I refer to “control days” a lot. They’re part of developing a flexible, intuitive style of eating, as well as a high-functioning metabolism. At the most basic level, control days are days where you rely mostly on fats; it’s that simple, yet people tend to over-think the subject quite a bit. The goal is simply to create a Calorie deficit by reducing carbohydrate intake.
How to Schedule Control Days around your Training
Hopefully, you take a few rest days here and there. I am talking to way too many people that have “active recovery” days that are really just an excuse to work out. News flash: if you’re undereating, doing more work isn’t helping you recover. It’s counter-productive and it puts you at risk for injury. If you want to lean out, there’s basically one way to go about that: create a Calorie deficit. Add more rest days (which will add more control days) and start focusing on building/maintaining your muscle. Allow performance to be the driver and stay away from very low carb, extreme deficit dieting. It’s a trap!
Implementing control days goes like this: On your rest days, you reduce your carbohydrate intake by between 50-100g. Easy right?
The goal of each workout is to be at 100% capacity and that requires you to eat some carbs around your training. This isn’t always consistent with fat loss goals, so you are always looking for a reasonable compromise to fuel your activity while getting aggressive with fat loss occasionally. It’s up to you to find the sweet spot and hammer that as it relates to your goals.
This is a cyclical approach, and if you can dial it in, basically have the secret to body recomposition. There are no “refeed” days because at no point are we limiting carbohydrates in an extreme manner. We’re never dropping to zero carbs.
“How many carbs should I eat?”
If you need a “guide” or a place to start, I suggest that women go with 200g on days you WOD and 100g on control days and/or rest days. Men can start at 1g/lb. of body weight and add 50g. That’s usually a pretty safe place to start, and then you systematically adjust it to what feels most right. That is different for each person, but I will caution you: you should be adjusting up (not down) in most cases. I talk a lot about how underfeeding affect things like thyroid function (Pimstone). Artificially lowering your carbohydrate intake will more than likely result in under eating. Compounded with extreme exercise, this is almost always bad for your health.
My recommendations are not extreme; I prefer to take a moderate approach in both directions. I believe that relying mostly on fats, most of the time, is the way to go. However, I rarely prescribe less than 75g of carbohydrate, even for women. If you think it’s kind of outlandish for me to suggest that athletic people eat 150-200g of carbohydrate on training days, I’d like you to take a look at the FDA’s Daily Values. You’ve probably seen them before, but please, refresh your memory. Most of us can agree that 300g of carbohydrate, as a baseline recommendation for a sedentary person, is pretty ridiculous. To make matters worse, most of the people eating a “Standard American Diet” are sedentary; they’re not at the gym burning up glycogen all day, and they certainly aren’t working out 5x a week. There’s a reason it’s abbreviated as S.A.D.; these recommendations have failed the majority of us and that’s why we’re having this conversation. I hope that clears things up.
Low Carb Does NOT = Low Calorie
The biggest mistake a lot of people make with control days is that they lower their overall intake too dramatically. This is a surefire way to feel and look like crap. Yes, you need to create a small Calorie deficit to lose fat – just don’t take it to an extreme. 500 Calories less on your control days is enough!
Can you expect your weight to go down or up as you cycle carbs and fats? Yes, and this is a good thing! You’ll tend to weigh in lower after the control days, but not by a lot. People on excessively low carbohydrate diets are basically just running on empty – their muscles aren’t loaded with glycogen. This is why when someone goes on vacation after being relatively low carb for a long time, they gain ten pounds and panic. While there may be some fat gain, the majority of this extra weight comes from simply rehydrating the cells and replenishing glycogen.
There is no need to excessively restrict calories when you eat in a manner similar to this. Every now and again, I have days where it just becomes inconvenient to eat. My energy levels are high so I just roll with it. Typically this is a rest day. Once I get hungry, I have a small fat/protein meal, and then that night I have carbs to prepare for the next day’s workout. Overuse of low carbohydrate diets, or even these “control days”, leads to a form of insulin and leptin resistance, and that is a contributing factor to a repressed hormonal system. Please, don’t turn control days into a version of the “Eat Less Do Less” diets I often admonish.
Can I Use Control Days on Day That I Work Out?
Training without loading carbs can suck, but if you do it right, you can typically get a pretty cool glycogen depletion/loading effect going on that makes you look leaner. It’s not great for your performance, but if you have a legitimate reason to do this, go for it.
Here is what I suggest: on days you WOD without carbs, modify your workouts down and get in some metcon. For men, do the women’s weight. Women should drop the weight about 25%. Remember that without fully replenished glycogen stores, your performance may suffer. Be cautious and approach the situation with my Eustress Training article in mind. Get in a good workout and don’t stress yourself out.
Here’s an example of what this could look like:
- Sunday: Rest. Eat fewer carbs.
- Monday: WOD. Potentially modify the workout down so that it’s more of a metcon, loading before your WOD. Potentially avoid carbs-post workout.
- Tuesday: Rest. Eat some carbs for tomorrow’s WOD (*optional, see above).
- Wednesday: WOD. Potentially modify the workout down so that it’s more of a metcon, loading before your WOD, and potentially avoiding carbs post workout.
- Thursday: Rest. Eat some carbs for tomorrow’s WOD (*optional, see above).
- Friday: WOD. Eat carbs around your WOD’s AND eat some (*optional) carbs in the evening to set up tomorrows WOD.
- Saturday: WOD. Eat less carbs since you rest tomorrow bet load before your workout.
There Are No Big Mistakes
When you are recovering from chronic underfeeding, seeing the scale going up is frightening. Sure, it was easy to keep the scale down when you sucked all of the water out of your body, but that way of life wasn’t getting you where you wanted to go or you wouldn’t be reading this article. It’s just hard sometimes to do new things out of fear, but there’s really no reason to be afraid if you approach things gradually. There are no big mistakes.
In short time, you’ll see that the fear of eating carbohydrates is unjustified. If you go overboard, you can always control whatever minor mistakes you’ve made. Contrary to what you may have been taught your whole life, it’s really hard to mess up a diet. As an athlete (and yes, you are an athlete) you need to take the reins and do some self-experimentation.