Here is a common question that has come my way many times over the years:
“Rick, I recently trained for an Ironman/marathon/ultra-marathon/ultra-distance cycling event. I trained more than I ever have before and I tried to eat healthy. I am so frustrated because after all of this training, I actually gained 15 pounds during this time. How can I actually gain weight when I was training more than ever?”
I call this all-too-common scenario the “endurance 15”. I am sure you’ve heard of the “freshman 15”: a young man/woman goes off to college and gains 15 pounds during their freshman year of college. The “endurance 15” is the scenario in which an endurance athlete is training many hours a week and actually increases body weight and fat; gaining five, 10, or 15 pounds during their training.
There are a multitude of factors that contribute to the endurance 15. Let’s discuss why this may be happening.
Many athletes engage in long-distance training and racing in the hopes that they will decrease their body weight and body fat. As a result, their mindset may still be caught in the “diet mentality”; therefore, they believe that less food and more training is the way to lose weight. In the hopes of losing weight, these athletes avoid eating enough before and during training. Their thinking is, “Why would I consume all of these calories and carbohydrates during training when I’m trying to lose weight?” Then, because the body is not being fueled right, these athletes find themselves having uncontrollable food cravings. This can result in significant overeating or binge eating, and many times this will occur later in the day and late at night. This will lead to significant weight gain even during bouts of high-volume training.
Take home message
Be sure to fuel the body properly starting immediately upon awakening and every 2.5-3.5 hours throughout the day. This will help to keep the body fueled and “keep the fire stoked”. Also, be sure to fuel the body during training and avoid the “diet on the bike” mentality. As your training volume increases, be sure that your eating frequency and caloric intake adequately support your training.
During endurance training, it is critical to train in the proper heart rate zones in order to facilitate burning fat as your primary fuel source. As endurance athletes, we want to teach the body to spare glycogen (fuel stored in your muscles and some stored in your liver) and to burn body fat instead. Too often, athletes have not improved their efficiency and they train at too high a heart rate, too often. When we train at too high a heart rate too often, we are not maximizing the body’s ability to facilitate fat as our primary fuel source.
I realize that for many athletes, training in the lower heart rate zones can result in extremely slow paces and slow speeds. But here is the reality: when an athlete is moving at a very slow pace/speed in their lower heart rate zones, this simply means that the athlete needs to significantly improve their fitness and efficiency, and they are just not as fit as they thought they were. (And this is ok–we can work on improving one’s efficiency so that in time, the athlete will be training longer, harder, and faster, at the same or lower heart rate). This is where we as athletes have to check our ego at the door. Ignore pace/speed, and focus on training at the right heart rates. (Not sure how to determine your heart rate zones? Here’s a quick guide).
Take home message
Don’t worry about your pace/speed; simply focus on training in your lower heart rate zones. Check your ego at the door and in time, you will find your efficiency improving. You will start to notice that your body will go harder, longer, faster at the same or lower heart rates. Not only will you start to notice improvements in efficiency, but you will also start to notice the body composition changes you desire.
There still seems to be quite a disconnect when it comes to weight training/resistance training and long-distance endurance training. I find that many individuals still believe that weight training is not necessary as an endurance athlete and it will cause them to become “bulky” and increase their body weight. This could not be further from the truth. If you desire a lean physique, weight training is a must. Keep the weight training intense and vigorous. It does not have to be for a long duration; you can knock out a great weight training circuit easily in 30 minutes. Attack the weight training with the same ferocity and intensity that you would your hard swim, bike or run workouts.
Why is weight training so important in order for you in achieving your body composition goals? Because it enables you to build lean muscle and significantly increase your metabolism, which helps you reduce body fat and body weight. All these effects give you the lean physique you desire.
All too often, even when weight training appears on an endurance athlete’s workout schedule, it seems to get very low priority. These are often the workouts that an endurance athlete will skip. High-volume endurance training without strength training can easily lead to the wasting of muscle and this can lead to a much “softer” physique and a higher amount of body fat.
Take home message
Perform weight training, upper and lower body, at least two days per week. Be sure to give your weight training on your schedule the same priority you would your swim, bike and/or run. Scheduling weight training does not mean “more training.” The key is to adjust your endurance training so that the weight training fits in seamlessly.
Sleep For Success
It goes without saying that we all lead very busy lives. Add a high volume of endurance training into the mix, and we have just become even busier. As athletes, we focus so much on “getting our workouts in” that the focus on good, quality sleep can fall by the wayside. Endurance athletes trying to fit in all of their workouts tend to become sleep-deprived. Sleep deprivation can easily lead to weight gain; again, no matter how much working out and how many calories we are burning.
When we become sleep-deprived, hormones and neurotransmitters within our body become adversely affected; namely, hormones such as Ghrelin & Leptin and the neurotransmitter, serotonin. When these hormones and neurotransmitters are disrupted due to sleep deprivation, it affects our mood, appetite, food cravings, etc. This hormone imbalance can also greatly increase our food cravings which can then lead to binge eating, which of course leads to weight gain. You can see how easy it is for a vicious cycle to start when we become sleep-deprived.
Take home message
Just like we discussed making strength training a focus, we also have to make sleep a major focus each and every night. As important as your workouts are for you to achieve your goals, let’s put sleep at the top of the priority list. Getting the proper amount of sleep each night will greatly increase your workout productivity, it will help to enhance recovery and it will help to assist you in achieving your body composition goals.
In order to avoid the endurance 15, many times it requires us to make a few behavioral changes. Our mind can be our biggest asset or our biggest limiter. Negative and limiting beliefs such as, “Consuming calories during workouts will increase our body weight”, or “In order to lose weight we have to work out a lot more and eat a lot less”, or “Weight training will actually make me bulky”, are not truths or facts. They are simply limiting beliefs. Changing one’s negative beliefs is a must in order to achieve meaningful and sustainable results. As we start to change some of our negative beliefs and embrace the changes above, not only will we avoid the endurance 15, but we will be able to find levels of success even higher than we ever thought possible.
Take home message
Identify any negative and limiting beliefs you may have that may be holding you back from success. Addressing these limiting beliefs and starting to eliminate such beliefs can be a big step in achieving body composition goals you have set for yourself.