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Get Lean

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By Coach Steve

Your weight makes a difference for athletic performance. It’s not significant for swimming, or cycling on flat courses, but for climbs and and runs an athletes’ weight has a profound impact on pace. For a marathon, one minute faster for each pound lost is a rough estimate of the benefit. How do you know if you’re lean…and what qualifies as lean? The best way to find out is a body fat test. It can easily be done with skinfold calipers at most fitness facilities. The calipers measure the thickness of skin - and any fat sandwiched between - from several predetermined sites on your body. Then the values are put into a weighted formula and averaged.

Elite athletes’ body fat values fall within predictable ranges. Men are typically 6 to 9%; women are 9 to 12%. When I describe athletes as ‘elite’ it means the most competitive in a respective age group, not just pros. Be aware that these numbers don’t fit the definition of ‘healthy’ percentages of body fat for the general public; they are substantially lower.

We have a natural tendency to maintain a higher fat percentage than the bare minimum endurance athletes need. In times past (or currently in less prosperous regions of our World) food has (is) not always in sufficient supply. In times of famine, those with fat reserves are more likely to survive. Chances are if you’ve got the leisure time to train, you also have unlimited access to a variety of food.

Is leaner better? To a point it is, but you can go too far. Your body requires a certain minimum level of body fat to function optimally. If you go below this level overall health is at risk.

Losing weight is not easy but the benefits are well worth the effort. I’ve seen athletes transformed from middle-of-the-packers, to consistent placers in their age group by getting lean - with no additional training effort.

Your nutrition choices impact weight maintenance and overall health.

I don’t believe in diets that work by altering your body's normal balance of protein, carbohydrate and fat. I’ve seen a no-carb diet send a friend into an off-season of low immune function where she was sick for weeks. She recovered completely after resuming a balanced diet.

The formula to lose weight is simple: Use more calories than you consume. I say “use” calories instead of ‘burn’ because the electro-chemical process our bodies perform to convert food to energy are not as simple as burning food. Caloric values are determined by a ‘bomb calorimeter,’ a device that measures the amount of energy created from literally burning food in a sealed container. Caloric values of carbs, protein, and fat should be taken as a general guide without going to extremes in analyzing intake.

I also don't believe that there are insidious genetic maladies that predispose some to be heavy, and some lean. Hormonal imbalances can affect our hunger and desire to eat, but ultimately we choose to put the food in our mouth or not. Dieting takes some thought and discipline.

The ability to eat in excess of what a sedentary person requires is one of the great perks for endurance athletes. Increasing training load while consuming the same amount and quality of food that you did with less training can put you in significant calorie deficit. But most of us still need help getting to a calorie deficit sufficient to lose weight with the same training load.

Weight loss shouldn't happen quickly. Losing one pound (3250 calories) a week is a realistic goal that won't have much negative impact on your energy level. For most of us in-training, that's eating the equivalent of 6 days' food in 7 days. It requires discipline, but not starvation.

Ideally, weight loss should begin as an off-season project and continue until you reach your goal. To focus on weight loss in-season is difficult because this is when you need complete nutrition to keep pace with your increased training load.

Training at low heart rate levels will help your metabolism adapt to IronMan distances, but the bottom-line for weight loss is total calories used, not specifically fat burning workouts.

Here are some guidelines that should help:

Before putting the food in your mouth ask yourself: “Am I really hungry, or just eating out of habit, boredom, or for fun?”
More than once I’ve heard from athletes who ‘pig-out’ at certain times of day. Raiding the refrigerator late at night is a common scenario. Make an agreement with yourself to keep this tendency under control. Find a distraction!
Eat breakfast. After all, [break]-[fast] serves to refuel and recover energy levels after your longest daily period of no food (sleep). Without breakfast hunger grows exponentially later in the day and most of us will over-compensate by eating too much.
This same principle applies to hunger during the day. ‘Grazing’ is a term that applies to cattle, but it can work for some of us as well. Eating small amounts more often than traditional mealtimes can keep hunger under control so that big meals where you overdo it can be avoided.
Don’t deprive yourself of calories immediately after workouts. This is when your body can learn to store more glycogen (the stored form of carbohydrate). Efficiency in storing glycogen means we will have more energy reserves when we need them. A couple hundred grams of carbohydrate is usually enough post workout.
Avoid certain foods including everything deep fried - French fries, chicken, fish etc.
Make food substitutions. Find a product the fills the same need, but has fewer calories like flavored carbonated water for soda, or low-fat baked chips instead of traditional deep fried.
Look at food labels and know what the values mean. Avoid foods with a high percentage of fat, especially high percentages of saturated fat. Eat foods from animal sources (all saturated fats) in moderation.
The longer the shelf-life of a food, the worse it is for you. To create a food that stays ‘fresh’ on the shelf for a long time, the fat has to be more stable. This is where hydrogenated fats come in. Hydrogenation changes the structure of an otherwise healthy fat from ‘cis to trans;' the fat becomes less liquid, more solid.
The same rule applies to processed foods. The less processed a food is, the better it is for you. Processing food nearly always involves addition of stabilizing fats and chemical preservatives. The same processing can destroy some of the nutritional entities we need to function efficiently like vitamins, minerals and their constituents.

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