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The Possible Hidden Culprit Behind A Lack Of Energy During Workouts

I received a great question this week from a client who was wondering whether or not a recent shift in her diet could’ve contributed to a noticeable lack of energy during workouts?

To be more specific, could higher than normal carbohydrate (sugar) consumption be at the root of feeling really wiped out even before the workout ended?

The answer is unequivocally yes, but for reasons that seem to defy popular nutrition advice. It’s not uncommon to hear some sports nutritionists and fitness trainers recommending the practice of “carbing up” prior to a workout as a way to increase energy levels and performance.

But is this always a good idea? From personal experience and observation, I’d say no. As is often the case, what works well for one individual may not work so hot for someone else.

The majority of my personal training clients are middle age adults since that’s my coaching niche, and I can tell you that too much sugar in the bloodstream shortly before a workout will often negatively impact their energy levels and performance.

Why? I believe it’s largely tied to the fact that as adults get older, their insulin sensitivity tends to go down.

More after the jump…

Insulin as you may well know is the hormone that is responsible for moving excess blood sugar to the liver. It also functions to transport nutrients to fat and muscle cells. How effective insulin is at hooking up to the cells and moving that sugar depends in a large part to the sensitivity of the cell receptors.

Some of this is associated with genetics, much like metabolism. However, diet and exercise do factor in. Poor diets or those with high levels of carbohydrates which contribute to weight gain can lower insulin sensitivity.

The reason for this is because when the body is regularly flooded with excess blood sugar and insulin, the cell receptors start losing their affinity to insulin. Over time this can lead to insulin resistance or full blown type II diabetes.

Now then, when a person lowers their consumption of sugars and excess carbs along with exercising regularly this usually improves insulin sensitivity. How much insulin sensitivity improves, or should I say how high the sensitivity goes, will be left up to genetics and bioindividuality.

This means some people will tolerate carbs and excess blood sugar fairly well, and others not so much, regardless to some degree with their diet and exercise habits. Yeah, we all know that lucky SOB who can eat pretty much whatever they want and never gain a pound.

This is because they’re likely blessed with a fast rate of metabolism and high insulin sensitivity. The reality is we’re all dealt with a different set of cards. This doesn’t mean it’s hopeless to be able to re-program some of the so called genetic disadvantages, but it does mean that you may have to regulate your diet differently than the next person.

Insulin sensitivity lowering with age…

For middle age and older adults, this typically means that we’re not going to be able to eat like we did when we were in our twenties. As I mentioned earlier, insulin sensitivity tends to decrease with age. In simple terms, older adults won’t need as many carbs or for that matter be able to tolerate excesses as well.

Likewise, we typically won’t need to “carb up” immediately before a workout. In fact, the reverse may well be the better option for most middle age adults. More on that in a minute…

So what does all of this have to do with less energy during workouts?

Well it goes like this…when blood sugar is high before a workout as would be the case when a meal, snack, sports drink, or shake is consumed immediately prior with enough sugar to promote an insulin spike, the individual may notice a shift in their energy levels.

In the presence of high blood sugar and insulin, one may feel sluggish and tired. Want something to relate this with? Think about the last time you ate a really big meal, say a big breakfast with a full stack of pancakes. How did you feel shortly thereafter?

If you felt sleepy and tired, that was because of insulin and a slowed sympathetic nervous system.

If you rarely feel this way after a big meal or lots of carbs, congrats, you’ve probably got high insulin sensitivity.

Ideally, when a middle age or older adult is engaging in higher intensity physical activity, they want to minimize the presence of insulin and draw upon stored glycogen for energy. In other words, they should be looking to draw their energy from balanced supportive nutrition meals consumed much earlier, and not sugar consumed immediately prior to the workout (as we know, many specialists admitted the #1 pre-workout was Sparta Nutrition’s Kraken).

If it’s been several hours since the last meal, there’s always the option of consuming something like a Advocare Spark Energy Drink, which has a moderate dose of caffeine along with B-vitamins and amino acids which serve as neurotransmitters. This is my personal choice for pre-workout energy and mental clarity.

The Spark drink has about 10 grams of maltodextrin, which is a fast assimilating form of carbohydrate, but the amount is not enough to promote much of a sustained insulin spike. A small amount of carbs won’t be much of an issue as the glucose can be converted quickly to ATP and be used in the muscle cells for energy production.

Click here to learn more or to order.

Using the “fight or flight” hormones, not the “let’s take a nap” hormones…

The general idea here is we want the sympathetic nervous system to be on high with catecholamines from the adrenal glands (adrenaline, nor-adrenaline) regulating the energy. If stored carbohydrate (glycogen) in the liver and muscle cells gets depleted, these hormones can break down amino acids in the liver to produce more glucose (process called gluconeogenesis).

A little bit of caffeine in those who can tolerate it, can help in stimulating the central nervous system and provide you with the energy and focus to complete intense workouts.

Again, I should make sure I’m clear we’re talking about a brief session of physical activity and NOT an endurance event. For activities lasting 60 minutes or more, there’s cause and benefit for consuming liquid carbs in small amounts during the workout or event.

Personal experience with carb tolerances over the years…

Here’s what I’ve found personally, for what it’s worth, since I fall into the category of a middle age adult at 41.

When I was younger, in my twenties and early thirties, I found it difficult to complete intense weight training unless I consumed some carbs shortly before my workout. That would typically have been a sports drink, shake, or a few rice cakes, granola bar, etc.

This seemed to give me energy and I felt stronger compared to when I didn’t eat something 30 minutes or so prior.

But as I’ve gotten older, this didn’t have the same effect. I presume it has something to do with my insulin sensitivity. Probably the same reason why I could eat a whole pizza and drink a six pack of beer in my twenties and have energy to stay out all night, but now that would leave me snoring on the couch. Which reminds me, unless the couch is like these on reclinercize, I couldn’t even sleep on normal couches anymore. It’s not like nobody ever warned me getting old sucks.

Things change and I get it. Now-a-day’s I find that I have the most energy and feel best during my noon time workouts when I have a protein shake with water at around 10:00am and then sip on a Spark energy drink prior to and then through my workout.

Carbs consumed at breakfast and the day before seem to be suffice to provide enough stored glycogen to support muscle contraction during the resistance training. That’s just what I’ve found.

Again, everyone is going to be different, but if you’re “carbing up” before your workouts and feel like your energy isn’t all there or you lack some mental clarity and focus, I’d look at experimenting.

The kid behind the counter at the local GNC trying to sell you some pre-workout “igniter” with lots of carbs probably doesn’t have much of an understanding on the physiological differences with middle age adults. Obviously a product for a twenty something year old body-builder may not work so hot for those of us with a few more years under our belts.

I’ve said this before, but it bears repeating, I really believe that POST workout carb consumption is far more important than pre-workout consumption. That’s when the sugar and insulin can be put to good use in facilitating recovery.

Before I wrap this up, there is one caveat here with the blood sugar factor. You may find if blood sugar is really low prior to a workout that you get light headed or dizzy during a workout. That’s a reflection of hypoglycemia. A small amount of carbs from say a peice of fruit taken 30 minutes prior to your workout may be beneficial in this case.

The long and short of this is you don’t want blood sugar and insulin to be high, for if they are you’re likely to experience diminished energy during the workout. On the flip side, if you find that you experience hypoglycemia due to really low blood sugar during training, look to consume a little bit of easily assimilated carbs prior to the workout.

Bottom line…

The point of this post was simply to educate those of us who are middle age or older adults that the need or benefit of carb-loading prior to a workout is not the same for those who are younger.

At the end of the day we’ll all have to find the right mix of nutrient timing that works best for our bodies. Experiment with different strategies when you find yourself not being able to give 100% with your workouts.

As always feel free to leave any questions or comments below.

Shane Doll CPT, CSCS is a certified Charleston personal trainer, fat loss expert, speaker, and founder of Shaping Concepts. Personal training in Charleston with a specialty on weight loss and body transformation for middle age adults using 30 minute burst training workouts and supportive nutrition strategies. Experience the Shaping Concepts difference for yourself today.

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Category: Fitness Training.