Tag Archives: intermittent fasting

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.

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.

Tagged , , , , ,

Cleaning up my lifestyle (further)

With a career change came a shift in my lifestyle. I had also re-gained about 5-10 of the pounds I had previously lost during the last few months at my old job, despite a high volume of regular running. The resulting self-reflection led me to make wholesale improvements to my lifestyle.

Granted, my habits weren’t terrible to begin with: My diet and lifestyle at the start of 2018 was dramatically improved over 2015, let alone 2010-2014, let alone further back etc. But you don’t gain weight randomly. Even though I logged my food and found I was about even with my estimated calorie burn, I apparently was storing more than I could use. Along with my career situation, something clearly wasn’t right.


 

I cleaned up my diet in varying stages over the years, but over the past few months have really simplified it. At this point I’m challenging myself to eat as much whole food (cuts of whole meat, raw fruit, vegetables, rice) as possible. There are a lot of reasons for this.

  • It’s easier to track whole food items in Fitbit, and a lot harder when you eat something complex/processed, especially from a restaurant where you’re not privy to the ingredients let alone.
  • Processed food typically costs more per serving than its whole food counterparts. You’re paying for, among other things, satiety combined with immediacy. Sometimes I need that for whatever reason (it’s convenient at the end of a tiring day with few prior meals to house an Eastside Cafe frozen pizza and immediately get that 80-95 grams of protein, plus a bunch of calcium etc from all that fatty cheese). But usually I can find the space to prepare a fulfilling meal from whole food myself at home.
  • Processed food lacks key nutrients… especially dietary fiber, protein, and the underrated potassium. Plus, there’s far too much inflammatory and water-retaining sodium in processed food, and in many cases far too much fat. Since I run every day and am active in general, I need all the nutrients and as little garbage I can get.
  • You have no idea what 90% of processed food’s ingredients are, what they come from, what it does to your body long-term, etc etc. To get into the nuances of this would probably send us both into seizures, so let’s leave it at that.
  • Processed food is engineered to generate cravings to eat more food, which defeats a key reason to eat food (satiety i.e. not feeling the need to eat more food).
  • Hormonal balance and healthy hormone production is predicated largely on getting enough nutrients. Processed food is nutrient poor and disruptive. Whole foods closest to their natural state are nutrient rich.
  • I’ve found more ways to efficiently prepare and port whole, natural foods. I’ve had an on again, off again relationship with canned sardines, and now that I’ve found I can combine them with white rice prepared at home, they’ve become a lunch staple at work.

One problem that emerged at my prior job is that I started buying lunch more often. Previously I had brought food and eaten that every day, but even eating that food I was also sneaking out for hot bar meals. Granted, as I ran at a higher volume leading up to Vancouver I needed the extra nutrition. But that nutrition was also highly processed and was probably a key factor in my weight gain… not just for insidious extra calories, but the processed food probably wreaked havoc on my biology with inflammation and compromised hormonal function.

Changing careers coupled with a break from marathon training allowed me space to experiment with my eating habits, with different food choices (which granted were limited based on what I was doing for work and when: you have more freedom in some work situations than others).

Currently I’m on work assignment in an area close to two supermarkets with hot bars. Of course, hot bar food is not only partially processed, but expensive.


 

I wasn’t getting as much sleep as before. I woke up more during the night, woke up earlier, went to bed no earlier. I had plenty of time to sleep, yet my sleep was being disrupted.

This is something I still work on, granted. It’s a matter of forming the needed habits to eliminate the habits and sources compromising my sleep:

  • Remember to shut off all electronics, as well as disconnect power sources to those electronics, before bed. When I shut down my mobile and turn off the power to the modem and router (my laptop is already shut completely down at the end of every night), I find I sleep better. And while the evidence is disputed, there is evidence that electronics do interfere with sleep even when they’re off.
  • Call it a night during the 10pm hour. If I let my attention span drift and keep me awake through 11pm, that’s when sleep becomes a problem. Not only does it limit the hours I can sleep but it means more blue light later in the night, which is known to interfere with sleep.
  • Eating a satisfying meal within a couple hours of bed that doesn’t leave me wanting once I do lay down to sleep, since I know that hunger keeps me awake and can wake me up during the night.
  • Using my window A/C to keep the room reasonably cool during the night, as summer warmth does interfere with my sleep.
  • Making sure I get in solid exercise, usually at least a run, because I notice that on days I don’t exercise much I also tend not to sleep well.

 

Even though I avoided it because I run and need plenty of calories, I started intermittent fasting again. Basically, I skip breakfast and my first meal of the day is lunch, usually around 12:00 noon or 1:00pm. Along with the obvious tendency to eat less since I’m eating one fewer meal a day, going 12-16 hours between dinner and this 1st meal also improves fat burning during that time while helping to reset hormonal function. I definitely feel a difference, more so than hunger pangs. I’ll have black coffee and water in the morning at work, and that’s usually it.

This also improves the digestion and utilization of that 1st lunch meal, since your body is primed to get after whatever food you finally give it. At my current work assignment, it sets the metabolic table well for that 5pm run home from work. And that sets the table well for effective digestion of dinner later than evening. I definitely eat fewer calories, but I don’t feel at all broken down as I worried I would before if I ever went back to fasting. Quite the opposite.

There’s more I can say about Intermittent Fasting but I’ll save that for another time. Basically, I’m now at a place where it works well for me.


 

Since getting my act further together, my weight has gone back down to about 163-164 lbs, about 5 pounds down from where it had re-peaked during the end of my last career. My body fat has receded from 17-18% to a better 15-16%.

More to come on that front, but it’s looking good for now.

Tagged , ,