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© Joe Friel 2008
A common question asked by triathletes is how to lose weight to improve climbing on the bike and running in general. There’s little doubt that being lighter means better climbing and faster running. A pound of excess body weight takes about two watts to get it up a hill on a bike and costs about two seconds a mile when running. That doesn’t sound like much, but what if you shed ten pounds of fat? Dropping ten pounds of excess flab means you would ride up a hill about seven to ten percent faster and run a 5k about a minute faster. Those are significant improvements in performance that would otherwise take lots of sweat and months of hard training to accomplish.
While there is no question that excess body weight is a great handicap in a triathlon this is not to say that all triathletes should lose weight. Many are already lean enough. Trying to cut weight when you are already close to your optimal body mass is not a good idea.
Getting Your Mass Over the Pass
Is 200 pounds too heavy to be a competitive triathlete? Well, we really can’t say based just on weight. What if the athlete is six-feet, eight-inches tall? I once coached an age-group triathlete like this who regularly qualified for Ironman Hawaii and finished in under nine-and-a-half hours. He is quite skinny—and fast.
So weight alone doesn’t tell you much. Body mass is a much better indicator but a little complicated. A easy way to think about your body mass is to compare your weight with your height. The bathroom scales simply don’t tell you the whole story. Your weight-to-height ratio is a much simpler and more effective way to think about body mass than only using the scales.
Determine your ratio by dividing your weight in pounds by your height in inches. Competitive male triathletes are generally about 2.1 to 2.3 pounds per inch. High-performance women triathletes are usually in the range of 1.8 to 2.0. Men who exceed 2.5 pounds per inch and women above 2.3 are best advised to find flat race courses if the goal is to be competitive. Hilly courses favor lower-body-mass athletes. But high-mass athletes actually have an advantage on a flat bike course; all the more so if the wind is blowing. For example, the 200-pound athlete mentioned above comes in at 2.5 pounds per inch and races most competitively on flat to rolling courses.
Eat Less or Train More?
If above the competitive range and you want to climb and run faster, how can you get down closer to it? What is the best way to accomplish a lofty goal of dropping those last few pounds? Unfortunately, studies on the best way for serious athletes to drop a few pounds are rare. One group of researchers, however, has examined the issue in an interesting way. They compared eating less to exercising more to see which was more effective in dropping excess body fat.
The scientists had six, endurance-trained men create a 1,000-calorie-per-day deficit for seven days by either exercising more while maintaining their caloric intake, or by eating less while keeping exercise the same. With 1,000 calories of increased exercise daily–comparable to running an additional eight miles or so each day–the exercise-more men averaged 1.67 pounds of weight loss in a week. On the other side, the eat-less men took in 1,000 fewer calories from food each day and lost 4.75 pounds on average for the week.
So, according to this study, the old adage that “a calorie is a calorie” doesn’t hold true. At least in the short term, restricting food intake appears to have a greater return on the scales than does increasing the training workload.
Notice that I said “on the scales.” The reduced-food-intake group in this study unfortunately lost a greater percentage of muscle mass than did the increased-exercise group. That is an ineffective way to lose weight. If the scales show you’re lighter, but you have less muscle to create power, the trade off is not a good one.
How can you reduce calories and yet maintain muscle mass? Unfortunately, that question hasn’t been answered for athletes, but it has been for sedentary women. Perhaps the conclusions are still applicable to athletes.
Eat Less What?
In 1994, Italian researchers had 25 women eat only 800 calories a day for 21 days. Ten ate a relatively high-protein and low-carbohydrate diet. Fifteen ate a low-protein and high-carbohydrate diet. Both were restricted to 20 percent of calories from fat. The two groups lost similar amounts of weight, but there was a significantly greater loss of muscle on the high-carbohydrate, low-protein diet.
It appears that when calories are reduced to lose weight, which is more effective than increasing training workload, the protein content of the diet must be kept at near normal levels. This, of course, assumes that you’re eating adequate protein before starting the diet, which many athletes aren’t. If your protein intake is low, typically less than about 20 percent of total calories, then training quality will suffer and you are likely to lose muscle mass when eating less.
When to Lose Weight
When one of the athletes I coach needs to drop a few pounds we try to accomplish this in the early Base period of the season. The challenge for most athletes is that this time in the training season generally includes the holidays at year end. That can be a difficult time of year to reduce food intake. But if we get to Build 1—about 10 to 12 weeks before the first A-priority race—then it’s really too late and we need to accept whatever the athlete’s body weight is and move on to the more challenging race-like training.
So the bottom line is that when trying to lose those last few pounds of excess flab that cutting calories is more effective than increasing exercise volume and that a quality source of protein should be included in every meal. The best time in the season to lose weight is during the Base period. The closer you get to your A-priority race the more detrimental calorie-cutting will be for recovery and performance.
Joe Friel is the author of TheTriathlete’s Training Bible and co-author of The Paleo Diet for Athletes. For his blog or more information on training, training plans, camps, clinics and coaching visit his website at trainingbible.com.
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