Low Carb Athlete Debate: Volek vs. Aragon

This is my interpretation of a duo lecture by Steven Volek and Alan Aragon on the implementation and efficacy of low carb diets in athletes. Given at the NSCA Trainer's Conference in Las Vegas.

Jeff Volek, PhD
The Art and Science of Low Carbohydrate Performance
Jeff Volek is a strong proponent of low carb diets for all people, athletes and couch potatoes alike. He wrote the book mentioned above, which I've read, and has some solid research numbers to back up his claim. Most of his athletes and success stories are dealing with endurance runners, and even his book has an endurance tilt to his definition of "athlete". 

Alan Aragon
On the other hand we have Alan Aragon, a masterful trainer that has a vastly different view of carbs: to bring them too low will only hinder your growth and performance. He even was able to point to some of the same studies and show that measures that are misleading could also be interpreted in his favor. Most of the athletes that he has trained and written nutrition programs for are fitness competitors, bodybuilders, strongmen, and powerlifters. Names, people that lift lots of heavy things over going far distances.

And therein lies the rub. 

I think both speakers are completely right, and from where they are standing in the middle of their circle, I can see how they would believe their way to be the best way. I, too, beleive that being fat adapted is the best way for an endurance athlete. You have hundreds of thousands of calories stored away as body fat, even if you're very thin. And if you look at the aerobic pathway through the mitochondria, it's adapted to produce A LOT of ATP from fat, and produce that ATP as long as fat is being mobilized. 

However, when you're a strength athlete, your training and performance is often in the phosphogen and glycogen pathways. Once creatine is used up, you're relying on a supply of glucose to keep pushing through your set. The muscles that you rely on don't have nearly the number of mitochondria to keep going. 

Yeah, try and get between him and his cookie. Or beer.

I've experienced this myself with my Olympic lifting and powerlifting, going low carb made me look awesome (oh, hello abs!) but made me move slow and lose ground. So that is where carb cycling comes in. 

Thing is, neither speaker touched much on the hormonal response that body has to carbs. A response that can be manipulated and hugely beneficial for a strength athlete, but a response that isn't needed and perhaps even unwanted by an endurance athlete. 

Personal takeaway: There is a LOT of variation between individuals, but if you wanted to generalize, low carb is probably your safest bet for endurance athletes and couch potatoes, while some sort of carb cycling is best for losing weight without losing strength, and ideally, gaining strength.