Losing fat while training as a runner: The healthy middle ground

Fitness guru Alexander Juan Antonio Cortes recommends that if you’re overweight, or “skinny-fat” (not overweight but lacking muscle tone) and want to change for the better, your first primary focus aside from training should be to diet down to 10% bodyfat.

While somewhat extreme, here’s the idea: Most who begin to weight train build muscle beneath existing layers of fat, burdening themselves with the extra weight and complicating the step of eventually burning off extra fat. Burning the fat off up front eliminates the need to carry extra baggage, making all of your life a lot physically easier, and muscle built will show up a lot quicker.

WeightLoss

A Fitbit chart of my weight over time since December 2016, beginning some time after I began running. At this point, now well below my previous high of 193 and more normal… I let my weight fluctuate a bit more, depending on training cycles and goals.

On a different note, running obviously helped me shed a lot of fat, though before I seriously got into running I had already lost about 15 pounds, much of it fat. Running keyed some of my weight loss, but diet habits were what mattered most.

The thing with a running diet is that, regardless of any weight loss goals, its primary objective is to fuel your recovery from workouts. If you run a simple calorie deficit while training regularly, you’re just going to get injured. You won’t have enough protein to effectively rebuild your damaged muscles, and you won’t get enough quality carbohydrates to effectively replenish your glycogen stores. You’ll operate in a state of constant fatigue, which eventually becomes burnout.


Is there a middle ground if you’re trying to shed fat while endurance training? Absolutely.

First of all, if you make cleaner dietary changes as you begin training, you’re going to experience initial rapid weight loss. However, this is not fat melting off your body. It’s usually water weight:

  • You’re sweating more, so of course that liquid is getting displaced from your body.
  • If you’re hydrating more, your body will “decide” to retain less water over time. Extra water will get flushed.
  • As your diet improves, inflammation in your body subsides. Often your body retains fluid around inflamed parts as a sort of protection. As your inflammation decreases, the need to retain that fluid dissipates, and the fluid is flushed.
  • Many of your fat cells are actually just full of water. If you have fat cells that have lost their fat, they often re-fill with water in lieu of re-adding fat. As you burn those fat stores, these water-laden cells get “burned” and in turn release their water instead of releasing fat energy. Whoosh!

This is why when people begin a diet they lose several pounds right off the bat, before the weight loss slows to a relative crawl. The relative crawl is closer to the actual rate of fat loss. The earlier accelerated weight loss was a bunch of water weight flushing away.

Secondly, that water weight loss is actually good! You want to shed any unnecessary extra weight, and if you can eliminate the need for your body to surround organs and load fat cells with water, it’s in your best interests to eliminate the extra baggage.

But don’t you need to be hydrated? Sure, though you certainly don’t need to retain water to maintain hydration. Remember that the human body is more than 70% water. You are already fundamentally full of water. While you don’t want to dehydrate yourself, staying hydrated doesn’t require you retain extra water. Drink a decent amount of water every day, eat clean whole foods (that themselves contain a fundamental amount of water), drink hydrating fluids as needed during exercise, and you’ll be sufficiently hydrated.

Aside from that, your biggest concern is ensuring your body can effectively recover from training. The biggest challenge that trying to lose fat while training offers is that decreasing your nutrition intake, key to losing weight, risks compromising your recovery by denying the body needed nutrition.


The common fallacy people fall into when balancing training with weight loss is that they cut out the difference in dietary fat.

First of all (counterintuitively), your body needs dietary fat in a lot of ways. Without getting into the science, many hormonal and brain processes require the intake and digestion of nutrients from dietary fat. You’re starving yourself just as badly by taking in minimal fat as you would be if you stopped consuming protein.

If you weren’t a distance runner, it can be argued that you don’t really need carbohydrates. If your only exercise is weight training or walking, you could get by on a hardcore keto/paleo-style diet where as few carbs as consumed as possible.

However, if you regularly run harder than a jog for more than a few moments at a time, or you regularly run 3+ miles more than twice a week (low-carb dieters who swear by high intensity interval running do neither), you absolutely do need non-fiber carbs to maintain your glycogen stores.

And of course you absolutely need protein, no matter how active you are. Protein is the body’s rebuilding blocks, and without it your muscles and organs atrophy and break down. Most humans don’t get enough protein. Many athletes certainly don’t, even if they’re trying. Without getting into that discussion, you need protein, period.


So, can you still cut sufficient calories to spur weight loss, while still eating a healthy quantity of macronutrients to keep your body fueled for race training? Is it possible to practice a restrictive protocol like intermittent fasting and still be able to build/rebuild needed muscle, effectively restore glycogen stores, and still burn off fat and water weight at a noticeable rate?

To all this I say… absolutely. Build the right habits, and it’s not even that hard.


  1. First of all, if you already follow a solid maintenance diet, if you already know how many calories you need to eat each day to maintain your current weight… then cutting a few calories each day won’t be too hard. A 250 calorie deficit per day is pretty simple.
  2. Secondly, while intermittent fasting is effective, the risk is that it can potentially, unduly deplete needed glycogen stores over time, while potentially exacerbating exercise-related damage during the fasting period. However, that can be mitigated in many circumstances, and it can be possible to practice it during easier periods while just avoiding the protocol during other key periods.
  3. Thirdly, the key to a successful fat-burning diet is not to cut everything across the board, but to maintain the intake of key nutrients while curbing others.

You can burn fat while endurance training without burning out. There is a huge, fertile middle ground between hardcore dieting and training-friendly gluttony.

——-

Enough text-jawing about theory. If you’re going to try and lose weight while steady-state endurance training (i.e. running, also stuff like cycling, triahtlons, playing team sports like football/basketball, etc), here’s some actionable tips.

DON’T EVER SHORT PROTEIN

Your daily maintenance level protein needs are roughly around 1 gram for every pound of lean body mass (LBM), or 1 gram for every kilogram equal to 180% of your bodyweight.

Make sure you ALWAYS get at least this much protein. Other macros are going to get cut, but this one will do no less than stay constant.

You can even take in more protein than this on some days. There’s conflicting data on how much compulsive overdosing on protein can hurt your body, but going over some of the time isn’t so bad. Just don’t ever go below this benchmark.

THE EASIEST WAY TO RUN A HEALTHY DEFICIT: INTERMITTENT FASTING

There are various intermittent fasting protocols, and the easiest to maintain simply requires that you skip breakfast and eat your first food of the day at lunch. This ensures a 12-14 hour minimum fasting window and allows for most of the hormone-resetting and fat-burning benefits to kick in for at least a couple hours.

But most of all, it becomes very hard to overeat on calories for the day when you skip breakfast. Even if you overdo lunch or dinner, even if you slip another mid-afternoon or early evening meal between them, you’ll often fall short of your maintenance calorie level by a few hundred calories. Your stomach can only handle so much food in a given time span.

On my longest training days, where I burn in excess of 5000 calories, there’s no way I can take in 5000 calories. Even when I’m up for a Thanksgiving-sized meal, I can get about 2000 calories in, and hours later I might be able to get in 1000-1500 more. Your stomach has a limit as to how much food it can process over time. The best I’ve been able to do is a bit over 4000 calories, still about 1000 calories short on a 5000 calorie effort day.

Similarly, you can pig out for that first meal after breaking an intermittent fast. But unless you ate some seriously ghrelin-inducing processed garbage for lunch, your stomach’s not going to be ready for another massive meal for several more hours. It might be ready to eat again, but likely more on the level of a few hundred calories. Usually, for me, I break a fast around noon with a sizable but not absurd 600-1000 calorie lunch, and feel the need for another big meal around 6pm.

If I do eat a massive meal right after work (1000-1500 calories) I probably won’t want to eat again before bed, or I might eat a 200-400 calorie something before 10pm. Usually I do the latter, because otherwise (unless I am super exhausted enough to stay passed out the entire night) I wake up hungry during the night.

If I skip the big meal at 6pm and cook a full dinner closer to 8pm, this is usually 800-1000 calories. I can stomach up to 1500.

But that’s an absolute ceiling of about 2900 calories. On a typical day I burn in excess of 3000 calories, usually closer to 3300-3500. When I fast, I can’t help but lose weight, even if the fast itself produced no real benefits.

CUT CALORIES EVEN FROM MEALS EARLY IN THE DAY, AND DON’T SHORT CALORIES AT DINNER

Going to bed hungry is counterproductive to fat loss. You’ll have a harder time getting to sleep most nights, and the resulting sleep deprivation will inhibit hormone production, recovery, and in turn effective fat loss.

It’s a lot easier to go without calories during earlier meals, while you are awake and can take advantage of a fasted or hungry state by being productive.

To make sure you don’t get hungry soon after a meal, try to cut calories across all your non-dinner meals. If you just have lunch and an afternoon snack, maybe for example cut 50 calories from the snack and 200 calories from lunch. Then eat a normal dinner.

If you aren’t fasting and thus eat breakfast, spreading a calorie cut becomes easier as you’re removing fewer calories from each meal. Eliminating 100 calories from breakfast and then from lunch usually won’t be that noticeable.

By eating normally at dinner or eating your biggest meal at dinner, you won’t risk hunger pangs keeping your circulation revved and thus keeping you awake. This makes a reduced diet more sustainable, and ensures the needed recovery to maintain fat burn.

AVOID INTERMITTENT FASTING ON A TOUGH TRAINING DAY (AND MAYBE ALSO THE DAY AFTER)

If you have a long run or a tough speedwork session scheduled on a given day, go ahead and eat breakfast. You’re gonna need all the nutritional help you can get, and any complications from fasting that day could carry over into and compromise the workout. Go ahead and eat breakfast.

If you abhor breakfast, then just eat something light and protein rich, like a couple of eggs or even just a protein shake.

I’d also suggest, if you feel really worn out or beat up after the workout, avoiding a fast the following day as well, especially if you feel real tired or beat up the next morning or at the very least rather hungry (which you might be the morning after a hard workout). Make recovery a priority.

Not only will you minimize the chance of injury and burnout, but also of any derailing cravings that could get you off your otherwise sound diet.

WHEN IN DOUBT, SHORT CARBS

If I won’t fast (which, now that I know how to safely do so during training, isn’t likely), then the next easiest answer is to reduce but not eliminate the carbs I consume.

Since one of the most nutrient-important foods I consume is potatoes, I obviously plan to take in some carbs even if not training at all. A typical dinner serving of potatoes for me contains about 60-90g of carbohydrate.

There are some recovery days where I will go full no-carb and just eat meat, avocados, etc, but if coming off a workout or expecting to do a hard workout soon, carbs are important and will get included.

If taking a day off or only planning to do a short recovery run, that’s a great day to take it easy on your normalized carb intake. Build that day’s diet around healthy fat and protein. If you eat some carbs, that’s fine. But don’t carb load.

Your body is constantly burning fat for fuel. We just are conditioned to store any spare nutrition as fat, and that’s why we have a surplus. But glycogen from carbs is only burned during intense, extended exercise. So if you know you’re exercising less than usual, eat fewer carbs than usual.

But, what you can do instead is not worry about carb loading. Many runners eat a ton of carbs, possibly more than they need. You certainly ought to eat a lot if you’re running a lot, but getting into the 500+ gram mark is usually overkill. You’ll know if you need that much: If you’re eating 400-490g of carbs a day, running 60+ miles a week, and struggling to bounce back from your regular workouts not because of soreness but because your lower body muscles feel dead or tapped.

I talked previously about how pre-marathon carb loading doesn’t work as well as people think. I also think even the most advanced runners overdose on carbs. Your typical working class runner almost certainly does.

If you’re running more than 30 miles a week, you could certainly use 300-400 grams of carbohydrate a day. But most of your running should be easy, more of your energy should be coming from fat, and you probably don’t NEED that much.

Do not cut carbs completely if endurance training. But if you want to lose fat then consider experimenting with eating 50-100 fewer grams of carbohydrate a day. Maintain a normal fat intake, definitely maintain your protein intake, and just cut carbs a bit. Do it during a series of regular workouts, and see how your body reacts.

You may be surprised at how not-bad you feel. And it may help you cut fat without damaging yourself.

GO FOR A WALK AFTER EVERY MEAL

Walking should be very natural and easy for any distance runner. It burns calories but almost doesn’t seem like it qualifies as exercise.

An easy way to knock off an extra few hundred calories per day is to take a 15-30 minute walk immediately after eating a meal. You kick-start the digestion of the food you just ate, while sneaking in some extra fat burning not just during the walk, but thereafter. You also decrease the amount of your meal that could be stored as fat, since some of it will now be used for energy and muscle restoration.

If you’ve been very active that day and know you’ve already burned a ton of calories, there’s no need to take a walk if not desired. Otherwise, get outside and get some air.

… OR GO FOR A QUICK WORKOUT RIGHT BEFORE EATING

Maybe you’d rather not walk after a meal. Maybe your neighborhood’s not so safe at night. Maybe you’ve got to wash and put away a lot of dishes.

You can get similar benefits from getting in a quick walk or run while dinner bakes or otherwise cooks. If you know you can eat within moments after finishing a workout, go do a full workout, and then come inside to eat.

Because nutrient absorption is optimally high within 30 minutes of activity, you will have quickly primed your body to absorb nutrients from the meal you’re about to eat, which means less of that meal will be stored as fat… on top of burning a few extra fat calories, and kicking in a heart-rate-elevated afterburn that will burn a few more.

AT THE END OF AN INTERMITTENT FASTING SESSION, EAT A PROTEIN AND CARB RICH MEAL

In a sense, your first post-fast meal is similar to a post-workout meal. Your body is now in an accelerated-processing state and primed to better utilize the food you eat off that fast.

Maximize this opportunity by eating the cleanest, nutrient-richest meal you can manage in that moment. This is not the time to eat a burger or a pizza. This is the time to pound that baked or broiled chicken, that mass of rice or potatoes, those green vegetables and fruit, etc.

Your body will use much more of this food to rebuild and store as glycogen. Less of it will get stored as fat. More of those vitamins and other valuable nutrients in the food will get absorbed and used.

If the food you eat in this spot lacks nutrients, you won’t die or anything, but you’re blowing a golden opportunity. Maximize the opportunity and minimize the fat storage.


 

If in doubt, if you’re endurance training but also want to lose weight… you’re better off focusing on maintaining your training volume and intensity by getting your nutrients and your rest.

I’ve certainly lost weight (aside from water weight) without trying to lose weight, focusing on a healthy maintenance diet and then somehow losing a few pounds while maintaining lean body mass anyway. Sometimes amidst many days of breaking even in calories burned vs eaten… you burn more calories than expected while eating the amount you expected. Do that for long enough, and pounds go away.

But if you want to take a stab at seriously losing weight while still training to run a race, it can be possible. I wouldn’t advertise incredible results, but I’ve dropped a few pounds between week one and race day enough times to know you can do it without compromising your race goals.

Intermittent fasting can make it easier, but it’s also possible to cut carbs in your regular diet and find a 300-500 calorie daily deficit. Do either way consistently, sustainably, over time, and you’re going to lose fat while maintaining needed running muscle.

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3 thoughts on “Losing fat while training as a runner: The healthy middle ground

  1. […] with fire when you run a calorie deficit, and being able to do so safely during training requires some mindful planning and execution. Even then, you should not run a deficit of greater than 500 calories a day. If I’m going to […]

  2. […] It can be counter-intuitive for a runner to try and preserve mass. But muscle does aid in performance, not to mention represent a key component of overall health. A greater emphasis on protein intake and muscle preservation can help counteract other elements of training that can compromise T levels. There are other ways to burn extra fat without sacrificing valuable muscle. […]

  3. […] Weight: Obviously, a runner cutting weight has been operating at a long term calorie deficit. Presuming training has proceeded without injury […]

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