Increasing your speed requires consistent and careful application of training stress. However, if you are gaining body fat, you are working against yourself. One of the most difficult tasks is creating enough of a caloric deficit to facilitate body fat loss while maintaining training volume. This deficit may lead to a more rapid depletion of energy, and training quality can suffer as a result. You can't train hard on a salad. So as an athlete, when is the best time to reduce body fat and the best methods for doing so?
The first thing to understand is that your power-to-weight ratio is one of the most significant factors, if not the most significant factor, affecting your speed. Even a modest body fat loss will result in an increase in speed. A runner will drop approximately 2.5 seconds per mile with each pound of body fat lost. Drop 10 pounds and you just set a new marathon PR by 11 minutes. For cyclists, watts-per-kilogram is called the “golden ratio,” and you rightly pass judgement on an athlete's performance based on it. Your max VO2 is yet another key determinant of performance and it is expressed in milliliters of oxygen per kilogram of body weight. If you get tested regularly, ask the test administrator to put in your goal weight versus your actual weight and notice the difference in your numbers. If you want to increase the speed of a high performance car you either add horsepower or drop the vehicle weight. If you are only considering one side of this equation your are missing out on an opportunity.
If you are a cyclist perform a simple test by cycling with a fluid pack weighing about 10 pounds. You will quickly notice a significant difference in heart rate and perceived exertion, especially on climbs. Or try walking (not running) on an incline with the extra weight. Now that you can physically acknowledge how drastically extra body fat affects your performance, the next step is getting it off, and the best time to accomplish this is when your caloric deficit will have the least impact on your training. For most athletes, this will be during base season or so called "off season," and most athletes' base seasons occur in the fall and winter months. Why is this strategically the best time to lose body fat?
- Athletes may take a transition phase during this time and train more informally. Fitness maintenance versus progression is targeted.
- Generally little or no racing is occurring during this time and the races that are scheduled are usually training (C) events. Your caloric deficit will have the least effect on training and racing.
- Intensity is generally lowest as the aerobic energy system is targeted. Glycogen depletion is not as significant of a factor.
Long, slow distance training uses a greater preponderance of fat as a fuel source and trains your body to access and utilize fat as a fuel source.
For many athletes, however, this is the hardest time of year to lose body fat as…
- The days are shorter and training is harder to accommodate. Training volume may be reduced.
- The weather is colder and more training must be done indoors, again shortening training duration.
- The holidays fall during this time period and the average person gains weight.
- Many athletes take total time off, further reducing their metabolism and caloric expenditure.
- Cold weather training can stimulate appetite.
The athlete who comes out of this period lighter and leaner automatically starts the season at a tactical advantage. They will not have to “lean out” as their training volume ramps up and can focus solely on training versus dropping weight. What are the keys to dropping weight over the winter months? For starters, you must understand that you will need to create a caloric deficit, and this deficit may need to be even greater if your activity factor has decreased. This means shaving calories wherever and whenever you can. The first step is finding out where your weight loss caloric “zone” lies. This can be accomplished by having your resting metabolic rate measured or, less accurately, by using a formula that accounts for height, age, weight, and activity factor. You do not want to restrict your calories too much below your resting metabolic rate as it will have an impact on both metabolism and your training. In short you are trying to find that caloric "sweet spot" of creating a deficit without losing energy and muscle.
Once you have your target zone determined, it is time to come up with a system for tracking and adjusting caloric intake. You may want to consult a professional such as a Registered Dietician for specific meal planning and behavior modification. There are many great online resources to track caloric consumption and composition. People tend to be creatures of routine and will gravitate towards the same foods or food sources (athletes in particular). Simply knowing the caloric composition of the foods you regularly put in your body helps give you a rough estimate of how much you can consume throughout the day. Some basic guidelines for triming calories include…
- Realize it is a holiday, not a holimonth.
- Maintain meal frequency of small meals, 5-7 times per day. This keeps the metabolism elevated.
- Maintain a ratio of carbohydrates, protein, and fats in each meal. This slows digestion and keeps blood sugar stable, reducing cravings.
- Know your parameters and how many calories each meal contains. This may require some research on your part.
- Watch the fat. Fat is highest in calories, most readily converted to body fat, and has the lowest thermal effect of food (TEF). Protein on the other hand has a high TEF and requires more energy to process, thus raising metabolism.
- Cut out the sports drinks and bars, especially on low volume days.
- Vary your daily caloric intake to accommodate your activity factor. Do not continue to eat as if you are training heavily unless you are!
- Eat before parties and holiday dinners.
- Cut your portion sizes slightly and cut calories through lower fat alternatives to sauces, cheeses, and proteins. Restrict alcohol intake.
- Avoid high density carbohydrates such as pastas and breads that you may have gravitated towards when training more heavily.
Dropping body fat during the fall and winter months is no doubt challenging but it can be accomplished. Remember a slow, steady weight loss if far preferable to a quick one. A steady weight loss is comprised mainly of body fat, whereas a rapid weight loss usually comes from water and protein loss; two things you want to keep in your body. By deferring some gratification this winter, you will be gaining it in the spring as the competition suffers on those climbs.