Can A Depleted-Glycogen “Sleep Low” Strategy Improve Your Performance?

The traditional nutrition dogma for athletes - in particular endurance athletes - has classically been to consume large amounts of carbohydrates pre- and post-exercise to optimize recovery and trigger maximal training adaptations. The sport nutrition research is very clear; muscle glycogen (the carbohydrate stores in your muscles) is replenished much more readily in the first few hours after training and higher carb (and protein) meals help to replenish glycogen and buffer training-induced increases in cortisol stress hormones.1,2

What did athletes do a few generations ago, before supplements and ready made food were so easily available? Did they ever not eat after exercise? And if so, did it derail their recovery and performance? Not likely. Interesting new research is uncovering how "timing" your carb intake and strategically avoiding replenishing glycogen may actually help improve your future performance (if done correctly).

What is the Sleep Low Strategy?

The "sleep low" strategy is defined as training intensely in the evening (after a typical meal) and then selectively withholding carbs in your subsequent meal after exercise (protein and fats are allowed) before going to bed. This strategy limits glycogen uptake after exercise, and thus your subsequent training session will be done with low glycogen stores, typically the following morning at low-intensity (e.g. light jog or easy lifts). 

For high performing athletes, the idea of purposefully not replenishing glycogen post-training seems to be a bad idea, as it's shown to be a major performance and recovery drain. However, a recent study in France of triathletes highlighted the potential benefits, if done acutely, of a sleep low strategy on performance.

Twenty-one triathletes were divided into two groups: a sleep low group and a control group. They ate the exact same total daily carbohydrates over the 3-weeks, but at different times throughout the day. The control group consumed their carbs across the entire day (i.e. breakfast, lunch and dinner) while the sleep low group consumed all of their carbs at breakfast and lunch, but nothing after their evening training, or before their morning session.

The researchers found after 3 weeks of doing the exact same training protocol, the sleep low group improved significantly more than the control in their submaximal cycling economy, supra-maximal cycling time to exhaustion and 10-km running time, and significantly decreased their fat mass.3

Don’t Cut the Carbohydrates Just Yet

If acutely restricting carbs helps performance, how far should you go? In today's "become a fat-burning machine" media coverage, should all endurance athletes be restricting carbohydrates to upgrade their performance?  

Like most things in life, context really matters. If you want to lose weight and exercise at 65% of your maximum effort, or take 6-18 months to adapt to a ketogenic diet, then a low-carb, high-fat diet is a pretty good approach. However, if winning a gold medal or beating elite competition is your goal then relying on fat for fuel is not going to cut it. (The exception might be "ultra" endurance events).

At high exercise intensities – like what you’d experience in a race – your body runs on about 90% carbohydrate. That’s right, when it’s time to hit the accelerator and pass your competition it won’t be the fats powering you, it will be the carbs. In fact, high-fat diets actually impair the muscles’ ability to breakdown glycogen, thereby limiting your access to the high-octane fuel.4

Individualize Your Plan To Supercharge Performance

Fortunately, it may be possible to get the best of both worlds, if your goal is performance. Use periodic three to four day blocks to “sleep low” and subsequently “train low” the following morning (i.e. low glycogen) to improve your fat-burning potential and ability to finish off a race.

But then avoid this approach when you get closer to competition and performance becomes critical. The research is still very clear that come race day, adding the carbs back in will allow you to perform better.

However, if your goal is to lose weight, boost your energy, and improve your health then the sleep low strategy could be very beneficial. I regularly see very active and experienced cyclists who ride hundreds of miles per week and are still 20-30 lb. overweight because of their very high-carbohydrate fueling.

Furthermore, this focus on fueling enough before, during and after exercise can lead to an excess of simple carbohydrates in the system and subsequent increases in triglycerides and smaller, denser LDL particles which all increase cardiovascular disease risk.5

A sleep low and train low strategy could be a game-changer for these athletes. Not only would it improve cycling performance, but it would also significantly reduce body-fat stores and improve health.

In truth, athletes have been tinkering with sleep low and train low strategies for decades, however now scientists are starting to get an understanding of how these strategies work and who they can potentially impact most. Think of “sleep low” and “train low” as just a few more tools in your tool belt of training strategies. Plan and periodize their use to maximize their benefits and limit their potential shortcomings.

Dr. Marc Bubbs ND, CISSN, CSCS

 

References

[1] Ivy J et al. Glycogen resynthesize after exercise: effect of carbohydrate intake. Int J Sports Med. 1998 Jun; 19 Suppl 2():S142-5.

[2] Tipton K et al. Timing of amino acid-carobhydrate ingestion alters anabolic response of muscle to resistance training. Am J Physiol Endocrinol Metab. 2001 Aug; 281(2):E197-206.

[3] Marquet L et al. Enhanced Endurance Performance by Periodization of Carbohydrate Intake: “Sleep Low” Strategy. Med Sci Sports Exerc. 2016 Apr;48(4):663-72.

[4] Stellingwerth, T et al. Decreased PDH activation and glycogenolysis during exercise following fat adaptation with carbohydrate restoration. Am J Physiol Endocrinol Metab. 2006 Feb;290(2):E380-8.

[5] Sachdeva A. Lipid levels in patients hospitalized with coronary artery disease: An analysis of 136,905 hospitalizations in Get With The Guidelines. American Heart Journal. January 2009. Volume 157, Issue 1, Pages 111–117.e2

 

7 Reasons Exercise Is "The Best Pill" For Chronic Disease

The idea that exercise is the best ‘pill’ you’ll ever take to promote a healthy heart and blood vessels is consequently gathering steam in the medical community.  World leaders in cardiovascular medicine gathered at the 2010 European Society of Cardiology Congress Conference in Stockholm, Sweden.  The main topic of discussion was the impact that moderate exercise can have on not only preventing cardiovascular disease (CVD) but reversing CVD in patients with existing damage.  This is a profound statement as according to the American Heart Association we currently spend 475 million dollars annually treating CVD. The scientific data presented supports the notion of exercise as a ‘first line’ therapeutic medical intervention - not just a token preventative option - for patients with cardiovascular disease.

Interval Training Improves 5 Markers of Disease

A very interesting study at the Conference entitled “Exercise: from leisure activity to therapeutic option,” was presented by Dr. Denis Clement, highlighting the relationship between low peak VO2 and poor prognosis in post-myocardial infarction – or post-heart attack – patient outcomes.  These results outline the relationship between poor aerobic fitness and poor outcomes after heart attacks.  His investigative group concluded that aerobic exercise should be a ‘first line’ therapeutic option when treating CVD patients.  That is to say Dr Clement’s medical team view exercise as the most important treatment option for cardiovascular patients due to its overwhelming positive impact on cardiovascular health.   His team has also seen benefits using interval aerobic training on Metabolic Syndrome or Syndrome X, a growing epidemic in North America.  Metabolic syndrome is defined as a combination of elevated triglycerides, elevated blood pressure, elevated blood sugar or insulin levels, decreased HDL or ‘good’ cholesterol, and increased body fat levels or body mass index (BMI).  Dr. Clement’s preliminary work shows the power that one single intervention – interval aerobic training – can have on changing all five disease-markers!  Not even the best drug in the world can have this wide reaching beneficial impact.

Increasing Strength Improves Heart Health

Another study presented in Stockholm, by Dr Francois Carre, discussed the beneficial impact that weight training can have on cardiovascular health.  Dr Carre, an expert anesthesiologist, believes that properly executed weight training targeting large muscle groups has a multitude of profound heart healthy benefits.  His team’s research observed positive correlations between increased strength and improved cardiovascular health. This is incredible evidence that weight training can prevent cardiovascular degeneration and drastically reduce the incidence of CVD. Dr Carre’s research demonstrates that the benefits of exercise far outweigh the risks for CVD patients, however he does suggests patients be evaluated by a physician first before starting a new exercise regime and be given a personalized program to maximize their results.

Resistance Training Improves Blood Pressure

We often think if we are not losing weight after hours of training at the gym that we are not getting results, that our efforts are inconsequential.  The studies presented at the Cardiology Conference in Stockholm tell a different story.  They provide gold-standard scientific evidence that exercise is improving the structure and function of your heart and blood vessels, setting up the foundation for optimal health.   Dr Rainer Rauramaa of the Finish Institute of Exercise further supports the use of resistance training as a therapeutic tool.  He has stated "moderate resistance training exercise should be considered the ‘cornerstone in the treatment of hypertension’. He made this conclusion after presenting research highlighting the positive impact of moderate resistance training on blood pressure and vascular disease.  His investigative team discovered “a clear anti-atherosclerotic effect” - or plaque reducing effect - in blood vessels due to strength training, regardless of whether or not the patient lost weight. This point is especially important. Even if you don’t lose any weight in the gym, you are improving your cardiovascaular health tremendously, and fighting off degeneration and disease.  Best of all, there are no negative side-effects! Actually, one could say the side-effects of resistance training are increased energy, vitality, immune and digestive function, and better sleep! Sounds like something we all could use a little bit more of.

The overwhelming message from the Cardiology Conference was that traditional drug therapy is really only a ‘palliative’ or ‘band-aid’ therapy and did not address the underlying causes of the disease.  Dr Rainer Hambrecht of Germany was so impressed with the results of his study that he concluded, "I would be happy if I could convince everybody with coronary artery disease to participate in a moderate exercise program." He presented material highlighting the positive impact that 12 months of exercise had on myocardial perfusion – or blood supply to heart muscles – and the symptom relief it gives patients suffering from angina or chest pain.  His data showed that exercise was just as good as the leading cardiovascular drug on patient outcomes.  However, exercise was the only thing that improved endothelial function and slowed the progression of disease, due to its holistic and overall impact on the body.  This is a profound testimonial to the powerful positive impact of exercise on heart health.

Get started on an individualized heart healthy protocol of exercise, diet and supplementation. 

Dr Marc Bubbs ND, CISSN, CSCS

Want to learn more? Listen to Dr. Charlie Weingroff PhD talk exercise, health and performance on the Dr. Bubbs Performance Podcast...

 

References:

1)     Clement DL. Treatment of hypertension in patients with peripheral arterial disease: an update. Curr Hypertens Rep. 2009 Aug;11(4):271-6. Review.

2)     American Heart Associtation, [www.americanheart.org/presenter.jhtml?identifier=4475] Jan 2010

3)     Corra U, Carre F et al.  Secondary prevention through cardiac rehabilitation: physical activity counselling and exercise training: key components of the position paper from the Cardiac Rehabilitation Section of the European Association of Cardiovascular Prevention and Rehabilitation. Eur Heart J. 2010 Aug;31(16):1967-74. Epub 2010 Jul 19.

4)     Laukkanen JA, Mäkikallio TH, Rauramaa R, Kurl S.  Asymptomatic ST-segment depression during exercise testing and the risk of sudden cardiac death in middle-aged men: a population-based follow-up study. Eur Heart J. 2009 Mar;30(5):558-65. Epub 2009 Jan 23.

5)     Clement, DL. “Hypertension and Peripheral Disease”.  2010 European Society of Cardiology Congress in Stockholm, Sweden.

6)     Carre, DL. “Exercise Modalities for Cardiovascular Patients”.  2010 European Society of Cardiology Congress in Stockholm, Sweden.

7)     Hambrecht, R. “Training Away Angina”. 2010 European Society of Cardiology Congress in Stockholm, Sweden.

8)     Rauramaa, R. “ Exercise As Treatment Option for Hypertension.” 2010 European Society of Cardiology Congress in Stockholm, Sweden.

9)     Gielen S, Hambrecht R, Schuler GC.  Commentary on Viewpoint: Exercise and cardiovascular risk reduction: time to update the rationale for exercise? J Appl Physiol. 2008 Aug;105(2):771.