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Integrating nutrition & training: “Train High, Sleep Low, Train Low”

Why adapting your diet to your training instead of a highly rigid diet may enhance training adaptations. The approach has been dubbed "train high, sleep low, train low."

It’s all the buzz. Everywhere you look, athletes – especially endurance athletes – are talking about fats and carbs, intermittent fasting, low-carb high-fat (LCHF) diets, and fasted workouts. But there is a more holistic approach that can enhance physiological adaptations.

“Train High, Sleep Low, Train Low.” Photo: Antoine Desroches

The scientific literature suggests that a nutritional approach that integrates both life, training and performance objectives is most beneficial. However, you can also perform a few ‘hacks’ to match your diet with your training.

Related: How to become a better fat burner

Last year, we reported on a review that had been published in Science, which explored the nutritional approaches of endurance athletes. Researchers Louise Burke (Head of sports nutrition at Australia’s Institute) and John Hawley (director of The Mary MacKillop Institute for Health Research) proposed that adopting a periodized nutritional approach is a theory that many endurance athletes use, and an approach that should get more attention. 

Burke and Hawley call this “Train High, Sleep Low, Train Low.” 

“We formulated a novel approach in which we can undertake high-quality, high-intensity training [with a high carbohydrate intake] and then prolong the duration of low CHO availability during recovery and subsequent aerobic exercise, thereby potentially extending the time course of transcriptional activation of metabolic genes and their target proteins. We have termed this practice ‘train high, sleep low, train low.’”

“Commencing endurance training with lowered muscle glycogen (stored carbs) stores results in greater transcriptional activation of enzymes involved in carbohydrate and fat oxidation, as well as greater mitochondrial (powerhouse of the cell) biogenesis, than undertaking exercise with a normal or elevated glycogen content.”

Diagram was taken from Burke and Hawley’s review in Science.

So high-intensity training sessions would follow an increase/normal ingestion of carbohydrates. Following that session, both carbohydrate and protein stores would be replenished, but not in excess. Then after 12 to 16 hours of fasting, carbohydrates levels would be low and a low-intensity session (easy/recovery or long and controlled) can be conducted. This way the physiological benefits of a fasted workout or LCHF diet can be achieved with a reduced risk to health. Fasted workouts are a risk to health, and should be performed at a low intensity. Before beginning any fasted workouts be sure to consult your coach or a trusted professional on how you may structure these sessions into your plan. 

Related: Fasted workouts part of a periodized nutritional approach

This is not to suggest that the ketogenic diet or another isn’t beneficial. However, it does make the case that you can manipulate your diet in such a way that you can enhance physiological adaptations without exposing yourself to unnecessary risks or damage. It also provides a practical approach for amateurs – one that is used by professional athletes.