Weight Loss for Endurance Athletes

Did you over-indulge at the holiday buffet table?  Or perhaps you kept eating like an Ironman in training long after the race finished? Whatever your reason, if you find yourself thinking about creative ways to stuff yourself into your wetsuit in the spring, now is the time to start working on your goal.

Periodization and weight loss
Many athletes think that waiting until the start of the season to lose weight is a good idea when in reality, the best time for weight loss is in the down-season.  The logic behind this is simple; losing body fat and weight requires that you be in a calorie deficit.  When you are in a calorie deficit, your energy levels and fuel stores are reduced which can hamper your ability to push yourself in long or intense training.  While training is an important part of improving body composition, hard intense workouts require you to fuel well which may not be consistent with achieving the calorie deficit required to lose weight.  Since down season workouts are often less intense, athletes can reduce calorie consumption in order to create a deficit while limiting the impact on performance. 

Gradual is the key
Many diets push people to the 1200 to 1600 calories level which is less than half of what many athletes in training need.  Furthermore, severe deprivation does more harm than good, physically and mentally.  A more reasonable approach is to target a modest caloric deficit of between 200 to 500 calories per day.  This level of deficit should result in a weight loss of 0.5 to 1lb per week.  There are two ways you can achieve this deficit, the first is to modify your food choices.  This can be done by cutting back on the extras like alcohol, sugary treats and second helpings.  For example, if you normally enjoy 2 glasses of wine each night, try cutting back to a smaller one or limiting to only having the wine on weekends.   Other extras like flavoured coffees, sugar or cream in hot beverages, second helpings of pasta, fruit juices, sweet drinks and condiments can be easy items to change without contributing to severe deprivation.  As a general rule, you should focus on reducing calories in areas that are not providing key nutrients and fuel.  Continue to eat calories that count such as pre, during and post-exercise meals and snacks.  Cutting back on the quality calories from whole-grains, lean proteins, fruits and vegetables won’t help in the long-run. 

The second way to create a calorie deficit is by increasing non-training activity while holding your food intake constant. Increasing non-training expenditure can be as simple as planning at 20-30 minute walk with your spouse, or using a pedometer to increase the steps you take in your workday.  The good thing about low-intensity activity you build into your lifestyle is it won’t make you hungrier or contribute to overtraining.  It’s also doesn’t require as much planning and time commitment as additional training sessions.

Watch out for ‘lazy athlete syndrome’
It’s typical for recreational athletes to have an attitude of “well I run so I don’t have to take the stairs” and thus after the workout is done, the day is spend lazily lounging and snacking.  On days where you are doing moderate training sessions, plan some extra non-training activity.  For days after longer runs and bikes, make sure you have activities that are going to keep you off the couch and moving about.

Muscle counts
Improving body composition can also help your struggle to lose body fat.  Strength training to improve your lean body mass will improve your metabolism and make you burn more calories all of the time. 

Vegetables are you friends
When winter comes we do the opposite of what we should do by skipping salad in favour of richer, fattier, more calorie-dense foods.  Vegetables help you feel more full with smaller portions and have important immune-enhancing nutrients for cold winter months.  In the winter, soups and stir-fries offer warm alternatives to cold salads.  A warm bowl of vegetable-based soup after an evening workout can provide a quick and easy make-ahead meal, add some beans to up the protein level and you’ve got a convenient recovery meal.

Under eating can be as bad as overeating
All the advice up to this point assumes you are eating enough (or if gaining weight, too many) calories to support your training.  This isn’t always the case as many athletes who are in a large calorie deficit struggle to lose weight and body fat. 
The effects of eating too much are well understood and obvious, but eating too little can have a similar negative impact on your body composition.  Severe calorie restriction wreaks havoc with your metabolism and encourages your body to store fat and shed muscle through a series of hormonal and metabolic processes.  Under eating also tends to increase susceptibility to injury and contributes to general nutrient deficiencies and poor bone health. 

For example, if an athlete who burns 2500 calories per day eats 1200 calories, they may initially lose some weight.  After a short period of time their body will switch into starvation mode.  This athlete is also highly likely to experience cravings and binge eat.  In this starvation mode, the body’s natural response will be to store the extra calories from any binge for the next time it is starved. 

This year, don’t gain it back
If you usually gain significant amounts weight after the end of the season, this year try to moderate your weight gain to a maximum of 5 to 10lbs.  To do this, you’ll have to reduce your caloric intake to reflect reduced training.  When your training volume changes substantially, this is a good time to consider keeping a food journal to allow you to adjust intake accordingly.  Just think of how great spring rides will feel if you can climb that hill without feeling like you are dragging the Christmas buffet table up the hill behind you.