Dieting vs. recovery

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One of the most common mistakes in dieting is doing too much.

Reducing Calories is a stress to your body. Or more accurately, it’s a drain on your recovery.

That means you can’t get away with the same amount of Doing Stuff that you could when you were eating heartily. Especially the same amount of High Intensity Doing Stuff.

When Calories are reduced in the short-term (1-7 days), things may hum along smoothly just like they did when Calories were plentiful. As far as your body is concerned, there isn’t much of a threat or a reason to start protecting itself from dying.

Once you reach medium and long term range (2-4+ weeks) of Calorie restriction, your physiology starts to change.

If food isn’t “available”, your body cares much less about if you’re recovered and much more about staying alive. It does this by reducing all non-necessary functions to make the energy it has last as long as possible.

Kinda sucks for us trying to get ripped, especially in our food-abundant society when the actual threat of starving is low. But it made a lot of sense back when food was scarce.

So when you go on a diet, keep a few things in mind:

Improvements in strength, power, endurance, work capacity, etc. are not your body’s top priority. This is more exaggerated with bigger Calorie deficits, but any degree of restriction will have some sort of impact. Luckily you can maintain what you have with much less work than it took to get it in the first place.

Work capacity decreases. This is partly due to less carbohydrate to use for fuel, and partly due to decreased nervous system output (your body’s attempt to stop you from burning a bunch of precious Calories). Don’t be surprised if the later sets in a workout feel much harder and you start missing reps.

Hormones change. Cortisol goes up, promoting fat storage and protein/carb burning (fat is more energy dense and therefore more valuable in the long term). Insulin goes down to allow energy to be broken down and used, but insulin sensitivity goes up so that food can be quickly stored when it becomes available again (this happens in both fat and muscle). Testosterone and growth hormone go down, to slow or stop unnecessary functions like reproduction and growth (what’s the point of growing or being able to reproduce if you’re dead?). All of these changes decrease your ability to adapt and recover from exercise.

Cuts and bruises take longer to heal. This is a visible example of what’s happening in your muscles. I’ve gotten banged up and scraped enough times in my life in both dieting and non-dieting conditions to know that fewer Calories means slowed healing.
With all of this, there’s one caveat to keep in mind:

Not only is recovery different from person to person (you can rejoice in being a slightly unique butterfly), but recovery itself can be improved upon, just like strength, power, endurance, etc.

By specifically increasing volume and/or frequency over time, you can create a higher “baseline” recovery ability. Then when you start dieting, you’ll be able to do more than you could previously.

This is something you need to train for when you aren’t dieting though, since improvements are slow or non-existent when the Calories aren’t there to support them.

Put a premium on rest.

Try to cut back on activity where possible, especially the high intensity stuff.

Keep your Calorie deficit mild, or be prepared to suffer a bigger hit to your recovery.

And of course, insert diet breaks to tell your body that everything will be okay.

When you’re not dieting, spend some time training to improve your recovery, so you can do more when you go back to dieting.

If you keep all of this in mind, you’ll feel better and have a much easier time losing fat, holding onto muscle, and maintaining strength.

From Berzinator blog.

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