Douglas Graham: Fasting Explained – A Guide for Trainers
What Is Fasting?
Fasting is a time-honored method of enhancing the body’s natural ability to recover. Fasting is a normal part of life. Many different types of mammals utilize fasting in their annual cycle, and many others rely upon fasting as their primary means of recovery from injury or illness.
Recovery is also a key factor that every athlete need address.
Could fasting be a way to enhance recovery for athletes?
When we go to bed, we are tired and sore from the day’s efforts, to the point of no longer being motivated or productive. We awaken the following morning refreshed, with renewed vigor and enthusiasm, and hopefully, completely recovered from yesterday’s challenges. Could a good night’s sleep be considered a mini-fast?
Everyone fasts a bit, if only from the last meal of one day until the first meal of the next. Thus, we use the term “breakfast” to indicate the meal that marks the end of the fast. However, fasting does not just mean refraining from eating, nor does it simply mean sleeping. Fasting is not the practice of abstinence.
Fasting is a form of deep rest—the deepest rest—whereby we partake of and participate in physical, sensory, emotional and even physiological rest.
Four Types of Rest
Physical rest is easy to understand, but is indeed a relative issue. Walking is restful when compared to running, and sitting is restful compared to walking. The ultimate physical rest comes when we are lying down, doing nothing.
Some fasters think that the more they do during a fast, the more effective the fast will become. Some ask about exercising during a fast, worrying that they will lose their fitness by taking an extended rest.
I’ll be very clear: All physical activity is contra-indicated when fasting, in the same way that getting up to exercise during the night compromises a good night’s sleep.
To gain a deeper state of rest, we add in sensory rest. When we are comfortable, we can rest deeply. Temperature, noises, lights and many other factors contribute to our sense of sensory rest. Is the view one of buildings or a scene from nature? Is the ambient sound street noise or bird song? Are we warm enough and not too warm? A state of sensory rest allows the faster to go much more deeply into physical rest and adds to the overall state of rest. Much of our sensory input comes through our eyes, hence closing the eyes adds substantially to our sensory rest.
Emotional rest means that the faster does not have to worry, and is assured that any concerns are taken care of by someone trusted. Emotional rest is easier for some people to achieve than for others, but when fasting, being emotionally distraught can exert a strong negative influence on the faster. Emotional rest is very much affected by your surroundings, by the people with whom the faster interacts, and even by the books, movies, music or other influences to which the faster is exposed. To be at peace with the fasting state, to practice acceptance of things as they are and to “give in” and simply rest, confident that the body is fully capable of healing and recovering all by itself; these are just some of the challenges of reaching a deep state of emotional rest.
Physiological rest is only partially available to the faster, as s/he cannot truly go into a state of stasis in order to achieve total physiological rest. The heart, kidneys, liver, brain, lungs and other organs vital to life must continue functioning during a fast. When we speak of physiological rest, for the most part we are referring to resting the digestive system and all of its organs. Physiological rest is a relative term, a continuum. Some foods are far more difficult to digest than others, requiring more time and fuel to do the job. The ultimate in physiological rest is achieved when the digestive system goes into complete dormancy. We provide physiological rest through abstinence from food, while consuming sufficient quantities of water to remain properly hydrated at all times.
Different Types of Fasts
As mentioned previously, fasting is not a matter of abstinence, though it is sometimes mistakenly used in that way. An example of this misuse is when someone might decline a cigarette, an alcoholic beverage or a specific dish of food at mealtime, saying, “No thank you, I’m fasting.” While some people will continue to use the word to mean “doing without,” in the health and fitness world we will use a more refined context. The verb “to fast,” comes from its nautical roots, specifically the phrase, “to make fast,” where it had to do with tying up your boat so securely that you could count on its being where you left it, upon your return. In other words, you continue doing exactly what you are doing, and in a sense, you are marking time. Thus we hear people say that they have been fasting for “x” amount of hours, days, weeks or even months.
The old English phrase, “to make fast” has morphed into the modern concept “to fasten.” In this context, a fruit fast would imply a diet of just fruit, a juice fast would imply a diet composed solely of juice and water fasting means that the faster is consuming nothing other than water. We do not say what we are fasting from, as in a grapefruit fast meaning we are eating everything other than grapefruit. Instead, we announce what we are fasting on.
Most of us fast, if only for just a little while, every night. To enhance the benefits and get into a deeper state of rest, we allow some hours to pass between eating heavy foods and going to sleep, as we have learned that eating a heavy meal directly before bedtime will often result in restless sleep. Some people extend their evening fast by not eating until noon each day, or by allowing a longer period of time between their last meal and going to bed. But they just as often miss the point of fasting equating to resting, as they will do all their normal morning activities, including fitness training, while referring to their “intermittent eating” as “intermittent fasting.”
Why then, does intermittent eating seem to bring such great results? The answer is simply because we interrupt what is typically the almost steady consumption of foods that do not optimally support health or athletic performance. We give the digestive system periods of rest. Often, when engaging in intermittent eating, we pay more attention to the quality of what we eat, consuming more fresh produce and less junk. In fact, most people will notice great improvements in health and athletic performance if they simply reduce the quantity of “typical” foods they eat, and replace them with plain old fresh fruits and vegetables.
Occasionally you might meet someone who is on a watermelon fast or a banana fast. The goal for such a program is usually to simplify the diet, overcome poor eating habits, possibly lose some excess fat, improve digestion or something similar. Improved athletic performance is almost never the goal. Fasting equates with increased levels of resting, so in a sense, a mono diet of any particular fruit could be considered as a bit of a rest for the digestive tract, but really not much of one, as all of the organs involved in digestion still must continue to function. As no other forms of rest are even considered when on a mono diet, surely such fruit diet approaches should not even be referred to as fasts.
The same can be said for the people who go on a “fruit and vegetable fast,” be it by eating the whole food or when they are juicing. Will these people feel better? Yes, they likely will, and they will also likely credit the fast. But the real reason they feel better is because they improved the quality of their food choices.
Juice fasts are also very popular these days. People invariably say they feel much better when on a juice fast, and they almost always attribute the results to the juices. Nothing could be further from the truth. The reason people notice improved health when they go on a juice diet (please, let’s not call such an approach a fast, as there is no element of increased rest in a juice diet program) is because of the foods they’ve stopped consuming. When on a juice diet, fruits and vegetables, long recognized as the ultimate health foods, become the mainstay foods. No one juices bread or chicken. When juicing, we stop consuming meat, dairy, alcohol, fish, fowl, bread, rice, pasta, corn, potatoes, fast foods, junk foods, processed foods, comfort foods and many other items common on a mainstream diet that are known to contribute to various forms of distress and health decline.
Perhaps the scariest and most dangerous of all types of “fasts” is the currently popular “dry fast.” In this version, total rest is not even slightly promoted, adding to the inefficiency of the approach, and bringing into question whether it should be called a fast at all. On a dry fast, neither food nor water is consumed. The length of such a fast is usually just a few days, but very often the implied goal is a full week. The degree of danger in such a program cannot be sufficiently stated other than to say that hospitalization and even death from dehydration are the all too common outcomes of dry fasts. One variation of the dry fast includes the consumption of ocean water, a dehydrating factor that also leads to uncontrollable vomiting. Oddly, both of these fasts are typically done in the pursuit of health, which is the least likely of all possible outcomes.
Why is the dry fast so popular? Perhaps its popularity is because it promises miraculous results in an extremely short time frame. Health, like fitness, requires consistent and persistent effort, and is not the product of miracle interventions.
Finally, we come to the water fast. In the same way that a mountain climber uses a guide, a top athlete relies upon coaches, and high-level businessmen utilize consultants, the smart person undergoing a water fast of more than a few days will use an experienced and medically trained supervisor. While most water fasts proceed uneventfully, when they occasionally do get “interesting” it really helps to have an experienced and knowledgeable supervisor to lean on. Also, if you have questions, fears, or doubts during the fast, a coach can really be invaluable. In addition, the introduction of foods after a fast, known as re-alimentation, can be quite tricky. The resumption of your fitness routine will also benefit from the guidance of an experienced professional.
A water fast is essentially a big rest, an adult-sized portion of much needed recovery. All bodily structures and functions vector towards improved health during a water fast, and these changes support the development of an almost superhuman level of performance and recovery. When a water fast is done properly, an athlete can expect to unleash outrageously profound future performances as a result of dramatically improved health. Athletes have successfully utilized water fasting to improve all aspects of fitness.
Perhaps the biggest concern expressed by athletes about fasting is that they are going to lose all their muscle. Muscles certainly temporarily “deflate” during a fast due to disuse, but they regain their former size after the fast, once fitness activities are resumed. Muscles also lose size during a fast because the muscle glycogen is consumed (along with the more than seven pints of water traditionally held within the muscle cells.) When vigorous activities are fully resumed and glycogen is reinstated into the muscles, they fully regain their former size.
An added bonus that results from the fast is that the muscles also have an enhanced ability to make gains in size and strength.
Is Fasting the Key to Improved Athletic Performance?
Fasting can be one of the critical keys to unleashing fantastic athletic performance, and it is a certain route to enhancing recovery and overall cellular efficiency. Fasting is, however, a stopgap measure, an intervention, and will not make up for a lack of healthful living practices. If people fast for improved performance and afterwards go back to eating those same foods that resulted in the need for a fast, they are simply wasting their time.
The true key to optimum health and performance is a persistent and consistent dedication to efficient and effective training, coupled with the healthiest of all possible lifestyle choices, including eating foods from which one does not need to recover. The committed athlete will choose to take up the onus of responsibility to live in such a fashion that (repeated) fasting is not required.
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