By Matt Fitzgerald
It’s the holiday season—that time of year when endurance athletes are subjected to lots of articles about how to avoid weight gain by eating rice cakes for Thanksgiving dinner and bowls of steam on Christmas Day. Personally, I never read them. That’s because I don’t see anything wrong with having a little fun with one’s diet in December, knowingly putting on a bit of flab, and then shedding it after the New Year when it’s time to get serious about preparing for the next triathlon season. In fact, I think that a month of less strict eating makes it easier to eat strictly through the other 11 months of the year. Eleven months of clean eating cause a kind of psychological pressure to build; holiday feasting releases that pressure.
This system only works if it is, in fact, systematic. I recommend that athletes make their winter weight fluctuations systematic by imposing The 8-percent rule on themselves and by executing a formal “Racing Weight quick start” in the New Year. The 8-percent rule states that at no time during the year is an athlete allowed to tip the scales at more than 8 percent above his or her ideal racing weight. So if your perfect triathlon competition weight is 150 lbs, you cannot weight more than 162 pounds immediately after Thanksgiving dinner. The 8-percent rule keeps one from completely letting himself or herself go.
A Racing Weight quick start is a four- to eight-week period of programmatic weight loss that immediately follows the off-season break and precedes the start of race-focused training. In a quick start you pursue weight loss more aggressively than you can during a major build-up to racing, when you need to ensure that your body is always well fueled for performance and recovery. The idea is to literally get a quick start on reversing your off-season weight gain and returning to your ideal racing weight.
There are five components of the quick start system that is presented in full detail in my Racing Weight Quick Start Guide:
1. Moderate calorie deficit
During a quick start you should aim to consume 300 to 500 fewer calories per day than your body would need to maintain its current weight. This deficit is sufficient to yield fairly quick weight loss, but it would be too large within the race-focused training process, when you need your diet to support heavy training for an upcoming race.
2. Strength training
A quick start is also a good time to make a greater commitment to strength training than you do at any other time. It’s hard to find a lot of time and energy to lift weights during the training cycle. But in a quick start period it’s not so hard, and doing so will help you lose weight by adding muscle mass to your frame and thereby increasing your metabolism, so you burn more fat at rest. Building strength during a quick start will also help you perform better and stay injury free during the subsequent race-focused training process.
Try to do three full-body strength sessions per week during a quick start.
3. Increased protein intake
I recommend that athletes aim to get roughly 30 percent of their daily calories from protein during a quick start. There are two reasons for this recommendation. First, high-protein diets are more filling than moderate- and low-protein diets. So increasing your protein intake during a quick start will help you maintain your daily calorie deficit without hunger. Second, increased protein intake will help you build muscle through strength training.
Within the training cycle your protein intake needs to be lower to make room for increased consumption of carbohydrate, your most important endurance fuel.
4. Sprint intervals
A quick start is not the time for high-volume endurance training. That should wait until you’re within the race-focused training process. Of course, high-volume endurance training does promote fat loss. So if you’re not going to do it during a quick start, you have to promote fat loss through training in other ways. As we’ve seen, strength training is one way. Another is sprint interval workouts. Training sessions consisting of large numbers of very short (10-30 seconds) sprints are proven to promote significant fat loss, especially between workouts. They also develop power that will help you get off to a good start when you move into race-focused training.
This is not a type of training that you can do much of within the race-focused training period, when more race-specific types of workouts (longer intervals, tempo workouts, etc.) must be prioritized.
5. Fasting workouts
A fasting workout is a long, easy ride or run undertaken in a glycogen-deprived state. This means you don’t eat before you start and you don’t take in any carbs along the way. This forces your body to rely on fat to fuel the workout, making it a great fat-burning session. I advise athletes to perform one fasting workout per week—alternating between rides and runs—during a quick start. Later, when you’re actively training toward a race, you should consume carbs before and during most of your long rides and runs to maximize your performance in those workouts.
Circle January 1
Back in the 1980s, Mark Allen, Scott Tinley, and other members of San Diego’s elite triathlon set used to do an informal group bike ride called the Hangover 100 on New Year’s Day. It requires no further explanation. I mention it because I think it shows there’s something to be said for slacking off as a triathlete when appropriate and then suddenly getting very serious again when it’s time. (Allen went from literally not touching his bike in December to riding 100 miles on New Year’s Day.)
What do you say? Let’s all get serious about leaning out on January 1, 2012. And in the meantime, let’s all pass over those articles on how to avoid holiday weight gain by eating bowls of steam for Christmas dinner.
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Racing Weight is a proven weight-management program designed specifically for endurance athletes. Revealing the latest research and drawing from the best practices of elite athletes, coach and nutritionist Matt Fitzgerald lays out six easy steps to help cyclists, triathletes, and runners lose weight without harming their training.