The smartest way to manage your weight for endurance performance is to emulate the methods of the fastest men and women on the planet.
The leanest cyclists, runners, and triathletes are typically also the fastest endurance ones. This pattern holds even within the select ranks of the professionals. One study reported that in a small group of elite Ethiopian runners, all of whom were very lean and very fast, those with the least body fat had the best race times.
Genes account for a portion of the difference in body fat levels between individual endurance athletes. But there is a tendency among us age groupers to overestimate the importance of the genetic contribution to leanness in the pros. We like to think that the world-class men and women who were blessed with the right DNA can eat whatever they want without putting on body fat.
In fact, most of the top cyclists, runners, and triathletes work very hard at managing their weight and body composition for performance. What’s more, they tend to rely on the same methods to stay lean. And guess what? The very same methods of weight management that work so well for the world’s best endurance athletes are can help everyday competitors like us achieve our optimal racing weight too, even if that weight is a few pounds greater than the pros.’
I’ve spent a lot of time studying the diets and weight-management practices of world-class endurance athletes. In 2009 I collected the top five and linked them into a systematic program in my book, Racing Weight. Since then I’ve identified a sixth key practice and added it to the recently published second edition of Racing Weight. Let’s take a look at these six methods.
Step 1: Improve Your Diet Quality
After graduating from the University of Wisconsin in 2007 as a five-time NCAA champion, Chris Solinsky moved to Portland, Ore., to run professionally for Nike. He also decided to improve his eating habits. Instead of adopting a diet with a name (e.g. vegan, paleo, gluten free) and lots of weird rules, he simply improved the overall quality of his diet in commonsense ways, eating more vegetables, fewer frozen pizzas, and so forth. As a result he lost several pounds and achieved a performance breakthrough, setting an American record of 26:59:60 for 10,000 meters in 2010.
Increasing the overall quality of your diet is the simplest and most effective way to shed excess body fat and move closer to your optimal racing weight. That means eating more of the six categories of high-quality foods—vegetables, fruits, nuts and seeds, lean meats and fish, whole grains, and dairy—and less of the four categories of low-quality foods—refined grains, fatty meats, sweets, and fried foods. In Racing Weight I present a unique scoring system that enables athletes to easily rate the quality of their diet and systematically increase it.
Step 2: Manage Your Appetite
At the height of his training for the Ironman World Championship each year, triathlon legend Peter Reid kept no food in his kitchen—none—so that he wouldn’t be tempted to overeat. It was an extreme measure, but Reid knew his ideal racing weight was 164 to 165 pounds (or 7-10 pounds below his natural off-season weight) and he knew that he could not reach his racing weight if he fully indulged his appetite. It’s hard to argue with the results: three victories and three runner-up finishes in Kona between 1998 and 2004.
Research conducted by Brian Wansink, author of Mindless Eating, and others has demonstrated that most people automatically eat more food than they need unless they take conscious steps to control their “food environment” and eat more mindfully. These measures do not need to include removing all of the food from your kitchen, but they may include removing all of the low-quality temptations from your kitchen and replacing your current dishes with smaller dishes on which you serve yourself slightly smaller portions.
Step 3: Balance Your Energy Sources
The world’s best runners come from Kenya and Ethiopia. The diet of the typical East African runner is 76 to 78 percent carbohydrate. Compare that to the diet of the average American, which is only 48 percent carbohydrate. Research going all the way back to the 1960s has consistently shown that a high-carbohydrate diet best supports intensive endurance training. Unfortunately, the low-carb diet craze of the late 1990s and early 2000s has cast a long shadow, causing many age-group athletes to eat too little carbohydrate to properly support their training.
Actually, not every endurance athlete needs a high-carb diet. Carbohydrate needs are closely tied to training volume. The more you train, the more carbs you need. Use this table to determine the daily carbohydrate intake target that’s right for you.
Step 4: Monitor Yourself
When Bradley Wiggins won the Tour de France in 2012 he weighed 158 pounds and had 4 percent body fat. Four years earlier, when he won his last Olympic gold medals as a track cyclist, Wiggins weighed 180 pounds and his body fat level was a few points higher. His slimming was a major factor in his Tour de France triumph, and he achieved that slimming in part by continuously monitoring his weight and body composition.
In business there’s an expression: “What gets measured gets managed.” If you’re trying to reduce your weight and body-fat percentage, it only makes sense to measure these things regularly. The pros do, and research has shown that nonathlete dieters who weigh themselves often lose more weight than those who avoid the scale. I recommend that all endurance athletes weigh themselves at least once a week and use a body fat scale such as the Tanita Ironman to estimate their body-fat percentage once every four weeks.
Step 5: Time Your Nutrition
A naturally big guy who once tipped the scales at 200 pounds, professional triathlete T.J. Tollakson stays lean by frontloading his daily energy intake in accordance with the dictum “eat breakfast like a king, lunch like a prince, and dinner like a pauper.”
With respect to weight management, when you eat is almost as important as what you eat. The most important times of the day to eat are in the morning and within an hour after workouts because calories eaten at these times are less likely to be stored as fat and more likely to be incorporated into muscle tissue and used for immediate energy needs.
Step 6: Train for Racing Weight
Nearly all professional endurance athletes train by what’s known as the Lydiard method, which entails doing a high volume of training, about 80 percent of it at low intensities, 10 percent at moderate intensities, and 10 percent at high intensities.
While a low-volume, high-intensity approach to training has gained popularity among age-group endurance athletes lately, it is not the most effective way to train for endurance performance or achieve a lean body composition. Research provides clear support for the Lydiard method that is used almost universally by the elites.
Obviously, few age groupers have the time, energy, or durability to train as much as the pros do, but that’s not the point. The point is to maintain a training volume that is close to your personal limit and to keep the intensity low for four out of every five workouts. If you do this you will burn far more calories and build greater aerobic fitness than you possibly could by doing the small volume of training you can handle if you go hard (or even moderately hard, as a majority of age groupers do) in most workouts.
When it comes to training and eating to attain your optimal racing weight, the best thing to do is the same thing you do in races: follow the pros!