I generally try to be diplomatic when I talk about training and weight management, but perhaps it’s time to stop being polite and start getting real (sorry, I couldn’t resist the MTV reference…). We can talk about incremental increases in power at lactate threshold or optimizing pedal stroke, but if you really want to go faster, drop 10 pounds.
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To some that might sound like a harsh or insensitive statement, but take the emotion out of the equation and think about it objectively. Can you afford to lose 10 pounds? Yes. I’ve ridden with and talked to thousands of amateur cyclists and triathletes this year, and I’d say 90% had 10 pounds they could afford to lose (that includes me, by the way).
Some may even say I’m irresponsibly advocating an unrealistic body image. If you apply what I’m saying too broadly (kids, teenagers, performers, athletes in judged sports, etc.), then you’re right. But I’m talking to adult (and mostly 35+ year old) cyclists, triathletes and runners. We’re all adults here and we need to be able to talk about this in stark terms. With rare exception, ten pounds off your frame won’t make you dangerously skinny.
Above all, this isn’t about body image. It’s about performance. When you are lighter you go faster (on any terrain, not just hills), and the vast majority of the adult endurance athletes I’ve encountered this year are too heavy and eat too much during training sessions and events. If you think you’re not one of them, you might be right. But you’re probably wrong.
What I’ve come to realize is that we dance uncomfortably around the subject of weight loss in endurance sports. I think we’re afraid of pointing out that someone is too heavy because of all the messy topics mentioned above. So we go on talking about training, training, training. But let’s be clear: no matter how fit you get, carrying around an extra 10 pounds – or more – makes you slower. It makes you work harder for every mile you travel. It makes you fatigue sooner. It costs you more energy.
Case in point: Last weekend I rode 103 miles with a CTS Athlete who has been working with us since just about the beginning of the company. He’s 30 pounds lighter than when we first met, and I’m 20 pounds lighter. We’re both in our 50s. We finished 103 miles in 4:45 and talked casually the whole way. I was doing about 600 kilojoules of work per hour to maintain a speed above 21mph, and consuming about 120 calories per hour (some food and a bottle of Osmo Active Hydration). When I was heavier I was slower, I was hungrier, I overheated more, I ate more, and I cramped more. I also would have been shattered after 103 miles at that pace. Certainly, there was a training/fitness difference between now and then as well. I’m not saying that losing 10 pounds is the only reason we are faster, overheat less, cramp less, and eat less. But I am saying it’s one of the reasons, and a significant one at that.
Fall is also a great time of year to focus on weight loss because if this isn’t a focused race season for you then you can make changes to your caloric intake and nutritional composition with little to no risk to your training quality. Many athletes try to restrict calories and lose weight in the spring, but that creates a conflict between your nutritional needs for high-quality training and the caloric restriction necessary for weight loss. It’s better to focus on weight loss during the period of the year when your training goals are less specific.
So, what’s it going to take for you to drop 10 pounds? Well, since we’re being direct today:
- You’re going to need to be okay with being hungry. You’re going to need to eat less during the day and during your workouts. Initially that means you’re going to feel hungry, because you’re used to eating more. People sometimes focus too much on the composition of meals when they are looking to lose weight (more protein, less starch, more leafy greens, fewer grains, etc.). When I look at dietary recalls for moderately- to highly-fit amateur athletes, for the most part you’re already eating a well-balanced diet with whole foods. You’re just eating too much of it. And then adding unnecessary junk (quart-sized, with whip, pumpkin spice latte, anyone?) on top of it.
- You’re going to need to say no. Decide on a timeframe and start cutting items out of your diet. When I want to lose weight I cut out alcohol, dairy, meat, and dessert. I find that these changes help me refocus my eating decisions and reinforce good habits. I get away from mindlessly throwing cheese or butter on things. When I’m traveling, I find that meat is frequently accompanied by high-fat, high-calorie side dishes and sauces. Sticking with the vegetable and fish sections of the menu is often an easy way to find lower-calorie options. These don’t need to be permanent changes, but when you add them back into your meals you should do it sparingly and with consideration for your new, lower daily caloric intake.
- Slow down and focus on eating. Part of the reason so many athletes eat too much is that we eat too quickly. We grab lunch on the way from one meeting to another or eat at our desks. We’re also distracted while we eat. It’s a time to check social media, or catch up on the news. When you scarf down a meal quickly and mindlessly you are more apt to consume a lot of calories in such a short time that your brain doesn’t register being full (likely overfull) until you’re already way past finished. Slow down, focus on the meal you’re eating, taste the food and enjoy it. You’ll most likely find yourself satisfied before you finish the food on your plate, which makes it easier to reduce portion size.
- You’re going to need to be patient. Since most of you can’t increase your training hours/mileage/yardage because of your busy lifestyle, you can’t just train the weight off. You have to reduce your caloric intake while slightly to moderately increasing caloric expenditure. It’s not a recipe for dramatically fast weight loss, but 1-2 pounds a week is absolutely attainable and sustainable. You’re talking 5-10 weeks of focusing on weight loss and establishing high-quality, lower-calorie eating habits (so you maintain the weight loss). No more giving up after 3 weeks.
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All right, I’ll get off my soapbox now. I know you’ve worked extremely hard to make gains in fitness and performance this year, and I hear from athletes every day who have made huge transformations. I also know that setbacks happen, and that training is never a steadily upward trajectory. One of the things I tell my coaches, however, is that you’re doing an athlete a disservice when you sugarcoat reality and tell them only what they want to hear. We have to be the ones to tell you what your spouse, your coworkers, your training partners, and certainly your competitors won’t.
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