territory, which would traditionally mean fuelling from carbohydrates, but we mustn’t forget those outliers on Ian’s graphs, who may be more efficient on fats.  But are we then causing a stress response in our athlete that will lead to overreach and burnout? Only observation and testing will show.

We then reach the fast explosive throwing attacks available in Judo: would supplemental creatine and beta alanine (as a lactate buffer) be of use when obtaining the most from the phosphagen system? Once again, the answer is possibly, but one of the huge factors to bear in mind is the possibility of creatine encouraging the player to hold water, which if done to the detriment of the weight cut or disruption of the player’s power-to-weight ratio, will not make you very popular.

Finally, a Judo contest can be decided in a second and concentration is everything. Therefore, nootropics are something which I am experimenting with to maintain a players’ focus throughout the fight.