Should I Lower My Calorie and Carb Intake on Days I Don't Workout?
There are more than 400,000 posts on social media with the hashtag “keep hammering”. It’s a mantra made famous by a lot of folks in the outdoor world and one that pays homage to the fact that there will be times you don’t feel like doing something, but that feeling doesn’t matter- do it anyway.
I’m the first to agree that there’s a time to press in and do hard things; it’s the catalyst of growth after all. With that said, I’ve also seen athletes miss out on seeing their full potential because they refused to see planned rest days as beneficial as they did training days.
What’s more is, many of those same athletes will ask “if it’s a rest day; should I lower my calorie and carb intake?” I can see the logic in the question, but let’s look deeper at the dynamic of including rest days, keeping calories high, and how it all results in better performance.
What happens that makes rest important?
The science half of my brain wants to make this in paragraph form, but bullet points are so much easier to understand in my opinion. Here’s why more isn’t always better:
The growth of a muscle, in a nutshell, is the breakdown of that muscle followed by a period of repair. This constant process creates growth for the muscle. The growth of the muscle increases how much you’re able to do. The increase in your potential means you train better and as such- perform better when it counts. If there is only one side to that equation (“hammer, hammer, hammer!”) without a period of repair, the cycle isn’t complete and you never reach your full potential.
The “why” behind the above lies in a complex system of hormone function that, when operating in an ideal environment, supports growth and repair of muscles. This system gets tremendously taxed when it’s overworked. The net result is poor recovery and a terrible nutrition status; all of which make training progressions and changes in weight more difficult.
In a nutshell; you might progress with overtraining, but never to the degree you would with smart training that includes planned rest days. The rest prevents the overtaxing of the system and creates an ideal environment for the body to grow and thrive.
What’s the minimum effective dose?
Faaaar less than you’d probably think.
Mike Prevost, Ph D., who in my opinion, is the go-to guy for training and ruck training suggests two weighted rucks per week would offer a guy ample training opportunity to progressively increase the amount of weight they can carry over a longer distance. Not only is his stuff super easy to understand, but it’s also been fire tested by the Navy’s special ops guy. The links to it are below.
A common question I get is “should I cut out calories on days I rest?”
The short answer to that is no.
Your body, though not active in the sense that it’s exerting energy, is actively requiring energy to repair the work you’ve already done. In addition, what you’re consuming on rest days is an investment in the work you’re preparing for the rest of the week.
The nutrition piece of not taking rest days leads you to poor stores of fuel and the inability to properly repair. Though you’d still be able to engage in an activity, you’d fail to see your full potential. I think it’s fair to say most all of us are most interested in the latter half of that versus just training for training’s sake.
Well, What do you Mean it Gives Me ‘Poor Stores’?
Well, it does this in a couple of ways…
Reduced muscle glycogen stores. Muscle glycogen is the fuel for the muscles. You have small storage tanks in each of your muscles so when that muscle is active, it has a fuel to fire it. If you take no rest days, those tanks never have the opportunity to fill to max capacity. Sure, sure, there may be ½ of a tank or even ¾ of a tank, but full potential isn't achieved with ½ butt nutrition stores.
Much research has suggested stores of glycogen are replaced by aiming for an intake of 2-3g of carbohydrate per pound of bodyweight for athletes training about 1 hour per session. You would adjust up or down for more or less training volumes.
Poor Muscle Protein Synthesis. The body can convert other sources of energy not intended to be used as energy into energy if the body lacks adequate carbohydrates for training. That is to say, if there is poor carbohydrate stores (glycogen), the body can use parts of protein designed to repair muscles from training and create useable energy in the form of carbohydrates. The process is called “gluconeogenesis” if you're interested in reading more on it.
It would be good for an athlete to aim for a protein intake ranging anywhere from 0.6-1.0g per pound of bodyweight while in a season of high training. Where you fit in that range largely depends on the type of exercise you’re doing (resistance training would fall towards the upper end with more endurance-focused athletes falling on the lower-to-mid range end of things).
These highlight two of the main reasons not taking rest days can hinder performance from a nutrition standpoint. Others can be affected, but these are two of the most significant in my opinion.
Will there be times you don't feel like training, but need to anyway? Absolutely. However, there’s a point when even the strongest wood gets damaged if you “keep hammering”.
Remember, more doesn’t always mean better in the world of training, performance, and nutrition. Find the sweet spot and learn to see even low-volume “rest” days as beneficial in the world of training.
Citation and Additional Resources
Carbohydrate intake guidelines: Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics and Am. Coll. of Sports Med. Nutrition and athletic performance. J. Acad Nutr Diet. 2016; 116:501-528.
Resources to/from Mike Prevost
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