I am always interested in ways to tweak my diet to make it better for training and health. Carbohydrate periodisation was something I had not heard of before, but sounded interesting. Periodising your carbs can apparently help your body get better at burning fat. This definitely sounded good to me.
So what does carbohydrate periodisation mean?
Carbohydrate periodisation as a training tool has apparently been around a while, but appears to be becoming a the latest buzzword. It is mainly focused on endurance athletes, like cyclists or runners. BJJ does kind of fall a bit short of this level of endurance. But 5 to 10 minute matches are definitely not a sprint. But they are more high intensity than the endurance sports. However my main interest was due to new research suggesting that it makes you a more efficient fat burner.
Indeed, studies (here and here) have shown that when you ‘train low’ you increase the muscle’s adaptive response to training. It increases mitochondrial biogenesis, so you get an increase in the number and volume of mitochondria – the fat-burning powerhouses – in the muscle cells. The more mitochondria you possess, the greater your muscles’ ability to use fat as fuel, sparing your glycogen stores.
Why is this better than a low carb diet?
So if training low is beneficial why not just eat a low carb diet? Putting the research to one side. I tried that for a year, with negative results. It affected my training. Any low intensity stuff, like drilling was fine. But half way through a 5 minute roll I would start to feel weak. By the last minute it was a struggle. If I snagged a little injury it took ages to heal. Worse of all I seemed to catch every cold that was going.
A study at the Australian Institute of Sport found, “Guidelines for daily carbohydrate intakes have evolved from the “one size fits all” recommendation for a high-carbohydrate diets to an individualized approach to fuel needs based on the athlete’s body size and exercise program”.
This means that training on a low carb diet doesn’t translate into any performance benefits.
Worse, it can actually impede your muscles’ ability to make fuel during high-intensity exercise. You literally lose your top gear, which is exactly what happened to me. You can read the study on this here.
The research confirms my mistake. Training low carb constantly makes any high-intensity exercise like rolling, feel much harder. Performance, rather than improving, may drop. Your immune system may become depressed, increasing the risk of infection. Lastly you could lose muscle. Yeah I’m wishing I read this research sooner.
Periodised carbohydrate training however appears to hit both side of the training coin. You get the benefit of ‘training low’ which is your body adapting to burn fat better. This is done by doing some low intensity sessions, like drilling in a low carb state. But doing your more high intensity sessions, like rolling with plenty of carb fuel. This is a much more sustainable approach, as it doesn’t develop the issues of low carb training.
How could I fit this in?
The simplest way to ‘train low’ is to pick just one or two short low-intensity sessions a week alongside your normal training when you are fully fuelled. Then do these sessions in the morning before breakfast. However, this should be a real easy session, nothing too long or too intense. Alternatively, if you want to train low in the evening, keep carbs low at breakfast and lunchtime (keeping to mainly high-protein foods and vegetables). Then go you your low intensity session in the evening.
The method I have been using is ‘sleeping low’. This means I eat normally all day, then I do my usual BJJ class including rolling in the evening. When I get home I eat a low carb recovery meal eggs or something. Then sleep and do a low-intensity session the next morning. Either before breakfast or after only having a high protein breakfast. This is where fortunately I’m able to use a gym near work, to fit this in. I also only do this a couple of times a week. I have found this approach really useful. Will some modifications to my diet I am losing weight. But I am still able to train and recover.
Carbohydrate periodisation training may not work for you. It does take work to make all the parts work. I’m just fortunate that I have been able to make it work. I think the other important point to remember is eating low carb all the time might help your weight. But it is not going to improve your performance in BJJ.