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Keeping Fat off while Eating To Perform (Control Days)

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I believe this article is the missing ingredient for most people.  I wrote it based on information I was receiving from Science Lab members.  The “Science Lab” has basically three main components: the seminars, the private group, and of course the book you purchase, “Metabolic Flexibility for High Intensity Athletes”.  Click here for details.

I refer to “control days” a lot.  They’re part of developing a flexible, intuitive style of eating, as well as a high-functioning metabolism.  At the most basic level, control days are days where you rely mostly on fats; it’s that simple, yet people tend to over-think the subject quite a bit.

As a 165 lb. male, I have two personal versions of the control day:  A “low carb” day that comes in around 125g of carbs, and another day (which I use very sparingly) where I modify down to 75g of carbs.  The 125g day comes up fairly often, but I might only utilize the 75g day after holiday’s or (as an example) weekends in Vegas.  I have been eating like this for almost three years now, so my body is relatively flexible as it relates to moving from one energy system (fats) to another energy system (carbs).  As someone who CrossFits and stays pretty active, I’m never very concerned about “spillover” or holding too much water due to excess carbohydrate consumption (I actually think the concept of fat spillover one any one given day is a bit silly).  In truth, men have it a little bit easier as far as carb loading goes, but women need to be a bit more cautious.  As an example, my wife’s control days are pretty similar to mine, but she uses 100g of carbs.  It’s not a hard-and-fast rule where we are counting calories, but more of an intuitive approach where the goal is to simply eat less carbs.

For people struggling to meet their protein or carbohydrate needs, check out this article I released on the “Supplements I put in my body”.

How to Schedule Control Days around your Training 

Hopefully, you take a few rest days here and there.  I am talking to way too many people that have active recovery days in an attempt to screw themselves into the ground and lose that last bit of abdominal fat.  Not only is this ineffective, but it’s counter-productive and it puts you at risk for injury.  If you want to get rid of that last bit of fat, there are two ways to do that:  add more rest days (which will add more control days) and start focusing on building/maintaining your muscle.  Allow performance to be the driver and stay away from very low carb, extreme deficit dieting.  It’s a trap!

The logic behind implementing control days goes like this:  When you’re not deliberately trying to gain weight, or if you feel “watery”, you throw in a day where you eat fewer carbs.

Yes, you read that right; to control inflammation, you eat fewer carbs.  It can get a bit confusing, so here’s a primer:

  • If you WOD today, and also WOD tomorrow, eat carbs around your workouts.  You could optionally eat carbs tonight depending upon your goals.  This will ensure that you’re fueled for your workout tomorrow morning.
  • If you did not WOD today, but you do WOD tomorrow, eat some carbs tonight. (Again, this is optional depending on your goals.)  Even though you didn’t train, you may need some carbohydrate to fuel your training the next day.
  • If you WOD today but do not WOD tomorrow, try a control day.  Eat fewer carbs (mostly in the evening) and more fat/protein (throughout the day), as you do not need to fuel strenuous training today nor do you need to prepare for the next day.  This will all go hand-in-hand to help you clear up inflammation.

Here are a few weekly schedules to help clarify the concept.  This first example is for someone who CF’s 3x a week with no back-to-back training days:

  • Sunday:  Rest.  Eat some (*this is optional) carbs in the evening for tomorrow’s WOD.
  • Monday:  WOD.  Eat carbs around your WOD’s since you rest tomorrow (possibly using pre-workout carbs but avoiding post workout carbs).
  • Tuesday:  Rest.  Eat less carbs since you rest tomorrow.
  • Wednesday:  Rest.  Eat some (*this is optional) carbs in the evening for tomorrow’s WOD.
  • Thursday:  WOD.  Eat carbs around your WOD’s since you rest tomorrow (possibly using pre-workout carbs but avoiding post workout carbs).
  • Friday:  Rest.  Eat some (*this is optional) carbs to fuel tomorrow’s WOD.
  • Saturday:  WOD.  Eat carbs around your WOD’s since you rest tomorrow (possibly using pre-workout carbs but avoiding post workout carbs).

Here’s another example; in this case, the hypothetical individual has some back-to-back training days and WODs 4x a week:

  • Sunday:  Rest.  Eat some (*this is optional) carbs in the evening for tomorrow’s WOD.
  • Monday:  WOD.  Eat carbs around your WOD’s since you rest tomorrow (possibly using pre-workout carbs but avoiding post workout carbs).
  • Tuesday:  Rest.  Eat some (*this is optional) carbs in the evening for tomorrow’s WOD.
  • Wednesday:  WOD.  Eat carbs around your WOD’s AND eat some (*optional) carbs in the evening to set up tomorrows WOD.
  • Thursday:  WOD.  Eat carbs around your WOD’s since you rest tomorrow (possibly using pre-workout carbs but avoiding post workout carbs).
  • Friday:  Rest.  Eat some (*this is optional) carbs in the evening for tomorrow’s WOD.
  • Saturday:  WOD.  Eat carbs around your WOD’s since you rest tomorrow (possibly using pre-workout carbs but avoiding post workout carbs).

In this final example, we’re training 3x a week with 2 consecutive rest days.  Fewer training days equate to more control days:

  • Sunday:  Rest.  Eat less carbs.
  • Monday:  Rest.  Eat less carbs.
  • Tuesday:  Rest.  Eat some (*this is optional) carbs in the evening for tomorrow’s WOD.
  • Wednesday:  WOD.  Eat carbs around your WOD’s since you rest tomorrow (possibly using pre-workout carbs but avoiding post workout carbs).
  • Thursday:  Rest.  Eat some (*this is optional) carbs in the evening for tomorrow’s WOD.
  • Friday:  WOD.  Eat carbs around your WOD’s AND eat some (*optional) carbs in the evening to set up tomorrows WOD.
  • Saturday:  WOD.  Eat carbs around your WOD’s since you rest tomorrow (possibly using pre-workout carbs but avoiding post workout carbs).

NOTE:  We go over this a bit in the next section, but the goal of each workout is to be at 100% capacity and that requires you to eat some carbs around your training.  This isn’t always consistent with fat loss goals, so you are always looking for a reasonable compromise to fuel your activity while getting aggressive with fat loss occasionally.  If, as an example, you take all of the situations above with optional carbs and just remove carbs, that is pretty much the same thing that probably landed you at this site in the first place (i.e. your fat loss and weight loss will plateau).  Remember, these are guidelines and templates; it is up to you to find the sweet spot and hammer that as it relates to your goals.

Why you still Need Carbs on Control Days

This is a cyclical approach, and if you can dial it in, basically have the secret to optimal health.  There are no “reefed” days because at no point are we limiting carbohydrates in an extreme manner.  We’re never dropping to 15-30g of carbs.  CrossFitting usually doesn’t require a tremendous amount of carbs, but going very low carb is a recipe for disaster.

If you need a “guide” or a place to start, I suggest that women go with 200g on days you WOD (possibly lower where the next day is a rest day to mobilize some fat) and 100g on control days and/or rest days.  Men can start at 1g/lb. and add 50g.  That’s usually a pretty safe place to start, and then you systematically adjust it to what feels most right.  That is different for each person, but I will caution you:  you should be adjusting up (not down) in most cases.  I talk a lot about how underfeeding affect things like thyroid function (Pimstone).  Artificially lowering your carbohydrate intake will more than likely result in under eating.  Compounded with extreme exercise, this is almost always bad for your health.

My recommendations are not extreme; I prefer to take a moderate approach in both directions.  I believe that relying mostly on fats, most of the time, is the way to go.  However, I rarely prescribe less than 75g of carbohydrate, even for women.  If you think it’s kind of outlandish for me to suggest that athletic people eat 150-200g of carbohydrate on training days, I’d like you to take a look at the FDA’s Daily Values.  You’ve probably seen them before, but please, refresh your memory.  Most of us can agree that 300g of carbohydrate, as a baseline recommendation for a sedentary person, is pretty ridiculous.  To make matters worse, most of the people eating a “Standard American Diet” are sedentary; they’re not at the gym burning up glycogen all day, and they certainly aren’t CrossFitting 5x a week.  There’s a reason it’s abbreviated as S.A.D.; these recommendations have failed the majority of us and that’s why we’re having this conversation.  I hope that clears things up.

Low Carb Does NOT = Low Calorie

The biggest mistake a lot of people make with control days is that they lower their overall intake too dramatically.  This is a surefire way to lower your work capacity and subject yourself to illness as well as stalled fat loss.  When you decrease your carbohydrate intake, you need to make up for the calories with a concomitant increase in fat or protein.  It doesn’t need to equal the same calories each day; control days are good days to “eat less occasionally” and speed up fat loss.  Just  don’t take it to  an extreme where the calories are so low it affects you for days to come.

Here’s how I suggest you approach this:  on control days, eat a bit more protein.  Do not be obsessive about tracking, but keep the amount a lot closer to 1 gram per lb. of body weight.  On higher carb days, I would still like to see you get close to 1g per lb. of body weight.  If you are going to be conservative with calories, subtract them from fat.  Tracking this should take all but 5 minutes of your day; it’s a general rule.  You’re not obsessively counting, you’re just getting yourself in the right ballpark.  To round out my calories, you add in more or less fat.   Somewhere in the neighborhood of 25-50g on your lower carb days should make up the difference.

(Special note to the calorie counter: when we initially wrote this article, we did not expect people to use such extreme amounts of fat.  If you are using the calculator, I suggest women set their fats at 80g-100g and men 125g-150g.  That is based on size.  The goal isn’t to add loads of fat WHILE also adding more carbs to your diet.  Despite what you may have heard, fat can store as fat without the presence of insulin.  Besides, 100g or 125g of fat is still a good amount of fat to remain fat adapted.)

Can you expect your weight to go down or up as you cycle carbs and fats?  Yes, and this is a good thing!  You’ll tend to weigh in lower after the control days, but not by a lot.  Having full muscles is not the same thing as having inflamed muscles.  People on excessively low carbohydrate diets systematically render their cells inflexible as it relates to using carbohydrate as an energy system.  This is why when someone goes on vacation after being relatively low carb for a long time, they gain ten pounds and panic.  While there may be some fat gain, the majority of this extra weight comes from simply rehydrating the cells and replenishing glycogen.

There is no need to excessively restrict calories when you eat in a manner similar to this.  Every now and again, I have days where it just becomes inconvenient to eat.  My energy levels are high so I just roll with it.  Typically this is a rest day.  Once I get hungry, I have a small fat/protein meal, and then that night I have carbs to prepare for the next day’s workout.  Overuse of low carbohydrate diets, or even these “control days”, leads to a form of insulin and leptin resistance, and that is a contributing factor to a repressed hormonal system.  Please, don’t turn control days into a version of the “Eat Less Do Less” diets I often admonish.

Can I Use Control Days on Day That I Work Out?

Training without loading carbs can suck, but if you do it right, you can use these days to deplete glycogen and accelerate fat loss.  I was tempted to say “No.” when I asked myself this hypothetical question but the reality is that on occasion, it is useful.

Here is what I suggest, especially for people new to this with relatively inflexible bodily systems:  on days you WOD without carbs, modify your workouts down and get in some metcon.  For men, do the women’s weight.  Women should drop the weight about 25%.  Remember that without fully replenished glycogen stores, your performance may suffer.  Be cautious and approach the situation with my Eustress Training article in mind.  Get in a good workout and don’t stress yourself out.

Here’s an example of what this could look like:

  • Sunday:  Rest.  Eat fewer carbs.
  • Monday:  WOD.  Potentially modify the workout down so that it’s more of a metcon, loading before your WOD.  Potentially avoid carbs-post workout.
  • Tuesday:  Rest.  Eat some carbs for tomorrow’s WOD (*optional, see above).
  • Wednesday:  WOD.  Potentially modify the workout down so that it’s more of a metcon, loading before your WOD, and potentially avoiding carbs post workout.
  • Thursday:  Rest.  Eat some carbs for tomorrow’s WOD (*optional, see above).
  • Friday:  WOD.  Eat carbs around your WOD’s AND eat some (*optional) carbs in the evening to set up tomorrows WOD.
  • Saturday:  WOD.  Eat less carbs since you rest tomorrow bet load before your workout.

There Are No Big Mistakes

When you are recovering from a repressed endocrine system brought on by chronic underfeeding, seeing the scale going up is frightening.  Sure, it was easy to keep the scale down when you sucked all of the water out of your body and your hormones were broken, but that way of life wasn’t getting you where you wanted to go or you wouldn’t be reading this article.  Think of your body like a lawnmower that’s been sitting in the garage all winter long:  the first few pulls of the cord are tough, and you may need a new spark plug, but it’s not broken.  The next few pulls are easier, and by the end of the summer, all is well.

That is what the “gradually awesome” approach is like; there are no big mistakes.  In short time, you’ll see that the fear of eating carbohydrates (and for a lot of people, appropriate amounts of food) to fuel your athletic performance is unjustified.  Your anxiety was based on limited experience with a new approach to eating that is quite easy to implement, and you can always control whatever minor mistakes you’ve made.  Contrary to what you may have been taught your whole life, it’s really hard to mess up a diet.  As an athlete (and yes, if you CrossFit you are an athlete) you need to take the reins and do some self-experimentation.  In the end, that’s the path to health and an optimal hormonal profile.

Works Cited

Pimstone, Bernard. “Endocrine Function in Protein-Calorie Malnutriton.” Clinical Endocrinology (1976): 83-84.

 

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