by Brian Maslach
I can recall hearing about fasting almost as early as when I first became interested in nutrition, but until a couple years ago I was skeptical there was a place for it amongst endurance athletes. You see, prior to my experimenting with Intermittent Fasting (IF) I was that type who would always wake up ravenous. If I didn't eat within 30 minutes of getting out of bed my thoughts would be solely focussed on finding food as quickly as possible. I would also experience a similar scenario if I went more than a few hours without food during the day. For someone who loves food, this was great from the standpoint that I'd get to eat again, but also made me feel like a slave to eating. "Hangry" was an all-to-common state for me. Unfortunately, this feeding schedule was reinforced by the often-touted concept that we should eat every 3 hours for optimal health and performance.
Thus, the freedom from having to eat every few hours is what initially intrigued me most about the prospect of fasting. Although, for the longest time I couldn't grasp how an active person who go so long without food. The thought of doing so would nearly make me lightheaded from low blood sugar. Nonetheless, I remained fascinated by stories of people who'd go extended periods without food.
More recently I began hearing about Intermittent Fasting and it piqued my attention. If you're not familiar Intermittent Fasting (often referred to as IF) it involves going for 16 hours periods, or longer, without eating. In many ways, it's the opposite end of the spectrum from eating 5 small meals a day. After some trial and error I've found it to be a simple and effective way to improve my body composition and endurance.
The longer breaks from eating allow your digestive system more downtime and for me this has translated into less bloating and gas (fun topic!). The constant barrage of food I used to consume seemed to be a never-ending source of inflammation. I tried all sorts of "diets" to help lessen this, and while some helped, nothing has made as big of a difference than simply allowing my digestive system more downtime.
An even bigger benefit in my eyes, however, is improved insulin sensitivity. I've written about insulin sensitivity a few times and consider it to be the crucial factor in getting and staying lean, as well as performing well throughout long workouts and races. Simply put, being more insulin sensitive means the body is more effective at releasing the optimal amount of this hormone to regulate blood sugar without storing excess in fat cells. Diet and exercise are the most effective natural means to improve insulin sensitivity, and Intermittent Fasting is the most powerful change I've found with the way I eat. I consider it one more way to train my body to perform better.
So what do I do? While some people practice Intermittent Fasting daily, I've found that a once or twice per week approach works best for me. I have difficulty consuming enough calories when doing it more often and my performance begins to suffer. Friday is my main day for Intermittent Fasting, but I'll sometimes do it on Mondays as well if I haven't put myself in too big of a caloric deficit over the weekend. I picked these days as they are often active-recovery or rest days for me. I was initially concerned that my performance would decline the day after Intermittent Fasting, but to my surprise I found that I have better endurance on Saturday after eating this way on Friday.
Yeah, I've been known to occasionally break fasts with pizza. Don't hate!
One of the most attractive things about IF is its' simplicity. I don't like overcomplicated training or nutrition as I've found such plans are most often not worth the effort. With IF the main thing is to allow at least 16 hours between meals. This means that if I eat dinner at 8pm (early for me), I won't eat again until noon (or later) the next day.
I didn't start Intermittent Fasting this way, however. Had I tried to go so long without food I probably would have been arrested for assaulting someone. Rather, I challenged myself to go a little longer each time before breaking my mini fast. After a few months I was able to get to late afternoon before eating. Unless I'm traveling, I don't usually push myself that long anymore. I simply go as long as I comfortably can before breaking the fast. If my body tells me I need to eat before noon, I will. If I find that I'm doing fine and don't feel the need to eat, I'll wait until I feel the need to do so. Listening to one's body is key.
I don't drink juices or protein drinks while fasting, either. I've tried each at different times and don't think they helped. They seem counterproductive to what I want to accomplish. I will, however, drink coffee and plenty of water (without getting crazy). I'll usually start the day with my bastardization of Bulletproof Coffee, which is a tablespoon of butter and a tablespoon of virgin coconut oil blended at high speed with hot coffee. Other days I'll stick to an Americano or pour-over coffee with a little butter and coconut oil stirred in for taste and less hassle. The coffee/butter/coconut oil blend does seem to even out the caffeine response for me, which is great since I am sensitive to stimulants.
When breaking my fast I'll eat as healthy as I can within reason. What does this mean? Since I'm eating less often, my appetite is larger and I'll allow myself leeway. While I don't follow a specific diet, my normal eating pattern most closely resembles the Mediterranean Diet. I'll focus on getting lean(er) protein sources, vegetables, fruits, and some grains, but I may allow myself an indulgence (or two). Intermittent Fasting isn't about consuming fewer calories to lose weight - at least it's not for me. I practice it to train my body to go longer without food, and the health benefits this brings.
Anything else? Well, I do find that I'll get chilled quicker in cool environments, so I'll be sure to carry an extra layer with me. Hot coffee and tea help. If I'll be traveling, I'll make a smoothie ahead of time and have it chilled in a thermos so it will be ready when I need nutrition. You can find one of my favorite recipes here.
I'd love to hear of your experience with fasting and/or intermittent fasting. I'm also happy to answer any questions. Just post them below.
As with any significant change to your diet, check with your physician if there's any doubt whether it's right for you. This is especially true if you have any medical conditions or are using medication.