We are not talking tragedy no 700-pounders who need a crane to lift them out of bed and into the hospital. No poster children for the wonders of Nordic-Trak informercials with 45 pounds to lose, either.
We are talking about self-absorbed Type-A triathletes who blew it a little, face a loss in competitive edge, and want to get back the edge while losing excess pounds before the season starts.
We talked to three experts for their approaches to smart weight loss for the competitive athlete: masters degree exercise physiologist Saul Blau of the Irvine, Calif.-based Health Corp., which designs programs for many elite triathletes, cyclists and runners; Dr. Phil Maffetone, training adviser to Mark Allen and Mike Pigg; and Joe Douglas of the Santa Monica Track Club, agent to Carl Lewis and co-coach with Willie Rios of top U.S. Olympic marathon trials qualifier Jenny Spangler.
Anatomy of a fat invasion
Case study A is one 35-year-old, top 20-percent male age-grouper. This 37:30 10K guy can break 2:15 on an international-distance triathlon on his best day. He stands six feet tall and when in top form, weighs 174 pounds with 10-percent body fat.
His typical week includes 11 to 12 workouts; five runs for 40 miles, three bike rides for 170 miles and four swims for six miles. He is a disciplined, professional man with heavy economic responsibilities; he was training for a winter marathon and was in fine tune when he injured his calf muscle during a Thanksgiving workout and had to bag it for a month.
During that month, he had to travel out of town on emergency assignment and could not find a pool or gym, and since he could not run, he just gave up for four weeks. Food discipline went south he ate chocolates, sodium, late-night beers and fatty meats.
Lack of sleep, relatives at Christmas, stress at work, no workouts at all for a month = 185 pounds. Waist went from 33 to 34.5. Where does he stand?
According to exercise physiologist Blau, our case study most likely maintained or slightly exceeded his full training mode, set-point diet of 3,500 calories a day while he went into the spiral of injury-no workout-stress-bad food. (Coincidentally, one pound of body fat equals 3,500 calories.)
"At peak fitness, this guy needed about 2,300 calories a day to maintain body weight while doing nothing," says Blau.
So, he had a net caloric surplus of 1,300 a day for 30 days. That translates to 39,000 calories or slightly over 10 pounds. Body fat content went from 14.4 pounds to 30 pounds, from 10 to 15 percent.
Likely, the inactivity also resulted in a slight loss of lean body mass from 156.6 to 155 pounds. The combination of lost workouts, added fat and increased weight put him beyond the range of quick fixes and in need of some serious attention to the problem.
How the weight affected performance is intrinsically linked to a fitness drop due to the lack of workouts, says Blau; There are two main factors that lead to this drop. For one, each pound of fat takes up slightly less than a mile of the capillary network.
"Case study A just robbed his aerobic energy system of roughly 10 miles of capillaries and a significant loss of blood flow to the muscles. Next, imagine running with a 10-pound backpack. Net result would be a loss of 15 percent VO2 max. In his case, Id estimate a drop from a VO2 max of 62 to about 52.
If he went out to race a 10K, Blau estimates a similar performance drop with his 10K time of 37:30 (6:05 per mile) ballooning to about 42:00 (just under seven minutes a mile).
Relying on the scale alone is oversimplifying matters, says both Blau and Maffetone. "The sense that, if I lose weight, I will gain speed seems to make sense with math, but as a clinician it always backfires," Maffetone says. "It is part of our national obsession with fat."
Blau says it is easy and quick to put on weight and a much slower process to take it off. He prescribes case study As 39,000-calorie drop over 11 weeks at 700 calories a day deficit.
"Any more, and he may have hormonal problems," he explains, "and the body may end up converting muscle mass protein to glycogen a painful, inefficient process with side effects."
With conditioning loss, his initial workout load should drop by nearly half to 20 miles a week running, 75 miles a week riding and three miles a week swimming, say Blau.
As the weight melts off, increase mileage and intensity. But, at first, his daily exercise calorie burning drops temporarily from 1,200 to about 600. Total calories consumed per day should range from a minimum of 1,800 to about 2,100 due to a decrease in basal metabolic rate due to fat increase and loss of fitness.
The design is to maintain a balanced diet of 50 percent carbohydrates, 30 percent protein, 20 percent fat, says Blau, who adheres to the more classic low-fat, high-carbohydrate regimen in most textbooks.
Maffetone, a 40-30-30 advocate, thinks more unsaturated fat (think olive oil and avocados) combined with aerobic training is the ticket. "Eating a healthy percentage of unsaturated fats increases the bodys access to fat as fuel and speeds up the fat loss," he says.
Beware of impact injuries
With decrease in fitness, VO2 max and increased weight, there is danger of impact injury if old training paces are maintained.
"If one of my runners is carrying 10 extra pounds, [he or she] cannot run as fast as before, and we cut out all speed work and restrict [him or her] to easy, base building pace until [he or she gets] under the five-pound range," Douglas says.
Blau says case study As long slow-distance pace of 8:00 per mile at about 145 beats per minute (BPM) from a max 190 heart rate (HR) has now decreased to about 9:00 per mile at the same parameters. Concurrently, he says, his anaerobic threshold (AT), used to plot HR training zones, likely declined from 180 to 170 BPM.
Maffetone says that those magazines that have pooh-poohed his reliance on long slow distance (LSD) training claiming that the overall fat calories burned while running hard exceed the total calories of fat burned at slower rates are missing the big picture.
That run sets up the bodys computer for the rest of the 23 hours in the day, says Maffetone. If you push the pace, the respiratory quotient goes up, and you are burning carbohydrates almost exclusively.
Then a vicious spiral sets in: Body fat is ignored as an energy source; carbohydrate stores as used up quickly by the energy hog brain; and the hunger impulse is activated with greater rapidity.
Craving for immediate energy in the form of processed sugars feeds the brain, but the liver can only process so much at a time. An insulin reaction sets up a hormone which blocks fat burning and triggers quick storage of extra carbos as fat.
So, even as the athlete recovers muscular fitness and is able to train harder, the fat cycle continues, and he or she may still be carrying that new, jiggly abdominal porch, working harder, and using carbohydrates and not fat as an energy source.