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Intermittent Fasting for Athletes

Intermittent fasting became popular in 2012 as a diet, and it’s been steadfast ever since. Used as a metabolism supercharger, intermittent fasting can help burn fat and improve cholesterol, blood sugar, and blood pressure. But, is it worth the hype for athletes, and how does fasting pair with training?

“It’s never too late to change old habits.”
— Florence Griffith Joyner

Here is everything you need to know about intermittent fasting for athletes.

What is intermittent fasting? 

Intermittent fasting is a dietary pattern where you cycle between periods of eating and fasting. There are several approaches, but the most common is the 16/8 method, where you fast for 16 hours and eat during an 8-hour window. Some athletes practice alternate-day fasting, where they eat normally one day and fast the next. Depending on your training load, working with a 10-hour eating window may also be best to ensure you can provide your body with enough fuel.

How does it work?

Intermittent fasting plays off our metabolism and, more specifically, on our insulin and sugar stores. Excess sugar is stored in our fat cells as fat. How does it enter the cells? With insulin. During periods of fasting, our insulin levels lower, which allows the stored sugar to exit the cell and be used for fuel.

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The benefits of intermittent fasting for athletes:

1. Fat Loss

As you might have guessed from the breakdown, the primary benefit of intermittent fasting is fat loss. This happens via the insulin process above and via the fact that you have a smaller window to consume food, naturally resulting in fewer calories. This can lead to a calorie deficit and, ultimately, weight loss. For athletes who need to maintain a certain weight or body composition for their sport, this can be particularly beneficial .

2. Improved Insulin Sensitivity 

Intermittent fasting has been shown to improve insulin sensitivity, which means your body can better use the carbohydrates you consume for energy. This can be helpful for endurance athletes who rely on carbohydrates as a primary fuel source and can reduce the chance of developing diabetes.

3. Increased Growth Hormone Levels 

This one is good news for any athlete looking to build or maintain muscle mass or who wants a quicker recovery. Intermittent fasting can increase growth hormone levels, which boosts muscle growth and repair.

4. Simplified Meal Planning

Not everyone is a planner, and intermittent fasting can help simplify your meal planning as an athlete. Rather than worrying about several small meals throughout the day, you can focus on two or three larger meals during the eating window. This can take the planning stress off of anyone who travels frequently or has a busy training schedule. Need more help with your meals? Check out this blog post to get your meal planning down.

5. Your Circadian Rhythm can Stay on Track

Scheduling your mealtimes and bedtime can help keep your circadian rhythm on track, leading to better sleep, less stress, and better overall health. According to this article from Spartan, intermittent fasting may also give your muscles more time overnight to recover.

Drawbacks of Intermittent Fasting for Athletes

Of course, every story has two sides, and intermittent fasting isn’t only full of the positive aspects that people choose to focus on. Any diet can be challenging to implement, and every person is different — It may not be the best choice for you. Here’s where intermittent fasting falters:

1. Potential for Muscle Loss

One of the potential drawbacks of intermittent fasting is the risk of muscle loss. If you’re not consuming enough protein or calories during your eating window, you may do the opposite of what you intend! If you’re looking to build or maintain muscle mass, you must monitor your intake closely to ensure you’re hitting the quantities needed to hit your goals.

2. Decreased Energy Levels

Especially with the initial adaptation period, you can experience decreased energy levels, which will make it hard to want to keep training. Fatigue is also sometimes accompanied by headaches and dizziness until your body adjusts. Some people find it difficult to switch to fasting and may find a different tactic works better. If the symptoms persist over a long period of time, intermittent fasting might not be for you!

3. Difficulty Meeting Nutritional Needs

As mentioned above, athletes need to be attentive when it comes to their intake during a restricted window of time. Endurance athletes especially need to consume massive amounts of calories and carbohydrates, which can be tough to fit in with fasting. For any athlete, it can be challenging to meet the heightened nutritional needs that come with training. If you’re not careful, you may not consume enough calories, protein, or other essential nutrients to support your athletic performance.

4. Disrupted Social Life

When you think about going out with friends, what comes to mind? Dinners. Drinks. Snacks… Intermittent fasting can disrupt your social life, especially if you follow a strict eating schedule. Depending on your self-control or awareness of social pressures, you may need to skip meals with friends or family or miss out on social events involving food.

5. Potential for Overeating

Lastly, intermittent fasting can also lead to overeating during your eating window. If you’re extremely hungry after fasting for several hours, you may be tempted to consume large portions or less healthy foods, which can offset any benefits you may have gained from fasting.

While there are some benefits, intermittent fasting definitely has potential drawbacks to keep in mind. Where intermittent fasting shines is as a beneficial dietary pattern for fat loss, improved insulin sensitivity, and increased growth hormone levels. Keep in mind that this is a post surrounding athletes in general, and there are plenty of considerations to make surrounding your own dietary needs. An intermittent fasting diet may also affect women differently, which you can hear about in this podcast

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