Ask a Health Coach: Fasted Exercise, Chronic Cardio, and Microworkouts
Hey folks! In this week’s Ask a Health Coach, Erin is answering your questions about how to fuel on race day, why overdoing cardio is linked to burnout, and how to squeeze more (effective) exercise into an already busy day. Post your questions over in the Mark’s Daily Apple Facebook group or down below in the comments.
“I’m walking a 10K a week from today. I can do it fasted, and have so before, but is there any benefit to having some carbs, protein, or fat before my event?”
It’s never a good idea to try something different on your event day. This is the day you’re putting all your hard work to the test, so don’t be tempted to introduce anything new. That goes for what you put on your body and what you put in it.
Here’s Some Food for Thought
Sure, there’s tons of info about fat-adapted athletes who follow the train low, race high school of thought. The difference is, they’ve practiced it before they get up to the starting line. These athletes know how different sources of fuel feel in their stomach, if it makes them nauseous once they start moving, or if it makes them feel energized. They’re definitely not grabbing a few dates or a pack of almond butter on their way out the door, crossing their fingers, and hoping it works.
If you typically exercise fasted (and are fat adapted), eating before your race may decrease performance. And really, seeing as you’ll be moving at a low-ish intensity, I’d doubt that any kind of carb-protein-fat mix would move the needle too much anyway.
But the bigger question here is, if you’ve trained fasted and with fuel, why wouldn’t you choose the method you’ve found works best for you? Why would you totally discount something you’ve tried — and seen the real-time results — in lieu of advice that may or may not work for your body?
Why We Don’t Trust Our Gut
Maybe you’ve seen others carb-it-up before a race and constantly crush their goals. Or they swear by slower-burning sources of fat or protein. Deep down, you know what your body requires. You might not think you do, but you do. And usually, when you doubt your own inner knowing, it’s because you’re comparing yourself to other people and questioning your own ability to live up to the challenge at hand.
A certain level of self-doubt can be healthy though. It indicates that you understand what you need to improve upon to reach your goal, whether it’s getting a PR on your 10K or moving away from the Standard American Diet. But too much self-doubt can derail you. That’s why it’s important to trust yourself and your decisions. Check the negative self-talk (that we all have, mind you), and start reinforcing your strengths. For instance, here are three things I already know to be true about you:
- You can complete a 10K
- You’ve trained fasted
- You’ve trained with fuel
Focus on your strengths and do whatever makes you feel most confident. If you’re happy with what you’re doing in your training, stick with it. If you think you’ll get a little boost — even a mental one — with fuel, add some in. Just make sure it’s something you know your body can handle.
“I work out 5-6 days a week and do a lot of cardio, mostly spin classes. This is usually such a great stress relief for me, but I notice myself feeling more run down lately. Got any advice?”
Chronic cardio, in my book, can be a recipe for total burnout. And it’s not just because it goes against the principles of the Primal Blueprint. For decades, we’ve been force fed the idea that the more cardio we can do, the more calories we’ll burn, and the *healthier* we’ll be. This wisdom, unfortunately, has created a generation of overtrained, immune-compromised exercise-aholics. I was one, so I feel qualified to say this.
The Curse of Chronic Cardio
I love that it’s been a stress reliever for you in the past, but when it starts to bring on more stress than it relieves, it’s time to rethink your exercise strategy. Because now, instead of reducing cortisol in your body, you’re encouraging it. ??An increase in cortisol can lead to all sorts of fun stuff like:
- Weight gain or weight-loss resistance
- Sugar cravings
- Aging faster
- Trouble sleeping
- Risk of high blood pressure, heart disease, and diabetes
Getting past the idea of what chronic cardio used to do for you is key here. While it was your go-to stress-busting method, it’s no longer serving that purpose. As a seasoned health coach, I see this fairly often. Clients clinging to how things used to be — a number on the scale, a pant size, the ‘calories burned’ displayed on their cardio machine-of-choice.
Why Intervals Work
I’m not saying you should give up spinning; just change up your routine. It’s possible to get leaner and more fit with higher quality, more explosive, and less physically taxing workouts that are easier to recover from. Short, high-intensity intervals can actually provide more benefit with less burn out and risk of disease.1 Physiologically, you’ll notice an increase in VO2 max (that’s the max amount of oxygen your body can take in and use), and mentally, you won’t feel so drained.
Benefits of interval training include:
- More muscle fiber strength
- More aerobic capacity
- Increased insulin sensitivity
- Increased growth hormone production
- Decreased burnout
Try this basic 30-minute interval workout next time you’re on the bike:
- 0 to 5 minutes: Warm up with an easy-to medium spin.
- 5 to 25 minutes: Pedal at a high resistance at full effort for 15 to 20 seconds, followed by low resistance and easier pedaling for 1:15 to 1:40 seconds. Repeat ‘til clock hits 25 minutes.
- 25-30 minutes: Cool down with an easy, low resistance spin.
The low resistance parts aren’t meant to be a workout, they’re designed for recovery, so make it easy and comfortable. Remember, rest is a major part of fitness, so don’t forget to take time off in between sessions. Your days away from the bike are the ones when your body is doing the most growth.
“We’re going back into the office in a few weeks, so I’ll have less time for my usual workouts. What exercises will give me the biggest bank for my buck, so to speak?”
Conventional wisdom says we’ve got to do more to get the desired results. More reps. More steps. More time at the gym. But your new schedule (and your lack of free time) might actually work to your advantage.
Work Smarter, Not Harder
What if you could get fitter, stronger, and leaner by doing less? The researchers in this study found that shorter bursts of exercise, like 15 minutes’ worth, was enough to double the endurance capacity of participants. And another study showed that three 20-second sprints at an almost-all-out-effort, three times a week could boost aerobic capacity by 15%.
Even the pros are figuring out that they can train less and reap bigger rewards, learning that pounding the pavement day in and day out won’t necessarily make you faster, but it will make you more fatigued.
Nearly everything you do on a daily basis can be classified as exercise (running back up the stairs because you forgot your coat, bringing groceries in from the car, pulling weeds in the garden). When you start tuning into the fact that every kind of movement delivers a health and fitness benefit — that’s when the magic happens.
I’m a huge fan of these essential movements: planks, push-ups, pull-ups, and squats. These four simple exercises are movements humans have performed for millions of years. Millions. And you know what? They don’t take hours to do — you can likely crank out a set or two while your coffee is brewing. They also don’t require a trip to the gym. See this post for tips on proper form.
If you desire more structure, look into microworkouts. These are quick strength moves you do throughout the day. And honestly, they don’t feel like much when you’re doing them, but the effects compound over time. They can take a few seconds or a few minutes and can be done anywhere.
Think calf raises every time you walk by the stairs, holding a plank while you’re waiting for the next Netflix episode to load, cranking out tricep dips on the corner of your desk after each Zoom call. You get the idea. The key is to fit them into your day instead of carving out an hour before or after work. Now that your schedule is changing, there’s no better time to shake up your workout routine.
Now it’s your turn. Do you agree? Disagree? Share your thoughts below.
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