I had a great conversation with an athlete this week about prioritizing weight loss and fitness, and I think it relates to many more of you out there. His basic issue was that he had been focusing on weight loss since December – and lost 20 pounds in the process – but his weight loss had stalled about 10 pounds shy of his goal weight. And his question was simple: what to do now?
This is actually a common problem for athletes who are trying to lose weight. When you have a lot of weight to lose it’s not that difficult to create the caloric deficit necessary to lead to weight loss. And typically an athlete’s fitness is not that high when they have significant weight to lose, so there’s also plenty of easily-achievable fitness gains to be made.
But once you get to those final 10 pounds, the gap diminishes between the energy you need to consume to support your activity level and the caloric deficit you’re trying to maintain for the purpose of weight loss. That’s where the athlete I was talking to was stuck.
The symptoms of being stuck in this weight and performance purgatory include frequent bonking, sudden loss of power after about 90 minutes of exercise, no “punch” when it comes to hard efforts, and post-workout exhaustion that seems excessive compared to the intensity/duration of the workout itself. You may also have disturbed sleep, difficulty focusing, and have an increased tendency to be irritable.
You’re exhausted, hungry, not recovering from or adapting to your training well, and as a result you’re also frustrated. If this describes you, I have a solution
Solution: Train now, lose more weight later.
Continuing with your current pattern of training and restricting calories simultaneously will only keep you in purgatory. To change the dynamic you have to disrupt the pattern. For four weeks focus exclusively on your training and stop restricting calories. Eat to fully support your activity level and optimize recovery, which will mean an increase in calories from where you are now. That doesn’t mean chow down on crap or proactively try to gain weight. It just means your goal should be to train hard and have awesome workouts because you’re fully fueled and completely recovered. You may gain a pound or two, but please don’t freak out. When you return to caloric restriction that weight, plus more, will come off.
Why this strategy works
Training provides a lot of great adaptations. You get stronger and faster. You drop your buddies and win races. Your cardiovascular health improves, your blood pressure drops, and your clothes fit better. But the adaptation that’s relevant to this discussion is the increased size and number of mitochondria in muscle cells. These cellular power plants process fat and carbohydrate into energy, and when you have more and bigger mitochondria you have the tools to burn more raw materials. If you have huge piles of coal to burn and the city around you is begging for the energy, the solution is to build a bigger powerplant! (I guess a greener example would involve endless wind and building more turbines, but you get the picture…)
Since it’s spring it’s also important to note that athletes with big springtime goals (April-June) should be wrapping up their serious efforts to lose significant weight. Generally you should plan periods of caloric restriction for times of the year when you’re main training focus is on aerobic endurance. When you’ve moved into serious high-intensity training for race-specific fitness, it’s time to bring your calorie intake back in-line with your energy expenditure so you maximize the quality of your training and recovery. If that means you’re a few pounds shy of your arbitrary goal weight, don’t obsess about it. Those few pounds may come off anyway over the next few months, and either way remember that great fitness and a few extra pounds is better than being 2 pounds lighter and weak as a kitten.
CEO/Head Coach of CTS