For years the tradition has been that runners carb up before a long race, because food is fuel, right? What happens if you don’t fuel your body with food, where does it get its energy from?
Fed vs Fasted
Training fed doesn’t mean you're consuming food during your workouts, it simply means you’ve eaten at some point prior to exercising, usually, at least, an hour before training to ensure you’re not sick. Training in a fasted state means you haven't eaten for the last 12 hours before exercising. In most cases this is going to mean your training in the morning, prior to breakfast, literally meaning ‘breaking the fast’.
Approximately 12 hours after you finish digesting your food, your body goes into its fasted state. The fasted state produces so many hormonal triggers which promote fat to be burnt as fuel that some call this state the ‘fat burning state’.
Increased Insulin Sensitivity
When we eat, our body produces insulin to help us absorb nutrients from our food. Insulin takes the glucose (sugar) from our bloodstream and directs them to the liver, muscle and fat cells to be used as energy when this energy is not used it remains stored as fat. Eating too much can make us more resistant to insulin’s effects and this is where the problems begin. Poor insulin sensitivity increases the risk of heart disease and cancer, as well as making it difficult to lose body fat. Fasting means the body produces insulin less often, so we become resensitised.
Increased Human Growth Hormone
Fasting can promote muscle gain and fat loss due to the increase in human growth hormone. Growth hormones help the body make new muscle tissue, burn fat, and improve bone quality, physical function, and longevity. A study by Intermountain Medical centre showed that 24 hours without food increased men’s human growth hormone by 2,000% and women’s by 1300%. This is a huge increase which could significantly improve your training.
Training Fasted for Muscle Gains
A combination of growth hormone and testosterone makes the perfect muscle building environment. Whilst fasting increases growth hormone, it doesn’t increase testosterone. This is where training comes in, in order to gain muscle, big compound lifts (deadlifts, squats) which activate multiple muscle groups in unison cause a dramatic increase in testosterone. Increased testosterone enhances muscle mass and reduces body fat while also improving energy levels, boosting libido, and even combating depression and heart problems—in both men and women.
Training Fasted for Weight Loss
The theory behind training fasted for weight loss is that instead of burning food for fuel, the fasted state promotes fat to be burned as fuel during exercise. A recent study from the UK published in The British Journal of Nutrition found that when subjects were fasted during morning cardio they burned 20 percent more fat than when they had a meal beforehand. Fasted training also ensures the body absorbs the food eaten after more effectively, by ensuring macronutrients are delivered to the right places rather than being stored as fat.
Training Fasted for Endurance Athletes
There are also potential benefits for endurance athletes as fasted workouts can improve muscle glycogen storage efficiency. What this means is that the body learns to make better use of its energy stores. The occasional fasted training session can help improve your performance during regular fed training. When the body learns to exert itself without any food, it gets better at exercising when it does have fuel in the tank. Other studies also suggest that fasted training can increase your VO2 max, which is the maximal amount of oxygen our lungs can uptake at any given time, the better this is, typically, the higher the level of fitness.
Negative Effects of Training Fasted
Although there are many benefits for training fasted, it’s not without its setbacks. When glycogen is in short supply, your body also reverts to breaking down protein and eventually your muscles’ for fuel. So whilst you may burn more fat you may also burn muscle too, crucial for maintaining a higher BMR, greater bone density and strong, lean physique. Research also suggests that training fasted for long periods of time may slow your metabolism, making it more difficult to burn calories in the long run. This happens because your body adapts to the number of calories you give it in an effort to beat starvation, if you’re frequently making drastic cuts to your body will eventually adjust — burning fewer calories per day to ensure you have enough energy left to stay alive.
A study by Pennington Biomedical Research Centre, discovered that after 22 days of fasting every other day, both men and women encountered a fall in their BMR (base metabolic rate) of 5%, equivalent to 83 calories. Meaning in just over 3 weeks their bodies were already burning less calories.
In addition, motivation can be hard to find when your stomach is rumbling and you're low on energy and the strength you produce in your sessions may not be as high as when you are in the fed state.
Fasted Training Verdict
Whilst fasting before training does have its advantages, it’s also fair to say it may not be the best training protocol for everyone. If you want to try it we suggest adding one or two fasted sessions into your routine per week and comparing your results to your fed sessions. Keep an eye on your weight and record levels of energy to see whether this is the workout protocol for you. Research has proven that you don’t have to eat before training, although fasting can be a difficult protocol to master as eating is our most basic human habit. If you find you get results, stick at it, but be careful of over using the principle and lowering our BMR.