Intermittent Fasting For Athletes: Benefits And Considerations Explain

Intermittent fasting is an up-and-coming dietary lifestyle that is being embraced by more and more people every day. One of the primary draws of the lifestyle is its many purported benefits on health for the ordinary guy and athletes.

If you’re wondering if following intermittent fasting (IF) principles might be the best decision for you, you're in the right place, as our goal is to help you arrive at a conclusion.

Can Intermittent Fasting (IF) Help You Achieve Your Athletic Potential?

The short answer to this question is yes, it definitely can. The longer answer is "it depends". A lot will ride on you actually following the diet style closely, working out, and ensuring your lifestyle is conducive to health. IF is not a magic bullet for weight loss, even though that can be classified as its primary utility to many athletes.

cutlery showing time on a plate with food

The best part? Intermittent fasting is flexible to an extent. Wondering what are the different variations? Let's check them out now.

Intermittent Fasting Variations

There are actually 7 different types of intermittent fasting, varying in fasting durations from 8 hours a day to a complete 24 hours consuming nothing except water. For this reason, and considering the specific needs of athletes, we will limit the scope of our discussion to two varieties.

The 16/8 Method

The 16/8 method of intermittent fasting, as the name implies, is a form of intermittent fasting that involves not eating for 16 hours and then only eating during the other 8 hours of the day.

16-8 intermittent fasting illustrated

The 16/8 method is also known as the Leangains diet and was developed by Martin Berkhan, a Swedish personal trainer. The goal was to improve his performance and muscle mass by fasting for 16 hours every day.

He recommends eating a high-protein, low-carbohydrate diet with plenty of healthy fats and lots of vegetables, as this will maximize muscle retention.

A lot of people find intermittent fasting difficult to stick with because it's challenging to maintain a healthy weight, but if you're an athlete who needs the benefits intermittent fasting can offer, it's worth looking into.

A lot of athletes also find the 16/8 Leangains diet easier to maintain because they're not cutting out food altogether—just restricting feeding periods.

For instance, a huge chunk of the no-feeding phase can be knocked out during sleep. Yes, sleep still counts to your total hours. So, if you sleep 7, 8, or more hours nightly, you are in a good position to excel.

The 8/16 Method

The 8/16 method is not as popular seeing that many people already do it- sleep alone is sufficient to knock out your entire fasting quote. But regardless, there are still some benefits to be seen as fasting from as little as 10-16 hours can kick start the many processes that make IF so useful to the athlete, and the general population.

Benefits of Intermittent Fasting

Can Promote Visceral and Total Fat Loss

One of the primary utilities of performing intermittent fasting is for its fat loss potential. Restricting your food consumption for a large part of the day will almost certainly lead to weight loss via various mechanisms, including reduced circulating insulin levels.

When insulin levels are low, the body starts to use up stored glycogen and fatty acids for fuel. The glucose hogs (organs such as the brain) tend to use the glycogen, while muscle tissue is slowly adapted to utilize fat.

different types of fat deposition on the body

Intermittent is not an "all-or-nothing" type of diet like the keto diet, since you are allowed to refeed with glucose during your “eat intervals”. This means that overall fat utilization might be lower than when following ketogenic principles, but nevertheless, it still occurs.

Over the period of several weeks, the body starts to peel away at abdominal or visceral fat, which in itself raises the risk of metabolic disease.

Can Increase Growth Hormone Levels

Growth hormone directly opposes many of insulin's metabolic effects, although this hormone often falls to the wayside once puberty has passed. This is often a mistake. Not only is growth hormone anabolic in nature, but it is also lipotropic (fat burning) and can help reverse some of the metabolic complications associated with obesity or insulin resistance.

This makes a strong argument for intermittent fasting, as the increase in growth hormone will bring about several positive changes in the body.

Reduce The Impact Of Oxidation And Inflammation On Cells

Fasting can help reduce levels of circulating pro-inflammatory cells called monocytes, and can also reduce the overall oxidative load borne by cells.

The fact is that over-nutrition, especially foods that are of poor quality, are perfect fodder for inflammatory pathways.

Take, for instance, the worsening of atherosclerotic plaques, or oxidation on cells as a result of the generation of free radicals. This is why it isn't a stretch to say that such diets are contributors to the development of cancer.

Supports Cardiovascular Function

Overall cardiovascular health is determined by several factors. This includes genetics, lifestyle, and of course, dietary practices. Of these, diet plays a significant role that can be modified.

It is common knowledge that the consumption of a diet high in carbohydrates and poor-quality fats can contribute to heart disease, by facilitating the deposition of atherosclerotic plaques along blood vessel walls.

Intermittent fasting can help to preserve cardiovascular health by reducing the deposition of plaques on the blood vessel walls, in turn making it less likely that you will experience a cardiovascular episode like a stroke or heart attack.

Of course, a lot will still depend on your level of physical activity, so don't think you're guaranteed a free pass if you follow the diet lifestyle.

Good For The Brain

Do you always feel like you need a powerful stimulant kick to get focused, before your workout or otherwise? Turns out you might not necessarily be lazy but suffering from poor energy generation.

Intermittent fasting can surprisingly aid your mental clarity and focus, thanks to targeted metabolic switching.

Metabolic switching as the name implies occurs when there is a switch so to speak, from a heavy glucose-dependent energy system to a hybrid-fat system. The ketone bodies produced as a result of this switch may initially not be so good for that brain fog, but over a few weeks can really do wonders for your mental health.

Then there's the fact that an increased level of neuroplasticity is demonstrated in the brain of people that switch to intermittent fasting

May Help Prevent Alzheimer's Disease

Alzheimer's disease is a debilitating neurological disease characterized by the gradual loss of mental faculties, including memory and motor skills. While genetic predisposition is one non-modifiable factor, interestingly intermittent fasting might be able to prevent or at least slow down the disease.

Beta-amyloid proteins, which play an important role in the growth and repair of neurons in younger people, may become deformed or corrupted and responsible for many of the symptoms of Alzheimer's.

normal and abnormal beta amyloid protein in the brain

IF, possibly through its enhanced process of autophagy, destroys much of the deformed or corrupted proteins and in this way can help control the debilitating effects of the disease.

Athletes involved in contact sports might also benefit from adapting to IF principles earlier as well since hits to the head can accelerate the onset of symptoms.

May Promote Longevity

One of the main draws of the IF diet is its effect on longevity. Yes, restricting your caloric intake can prolong your lifespan by improving the adaptive response mechanism of cells.

Autophagy, which is the process by which the body removes damaged cells and recycles usable components is also improved under fasting or calorie-restricted conditions. This possesses another huge benefit which we will discuss below.

May Reduce Cancer Risk

Caloric restriction also has another beneficial effect on reducing cancer risk, thanks to the enhanced effect of autophagy.

Cancer usually develops as a result of cellular mutations, on the cellular level or at the level of DNA. Autophagocytosis can drastically decrease the chances of this happening by improving the removal of damaged and worn cells before mutations can occur.

This, and the fact that cancer cells thrive on glucose means that the restricted availability of carbs for periods of time makes the host body seem an inhospitable place.

Can Reduce Insulin Resistance And Support Type 2 Diabetes Management

The fact of the matter is that eating is associated with insulin release. This is normally not so much of a bad thing, except when it happens like clockwork, all around the clock.

Insulin attaches itself to cells and facilitates the uptake of glucose across the cell membrane. Over time, and from repeated exposure to insulin, cells may become "desensitized" and resistant to the hormone.

This is what is termed insulin resistance. The result is elevated blood sugar levels as the glucose now has nowhere to go.

Fasting for periods of time up to 16 hours daily offers huge metabolic benefits, such as removing blood glucose, improving cells’ insulin sensitivity, and helping to reverse the effects of type 2 diabetes on the body.

Plus, since 1 in 3 Americans is classified as pre-diabetic, this can make a huge difference in the number of people that live healthy lives in years to come.

Possible Negative Effects Of Intermittent Fasting

May Lower Testosterone (Or Not?)

There is a mixed verdict when it comes to the effect of the diet on your testosterone levels. Few studies have shown impaired testosterone and FSH levels in the short term, while some studies have shown that it can benefit testosterone thanks to the favorable metabolic profile of other hormones.

low testosterone gauge

What might be concluded from this, along with the other changes observed, is that it might help to normalize testosterone values, but not to an extent that it is considered supraphysiologic.

May Be Hard To Get Enough Calories For Muscle Growth And Recovery

Intermittent fasting can be considered a calorie-restricted diet style, although it is possible to consume the same number of calories over a smaller feeding window (not recommended).

For this reason, muscle growth may come slower or be more difficult to attain, especially if you have been training for a while.

Then, there's also the possibility that you recover slower too, since the body may preferentially use calories for other functions and not muscle recovery. This might be very true in an endurance-type activity where recovery takes several days to weeks for full recuperation.

Fatigue And Low Energy Levels

Initially, you might find yourself struggling to keep up with the competition on the golf course, gym, or wherever your discipline takes you, and that's normal.

This is because intermittent fasting, like the ketogenic diet, induces some necessary adaptations to your metabolism- shifting from mainly carbohydrate based to one that is a hybrid fat/carb machine.

After a few weeks, this effect diminishes as your body becomes accustomed to the new environment and more attuned to using fat for fuel.

Malnutrition

In addition to it being harder to gain muscle on the diet, full blown malnutrition can occur if you're not careful. Take this scenario, for example, you were used to eating 2500 calories before, spread over 5 daily meals.

Now, your body needs virtually the same number of calories but split into 2 or 3 meals during your feeding period. This means that if your meals are just about 500 calories each, you inadvertently opened up a 1000-plus calorie deficit without realizing it.

The ideal scenario, if you're attempting to lose weight, is to increase the portion size per meal slightly- not so much to border on overeating, but to satisfy you and avoid hitting the starvation trigger.

Plus, you still need to ensure that you are getting your micronutrients in along with ample amounts of good fat to support absorption and overall health.

Final Words

Intermittent fasting works. From its prehistoric origins forged from food shortages to the modified variations around today, it is import mat to choose a variety that coincides with your goals.

If you're looking for health, as opposed to fitness, you can probably even adhere to longer 20 or 24 hours fasting. This is not advised for athletes, however, as the need for nutrition is paramount for performance.

All in all, you still should be getting in exercise, preferentially during your feeding intervals. Cardiovascular exercise could be done while fasting, but you're likely to feel burned out fast from this.