There’s a difference between exercising to lose weight and training for a race.
Runners and triathletes have long enjoyed the weight loss benefits of these great sports. It seems like every week there are new studies confirming that endurance sports, and specifically running, are a good way to help lose weight:
- Aerobic exercise is more efficient at burning liver and visceral fat than resistance training (source 1 and source 2)
- Running is better than resistance training for weight loss (source)
So if you’d like to lose weight, then swimming, biking and running are some of the best forms of exercise to help you accomplish all of your goals. But there’s a difference between exercising to lose weight and training for a race.
Because when you’re training, you’re not simply exercising. The goal of training is to physically prepare an athlete to complete a race in the fastest time possible.
And many athletes encounter problems when they try to do both: train for a race and lose weight. When cutting calories is combined with higher mileage and more demanding workouts, the result is almost always sluggishness, poor performance, and a higher risk of injuries.
“If you diet while training [for a race], you won’t perform at your best because you won’t be able to adequately repair your muscles after workouts,” says Anne Mauney, MPH, RD, the author of the food and fitness blog fANNEtastic food and marathon runner. “If taken too far, under-fueling while training can lead to more serious issues like stress fractures or electrolyte imbalances.”
The solution is to focus on weight loss before you start training for a race. During this 4-8 week period, the focus is on losing weight rather than performance.
And since most weight loss occurs from dietary changes rather than exercise, it’s best to follow several best-practices.
Fill Up on Protein!
Many studies have confirmed that protein helps with satiety (the feeling of being full) and curbing appetite—especially when it’s consumed at breakfast, which has the added benefit of reducing cravings for unhealthy foods.
Runners should aim to eat about .5–1 gram of protein for every pound of bodyweight depending on mileage and overall workload. The best sources include lean meats and fish like chicken breasts, turkey, salmon, sardines, and plant-based foods like legumes, nuts, and seeds.
With adequate protein, your muscles will be able to properly recover and rebuild after a challenging run. It’s an essential building block for bones, muscle, and even hair, cartilage, and skin.
Don’t Drink Your Calories
It’s hard enough to lose weight, don’t sabotage your efforts by drinking hundreds of calories from sweetened beverages like soda, iced tea, and juice!
Instead, choose water. It has zero calories and helps keep you full. People often mistake thirst signals for hunger so ensuring you’re properly hydrated is an important piece to the weight loss puzzle.
And yes, we know that sports drinks help improve performance. But they’re not appropriate during a weight loss phase of training (when the focus is not on performance) due to the amount of sugar they contain.
Stick with water for the vast majority of your fluids. Other great options are unsweetened tea, coffee, and other unsweetened beverages.
It’s All About Nutrient Density
This one component to your weight loss efforts may be the most important. A groundbreaking study from the Nutrition Journal found that a nutrient-dense diet lessens hunger and is an effective way for improving health and losing weight.
In other words, you’re better off eating a nutritious, protein-packed breakfast than a nutrient-poor bowl of sugary cereal.
Focus on nutrient-dense but calorie-poor foods like bright vegetables, leafy greens, and lean meats. Fruit, high-quality sources of carbohydrate like quinoa or wild rice and beans are other great options that are rich in nutrients but don’t pack the calorie-punch of sweetened, processed foods.
When your goal is weight loss, it’s helpful to prepare these nutritious foods ahead of time so you’re not scrambling to find healthy food after a long run or difficult workout. Those are the moments when you’ll be most tempted by calorie-dense (and nutrient-poor) foods.
Your biggest results will come from this simple approach. There’s no need to calculate macronutrient percentages or “score” your food.
And certainly no need for calorie counting!
Like periodizing your training for a big race, it’s also critical to periodize the goals of your training. Whether that’s weight loss, a 5K PR, or qualifying for Kona, it’s necessary to focus on one thing at a time.
First, focus on weight loss. Then, you can focus on racing fast.