When it comes to endurance events, lugging around even a few extra pounds can really slow you down and keep you from scoring your PR. So we asked Matt Fitzgerald, C.I.S.S.N., marathoner and author of Racing Weight: How to Get Lean for Peak Performance, to share the secrets that he claims will help you shed pounds—while still maintaining peak energy for training and racing. Here, his seven essential no-diet tips.
Jumpstart your body before you start training
After the off-season but before your next training cycle, perform a four- to eight-week Quick Start. (The more weight you have to lose, the longer this period should be.) What does that mean? During this time, consume fewer calories with a higher ratio of proteins to carbs. Don’t think dieting, but monitor your intake and be mindful of your nutrition balance. Spend most of your time doing strength workouts (save the bulk of cardio for the actual training period) to build a better muscle foundation. Add in three or four fasting workouts—a long, moderate-intensity workout on an empty stomach—to allow your body to move sans bloating or digestion problems. Work in numerous short intervals at maximum intensity to burn fat fast.
Identify your ideal weight—but be flexible
To find your ideal racing weight, you’ll need to hop on a scale that also provides you with a body fat percentage. (Fitzgerald recommends using one with an athlete setting, in order to get the most accurate numbers.) After you have found your weight, calculate your Lean Body Mass by subtracting your current body-fat percentage from 100 percent, then multiply that number by your current weight. Then, to get your Optimal Body Weight, divide your Lean Body Mass by your Optimal Lean Body-Mass percentage for what you would like your body-fat percentage to be. “Don’t treat this number as gospel,” Fitzgerald warns. “This gives you a number to put out there and even if it is off in the end, it makes you focus your effort and helps you be more disciplined in pursuing your ideal racing weight.”
Dieting is for folks who are happy with any weight loss, even if it’s muscle. As an endurance athlete, the only weight you should be losing is fat. “Any change in weight that doesn’t help your performance is not helpful,” says Fitzgerald, who notes that if an athlete simply cuts calories, they will be slashing energy needed to feed their muscles and promote recovery. “The whole point is to improve your training and racing outcomes.” So instead of using the concept that you are on a “diet,” think of this period as performance weight management. Instead of running on empty to lose weight, train hard and focus on the quality of your calories over the quantity.
Reset your appetite
In Racing Weight, Fitzgerald discusses eight methods to manage your appetite, none of which include counting calories. Instead of doing the math, listen to your body’s signals to learn the difference between belly hunger and head hunger. Fitzgerald recommends abandoning your regular eating schedule for a weekend to train yourself to recognize true appetite. During this time, don’t eat just because you think you should, but only when you’re really hungry—and feel gastric pangs, emptiness or hollowness, and mental or physical weakness. This will reset your mentality about food, and you can adjust your regular eating schedule accordingly.
Score your daily food intake
“If you are only going to make one change for the sake of pursuing your ideal racing weight,” Fitzgerald says, “improving your overall nutrition would be the very first thing you should do.” Fitzgerald has turned eating healthy into a game where each day ends with a Diet Quality Score. The idea is simple — add more high quality foods to your diet (fruits, vegetables, lean meats and fish, nuts and seeds, whole grain, and dairy), and stay away from low quality foods (refined grains, sweets, fried foods, and fatty proteins, such as bacon, beef ribs, or bologna). “You are automatically taking in fewer calories simply because you have increased the number of high quality foods in your diet,” he says. (Racing Weight discusses in depth how to score what you eat.)
Eat at the right times during the day
When you eat can be just as important as what you eat. Fitzgerald lists seven rules to follow, but he says the most crucial thing is to keep a consistent schedule, which helps stabilize energy partitioning, promotes immediate energy use, and maintains muscle strength. You should also eat early in the day and throughout the day, which reduces your overall appetite and keeps hunger at bay. Always eat within two hours after exercise (protein, carbs, and plenty of water) to help with recovery and promote fat burning.
Track and test your progress
Fitzgerald recommends weighing yourself once a week and measuring your body fat every four weeks. As you work out and lose weight, you’ll note improvements in your times and feel better after you’re done. At the first week mark and four week mark, test your performance with the same, super tough workout to compare your progress. This will help you see how decreasing your weight and body fat boosts your performance.