On the surface, it seems like a no-brainer: the lighter you are, the faster you can go.  The less you eat, the lighter you are. Eat less, go faster—right?

Not so fast.

Although most endurance athletes want to be as light as possible, most who’ve tried, know it’s also important to be strong. Unfortunately, the two don’t always go hand in hand. What’s more, oftentimes as athletes attempt to lose fat, they tread between being light and feeling good and being light and feeling lousy, sickly and even undernourished.

In fact, athletes may shun fuel in an attempt to “oxidize” more fat, reach the fat-burning zone, and lose weight at the expense of their performance. Here’s a little secret: If this is your plan, and you’re a serious athlete who trains for more than 90 minutes at a time, you’ll likely not meet your weight-loss or performance goals.

So, how can you accomplish your race or goal weight goals and still train well? The answer lies in knowing when to skimp, when not to skimp, and what to skimp.

When to Skimp

When working out for sixty minutes or less, you can likely get away with no extra fuel before, during, and after, and still train well (60-90 minute workouts are a bit of a gray area and should be examined on the basis of individual needs and benefit of consuming fuel versus cost and logistics of carrying it).

You can “time” a regular daytime snack or meal as pre-training fuel and a regular snack or meal as fuel for recovery afterwards (assuming you have a good, consistent eating plan).  You can also skip the carbohydrate-loaded drinks and opt for a fluid with electrolytes, water or nothing for hydration during training (depending on heat) and then hydrate well afterwards.

When Not to Skimp

However, if you’re training for 90 minutes or more without fuel, you won’t likely train to your potential.  This is where your athletic goals come in.  If you see every training session as an opportunity to improve, to push your limits further so your body can adjust to these new limits in recovery and continually increase your overall potential, you’re wasting time by not giving your body the fuel it can use and needs.
In research spanning the last twenty years, you’ll generally see an improvement in performance when carbs are added during training for sessions greater than 90 minutes.  Remember, this is not a subjective analysis of how an athlete feels during this training, but an objective measurement of how he performs.

triathletesOn the other hand, if you skimp for these longer sessions, you may perform lousy and still not lose a pound!  Here’s the deal: yes, research has shown that you will oxidize more fat during a training session if you go into it fasting and don’t supplement with fuel during it.  In fact, Dr. Carry Ferguson at Glasgow University showed that training on a low carbohydrate drink can increase fat oxidation by as much as 41% when exercising 15, 30, or 45 minutes.  Many, many low-carbohydrate, low-sugar sports drinks love to remind us of this.

But, remember, this is a study of fat oxidation in the short term, not fat loss in the long term.  This research does NOT show that you will lose more fat with this method. By starving yourself during a longer training session, performing badly, and then feeling lousy afterwards, you’ve accomplished nothing and will likely make up these calories (due to your increasing sense of hunger) during the day afterwards.  This plays into the “I owe myself” extra food at dinner because I ran this morning.  Instead, fuel well, recover, well, and stick to your daily eating plan to lose fat.

But, what if I can overcome hunger and not make up the calories later?

Doesn’t the oxidation of fat during training still lead to fat loss.  Again, not necessarily.  Most of these studies are performed on athletes training up to 60 minutes, not longer.  So, assuming we believe the research that says performance suffers in longer sessions, you may not burn as much fat due to a lower level of performance (output) during the session simply because you cannot push yourself.  Again, this is a waste, and an ineffective training plan.

What to Skimp

If you should only skimp on training nutrition for short training sessions, how can you possibly lose fat? It’s all about what to skimp: the non-training-fuel foods.  These are what you eat for meals and snacks, day in and day out, regardless of training. This is when you lose weight.  This is when you resist temptation.  And, with these strategies, you won’t negatively affect training performance.

  1. Get strict about junk foods and treats: Unless you’re going for a long run or ride early the next day, and you’ve effectively tapered and added carbs to prepare for it, that piece of cake, dessert, or other late-night indulgence won’t improve training, and it will impact overall fat loss.
  2. Nix (or reduce) the alcohol: This is when things get serious, right? It’s not that you should abstain from all alcohol (thank goodness!).  But, if your number one priority is to reach a goal or race weight, you should only drink it sparingly (keep it to 0-2 non-sugary drinks per week).  Alcohol is a triple threat to your weight loss efforts: 1) it can be a high-calorie drink with no benefits to training, 2) it can lower your resistance to overeating foods, especially junk foods, and 3) an alcohol binge an reduce your body’s ability to oxidize and lose fat for days to come.  And, more bad news: alcohol can sabotage your muscle recovery after training.
  3. Reduce carb intake at night: Eat carbohydrates during the day when you need the energy, and vastly reduce them at dinner and in the evening when you don’t.  Metabolically, your body is better equipped to handle carbs during the day (circadian rhythms) than at night.  Your body also processes carbs more effectively when you are active…both actively awake and performing daily tasks, and even more so when training.  That’s right; you’ll store less of them as fat than when training than when you’re sedentary.  When you do eat carbs during daytime meals and snack, go for whole-food, real-food carbs like fresh fruits, yams, dairy, and beans.  At dinner and beyond, eat healthy proteins, loads of vegetables and healthy fats with minimal carbohydrates.

Reaching race weight or goal weight doesn’t have to mean chronically feeling fatigued while watching your performance times slip.  If you’re careful, you can train well, fuel well, make progress, and reach your potential while improving your strength to weight ratio.  It can be your new “having your cake and eating it, too.”