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Burn More Fat: Calorie Deprivation in Training?

This morning I was browsing some of the training articles over at Triathlete and came across an article written by Matt Dixon in response to a question from a reader.  The reader asked Dixon’s opinion on whether depriving one’s self of calories in training is a good idea in order to increase the body’s ability to utilize fat as a fuel source.  This is a theory that is often the topic of discussion amongst endurance athletes, especially during the fall and winter months of base training.  The theory is that by depriving the body of calories from carbohydrates during training (particularly lower intensity training, when the body is naturally relying on more calories from fat as a fuel source already), you can “train” the body to favor using fat as a fuel source over carbohydrates.

What is the benefit of favoring fat as fuel over carbohydrate?  First and foremost, the body has an almost limitless amount of fat on hand to burn, whereas we carry only enough glycogen (the body’s stored source of carbohydrate) to power about an hour’s worth of activity.  So if we can train the body to rely on fat as a fuel, we can increase the amount of energy we have to rely on substantially.  Not to mention, every athlete wants to burn more fat.  This is great in theory.

Though there is research to support this theory (and some to dispute it, as well), I particularly liked Matt’s response because he looked at what the research said, then applied his learnings as a coach over the years.  Information discovered in clinical research is not necessarily the end-all-be-all when it comes to decision making – it is there to help guide decision making.  The lab is not the real world – there are many other factors that exist in the real world that may or may not interact with whatever findings are discovered in a lab environment.  Matt says that he has experimented with calorie deprivation in training, but that in the long term, it has generally “resulted in a decline in training performance, impaired recovery and an increased frequency of illness and loss of motivation for training.”  These are all real world factors that are difficult to replicate in a lab setting.  And this is what good coaches do – familiarize themselves with the information that is out there, experiments with it in training, then practically apply their findings.

Anecdotally, I have also experimented with calorie deprivation at times in training.  During longer, lower intensity session I would take in calorie-void electrolyte drinks (note* calorie deprivation does not equal abstaining from all nutrition, including hydration).  Did it it help me become more efficient at burning fat?  Maybe.  Did it result in a noticeable improvement in performance as I moved out of base training and into more intense efforts.  Not that i could tell.  Did it inhibit some of my training sessions and my ability to recover?  Maybe.

In training (life?) it is important not to become fixated on a particular method or tactic that you hope will help achieve a particular goal, ultimately losing site of the big picture.  It is easy to think that by tweaking one single thing or another, we will unlock the “magic bullet” and instantly find that success we have been missing.  Good luck with that…

Everyone’s body is different, and some athletes may have more or less success with this or any other training theories.  Have a look at Matt’s entire response for further detail on his experience.

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