With a few more pounds around our midsections thanks to the holidays, weight loss is a hot topic in January. And while many people start the new year with a “new” shortcut to shed pounds by Spring Break, smart athletes understand that a wise combination of nutrition and exercise will melt away those pounds. But even the most seasoned athletes can fall prey to myths about weight loss and the exercise/nutrition combo. To keep you cruising down the path to a stronger and leaner you, here are two practical tips and two myths you need to stop believing.
MYTH #1: LOW-INTENSITY EXERCISE BURNS FAT FASTER
This “fat burning zone” notion originated as a simple misunderstanding of exercise physiology and escalated into a misguided fitness movement. When you’re exercising at a low intensity (moderate walking or easy cycling, for example), the majority of the energy you’re burning comes from fat. Sounds great, doesn’t it? The problem is, you’re not burning much energy in the first place. As you increase your pace, a higher percentage of your energy comes from carbohydrate, but the absolute amount of fat you’re burning, and the total number of calories you’re burning, go up as well. Put simply: a harder workout burn more fat and more total calories.
Even more important than the caloric expenditure is what moderate- to high-intensity exercise does for your fitness and health. When exercise is strenuous enough that it challenges your aerobic system, your body adapts and build bigger and more plentiful mitochondria in your muscles. These are the powerplants that burn carbohydrate, and drumroll please… fat. When they’re bigger and more plentiful, they’re able to supply you with more energy before you reach lactate threshold. What does that have to do with weight loss? Well, greater fitness gives you more furnaces to burn more calories, and the endurance to exercise long enough and fast enough to incinerate a significant chunk of energy with each session. So, forget low-intensity, “fat-burning-zone” exercises and stick with your interval workouts; the fat will come off and your performance will improve at the same time.
TIP: TRAIN FOR FITNESS, EAT FOR WEIGHT LOSS
No matter what you’re doing it’s important to use the right tool for the job. Training is the best tool to use for improving fitness, and your diet (how and what you eat, not “a diet”) is the best tool for managing your weight. There is certainly crossover, but exercising primarily to burn calories and thereby lose weight is an inefficient application for exercise, and trying to improve performance through diet is never as effective as improving your training.
Training for fitness has more overall benefit than training to burn calories. Greater cardiovascular reduces risk factors for cardiovascular disease. Fitness increases the workload you can produce per minute and the amount of time you can sustain that workload. Even if burning calories is more of a secondary byproduct of training, improving fitness increases the number of calories you can burn per hour. However, no amount of fitness can overcome poor eating choices. A really hard workout might burn 1000 calories in an hour; which is about the calories in an average Chipotle burrito. Regardless of the macronutrient strategy you’re following, you can easily and quickly consume more calories than you could practically balance with energy expenditure.
MYTH #2: EXERCISING ON AN EMPTY STOMACH PROMOTES WEIGHT LOSS.
There are good reasons to conduct some training sessions with low carbohydrate availability, but the goal of those sessions should be to enhance your ability to oxidize fat, not merely burn calories. Like the problem with exercising at low intensity for fat burning, when you ride with low energy availability you’re just going to ride slower and complete less total work. There’s a difference between purposely training with low carbohydrate availability and training when you’re hungry.
The “Train Low” and “Sleep Low” methods are backed by good sports science and generally promote the idea of periodizing carbohydrate availability along with the demands of training. Low- to moderate-intensity workouts can be completed effectively with low carbohydrate availability. It should be noted that your goal is not necessarily to avoid consuming carbohydrate during a workout, but rather to start these workouts with diminished or depleted carbohydrate stores in your muscles. Read the following article for a lot more information about this training method: Which is better: Training with High or Low Carbohydrate Stores?
What you don’t want to do is combine hard intervals with fasted training. Easy workouts are the time to try enhancing fat oxidation in a fasted state. Hard workouts are when you use all fuels to maximize power or pace to generate the greatest training stimulus. You can read more about training and a Ketosis diet here: Should Endurance Athletes Go Keto? Ketosis and Ketogenic Diets for Endurance Athletes
If you still want to cut back on your calories, shift the harder portions of your workouts to the beginning of the training session. You still want to get a good warmup first (10 minutes at least), but then jump right into the intervals or other high-intensity work. That way, if you start to fade before the training session is over, you’ve already completed the work that’s most important for keeping you moving toward your goals.
TIP: MAKE INTERVALS LONGER, NOT HARDER
People are sometimes tempted to go extra hard during interval workouts when they feel like they have extra weight to lose. We’d rather see you add a few minutes to the interval – extend a 10-minute interval to 12 or 15 – instead. The reason is that the intensity of an interval determines which energy system you’re primarily targeting, whereas the duration of an interval addresses the amount of energy (ie. carbs and fat) you’re using to power that system. If you’re doing intervals just below your maximum sustainable pace, increasing the intensity changes the intervals’ impact on your training. Making the interval longer allows you to burn more calories while keeping your training focused on your long-term fitness and performance goals.