It’s well established that swimming burns a lot of calories. When it comes to a workout, swimming is a real powerhouse, a great full-body workout with a ton of cardiovascular benefits. And yet, even with an intense regime, swimmers can find themselves carrying more weight than they would like. Intermittent fasting might provide a solution for swimmers who can’t seem to lose the weight.
We’ve written before about that annoying weight loss plateau. One of the main problems, especially as you age, is how the body adapts to diet and exercise. So, you start swimming – which, again, burns a ton of calories – and at first you see big results! But over time, you may find the results diminishing.
Proponents of Intermittent Fasting, such as Jason Fungand Michael Mosely, argue that traditional diets, calling for consistent caloric reduction and increased exercising, are doomed to failure. The human body is adaptable, and in the face of a traditional diet, it adapts to reduce basal metabolic rates to accommodate the new lower rates of consumption and increased rates of activity. Intermittent Fasting (or IF), they say, takes advantage of the body’s hormone production during periods of starvation to reduce insulin levels and keep metabolism high, helping you avoid that weight loss plateau.
One of the main advantages of intermittent fasting is the simplicity of it. There are no off-limits foods, no specially prepared meals, no long-term battles of will power; you fit in periods of fasting whenever it works for you. And it’s free: no purchasing special meals or supplements.
A trendy version of fasting calls for 2 days of fasting out of every 7 days. In the 5:2 Fast Diet, 5 days a week, you eat how you want. The goal is to eat as many calories as you burn in a day, so obviously you want to avoid binges, but in general? Nothing you would normally eat is off limits. The total difference lies with the other 2 days. On these days only, you restrict yourself to about a quarter of your usual intake. That’s about 500 calories for women and 600 for men. There are different approaches to when and how to eat on those fasting days. However, as long as you stay within the calorie range, you’re good to go.
There are a few keys for successful fasting days. The first is to drink lots, and I mean LOTS, of water. Some people actually talk about filling up a gallon jug with water and a quarter teaspoon of salt (to help with mineral balance) and sipping on that all day during a fast. If that’s a little extreme, just keep a regular water bottle and fill it as needed. During regular meal or snack times, try making a flavored, but calorie-free drink, like herbal tea.
A lot of the advantages of intermittent fasting come from those calorie-free stretches, where your body gets a break from breaking down and processing food. So, for fasting days, they recommend two meals. If you normally eat breakfast, you’ll want to make sure you eat in the morning. That gives you a proper stretch of fasting before dinner.
Fasting days can admittedly be hard. In many cultures, we’re used to grazing all day, every day, and fasting days are a big change. One of the ways to keep yourself feeling good is to make sure the calories you DO eat on fasting days are doing as much for you as possible. To satisfy hunger, plan to include high-fat, protein rich foods. To take up space and help you feel full, have low calorie, high fiber and high nutrient vegetables readily available.
While I’m new to the concept of intermittent fasting myself, I have given it a try. I was surprised at how filling a 250 calorie salad can be. One of my favorite fasting-day meals was 3 cups of baby spinach topped with 3 oz of elk steak, thinly sliced sweet onions and mushrooms, and about 50 calories of a vinaigrette dressing, which was satisfying and filling. Eating at the end of a fast day can feel surprisingly indulgent!
So how does intermittent fasting work for swimmers? All of the preliminary research seems to indicate there wouldn’t be a problem. On a non-fasting day, obviously, everything is going to be business as usual. As for fasting days, “as has been known for some time, exercising in a fasted state (usually possible only before breakfast), coaxes the body to burn a greater percentage of fat for fuel during vigorous exercise, instead of relying primarily on carbohydrates” (source). There is some indication that exercising while fasting can be beneficial in a wide variety of ways.
As a counterpoint, this article recommends that you eat one of your fasting day meals no more than 2-4 hours prior to a serious workout like a very long run or swim.
On fasting days, you will certainly feel hungry. Some people report feeling low-energy or experiencing light-headedness or dizziness, although proper hydration can help significantly.
The simplicity of the approach is what appeals to a lot of individuals. Some diets require careful counting every time you eat; specially purchased meals and supplements; extra preparation and time in the kitchen. With fasting, you just…take a break from food. There’s less preparation required, very little counting, and rather than a sense of deprivation, there’s freedom and a feeling of indulgence (even with normal eating) on non-fast days.
Additionally, intermittent fasting can reduce the will power problem. Rather than having to exercise discipline all day, every day in order to see results with traditional weight loss plans, on the 5:2 plan, you’re never more than 24 hours from freedom. You know that you’ll be able to eat what you want, when you want on the next day. Some people report long term, moderating changes in their attitudes toward food as well. Accepting hunger two days a week makes foregoing unhealthy food choices easier the rest of the week.
As we mentioned at the beginning of the article, intermittent fasting isn’t for everyone. IF has been shown to have an extremely positive effect on some health conditions, such as Type II diabetes, but if you are pregnant, still growing, or on certain medications, it may not be a good fit. As with all diet and exercise programs, do your research and talk to your doctor first!