Body Composition

I don’t look sick. To the contrary, I look like I could run a marathon, or so I’m told. In fact, though, the last time I tried to run I couldn’t get out of bed the next day. This isn’t a figure of speech—I could not get out of bed the next day. And it wasn’t a marathon that put me on my back. It was a single, 10-minute jog on a treadmill.

The doctors call it post-exertional malaise, and it’s common among folks with chronic fatigue syndrome, as well as for those like me who suffer from post-acute COVID-19 syndrome. So, how is it that a person who can’t jog for 10 minutes without incapacitating himself for 36 hours still manages to maintain the appearance of being fit enough to run a marathon? The answer to this question is worth sharing, I believe, because it delivers a useful general lesson about effective weight management.

Let me start by saying that vanity always ranked low on my list of reasons for training before I was forced to stop several months ago. My wife and I agree that I look best with a little more meat on my bones, and what meat I once had was stripped away when I became a hardcore endorphin junkie in the late 1990s. I trained hard because I enjoyed it and it made me feel good and it taught me a lot about myself and I grew as a person through the process and I derived tremendous satisfaction from chasing improvement and competing, and I didn’t particularly care how training make me look so long as it checked all of those other boxes.

Still, I am human, and all humans are vain to some degree. Hence, when I was forced to stop training and lost its many benefits, I rediscovered the reality that I actually did sort of care about my appearance. In particular, I began to worry about gaining weight. This might sound laughable to those who’ve only ever known me as a beanpole endurance athlete who can wrap the index finger and thumb of his right hand around his left wrist with an inch of overlap between the two digits. But there was a time in my life when I struggled with my weight and lacked the wherewithal to do much about it.

I hit my lifetime peak weight of 206 lbs during my sophomore year in college. All the excess poundage glommed around my middle. Even then I could have worn a woman’s wristwatch, but I carried a sloppy old beer gut bookended by stretchmark-festooned love handles, the sight of which disgusted me. I remember arriving at the Haverford College dining center one morning determined to break the dietary habits—salad avoidance, second helpings, keg party attendance—that had added 68 pounds to my former runner’s body in the span of 18 months. But upon entering the cafeteria I discovered it was omelet day, game over. The cheese-heavy three-egger I requested tasted quite scrumptious, but I didn’t enjoy it, burdened as I was by the realization that I lacked the willpower to do what was necessary to lose weight and that I would always be fat.

This pessimistic outlook on my body’s future was based in part on the assumption that I would never run again. When I did get back into running a few years later, the weight came off very easily. What’s more, my desire to improve as an athlete motivated me to make better food choices in a way that my desire to look good naked hadn’t, and I cleaned up my diet quite a bit. Still, the large volume of exercise I did routinely allowed (and in fact required) me to eat a lot, and I worried about what would happen if a major injury or other setback forced me out of training for an extended period of time. I believed that, even if I continued to choose healthy foods, I wouldn’t be able to muster the restraint necessary to reduce my intake sufficiently to avoid gaining weight.

I should have known better, and in fact I did. Both scientific and real-world evidence indicate that weight management is easier overall at lower volumes of exercise. Sure enough, when I stopped running, my appetite decreased significantly, making reduced food intake almost as easy as listening to my body. Currently I weigh 148 pounds, or 2 pounds less than I did when I stopped running.

Eating less isn’t the only reason I haven’t put on a spare tire, though. In fearing weight gain, I underestimated the power of high diet quality in managing a stable body weight. In my beer-belly days I was living on bagels and pizza (and beer), but my current diet, which features a balance of unprocessed foods, fills me up with far fewer calories. What’s more, the practice in dietary self-discipline I got from bumping up my diet quality has proven to be more transferable to regulating overall food intake than I expected. Whereas when I was still running I truly ate as much as I wanted, I now put up with a little more unsatisfied craving than before (and all the more so since I was placed on a medication that increases appetite as a side effect), and it’s not a problem.

Many years ago I created a set of integrated training and diet plans for endurance athletes seeking to improve their body composition. These short (four- to eight-week) programs were designed to help people shed a bit of excess body fat relatively quickly outside the context of race-focused training cycles, when fitness and performance are the priority and any improvement in body composition that occurs during the process is incidental. The specific methodology that made up the substance of these plans was based on a combination of mainstream science and real-world best practices. I never actually followed one of them myself for the simple reason that my weight never varied much, but ironically the formula for holding steady on the bathroom scale that I’ve defaulted to in response to my current health situation looks a lot like my old Racing Weight programs.

For example, these programs were heavy on strength training, which facilitates body composition improvement by increasing basal metabolism. Lucky for me, even in my present decrepitude I am able to tolerate a decent amount of strength training, perhaps because, unlike aerobic experience, it is discontinuous in nature. I lift weights for about 20 minutes every day, and doing so has contributed considerably to my successful weigh management. Seeing this effect has also confirmed for me that I was not doling out bad advice to my fellow athletes through my Racing Weight plans.

Inspired by this experience, I’ve created a new set of online Racing Weight plans for runners and triathletes. Six weeks in length, these plans come in four levels for each sport. You can learn more about the training component here and the dietary component here, and you can preview them here. To be clear, these are not “beach body” programs. They are practical, scientifically informed programs for performance weight management intended for use by athletes who care more about how they feel and function than about how they look. God forbid you should ever have to rely on one to merely look like you could run a marathon when in fact you can barely climb a flight of stairs!

Recently one of the athletes I coach (we’ll call him Scott) came to me with some concerns about the results of his latest DEXA scan and weigh-in. Although he had lost both overall weight and body fat, he had also lost some muscle mass, and the body-fat percentage in his arms had increased slightly. Scott wanted to know if he should add biceps curls and triceps dips to his strength workouts to correct these last two items. I told him absolutely not, and here’s why.

First off, it probably goes without saying that, although biceps curls and triceps dips are effective exercises for improving body composition in the arms, they achieve this effect by increasing muscle mass, and muscle mass—particularly in the arms— is dead weight for the long-distance runner. It can only slow you down.

I speak from experience. Last summer, when I trained with the Northern Arizona Elite team in Flagstaff, under the guidance of strength and conditioning coaches AJ and Wes Gregg I reduced my strength training frequency from three sessions per week to two and removed upper-body movements such as push-ups from my strength workouts. The resulting loss of upper body mass made a small but vital contribution, I believe, to my setting a marathon PR at age 46. (I promise to stop bringing this up after the one-year anniversary passes.)

Hardly shocking. But what may surprise you is that muscle mass in the legs is also dead weight for the long-distance runner. In 2004, exercise scientists at Ball State University examined the contractile properties of individual calf muscle fibers in college cross country runners over the course of a full cross country season. They found that the cross-sectional area of the runners’ muscle fibers decreased during this 12-week period, meaning their calf muscles shrank. That sounds bad, but the ratio of force-generating capacity to cross-sectional area of the muscle fibers increased during this same period, meaning that, pound for pound, their muscles got stronger.

The human body is not stupid. When you subject it to a specific type of training in preparation for a specific type of competition, it adapts in appropriate ways, even if certain adaptations seem negative at first glance.

Muscle tightness is another example. It is not uncommon for runners to go from being able to touch their toes when they start training to being unable to touch their toes after a few weeks or months of progressive running. An individual runner who experiences this change might think, “Oh, no! I’m losing flexibility!” But, like the decrease in muscle mass we just discussed, this tightening of particular muscles is also a beneficial adaptation to training.

It’s not tightness per se that you want as a runner but stiffness, which comes with tightness. The legs function as springs during running. Half of the energy that propels a runner forward comes from the ground as an equal and opposite reaction to the impact force delivered from the foot to the ground with each landing. A stiffer spring/leg is able to capture and reuse more of this free energy than a looser leg, improving running economy. A new study by researchers at the University of Calgary reported that greater Achilles tendon stiffness was associated with better running economy in a group of 46 elite runners, and prior research has shown that elite runners are generally less flexible than nonelite runners.

Conclusion

The bottom line is that if you are a runner seeking better race performance, you need to keep your eyes on the prize. Stay focused on the overarching goal—increasing the speed you are capable of sustaining over a given distance—and don’t get distracted by secondary goals such as maintaining muscle mass and flexibility. This is not to say that strength training and stretching should be avoided entirely, but these practices should be incorporated in targeted ways that contribute to the only thing that really does matter.

Many runners don’t know how to train during the winter. They know that they should train, but they lack a clear sense of the purpose of winter workouts. And if you don’t know why you’re running, it’s difficult to determine how to run.

Objectives of Winter Training

Assuming you wish to be in good racing shape for one or more spring events, then your winter training has not one but three distinct objectives: developing general fitness, increasing durability, and improving body composition. Let’s take a look at each of these objectives.

Developing General Fitness

When you’re training for a specific event, you want to develop a type of fitness that is specific to that event. Although a 100 km mountain race and a 5000-meter track race both qualify as distance-running events, each demands a specific type of fitness that is very different from what the other requires. During the winter, however, when your next race is many weeks away, you want to be pretty good at everything rather than great at one thing. Therefore your training should be balanced, featuring a mix of easy runs, long runs, and faster runs at every intensity from marathon pace to full sprints, as well as a little hill work to boost your stride power.

While some runs should be harder than others, none of the runs you do during this period should be more than moderately challenging. For example, a good peak workout to do before a 10K race is 6 x 1 mile at 10K race pace with 1-minute passive recoveries between efforts. A more appropriate workout targeting the same intensity during the winter would be 6 x 1 km at 10K pace.

Increasing Durability

In order to get in peak shape for a race or series of races, you have to take some risks in your training. More precisely, you must train close enough to your limits that there’s a chance you might get injured or (less likely) become overtrained. One of the major objectives of winter training is to reduce the likelihood that you get injured or burn out later by increasing your body’s durability.

The most effective way to do this is to gradually increase your running volume until it reaches a level that is at or near the highest level that is indefinitely sustainable for you. If you plan to peak at 50 miles per week right before your next race, for example, build gradually up to around 40 miles per week during the winter.

What most runners fail to recognize is that, whereas running injuries are caused by running a lot (obviously), running a lot is also the best way to prevent running injuries. That’s because running increases the body’s ability to withstand the stress of running. Think of it this way: Who is more likely to get injured trying to run 50 miles in one week—a runner who routinely runs 40 miles a week or a runner who has never run more than 20 miles in one week? The answer is plain. The key to increasing durability through winter running is to find a mileage sweet spot that is relatively high for you but at the same time well within your body’s limits.

You can also increase your injury resistance through strength training and mobility work. You should do these things throughout the year, of course, but the winter is a good time to prioritize them because doing so will make your body more balanced before you start really piling on the miles. It is beyond the scope of this short article to offer detailed guidelines on strength and mobility training, but there are many good existing sources available. One that I recommend is Jay Dicharry’s book Running Rewired.

Improving Body Composition

You can’t race your best without being lean. Where body composition is concerned, form follows function, so you will tend to get leaner automatically as you train for peak performance. But the best time to prioritize shedding excess body fat is during the off-season, before you begin a race-focused training cycle. The reason is that when you are taking on training workloads that are close to your limit, you need to make sure you are eating enough to maximize performance and recovery. Attempting to sustain the sort of daily calorie deficit that is needed to shed body fat relatively quickly could pull the rug out from under your training. But during the winter, when your workloads are lower and you’re not concerned about maximizing performance, intentionally eating 300-500 fewer calories per day than your body uses will stimulate fat loss without negative consequences other than a little hunger.

Strength training also promotes a leaner body composition by increasing resting metabolism. The best types of exercises to use for this purpose are compound movements involving large muscle groups and performed with heavy loads. Examples are deadlifts and back squats. These are not the best exercises to do during race-focused training, when you’ll want to focus on movements that increase stability, but during the winter these bread-and-butter heavy lifts should come to the fore.

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