Last month on our Triathletes in Training discussion board, Becky H. posed an interesting question: "Why the heck don't I lose any weight with all of the training I do?" she asked. That's actually a very common training woe for endurance athletes, so I decided to tackle the topic -- and some other related nutrition questions -- in this week's triathlon blog.
For some expert advice, I turned to my friend and certified nutritionist Rachel Meltzer Warren, MS, RD, owner of Nutritionista Communication + Consulting. This girl is no stranger to endurance events, either: We did a marathon together back when we both worked at Prevention magazine (she came in far ahead of me!), and she's run the Boston Marathon as well.
So Why Aren't I Losing Weight?
You'd think that once you ramp up your physical activity to the extent you need to for triathlon or marathon training, the pounds would fly off effortlessly. But that's often not the case. In fact, many endurance athletes actually report gaining weight while training, says Meltzer Warren.
"It's all about energy balance," she says. "Even though you're burning lots of calories in training, if you're eating them all back -- and then some -- you might not see the benefits on the scale."
People who suddenly up their exercise levels will often have a snack before working out and a snack afterward as well, she adds. Then they'll eat more at dinner, because they believe that they've earned it. "When you add up all of those little bits of food, you wind up most likely eating a lot more than the calories you actually burned."
Another thing to remember, says Meltzer Warren, is that you're likely gaining muscle as you train. Because muscle weighs more than fat, you might not see a change on the scale even if you are shedding some of that unwanted weight.
"The lesson here is: Don't just pay attention to the number on the scale," she says; "Pay attention to how your clothes fit and how your body feels." If you have access to a body-fat scale or analyzer (you can buy these in stores, or your gym or doctor's office might have one), you might use that to get a better idea of the whole picture.
How Can I Improve My Weight-Loss Chances?
If you're trying to lose weight while training for an event, Meltzer Warren's rule of thumb is to eat back about half of the calories you burned in any one workout session. You can use an online calculator (like this one on WholeLiving.com) to estimate how many calories a specific exercise burns, then make sure to replace about half, and no more, with your recovery snack. (Remember to count your liquid calories as well; sports drinks are full of sugar!)
One strategy that may help you control your eating -- and your newly voracious appetite -- is to schedule your workouts so that you can recover with a meal rather than a snack, suggests Meltzer Warren. If it's possible to run or swim after work, for example, and then whip up a quick and healthy dinner within the hour, you can avoid consuming extra calories. Or have a quick bite before your morning bike ride, but save the rest of your hearty breakfast for immediately afterward.
So What Should I Eat Before and After?
"Before a workout, the goal is to keep your blood sugar up so you can put off tapping into your stored carbohydrates," says Meltzer Warren; this will help keep your endurance up and help you power through. You want something that's rich in carbohydrates but still light enough that it's not going to sit in your stomach and weigh you down -- a banana, for example. (Protein and fats, on the other hand, are less easily digested and can cause cramping and GI distress.)
Once your workout is over, eat a combination of carbs and lean protein to repair muscle damage and replenish the nutrients your body has lost. And don't forget to drink plenty of water -- especially if it's extra hot or humid and you've been sweating a lot.
Maintaining a Healthy Weight
In the three years that I've been doing triathlons, my weight has stayed pretty much the same -- although I do find that I have a crazy appetite during the times I'm training the hardest, and I have to reign in the muffin and bagel and ice cream eating every year after my season is over and I take a break. (By the way, that's definitely the best perk of training, in my opinion!)
Even for pro triathletes, who exercise hours and hours a day, weight can be an ongoing struggle. A few months ago I had the opportunity to interview Bree Wee, the winner of this year's Lavaman triahtlon in Hawaii. While we talked about her favorite power foods, she conceded that -- by some professionals' standards -- even her weight is less than ideal.
"A previous coach always told me that I'd be faster if I'd lose my ass," she laughed. (If you saw her rockin' body, you'd laugh too.) And it's not like Wee eats whatever she wants -- she's still very disciplined and follows an extremely healthy diet. But, she said, there are some things she's not willing obsess too much over -- like counting calories or giving up food she loves. (And, by the way, she's kicking butt out there just the way she is!)
What about you? Have you noticed a change in your weight when you increase your exercise level? Do you keep track of calories in vs. calories out? Are you ridiculously hungry all the time when you're training? Share your thoughts here or on our discussion board.
(Training update: Are you following our training plan for our sprint triathlon on September 11? This weekend we're upping our intensity and finding our "yellow," or moderate heart-rate zone; get instructions and more updates here!)
Amanda MacMillan is a freelance writer, currently blogging about planning an budget- and eco-friendly wedding at LeanGreenBride.com. She has completed three Olympic-distance triathlons and several half marathons, and is looking forward to her first sprint tri this fall with Team Whole Living. Her triathlon training blog runs every Thursday on Whole Living Daily.