Racing Weight

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!

I deal with a lot of athletes—mainly women—who worry a lot about calories. In particular, they worry about eating too much. As athletes, they fear that eating too much will negatively affect their performance. But they also fret about how eating too much will affect their appearance. Most of these athletes fail to cognitively distinguish these consequences, practical and aesthetic, which in my view is the heart of their problem.

As an endurance coach who works remotely with athletes, I find it difficult at best and more often impossible to fix this problem. It seems to require skills and expertise that I lack. All I really know how to do is lay out the facts. Any athlete who truly understands and embraces the facts cannot continue to obsess about calories, but the embracing part has to come from within the athlete and often requires some deep internal work. As they say, you can lead a horse to water but you can’t make him drink.

Here’s a fact: Not eating enough harms endurance performance more than eating too much does. As I wrote in a previous post on this blog:

Athletes who eat slightly more food than they need every day will tend to feel good and perform well in workouts because they have plenty of fuel available for them, and they will also tend to recover from and adapt well to training because the raw materials that these processes depend on also come from food. The only negative (aside from long-term health issues, which are themselves mitigated by high activity levels) is that they will show up at the start line a few pounds over their ideal racing weight.

In contrast, athletes who habitually eat too little are unlikely to even make it to the start line. Lacking the fuel they need for optimal workout performance and the raw materials they need for recovery and adaptation, they are at high risk of succumbing to overtraining fatigue or injury before race day comes around.

Obviously, maximizing endurance fitness and performance requires that you eat neither too much nor too little. But if you’re going to err, you’re better off erring on the side of eating too much.

Accepting and embracing this fact alone will not break an athlete of calorie fixation. The athlete must also be able to accept and embrace at least one of the following statements:

“My fitness and performance are more important to me than my appearance.”

“My fittest body is my most attractive body, even if it’s not my skinniest body.”

Overcoming persistent worries about eating too much requires a form-follows-function mind-set. You must believe that if you eat and train properly for maximum fitness and performance, your body will end up looking the way it ought to look.

But that’s only half the battle. It’s one thing to be committed to eating the right amount (and at all costs not undereating). It’s another thing to actually eat the right amount day after day after day. At first blush this may seem an almost impossible needle to thread on a consistent basis. Suppose that, through a combination of resting metabolism, exercise, and non-exercise activities, your body burns exactly  2,583 calories today. This, therefore is the exact number of calories you need to absorb from food to meet but not exceed your energy needs for the day. How the heck are you supposed to pull that off?

And yet, there are millions of endurance athletes who succeed in maintaining an optimal racing weight while also fueling themselves sufficiently to train recover well over periods of weeks, months, and even years. What’s more, the athletes who do this most successfully spend very little time worrying about calories. It’s the ones who spend the most time worrying about calories who tend to miss the mark, either by chronically undereating or by pinballing between overeating and binging. I cannot emphasize this point enough: Worrying about calories is neither necessary nor useful with respect to the goal of eating enough without eating too much.

One reason it’s not necessary is that the human appetite control system works exceedingly well to guide each individual to the appropriate amount of food intake. If you think yours doesn’t work terribly well, it’s most likely because you eat a lot of processed calorie bombs that override that system or because you’ve been trained by society to ignore your body’s hunger and satiety signals. In either case, the problem is correctible. You will find it much easier to avoid overeating if you replace those processed calorie bombs with natural, whole foods, and research has proven that anyone can relearn how to perceive, interpret, and heed the body’s innate hunger and satiety signals through mindful practice.

Calorie counting can help to some degree, but not as much as you might think. It is next to impossible to accurately measure how many calories your body actually burns or how many calories your body actually absorbs from food in a given day. The main benefit of calorie counting is simply that it gets you to pay more attention to what and how much you’re eating, but there are less onerous ways to achieve the same objective.

I think a heuristic, habit-based approach works best. Start by eating in a way that ensures you’re taking in at least as much food energy as your body is burning. (Remember, if you are going to err, it’s best to err on the side of excess, especially if you are a caloriphobe with a history of undereating.) You’ll know you’re getting enough calories if you feel energetic during and between workouts and your weight is either stable or increasing.

If you think it’s likely that you are consuming more calories than you need on this routine, find little ways to cut back. You might, for example, eat 10 percent less oatmeal in the morning, dress your salads with a drizzle of oil, vinegar, and spices instead of ranch dressing, and impose a 7 pm “food curfew” on yourself. Whatever you do, the core idea here is to take only small measures so as to avoid leaping from overeating to undereating. If, after taking one or more such measures, you are still gaining weight or you have other evidence that you are in a state of excess, try something else, continuing this tweaking process until you have a set of eating habits that allow you to train and recover well and attain or maintain your optimal racing weight.

Note that you’ll probably want to have slightly different routines for rest days, light training days, or heavy training days, but don’t overthink the matter. If your eating habits are slightly more consistent from day to day than your training load, you’ll still end up in a state of balance at the end of the week.

The great thing about habits is that they do not require continual reinvention. Once you have a set of eating habits that matches up well with your training habits, just live them. That’s what the most successful athletes do. There is no need to worry about calories ever again.

Eating too much is a widespread problem in America. That’s why more than 70 percent of men and women over the age of 20 are overweight or obese. And while there are plenty of clowns running around blaming individual nutrients or food types for these numbers, the simple fact is that overweight and obesity are caused by eating too much.

Because overeating is so common, little thought is given to the possibility of undereating, which is very real for endurance athletes given the high energy demands of their training and their interest in being lean not just for reasons of aesthetics and health but also for reasons of performance. And rare indeed is the endurance athlete who considers the fact that habitual undereating is more detrimental to performance than is its opposite.

Think about it. Athletes who eat slightly more food than they need every day will tend to feel good and perform well in workouts because they have plenty of fuel available for them, and they will also tend to recover from and adapt well to training because the raw materials that these processes depend on also come from food. The only negative (aside from long-term health issues, which are themselves mitigated by high activity levels) is that they will show up to the start line a few pounds over their ideal racing weight.

In contrast, athletes who habitually eat too little are unlikely to even make it to the start line. Lacking the fuel they need for optimal workout performance and the raw materials they need for recovery and adaptation, they are at high risk of succumbing to overtraining fatigue or injury before race day comes around.

An interesting new study by Danish and Dutch researchers investigated some of the negative effects of within-day energy deficits in endurance athletes. A within-day energy deficit is a short period (we’re talking hours) where the body’s energy needs exceed the supply of energy from recently consumed food. It is possible to experience one or more within-day energy deficits of lesser or greater magnitude even if you get enough to eat over the course of the day as a whole.

Scientists from the University of Agder and the University of Copenhagen looked specifically at associations between within-day energy deficits and suppressed resting metabolism and hormone levels in a group of 31 male cyclists, runners, and triathletes. They found that 20 of the athletes had suppressed resting metabolic rates (RMR), meaning their bodies did not burn as many calories at rest as they should have; the remaining 11 athletes exhibited normal RMR. Interestingly, although all of the athletes ate as many calories as they burned over a period of 24 hours, those with suppressed RMR spent almost double the amount of time in energy deficits exceeding 400 calories (20.9 vs. 10.8 hours, on average). Additionally, higher cortisol levels and lower testosterone levels were found in the athletes who had the largest within-day energy deficits.

What these results tell us is that not eating enough throughout the day as an endurance athlete is a form of self-sabotage. Undereating actually makes it harder to achieve and sustain a lean body composition by reducing resting metabolism. Athletes with suppressed RMR also tend to have trouble marshaling energy for intense workouts. To make matters worse, undereating compromises recovery from and adaptation to training by increasing catabolic hormone levels and reducing anabolic hormone levels. And it’s worth underscoring that the athletes in this study did eat enough to meet their energy needs when the day was considered as a whole. They only fell behind during specific periods during the day.

In summary, being too restrictive with your calories is a great way to hold yourself back as an endurance athlete.

Regular readers of this blog are probably sick and tired of hearing me yammer on and on about the differences between professional and recreational endurance athletes. But that’s my shtick. I’m all about helping recreational athletes improve by doing things more like the pros.

Not all of the differences between elites and age-groupers are methodological. Some of the most striking and consequential differences are psychological. When I was in Flagstaff last summer training with NAZ Elite, I had regular appointments with a sports psychologist affiliated with Northern Arizona University, Shannon Thompson. During one of these appointments Shannon observed that in her experience, nearly all elite runners tend to make very good decisions both big and small, from choosing whether to follow a competitor’s surge in a race to choosing a coach. I told Shannon I had noticed the same thing among the elite runners I was training with every day.

I remember talking to Scott Fauble after a hard interval run on Lake Mary Road, Flagstaff’s famous proving grounds for runners. He explained to me that he had abandoned the workout two reps shy of completing it because he was battling a head cold and didn’t want to risk exacerbating the illness. I was struck not only by Scott’s ability to ditch a workout he was not even performing badly in but also by how comfortable he was with his decision. For most runners, bailing out of a workout would strike a blow to their confidence, but Scott kept things in perspective, telling me that his training was going well overall and his illness was minor, so he fully expected the truncated session to be nothing more than a hiccup, and that’s exactly how it turned out.

I saw examples like this time and time again in Flagstaff. The elite runners around me there were consistently and strikingly rational when they needed to be. Recreational runners, by contrast, very often make decisions based in fear and insecurity. It’s not that they don’t have the ability to be rational, but when the pressure is on they allow panic to seize the wheel from reason.

Recently I received a visit from Georgie Fear, who coauthored my Racing Weight Cookbook, and her husband Roland Fisher, with whom Georgie operates a successful online nutrition coaching business. During the visit, Roland talked a lot about his current fascination with decision theory, which is the formal study of how human decisions are made and which decision-making processes are most likely to yield desired outcomes. His intent is to use this material to tweak his and Georgie’s coaching model to achieve better outcomes for their clients. Naturally, I shared with Roland my observation that elite endurance athletes tend to be very good decision makers.

“Of course they are,” he said. “That’s how you become elite at anything, not just endurance sports. Mastery is the result of a lot of good decisions.”

One area where I see recreational athletes struggle particularly to make good decisions is performance weight management, or the pursuit of racing weight. I see people making bad decisions in goal-setting (fixating on a certain weight or body fat percentage they want to reach instead of letting form follow function), method selection (trying extreme diets instead of emulating the proven eating habits of the most successful athletes), and execution (breaking their own rules and giving in to temptations more often than they can get away with without sabotaging their progress). When I left California for Flagstaff last summer I weighed 150 pounds, which has been my racing weight forever. But I was open to the possibility of getting a little leaner before the Chicago Marathon, and as it turned out I raced Chicago at 141 pounds—the lightest I’d been since high school, lighter than I thought I would ever be again, and a weight that certainly made a positive contribution to my performance. I was very intentional about the decisions I made in pursuit of getting leaner. Here are the key decisions that went into the positive outcome.

  1. I didn’t set a weight-loss goal. My focus was entirely on the process. The approach I took was to train and eat smart and see where it got me weight-wise.
  2. I relied on my stepped-up training load to do half the job for me. In the dieting world, it is often said that weight loss is 90 percent about diet and 10 percent about training. But that’s not the case for competitive runners. Because it’s critically important that you eat enough as a runner to adequately fuel your training, you can’t rely much on calorie-cutting to shed fat.
  3. I made a few small tweaks to my diet to rid it of wasteful calories. My diet was already quite healthy before I relocated to Flagstaff, but like everyone else I get some calories from energy-dense sources that I can easily do without. In my case, I cut back on beer, cheese, and chocolate. These tweaks were easy to make and did not leave me feeling deprived.
  4. During the two-week training taper that immediately preceded the Chicago Marathon, when I was running progressively less, I carefully reduced the amount of food I ate. I continued to make sure I got enough to fuel my training adequately, but I put up with just a bit more hunger throughout the day. This final measure alone resulted in four pounds of weight loss.

And that’s an example of good decision-making in the pursuit of better running performance—and proof that even non-elites can do it!

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