Train Low, Compete High- Does it work?


A hot topic among endurance athletes over the last few years has been something called “Train Low, Compete High.” But what is it? More importantly – does it work, and it is right for you?


What is Train Low, Compete High?

The concept of Training Low and Competing High is simple. You train in a low glycogen or depleted state, and compete in a high glycogen or loaded state.

The premise is that your body will adapt to use fat as its main fuel source. So when you introduce carbohydrates, they won’t be used for energy. Instead, they will be stored for later use as glycogen. This could mean that your body would not use it’s supply of glycogen until you need it the most. Like when you’re about to cross that finish line and need that added ‘boost’ to win.

There are a few different ways to could do this. You could undergo a high fat-low carbohydrate diet during training. And then before competing you increase your carbohydrates to store glycogen, while at the same time cutting back on dietary fat.

Or – you could train in a naturally lower glycogen or fasted state, such as first thing in the morning before eating. Then before competing you would ensure your diet contains foods rich in carbohydrates to store glycogen.


Why is glycogen so important during exercise?

Train Low, Compete High- Does it work?

Carbohydrates is a complex word for sugar, glucose, or starch. It is found in foods such as bread, pasta, and root vegetables. In the body it is stored as glycogen within the liver and muscle.

When stored in your liver, glycogen is released to maintain normal blood sugar as needed. Storage in your muscle works to supply energy to the working muscles.

During prolonged exercise, your body prefers to use glycogen as it’s main energy source. In fact, it’s depletion is a major cause of fatigue during exercise. This could cause you to slow down, or even stop altogether. Of course, both of these are not ideal if you are working towards winning your next race.

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Interestingly, for years athletes have tried to find ways to increase their glycogen stores. The most common method is through ‘carbohydrate loading.’ Which you may have heard of before. It involves eating a large amount of carbohydrate foods the night before an event, while also decreasing your training. This could give you a mega load of glycogen to use on race day.

Basically you want glycogen, and you want to be able to use it when your body needs it the most. So if you body uses fat as it’s main energy source, re-adding carbohydrates to be stored as glycogen could spare it for later use.

Train Low, Compete High- Does it work?


What does research say?

Well, I’m sure it’s no surprise that it is proven that the human body has a pretty impressive way of adapting to change. In as little as five days, low carbohydrate – high fat diets cause key adaptations in the muscle to use fat as fuel.

Some adaptations include an increase in enzymes to move triglycerides inside the muscle, increase in intramuscular triglyceride (IMTG) stores, and increases in key fat transport molecules. Together, all of these enhance your body’s ability to use both your fat stores, and fat from dietary sources for energy.

During this same time, the decrease in carbohydrate intake also decreases carbohydrate oxidation. Which decreases muscle glycogen use.

So, theoretically this all sounds pretty great.

Train Low, Compete High- Does it work?


But what happens when you reintroduce carbohydrates?

Although your body is able to use fat more efficiently, it may actually negatively affect your bodies ability to use carbohydrates as fuel. In fact, this fat adaptation phase may actually ‘impair’ glycogen use, not ‘spare’ it. This is detrimental for high intensity exercise, or those that need power outputs at 85-90% or higher.

Given this, there is evidence that time trial performance is decreased following a Train Low, Compete High diet. Some athletes have also reported a decreased training capacity, and an increase in perceived effort.

To date – research has not shown any benefit to Training Low and Competing High in endurance athletes.

But, for those athletes that engage in less intense physical activity over a shorter period – the research is not as clear. The reliance on glycogen is not as high. And the adaptation to using dietary fat for energy may have no difference on your performance time.


Bottom Line:

If you undergo high intensity exercise, or exercise for a prolonged time – Training Low, and Competing High is not for you. In fact, it could decrease your time to the finish line and increase your perceived fatigue.

Stick to a routine of ensuring you have adequate glycogen stores on hand. This will increase your chances of crossing that finish line in first place.

Train Low, Compete High- Does it work?

12 Comments on Train Low, Compete High- Does it work?

    • Thanks Kara – It definitely can, especially with all of the conflicting information on social media! So happy you found it useful and user friendly.

  1. Your post is awesome…very interesting! I recently heard this term and had no idea what it was referring to and now I do! Great information backed up by solid research…this is what I love! Thank you so much for sharing

    • Thank you Whitney! I am so happy you found it useful – it is something that I am sure you will hear more of in your practice if you focus on sports nutrition. Thanks for reading!

    • Hi Gabriella – thanks so much! You are so true, and there could be a “honeymoon affect” for a short term after initiating as well. It’s super important to get the right fuel for your event to perform at your best! Thanks for stopping by.

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