Salty Reader Diane asks:
Dear Spice Rack:
Do you know where I can find what caloric intake I need while training for my half, that will allow me to lose some pounds in the process. I don’t want to eat too little and be starving, yet would like to shed some excess weight. Thank you!!!
Diane’s question is actually one we hear all the time, and technically since weight loss is a calories-in vs. calories-out equation, you could just calculate your caloric expenditure and subtract some and think you’re doing great. (If you’re new to the world of counting calories I recommend taking a look at my post on caloric intake, where I go into the math of your BMR, or Basal Metabolic Rate.) While that might work okay for some people, one of the big takeaways I have from a wide variety of resources is that limiting your calorie intake while you’re training hard for a race is a TERRIBLE idea, and can prevent you from losing fat!
More details after the jump:
*Quick disclaimer: Cinnamon is not a doctor, scientist or a nutritionist. She’s just a runner who lost a lot of weight.
It’s funny this popped into our inbox today; I just read Racing Weight by Matt Fitzgerald. I definitely would recommend it, but keep in mind that Fitzgerald is using numbers that pertain to elite athletes, so unless you’re training at Shalane Flanagan‘s level…you know…translate the numbers for yourself. Nonetheless, I found the theory lessons contained in the book to be pretty good.
Like I said above, limiting your calorie intake while you’re race training is no bueno. While it’s true that your body can deplete resources from fat cells to feed your muscles, it won’t do that if you start going to bed hungry. You must intake enough calories on a daily basis to support your lifestyle and also fuel your race training, or your body will enter a deprived state. Our bodies are smart, but not smart enough to know the difference between a diet and a famine. And just like a bear in the early stages of hibernation, if your body thinks there’s a famine, it will focus its energy on keeping fat, not losing it. That may sound like bad news, but it’s really just an indication that there’s a better tactic to take.
A side note, If you read Racing Weight or do a little research elsewhere, you’ll find the general idea is that endurance athletics is a numbers game; the less fat you carry the faster you’ll race. Of course, no matter what your percentage is, we tend to think runners are sexy at every size. Mint wrote a great post about it last summer; the post and comments are pertinent to Diane’s question and worth a read, for sure!
Instead of focusing on your overall weight, try weighing yourself with a scale that measures body fat. They’re readily available and aren’t necessarily expensive – I got mine for thirty bucks. If you’re a numbers nerd like me you’ll love how your new scale gives you a totally different number to focus on – your body fat percentage. I’m proud to say I have something like 42 pounds of fat on my body (that’s about forty percent of what it used to be!), which is about 28% of my 153 lb. total body weight. Instead of focusing on losing x amount from 153, I can start focusing on adjusting that percentage to 27, then to 26, and then ultimately I’ll reach my goal of 25%. That can be done either by losing fat or by gaining muscle. Neat!
This is where the good news comes in: The whole point of training, all the speed work and tempos and extra mileage, is to build body mass, not lose it. By training, you’re showing your body where to create more cells. By taking in enough calories, you’ll give it the fuel it needs to make mitochondria and build your muscle tone.
So the trick then, becomes not to limit your overall calorie intake, but to shrink that fat percentage while taking in enough calories to maintain your training energy and thereby build your muscle tone. This becomes not a question of how much you should eat, but what you should eat. Fresh vegetables, lean meat (if you’re into that), whole grains, less salt, less sugar…we all know the drill by now. A clean diet is the key to building muscle mass, and if you’re eating enough calories to sustain your total body mass while training, you’ll naturally lose some fat. One of my favorite soundbytes of all time is from this ultrarunnerpodcast interview with Mike “The Fruitarian” Arnstein. In it, Arnstein says “The fat that goes in you is the fat that goes on you.” While Arnstein’s diet is a little extreme for…well…almost anyone, and some fats are actually good for us, I love this mantra and say it to myself every time a box of pizza shows up after a hash run.
So calculate your calories to check in with your diet, but don’t cut out so much that you feel hungry at the end of the day. Instead, figure out how many calories you need to feel sated and then focus on using them to intake your recommended daily allotment of vitamins and minerals–that’s a fun game to play! Audit your diet. Cut out the bad stuff and add in good stuff like fruit, vegetables or nuts. Plus, if you’re really training hard for this half, you’ll probably shed a few pounds anyway toward the end of the training cycle, when you’re expending so much energy your caloric intake can’t keep up. If you work at it for this training cycle and maintain it until your next training cycle, you’ll more than likely find your body fat percentage naturally on a downward trend.
Hope that rather long-winded answer helps, Diane! Salty Readers, do you have anything to add?
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