The Value of Self-Experimentation for Runners

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Why experimenting on yourself is better than following trends

By Jonathan Levitt

We’re always hearing “eat this, don’t eat that. Did you hear (insert successful athlete here) doesn’t eat (insert trendy food here)?” How do we know what to believe?

Recently, I read a blog titled “Cutting Through the Clutter.” From the blog:

Another study? Another headline? Another list of things to eat, or not to eat? Every day, there’s new advice — about what diet you should follow and when you should exercise and how much sleep you really need.

The theme of the blog above is that there’s so much information out there and people who aren’t qualified to give direct nutrition or training advice that it’s hard to determine what to believe. The suggestion is to experiment and figure out what works for you. The “eat well, exercise often and sleep” guideline is a start, but figuring out what makes sense for you, personally, is where you will find the real value.

Tom Brady’s diet recently received a ton of attention. It highlighted how he doesn’t eat tomatoes, deemed as “inflammatory foods,” or sugar. Mike Roussell, a PhD nutritionist, responded in a Men’s Health article explaining why this made no sense:

His diet doesn’t work because it is “local” or because it is completely void of eggplant and grapes, or because his chef never cooks with olive oil (only coconut oil). It works because it is low in added sugar, high in vegetables, and moderate in lean protein, and he’s militantly consistent with it. That’s the reason ANY diet can work.

Tom Brady is one of the best quarterbacks ever, and has been wildly successful for a long time, in a league where the average career is 2.8 years. Of course people are going to listen to what he and his personal chef say.

Other athletes have become vegan and have seen great results. At InsideTracker, we are working with athletes who restrict their diet, which limits their capacity to improve. This is indicated through blood analysis with confirmation by multiple rounds of testing. What works for some, does not work for all.

For a long time, I’ve heard that fasted training is beneficial for athletes, especially endurance athletes looking to become more efficient in the later miles of a run. As a result, I have been doing 4-5 of my 7 or 8 weekly runs in a fasted state (just a cup of black coffee prior). I’ll refuel for long runs, but I can usually get through 0-12 miles with steady energy in a fasted state and have many long track workouts to show for it.

My performance is good, and I don’t usually have energy issues while training. I’ve PR’d quite a few times in the last couple of months and have felt strong during most races, but I know I’m nowhere near my potential. Energy levels in the afternoon and evening have improved, but there’s still a long way to go in that area as well.

Some things I’ve been thinking about and experimenting with lately: improving sleep quality and energy levels. After five InsideTracker tests showing a high glucose level (and +10 biological years on InnerAge as a result), I decided it’s time to pay more attention.

InsideTracker Self Experimentation graphic1

Ok fine, I get it.

I’ve decided to experiment with NON-fasted training and eating MORE carbs. This action comes after speaking with some of the experts at InsideTracker (Ashley Reaver, Registered Dietitian and Carl Valle, Director of Innovation and a track coach), listening to a recent Endurance Planet podcast on low carb/fasted training and a brief conversation with Generation UCAN, a sports nutrition product designed to help regulate blood sugar levels, I will drink UCAN prior to every training run (yes I paid for it/no they didn’t ask me to do this) and testing again in a month or two to monitor the impact.

InsideTracker Self Experimentation graphic2

Why? When I asked UCAN they said:

Our dietitian Seth tells us that your body is always trying to stabilize blood sugar so when you train fasted, your muscles pull from your liver glycogen or breakdown stored protein into glucose and this may cause a spike, whereas if you keep your glucose steady with UCAN, you wouldn’t need to pull from your liver or breakdown proteins because your glucose is already steady, thus no spike.

This hasn’t been confirmed in any sort of trials, and they aren’t promising this to be the case. This is exactly why it’s important to test, experiment and then retest and figure out what works for your body.

We speak with pro and elite athletes every day (at InsideTracker) who say they sleep for 5 or 6 hours a night, at best. As a result, Testosterone levels can hover below 300-400, which is a recipe for disaster as a pro (or amateur!) athlete. Optimal Testosterone levels build muscle, improve strength, and increase the body’s capacity to use oxygen during exercise. Non-optimal or low levels contribute to poor performance and increased injury risk.

Runner’s World published an article a few days ago on “6 Ways to Change Your Running for the Better in 2016.” It was the best running article I’ve ever read. Sleep was highlighted and the issue with “what’s good to eat?”

Every day batches of articles circulate the Internet extolling the virtues of eating like a caveman, abstaining from sugar, eating more fat, eating less fat, going raw, and everything in between.

Ben Rosario, the head coach of an elite running team called Northern Arizona Elite, says “there’s one other ingredient that runners of all levels neglect. ‘Sleep, sleep, sleep.’”

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Auto tracking sleep time via Fitbit

I like using Fitbit’s sleep tracking for their auto tracking function, and it provides a solid look at trends, I also use Beddit on a nightly basis for a better insight on sleep quality. Monitoring sleep can help show you that while you may have been in bed at 9:30 p.m. and woke up at 5 a.m., you may not have actually been sleeping for those 7.5 hours.

What’s the impact of making a good night sleep a non-negotiable part of my training? Testosterone levels that would get me flagged for doping if I were a pro athlete. (The warning below for high T is generally related to using illegal methods to reach high levels.) Sleep is the single best performance enhancer available for athletes, and often the most overlooked, until you see just how much it can help you, simply by looking at your own data to show the potential for improvement.

The only explanation I can think of for the recent spike in the T level is that I’ve started to use blue light blocking lenses when using my computer or phone before bed, which can prevent the disruption in quality sleep that occurs when looking at a screen before bed. (More on that here, bottom of page). Either that or adding two heavy strength-training days at the gym each week (in the evenings of a hard morning run) has contributed to that increase, which might be more likely.

InsideTracker Self Experimentation graphic4Speaking of energy levels, achieving ideal iron levels is another thing I’ve been working on. There’s a balance between managing health and athletic performance and many coaches have said, “great sport begins where good health ends.” This is another place where monitoring the impact of your own nutrition gives a huge impact. We all absorb nutrients differently, and some people may be able to eat red meat occasionally and receive enough iron. Others, especially those who do a lot of (iron- depleting) endurance training may need more, or need to get it from other sources. Jenny Hadfield, a well-regarded running coach and writer, says:

InsideTracker Self Experimentation graphic5What works for one runner may not be the best for another. For instance, I coach one runner who is very low in iron, and another that runs too high in iron. If they followed the general recommendation to eat more iron-rich foods, it would help one and might hurt the other.

After my cholesterol levels started to rise a bit, our dietitian suggested that I eat more shellfish, specifically clams, for iron. I’ve never eaten clams before last month, but now I love them. If you don’t try new things, it’s hard to improve. Along the way, iron levels AND cholesterol levels improved. The InsideTracker team likes to say boosting ferritin is like filling a pool with a garden hose – it takes a very long time, so a reversal in the downward trend is a good thing.

I’m pretty excited to see what happens with the non-fasted training and continued progress with the iron/ferritin levels, especially with the upcoming increase in training volume come February.

InsideTracker Self Experimentation graphic6

Curious to see what’s working for you and more importantly, what could be tweaked to help you reach your best? Check out!

Jonathan Levitt is the sales manager for Segterra (InsideTracker) and a November Project tribesman that you may have seen tearing it up at an early morning workout or dropping another PR at a local race.

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