Written by Matt Fitzgerald for Competitor.com
Even runners need to lose weight sometimes. But we can’t do it like couch potatoes.
As an athlete you can’t pursue weight loss the way the average dieter does, through severe caloric restriction. Calories are energy, after all, and you need a lot of energy to train effectively and to recover adequately from workouts. Severe calorie restriction would therefore simply sabotage your efforts to get fit and perform well in races.
You should never try to maximize the shedding of excess body fat and the building of peak race fitness simultaneously. There is an appropriate time to prioritize weight loss, but it’s not within a race-focused training cycle. Rather, it should be done in the several weeks preceding a training cycle. I refer to this period of weight-loss emphasis as a quick start.
Even during a quick start, however, you should not pursue fat loss the same way couch potatoes do. You still have to go after it in a way that supports your running ambitions. In other words, you need to pursue athletic weight loss.
How is this done? There are five keys to athletic weight loss.
Moderate Calorie Deficit
During a quick start you should aim to consume 300 to 500 fewer calories per day than your body would need to maintain its current weight. This deficit is sufficient to yield fairly quick weight loss, but it would be too large within the race-focused training process, when you need your diet to support heavy training for an upcoming race.
A quick start is also a good time to make a greater commitment to strength training than you do at any other time. I recommend three full-body strength workouts per week at this time. This will help you lose weight by adding muscle mass to your frame and thereby increasing your metabolism, so you burn more fat at rest. Building strength during a quick start will also help you perform better and stay injury free during the subsequent race-focused training process.
Increased Protein Intake
I recommend that runners aim to get roughly 30 percent of their daily calories from protein during a quick start. There are two reasons for this recommendation. First, high-protein diets are more filling than moderate- and low-protein diets. So increasing your protein intake during a quick start will help you maintain your daily calorie deficit without hunger. Second, increased protein intake will help you build muscle through strength training.
Within the training cycle your protein intake needs to be lower to make room for increased consumption of carbohydrate, your most important endurance fuel.
A quick start is not the time for high-volume endurance training. That should wait until you’re within the race-focused training process. Of course, high-volume endurance training itself promotes fat loss. So if you’re not going to do it during a quick start, you have to promote fat loss through training in other ways. As we’ve seen, strength training is one way.
Another way is with sprint interval workouts. Training sessions consisting of large numbers of very short (10-30 seconds) sprints are proven to promote significant fat loss, especially between workouts. They also develop power that will help you get off to a good start when you move into race-focused training.
This is not a type of training that you can do much of within the race-focused training period, when more race-specific types of workouts (longer intervals, tempo workouts, etc.) must be prioritized.
A fasting workout is a long, easy run undertaken in a glycogen-deprived state. This means you don’t eat before you start and you don’t take in any carbs along the way. This forces your body to rely on fat to fuel the workout, making it a great fat-burning session. I advise runners to perform one fasting workout per week during a quick start. Later, when you’re actively training toward a race, you should consume carbs before and during most of your long rides and runs to maximize your performance in those workouts.
You can find a complete quick start program that is customized to your individual needs in my Racing Weight Quick Start Guide. Remember, you’re an athlete — lose weight like one!