Updated: Mar 12, 2020
We all know that endurance exercise training can be very good for us. Probably that’s the main reason you do it--for improved body composition, health, stress relief, and energy. Or maybe you train for performance--to reach that personal record in your next race. Exercise can be important to us for any or all of these reasons.
In this article, I want to introduce you to something that has personally transformed my energy and endurance exercise training. It is something that can transform health and performance beyond just endurance training.
It’s training your metabolism.
Training your metabolism is an approach to nutrition and exercise that improves the body’s ability to use fuel. It specifically targets fat and carbohydrates that are stored inside the body or were recently consumed. When an athlete can utilize their body’s stored fat more efficiently, there are significant health and performance benefits. An athlete--even a very lean one--will have 30-40x more fat stores available than carbohydrate stores, called glycogen. If athletes can access this fat for energy at a given intensity, they will be able to perform at that intensity for longer.
Training metabolism is surprisingly simple and sustainable. The approach was developed by sports dietitian Bob Seebohar, who served as a sports dietitian on the US Olympic Committee and for the US Olympic Triathlon Team. Seebohar has successfully worked with many Olympic and professional athletes and triathletes, as well as age groupers.
Three actionable steps to getting started with metabolic training
These are the strategies I have used to train my metabolism, while combining it with exercise, in order to enhance health and performance:
1. Control blood sugar. I strive to maintain a daily nutrition plan that controls my blood sugar, which is definitely not just a practice for diabetics. This has taught my body to burn more of its vast energy stores - to burn fat as fuel. This in turn will provide a myriad of improved health benefits and has helped set me up for getting faster in training and racing. In fact, tweaking a nutrition plan can account for about 75% of the body’s ability to better burn fat as fuel, while only 25% of an improvement may come from exercise.
BETTER FAT BURNER = (75% NUTRITION) + (25% EXERCISE)
For most daily meals (and snacks), Seebohar recommends the following ratio of foods*:
*should come from high-quality proteins (meat, fish, plant based, nuts, legumes, eggs, milk) and fiber for the carbs (veggies, fruit, and whole grains). The allotment of fats will come from the protein sources.
2. Get tested. I’ve had blood testing done to see a true picture of how healthy my body really is, from the inside out. Endurance athletes often train many hours a day. We must be in shape and healthy, right? Not necessarily. You can’t tell only from the outside. Athletes are not immune to disease or metabolic syndromes. They might be missing part of the health and performance equation. It’s important to know your status for sure by getting blood work. You may also want to get a metabolic test to see how efficiently your body currently uses fat and carbohydrate stores. This allows me to make informed decisions about my nutrition and training plans.
3. Adopt the lifestyle. I’ve tried to combine my supercharged metabolism nutrition plan with the right exercise plan to create the ultimate training plan that accounts for different periods in my training season.
Being Mindful of Ratios
The chart below is a general guide I use for when to eat different ratios of carbs:proteins at meals and snacks. The hands show an easy way to portion out the ratios. Just place the number of hands on your plate as appropriate to achieve the ratios. For example, to have a 1:1 ratio, place a hand size of protein (such as a chicken breast) on the plate and a hand size of carbs (such as fresh veggies). The fat portion will take care of itself because it is “built into” the protein source. If you are eating a portion less than the full hand size, you can reduce it, such as cut the hand size in half, but be sure to keep the ratio.
Sometimes you might be unsure what ratios are found in different foods, especially fresh foods with no nutrition facts label. This is where a good nutrition tracking app can really help. There are several good ones, but my favorite is definitely the MyFitnessPal app.
To determine the ratios in packaged food, you can use the nutrition facts labels. Let’s say I want to have a mid-afternoon snack of chocolate milk. If I’m trying to train my metabolism to be more efficient or maintain that efficiency, then I want to keep the ratio of carbs to protein at 1:1 for this snack. Now let’s look at the milk nutrition label and chocolate syrup label to see if together they meet this 1:1 ratio.
The milk label shows it has 13g of total carbs and 8g of total protein in a serving size of 1 cup (8 oz). This is a ratio of 1.625:1. That’s already outside the 1:1 ratio, but not too far from it.
Now for the chocolate syrup label.
It shows 12g of total carbs and 0g of protein for a 1 tbsp serving. That’s a 12:0 ratio, way outside where I would want to be, even for scenarios when I would want a 4:1 ratio.
Putting the milk and chocolate syrup servings together yields a ratio of 25:8, or about 3.125:1. This is an okay usage for some scenarios, but far outside the 1:1 ratio. I wouldn’t want to have this for a snack if I want to keep the normal 1:1 ratio. However, it could be a good snack if I had just completed a long 3-4 hour bike ride or a hard 90 minute run.
Applying Metabolic Training to A Workout
Here is an example of using the nutrition labels for a real application in training. Let’s say I am going to do a low or moderate intensity workout that will last 2-3 hours. To successfully train my metabolism to burn fat as a fuel in this range of exercise, I want to consume some calories to keep my energy up, and I want to keep the ratio of carbs:protein around 2:1 or less (see chart above). I have a few nutrition bars on hand, and I want to determine which one, if any, will meet the 2:1 ratio that I want to consume during this workout.
Bar #1: Clif Bar
The Clif Bar has 45g of carbs and 9g of protein, for a 5:1 ratio. It is not a good ratio for training metabolism, in any usage scenario.
Bar #2: Picky Bar
The Picky Bar has 24g of carbs and 7g of protein, for a ratio of 3.4:1. The ratio is a bit better than the Clif Bar, but still not quite in the range of 2:1. It could work in a pinch for this workout, but ideally it would be better used during a longer or more intense workout. Now let’s check the last bar.
Bar #3: Quantum Square
The Quantum Square has 19g of carbs and 10g of protein, for a ratio of just under 2:1. This appears to be the best of my three options for my given workout. I would go with this one to get the most out of training my metabolic system.
I should also consider the actual ingredients and number of calories needed, but we are not going to get into that in this article.
Another benefit to training the metabolism to be more efficient is that you also need to eat less, both throughout the day and during exercise. It may reduce the likelihood of distressing the gastrointestinal (GI) tract during training.
In conclusion, I’ve followed these 3 basic steps of training my metabolism to result in a healthier, more energetic, and faster self. I look forward to hearing your comments or questions on anything in this article. Stay tuned for more, and in the meantime, get out there and train (your metabolism) smart!