By Coach Steve
Your weight makes a difference for athletic performance. It’s
not significant for swimming, or cycling on flat courses, but for
climbs and and runs an athletes’ weight has a profound impact
on pace. For a marathon, one minute faster for each pound lost is
a rough estimate of the benefit. How do you know if you’re
lean…and what qualifies as lean? The best way to find out
is a body fat test. It can easily be done with skinfold calipers
at most fitness facilities. The calipers measure the thickness of
skin - and any fat sandwiched between - from several predetermined
sites on your body. Then the values are put into a weighted formula
Elite athletes’ body fat values fall within predictable ranges.
Men are typically 6 to 9%; women are 9 to 12%. When I describe athletes
as ‘elite’ it means the most competitive in a respective
age group, not just pros. Be aware that these numbers don’t
fit the definition of ‘healthy’ percentages of body
fat for the general public; they are substantially lower.
We have a natural tendency to maintain a higher fat percentage
than the bare minimum endurance athletes need. In times past (or
currently in less prosperous regions of our World) food has (is)
not always in sufficient supply. In times of famine, those with
fat reserves are more likely to survive. Chances are if you’ve
got the leisure time to train, you also have unlimited access to
a variety of food.
Is leaner better? To a point it is, but you can go too far. Your
body requires a certain minimum level of body fat to function optimally.
If you go below this level overall health is at risk.
Losing weight is not easy but the benefits are well worth the effort.
I’ve seen athletes transformed from middle-of-the-packers,
to consistent 'podium' finishers in their age group by getting lean
- with no additional training effort.
Your nutrition choices impact weight maintenance and overall
I don’t believe in diets that work by altering your body's
normal balance of protein, carbohydrate and fat. I’ve seen
a no-carb diet send a friend into an off-season of low immune function
where she was sick for weeks. She recovered completely after resuming
a balanced diet.
The formula to lose weight is simple: Use more calories than you
consume. I say “use” calories instead of ‘burn’
because the electro-chemical process our bodies perform to convert
food to energy are not as simple as burning food. Caloric values
are determined by a ‘bomb calorimeter,’ a device that
measures the amount of energy created from literally burning food
in a sealed container. Caloric values of carbs, protein, and fat
should be taken as a general guide without going to extremes in
I also don't believe that there are insidious genetic maladies
that predispose some to be heavy, and some lean. Hormonal imbalances can affect our hunger and desire to eat, but ultimately we choose to put the food in our mouth or not. Dieting
takes some thought and discipline.
The ability to eat in excess of what a sedentary person requires
is one of the great perks for endurance athletes. Increasing training
load while consuming the same amount and quality of food that you
did with less training can put you in significant calorie deficit.
But most of us still need help getting to a calorie deficit sufficient
to lose weight with the same training load.
Weight loss shouldn't happen quickly. Losing one pound (3250 calories)
a week is a realistic goal that won't have much negative impact
on your energy level. For most of us in continuous endurance sport
training, that's eating the equivalent of about 6 days' food in
7 days. It requires discipline, but not starvation.
Ideally, weight loss should begin as an off-season project and
continue until you reach your goal. To focus on weight loss in-season
only is difficult because this is when you need complete nutrition
to keep pace with your increased training load.
Training at low heart rate levels will help your metabolism adapt
to IronMan distances, but the bottom-line for weight loss is total
calories used per day, not specifically fat burning workouts.
Here are some guidelines that should help:
- Before putting the food in your mouth ask yourself: “Am
I really hungry, or just eating out of habit, boredom, or for
- More than once I’ve heard from athletes who ‘pig-out’
at certain times of day. Raiding the refrigerator late at night
is a common scenario. Make an agreement with yourself to keep
this tendency under control. Find a distraction!
- Eat breakfast. After all, [break]-[fast] serves to refuel and
recover energy levels after your longest daily period of no food
(sleep). Without breakfast hunger grows exponentially later in
the day and most of us will over-compensate by eating too much.
- This same principle applies to hunger during the day. ‘Grazing’
is a term that applies to cattle, but it can work for some of
us as well. Eating small amounts more often than traditional mealtimes
can keep hunger under control so that big meals where you overdo
it can be avoided.
- Don’t deprive yourself of calories immediately after workouts.
This is when your body can learn to store more glycogen (the stored
form of carbohydrate). Efficiency in storing glycogen means we
will have more energy reserves when we need them. I like a snack
with both carbs and protein immediately after a workout.
- Avoid certain foods including everything deep fried - French
fries, chicken, fish etc.
- Make food substitutions. Find a product the fills the same need,
but has fewer calories like flavored carbonated water for soda,
or low-fat baked chips instead of traditional deep fried.
- Look at food labels and know what the values mean. Avoid foods
with a high percentage of fat, especially high percentages of
saturated fat. Eat foods from animal sources (all saturated fats)
- The longer the shelf-life of a food, the worse it is for you.
To create a food that stays ‘fresh’ on the shelf for
a long time, the fat has to be more stable. This is where hydrogenated
fats come in. Hydrogenation changes the structure of an otherwise
healthy fat from ‘cis to trans' by adding hydrogen; the
fat becomes less liquid, more solid.
- The same rule applies to processed foods. The less processed
a food is, the better it is for you. Processing food nearly always
involves addition of stabilizing fats and chemical preservatives.
The same processing can destroy some of the nutritional entities
we need to function efficiently like vitamins, minerals and their