I Tried Intermittent Fasting While Training Hard
Last summer, my friend and cycling coach was raving about intermittent fasting. He believed his power numbers improved as a result of fasting, which piqued my interest. At the time, I was struggling with overheating during long rides in the summer heat. As my coach explained it, your body likes to use carbs as its first source of energy, and that process raises your body’s internal temperature. So when you wake up and have a carb-heavy breakfast, your body turns up the heat and starts working, then works even harder as you ride. I noticed I would quickly feel too hot and uncomfortable in warm weather, so after spending a few long days in the saddle, I decided to try intermittent fasting myself.
Sure, I expected I might be “hangry” or moody in the early stages of being depleted in the morning, but how bad could it be?
Before I jumped in, I wanted to do some research. I spent countless hours learning about fasting. Most of it—I have to admit—was on forums, YouTube, online articles, and listening to podcasts with different doctors. I knew my body was very trained to use carbs as an energy source, so to better my plan, I also spoke to Sean Hyson, editor-in-chief at Onnit, a nutritional supplement and fitness equipment company.
Hyson’s advice was to make sure I take in enough carbs for my specific workouts and to keep a close watch on my nutrients as many people who fast tend to deprive their bodies of the key nutrients they need.
While there are many different forms of fasting (when you forgo eating for a certain amount of time), I decided what would work best for me was intermittent fasting for 15 to 18 hours a day supplemented with liquid, no-carb calories to support my morning workouts when I felt my energy fading. I was riding about 300 miles per week, plus playing volleyball, and hitting the gym about three to four times a week, so I knew I needed to supplement somehow. During the six- to nine-hour window for eating, I would make sure to eat whole foods that provide plenty of nutrients to aid recovery and to avoid going into caloric deficiency. Sure, I expected I might be “hangry” or moody in the early stages of being depleted in the morning, but how bad could it be? Worst case scenario: I hate it and move on. I was finally convinced and ready to give it a go.
The next step was to get down to business. The first few weeks weren’t as easy as I thought they would be. My body was way more carb-dependent than I realized. At first, fasting for just 12 hours while maintaining my workouts was a struggle. When I was able to manage 12 hours, I slowly built up to 13, 14, and 15 hours. It took me about three weeks to be able to do a solid long-distance ride while fasting.
In my opinion, the supplements I took in the morning helped me tremendously (yes, yes, I know most experts would say this discounts the “fast,” but it was an important aspect of listening to my body while still working to retrain my energy systems without giving up riding or my workouts). As I have always been a big proponent of a hearty breakfast, not having food in the morning wasn’t easy for me. But I stuck with it, and things got better as more time passed. I was eventually able to keep moving on the bike and really tune into when I needed to eat.
Fasting made me feel lighter…I was able to hit certain power numbers and hold them.”
When I wasn’t riding, I played beach volleyball. Despite playing competitively, I didn’t struggle very much while fasting because I was too focused during the games to notice. My water consumption was very high though, especially considering the heat and humidity of the summer season. In the gym, my morning weightlifting workouts did not go as planned. Because I focus on fast but heavy movements, my body was begging for carbs. Conditioning workouts were fine, but I struggled with heavy lifts. My strength just wasn’t there.
With that in mind, I made some changes. On the days I wanted to lift in the morning, I shortened my fast to 12 hours and had some food prior to lifting. That way, I was able to go to the gym and lift with confidence. After about a month, I didn’t even have to bother checking the clock to see how long I had been fasting for. I was comfortable with going for 12 to 15 hours. As far as mood swings, I noticed some “hangry” moments in the early stages, but as time passed, my mood stabilized.
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In the end, I learned a few key lessons. In terms of fitness, fasting made me feel lighter and more agile. I was able to produce the same amount of power on the bike as I did before I fasted. At times, I was able to hit certain power numbers and hold them for longer periods than before. I also bonked less, which (to me) showed that I had retrained my body from being reliant on carbs for energy to being more efficient at using fat for fuel. I also noticed that my body became more efficient in general, meaning: As soon as I had just a small amount of carbs, I felt energized. I no longer needed higher quantities of carbs to make that happen. Plus, riding in the heat became easier; I felt much cooler on the bike.
Outside of fitness, fasting completely eliminated my cravings for crappy, sugary foods and drinks. I was way more in control of what I consumed. Instead of coming home from a 100-mile ride and consuming my body weight in whatever I could get my hands on, I focused on eating a proper meal with nutrients to recover, and it made a huge difference. In terms of energy, I have always had a lot of energy and didn’t really look for energy increases with fasting, but I did feel like I had more in the gas tank if needed. With all of this said, when I participated in a race event, I made sure to fuel for it. I still knew that when I needed peak performance, having some fuel to burn would be best, and my body was just better at using it.
Physically, I noticed another benefit that I didn’t actually care for: I became quite slim for my build. My waist shrunk, and I lost some body fat. Of course, many people would be happy with those results, but my goal wasn’t a certain aesthetic; it was to retrain how my body used food with a side of health benefits during the “fast.” So the leaner look wasn’t really for me.
After the summer, I continued doing intermittent fasting, but I was way less strict about it. I am not as concerned with 15 to 18 hours of fasting. If I can only do 12 hours on a certain day, then 12 it is. If I am so busy, I end up doing 18, that’s fine, too. There have been a few weekends here and there when I did not fast due to traveling and life. However, I didn’t feel as awful on those weekends as I expected. I was able to just bounce right back to fasting when I was back in a controlled environment.
Now, I still fast, but I try not to train during the fasted period. I’ll time my workouts after I have a later breakfast, while still having a 12- to 15-hour window of fasting prior. Fortunately, I have a flexible schedule that allows me to do so. There are some days that I don’t feel hungry in the morning, so on those days I may train but nothing too heavy or strenuous. I believe that listening to your body and seeing how you react to the changes is the best way to go.
In the end, fasting is not for everyone. We are all different, unique people. Just because something works for me doesn’t mean it will work for others. But doing your homework, then testing it with trial and error is the best way to know. I didn’t just jump on this method because it was “cool” or “trending.” I did a ton of research, consulted with legitimate experts, and mapped out a smart plan that fit my training and lifestyle. I was also willing to adjust the plan as needed. I wasn’t so strict or obsessive that it became unhealthy.
It’s important to disclose I haven’t seen a doctor or received a hormonal check-up since fasting, but I don’t feel the need to and had no negative side effects that alarmed me. With all that said, I have noticed benefits and seen a great response in my body’s energy levels, cravings, and composition. To this day, I still participate in some intermittent fasting. I’ve even got my girlfriend to give it a try—it makes it easier to be around someone who understands!