Practical advice from the strange world of bulging muscles.
The next time you’re at a newsstand, pick up a bodybuilding magazine and skim through it. You’ll notice that most of the training and nutrition articles have a well-known professional bodybuilder as the focal point. For example, one feature might present a champion iron-pumper’s legs workout, while another feature details some other muscleman’s meal plan.
Such articles are based on the simple logic that everyone who wishes to develop a muscular and lean physique should emulate the training and nutrition practices of the most successful bodybuilders.
In the endurance world, strangely, this same logic is seldom encountered. Instead of being taught to emulate what the pros do, recreational triathletes are typically given reductionistic physiological rationales for training and eating in particular ways. Many of these practices differ sharply from what the pros do. For example, training regimens dominated by high-intensity interval training are based on science suggesting that high-intensity workouts offer more aerobic bang for the buck than slow-and-steady workouts do, but no elite triathlete trains this way. Similarly, low-carb diets are based on the notion that they increase muscular fat-burning capacity and stamina, but while they’ve caught on among age-groupers, most pro triathletes maintain a diet that provides at least seven grams of carbs per kilogram of body weight per day—that’s about 2,000 calories for a 160-pound athlete.
Some advocates of physiology-based methodologies argue that, due to genetic factors, the training and eating practices that work best for elite endurance athletes might not work best for recreational endurance athletes. But there is no evidence that this is the case. For example, studies have shown that recreational athletes who don’t spend nearly as much total time training as the pros do improve the most when they adhere to the same 80 easy/20 hard intensity split the pros practice.
Perhaps the most compelling evidence that elite methods work best for everyone comes from the real world. Consider the case of Sue Reynolds, a 62-year-old educational entrepreneur from Bloomington, In. Six years ago Reynolds weighed 335 pounds and had never exercised. She had lost weight several times before on calorie-restriction diets but had always gained it back. But in January 2010 she decided to try something different.
Sort of. Initially, Reynolds did go back to the same low-calorie diet (900 calories per day) that she had used in prior attempts to lose weight. But this time she also started exercising, and it was this new wrinkle that led to her breakthrough. Her first workout was a 50-foot walk—that’s all she could manage. Two years later, though, Reynolds was down to 291 pounds and walked an entire 5K. She finished the race dead last, but the magical feeling of crossing the finish line had a transformative effect. Her goal now was not just to lose more weight but to become an athlete.
Knowing nothing about endurance sports training and nutrition, Reynolds sought out credible authorities for guidance. She hired a local triathlon coach who placed her on a program that required her to do 80 percent of her training at low intensity and 20 percent at moderate to high intensity, just like the pros. On the diet side, she switched from a calorie-counting plan to a less restrictive healthy eating plan, then to a performance nutrition plan designed by Brittney Bearden, a sports dietitian at Indiana University (who has since transferred to Southern Methodist University). The plan she put Reynolds on mirrored that of the Division I collegiate runners, swimmers, and others Bearden has worked with.
The diet of the typical elite endurance athlete is inclusive, balanced, and varied. It’s based on unprocessed foods and is high in carbohydrate and total calories. This is the diet that Reynolds adopted, but not without some skepticism. “When [Bearden] wanted to increase my [daily] calories to 2,000, I thought she was crazy,” Reynolds says. After all, this was almost double the amount she had been eating. What’s more, Bearden wanted the bulk of those additional calories to come from carbohydrates, which are demonized in the dieting culture Reynolds was steeped in. “I told her that if I started gaining weight, the deal was off,” she recalls.
Instead of gaining weight, however, Reynolds made astonishing progress. She went from walking a 5K to running a 5K to completing a sprint triathlon to qualifying for the national championships in 2014 to qualifying for the world championships in 2015. And as her fitness increased, her weight plummeted. Reynolds now weighs 135 pounds—200 pounds less than when she started her journey.
Sue Reynolds is the ultimate living proof that the training and dietary practices that work best for professional racers work best all across the fitness spectrum. Or, as she herself puts it, “Yes, people starting at zero can use the same methods as used by elites.”