In part 3 of this mini-series, we explore some of the problems and concerns associated with ‘training-low’, how these may be avoided and what a ‘controlled carbohydrate’ approach could look like in practice.

  • Problem 1: How can you ‘train-low’ as part of a hypo caloric weight/fat loss strategy whilst preserving lean muscle mass?
  • Problem 2: Does protein ingestion before and during training compromise the adaptive response of carbohydrate restricted sessions?
  • Problem 3: How can you overcome the fact that riders often find fasted and low-carb sessions challenging psychologically, due to sensations of hunger and/or lethargy.
  • Problem 4: How can you maintain training intensity when training low?
  • Problem 5: How can you train fat metabolism and other energy systems at the same time?

 Skip to part 1 and learn how training and nutrition provide the signals and building blocks to improve performance and enhance adaptations to training.

Skip to part 2 and explore why athlete’s should periodize their nutrition AND training and how new approaches to nutrition are helping professional cyclists to enhance adaptations.

Problem 1:

How can you train-low as part of a hypo caloric weight/fat loss strategy whilst preserving lean muscle mass?

A we defined in part 1, professional riders need to produce high-power outputs to be in a position to work for their team mates and win races. The rider must have sufficient lean muscle mass to be able to produce the power, but they also need to optimise their power to weight ratio to be competitive over a wide range of terrain. Consequently, the rider may need to lose weight, ideally by shedding excess body fatness whilst preserving muscle mass. Training in a glycogen depleted state can be an effective means to achieve this as it improve the body’s capacity to access fat stores, as discussed in part 2.

Solution 1: Increase/Ensure Adequate Protein Intake

Studies suggest that increased protein intake can reduce lean body mass loss during periods of weight loss. In 2010, Mettler et. al. found that consuming 2.3 grams of protein per kilogram, or approximately 35% protein as a proportion of overall calorie intake, was significantly superior to consuming 1.0 g per kilogram or protein, or approximately 15% energy, for maintenance of lean body mass during short-term hypo caloric weight loss. However, this should not be understood that more protein always means less muscle loss. Rather, if an athlete’s protein intake is around, the research suggests that they should increase it to around, particularly during periods of weight loss, and perhaps continue this as a baseline, once their target weight has been met.

Col d'Ornon

Problem 2:

Does protein ingestion before and during training compromise the adaptive response of carbohydrate restricted sessions?

During a 2011 study, Van Proeyen et al. found that ingesting glucose during training offset the adaptive response of low carbohydrate training. Researchers were interested to explore whether protein had a similar effect on blunting the adaptive stimulus of training in a glycogen depleted state. 

Solution 2:

In 2013 Taylor et al. concluding that:

athletes who deliberately incorporate training phases with reduced muscle glycogen into their training programmes may consume protein before, during and after exercise without negating signalling through the AMPK cascade.” 

In summary, protein feeding should not negatively impact the adaptive signals of carbohydrate restricted sessions, so enjoy your shakes!

Problem 3:

Riders often find fasted and low-carb sessions challenging psychologically, due to sensations of hunger and/or lethargy.

 Many riders find it psychologically challenging to set off for a training session without eating breakfast. Also, hunger before and during training can compromise motivation. Whilst few studies have looked into this, Team Sky’s Nigel Mitchell has observed that:

“Protein feeding before and during fasted rides appears to support training and improve adaptation to endurance training while supporting recovery.”

Practical Application

 The following slide presents a sample session for a rider aiming to enhance fat metabolism, preserve lean muscle or offset the sometimes unpleasant sensations of carbohydrate restricted training:

Easy Ride

Problem 4:

How can you maintain training intensity when training low? 

During a period of controlled weight-loss, a rider may use controlled carbohydrate or fasted rides to create an energy deficit and reduce excess body fat. However, they may still be required to carry out some high-intensity efforts to maintain other adaptations. How can you combine training-low with intense efforts?

In recent years, a number of studies have explored the efficacy of carbohydrate mouth rinses: swilling a carbohydrate solution around your mouth before spitting it out. Whilst it may seem like a strange idea, the research suggests that it is an effective method of using carbohydrate to maintain or even enhance performance, without increasing energy intake.

In 2014, Kasper et al conducted a study exploring the effects of caffeine and carbohydrate based mouth rinses on high intensity interval capacity in a fasted and glycogen depleted state. The study compared the effects of a placebo, carbohydrate and carbohydrate + caffeine mouth rinses on exercise capacity. During the trial, participants mouth rinsing with a placebo lasted c. 40 minutes until exhaustion. Participants using a carbohydrate mouth rinse lasted c. 50 minutes. Interestingly, subjects using a rinse combining carbohydrate and caffeine lasted for c. 70 minutes.

Practical application:

  • Carbohydrate mouth rinses could be an effective strategy to maintain intensity when training in a fasted or carbohydrate restricted state.
  • Using a carbohydrate based mouth-rinse with the addition of caffeine could be the most effective solution to improve exercise capacity when training low.
  • Athletes should rinse for at least 10 seconds.
  • Mouth rinsing may also be a useful means of maintaining endurance performance when gastric issues prevent an athlete from ingesting any more carbohydrate.

Problem 5:

How can you train fat metabolism and other energy systems at the same time?

Both amateur and professional riders often find that training time is restricted. For amateurs, the limitations are usually due to family and work commitments. For professionals, the pressures are often imposed by a demanding racing schedule and short off-season, reducing the time available to train outside of competition.

Consequently, both pro and amateur riders need to achieve their training goals in a relatively short space of time. Concurrent training often provides the means to achieve this by targeting multiple energy systems and adaptations during the same training phase. In practice, this may involve carrying out training sessions which combine multiple elements. For example, a stimulus intended to improve fat metabolism as well as some quality intervals.

To avoid compromising the intensity and number of repetitions of an interval set, riders may need to consume carbohydrate. Otherwise, the interval training is unlikely to stimulate the necessary adaptations. One way to a combine a fat metabolism stimulus and high-intensity training stress is to begin rides in a low-carbohydrate state, perhaps following an overnight fast, feed on protein before and during the first part of the session and only begin to consume carbohydrate during the ride, in advance of the quality efforts.

Practical Application

Quality ride

What should you eat on race days and for race simulations?

As we discussed in part 2, nutrition can be thought of in two distinct phases: ‘performance’ for racing and ‘adaptation’ for training. The problems and solutions presented above relate to the adaptation phase but sometimes, nutritional approaches to performance and training overlap.

High Intensity Interval Training

If a rider is working to induce adaptations for high-intensity efforts, it may be beneficial to begin those training sessions following carbohydrate feeding to replenish carbohydrate stores. This will help the athlete to carry out the intervals to the required intensity, duration and number of repetitions to maximise the adaptive signalling of the effort.

Training Camps

If an athlete is tackling a challenging training block, such as a training camp, requiring consecutive days of intense and/or long rides, the athlete may need to increase carbohydrate intake to facilitate recovery. This should enable the rider to meet the energy demands of the training, recover as much as possible each day, complete the camp and benefit from the period of increased volume and/or intensity without getting sick or entering non-functional over-reaching.

Test In Training

Studies suggest that consuming and metabolizing 60 grams of carbohydrate per hour should enhance endurance performance in road cycling events. However, the amount of carbohydrate a rider is able to ingest and metabolize varies between individuals. Some athletes may only be able to tolerate 30 grams an hour, others over 90 grams an hour. Consequently, it is important that rider’s test their race-day nutritional strategy in training, to find out what they can tolerate and if it works.

GPM10 Feed Stop

Adapt The Gut?

In Maughan and Burke’s book ‘Sports Nutrition: More Than Just Calories – Triggers for Adaptation‘, the authors suggest:

“The absorptive capacity of the gut is capable of rapid adaptation to periods of feeding and fasting and is highly responsive to changes in the composition of the diet.” 

Maughan and Burke go on to explain that maximum rate of carbohydrate absorption can be enhanced by a short period of adaptation to a high-carbohydrate diet. One study involved athletes consuming glucose during their workouts during a 4 week training period, which increased the subject’s ability to oxidise carbohydrate. Endurance athletes may benefit from training their guts to tolerate larger volumes of carbohydrate containing fluid. 

Practically, training the gut could simply involve an athlete using a carbohydrate based solution during training in the weeks leading up to an event. This approach could follow a period of fasted or low-carbohydrate training, or even be combined with it by using the carbohydrate based fluid on higher intensity days or following a fasted or protein fed session when training concurrently.


On days when absolute training intensity/duration is not the major goal, train smart (according to the energy demands of the session), but not zero.”

Dr. James Morton (WCSS 2014) 

The performance question model, as shared by Nigel Mitchell, could provide a helpful framework as you work to create your own ‘nutritional performance environment’.

  • Understand the demands of the event
  • Define the performance problem
  • Innovate by applying the knowledge you have gathered
  • Validate the approach by testing it in training or racing
  • Refine the approach (or dump it!) based on the results

As we posited in the first part of this series, there are few absolutes in nutrition. The studies and suggestions in this series have focussed on a road cycling context. Thus unique demands of this activity, relative to other endurance events, reinforces the fact that training and nutrition should be individualized based on how rider’s respond and periodized to reflect their objectives.

Current perspectives still require further investigation and there are many areas of research that should prove to be interesting and potentially useful. I encourage you to read around the subject, speak with a wide range of commentators and equip yourself with the knowledge to make informed choices on and off the bike.

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