I’ve been hearing this newly fabricated runaway metabolism term thrown around a lot lately, so I thought I’d make fun of it (it’s been a while :).
From what I can gather so far (as with all made up terms, the meaning will change week to week), the term is mostly used when an athlete is struggling to fill out during their peak week carb load. When this happens, they’re said to have a ‘runaway metabolism’, e.g., they burn through the added carbs so much so that they can’t increase or even maintain glycogen stores/muscle fullness. Supposedly their metabolic rate is increasing (via the added carbs/calories) SO much so that the entire calorie/carb increase is offset, and further calorie/carb increases just continue to be offset by further increases in metabolic rate. I won’t get into the irony of these same athletes/coaches doing a complete 180 a week later, with that whole ‘we need to increase calories gradually post-comp because it takes time for your metabolism to come back’, but I will just point out the hilarity and leave it at that.
So a few thoughts on runaway metabolism:
1. You absolutely COULD increase your metabolic rate enough to burn through the added carbs/calories. But this can really only happen by increasing activity proportionately. This happens to some extent via involuntary increases in nervous system output/NEAT (fidgeting, spontaneous movement). But that alone is not likely to be significant enough to completely offset the calorie/carb increase, assuming the increase was high enough to be considered a carb load. Some athletes/coaches seem to think 200g carbs is a carb load…and that’s just not going to be the case with most competitors. You can easily burn through a measly 200g, but that’s not indicative of some crazy level of increased metabolism…it’s more just that you didn’t go high carb/calorie enough. Or you lowered fats too much, which causes your body to just burn more glycogen. It’s much more convenient for a coach to compliment you on your fast metabolism (which they may even try to take credit for lol), than to simply admit that they botched your carb load.
2. Your BMR/RMR CAN NOT POSSIBLY go up enough to burn up all your calories/carbs. It’s not going to fluctuate by very much, and there’s a delay in BMR/RMR changing after a sharp change in caloric intake/energy balance.
3. Recently I saw a Reddit thread about a competitor dropping 3lbs of fat overnight, unexpectedly, which was said to be the result of their metabolism having ‘kicked up’ (and I think the term ‘runaway metabolism’ was used as well). 1lb of fat = 3500 calories. So 3lbs fat loss overnight would mean creating a 10500 calorie deficit…IN ONE DAY. You would die of hyperthermia well before you saw 3lbs of actual fat loss overnight…this is exactly how people were dying from the fat loss drug DNP a while back. So this was clearly a case of the athlete having retained water (and maybe some poop), which finally dropped overnight. Your body has cortisol receptors EVERYWHERE, so 3lbs of water could be spread so evenly across the body that it’s not nearly as noticeable as 3lbs of local edema…until it drops and you’re way ‘leaner’ than before the drop. Coaches need to do a better job of managing body water so that this doesn’t happen. Oh and not to mention…you probably shouldn’t trust a coach with performance enhancing drugs (PEDs) if they think you can lose 3lbs of fat in one day and live to tell about it. This was a very well known coach, and absolutely nobody in the Reddit thread mentioned the absurdity…including other coaches who frequently use PEDs with their athletes. In fact, many even concurred, and said ‘the same thing happened to me/my clients!’. But that’s a topic for another article…maybe several articles.
So what’s actually happening here?
There’s no one answer to this, but I think often times carb loads are just too small/conservative. Or too long, to the point of muscle cell insulin sensitivity being reduced enough so that it becomes harder and harder to get the nutrients (glucose/water/sodium/potassium) into the muscle cells. Insulin sensitivity is highest when glycogen is depleted (as well as post-training), so the further you get into your carb load, the less of a ‘sponge’ your muscles will become. This is actually one of the drawbacks of the currently trending Progressive Linear Carb Load…it’s SO gradual that by the time you get to show day, you’ve decreased your muscles’ ability to achieve glycogen supercompensation. Coaches will try to offset this by raising insulin sensitivity via additional training/pumping, outside of the pre-planned amount for peak week. The concern with that approach is that if you cause muscle damage, it will be much harder to get the nutrients into the muscle cells (this is an even bigger concern than inflammation, in terms of rationale for not training hard the few days before the show, IMO). Not to mention the fact that we’ve known since this 2005 study that you can’t repeatedly achieve glycogen supercompensation over a short time span. So if your show is on a Saturday, and you reach peak muscle fullness on Wednesday, you’re not going to get that back by Saturday…and you definitely won’t be able to maintain it for that long.
I think the solution in many cases is to just learn from the mistake, not blame it on metabolism, and go bigger sooner (when insulin sensitivity is at its highest) with next show’s carb load. A backload would likely be a better choice for this athlete. If the athlete truly has a highly adaptive metabolism, then spilling over via an aggressive carb load should be the least of their concern, as they’d burn off the excess pretty easily.
I’d also recommend instructing the athlete to monitor their activity levels, and try to keep them normal/steady. With the current trend of (intentionally) getting bikini competitors stage lean a few weeks early (which I despise…if bodybuilding coaches can time things right, so can bikini coaches), I wouldn’t be at all surprised if many of these girls’ energy levels were so tanked by peak week that the carb load was the difference between sitting around all day (the result of having zero energy) and having energy to move. And if the increase in energy levels/activity is drastic, it can absolutely lead to the athlete burning through their glycogen stores. But this still isn’t something you can blame on metabolic voodoo…the athlete just didn’t carb up enough for their activity levels.
Interested in training with us? We work with competitors AND non-competitors via online all over the world. Just fill out the application below and we will get back to you within 1 business day.