Recently I have had a few athletes mention to me that they are interested in losing a little weight while training. As a coach, my perspective is that athletes need to be cautious when trying to lose weight and train and my main concern is that you as an athlete are supporting your body for all the work you are putting in. Your focus should be health, not the scale in most cases.
Obligatory disclaimer: I am not a doctor and none of this should be interpreted as prescribing a certain diet or supplements. You should always consult with your physician before beginning any supplementation or dietary regimen!
Okay, so now that we have gotten that out of the way…
The importance of calories
First and foremost, you need to be sure to be getting enough quality nutritional calories. You want to make sure that you are losing fat and not muscle which is what is going to happen if you cut your calories too much. One of the best ways to ensure you are getting the right amount of calories is to track your food. In my experience, this has been the most effective way for me to lean down. Using a platform like MyFitnessPal will also allow you to track you macros (protein, carbohydrates “carbs”, fat) and your micros (vitamins, minerals, and other nutrients). The amount of calories you need is personal to you and you can find many online calculators including in MyFitnessPal to help you determine what your baseline is and figure caloric expenditure for your different activities.
Once you get the calorie thing figured out, you are going to want to focus on your macros. There are many schools of thought on macros. I’ve done the standard USDA recommendations, high protein/fat and low carb, high carb. In the end, I think somewhere between 55-65% carbs, 25-35% fat, and 15-25% protein is where you will likely want to be. Focus on more protein when you are doing more strength, stamina, and speed so you can repair and build muscle. Focus on a little more carbs when you are in your endurance phase. And of course, don’t forget the fiber to keep things moving! For all of your nutrition it is best to be getting these things in the least processed form–meaning REAL food. And for your carbs particularly, you should be focusing on complex carbs–quinoa, beans, lentils, oatmeal, brown rice–not simple and refined carbs. And for the record, alcoholic beverages do not constitute a quality carbohydrate. Don’t validate your post-run beer as your carb replenishment. You still need quality carbs.
Okay, so now you know about macros. What about micros? Should you be supplementing? Well, that depends. I recommend tracking your typical diet for a few days then starting to make some changes to get your macros in the right zones. Then take a look at your micros. What are you deficient in on a rolling (few day) basis? Can you make some more slight adjustments to get you to where you need to be? If the answer is no–and it may be based on what food you are able to eat or have access to–then you may want to consider a supplement. If you do choose to supplement, you should be choosing quality supplements and discussing them with your doctor.
For micros, I want you to be paying particular attention to your minerals–calcium, magnesium, and iron–especially the ladies. Women tend to be deficient in these and they are super important for runners. Guys, you need to be aware, too. For iron, I eat a medium rare steak or burger once a week. You can also get iron from other sources if you aren’t into that type of thing. It is really important that you are getting your iron from food and not a supplement so pay particular attention to this one and adjust your diet. For your calcium, if you are like me and can’t do dairy it can be a challenge. I do supplement with a quality, nutritionist prescribed supplement. Calcium is super important because as we add more stress to your bones they are going to be doing something called remodeling. Your body needs calcium to do that. If you are not getting enough calcium, you are putting yourself at risk for a stress reaction or fracture!
Calcium has a best frenemy–magnesium. I say frenemy because you need calcium and magnesium in balance with each other, BUT you shouldn’t take them at the same time because they impact the absorption of each other. It’s super important that you are paying attention to this balance because while calcium is in there helping to build some bones it is also likes to party a little bit and can cause inflammation unless you send in magnesium to calm it down and to tell it is drunk and to go home. One of my favorite ways to send in some magnesium is through epsom salt baths. It is absorbed through the skin AND you get a nice little relaxing treat. Be aware that magnesium also likes to party a little–in your bowels. Too much of magnesium could have you catching up on some reading, if you know what I mean.
Are you still with me? We just have a little more to go… vitamins! A through K to be exact. You should be getting most of these with a balanced diet. One that you may need to supplement with seasonally is D. D is calcium’s best friend and is needed for your bones. It also helps keep your immune system strong which is important because your immune system becomes depressed as you accumulate training load. (Remember that cold you got during or right after marathon training?) You get vitamin D from sun exposure–10 minutes of direct high sun on your full body a few times per week is what you need. Unfortunately for those of us in places that get cold during the winter, we may end up seasonally deficient. D is actually what is responsible Seasonal Affective Disorder or Winter blues.
B6 and B12 are also important vitamins for runners as they help with metabolism, energy, and play a role in hemoglobin / red blood cell production. RBCs/hemoglobin are the little guys responsible for oxygen delivery from the lungs to your body’s tissues so they are super important! B6 is available in a variety of foods, but B12 is found mostly in meat and eggs. It also found in seaweed and some fermented foods. If you are a vegetarian or don’t eat much meat you should be looking to fortified foods (cereals) for your B12 intake.
Lastly, I will say that anything you can eat to help reduce inflammation is going to be great for your runner’s body. I do a quality Omega 3-6-9 supplement and try to eat plenty of ginger. Turmeric can also be good for inflammation and it is recommended to take it with black pepper to help with absorption.
It would be remiss to not point out that the pounds on your scale do not tell the whole story. Lean mass (muscle, organs, blood, bones, skin), body fat, and hydration play a role in what your scale reads and are all important considerations. I’ll use myself as an example.
When I ran my marathon in 2015, I weighed 128 pounds and was about 24-25% body fat according to my body fat scale. This is about 97 pounds of lean body mass. Last summer while I was training, my weight was 135 pounds and again I was about 24-25% body fat. My lean mass was 102 pounds. This means I put on about 5 pounds of lean mass which we can assume was mostly muscle. My weight now is about 145 pounds and I am about 28-29% body fat. That puts my lean mass at 104 pounds. As an aside, on any given day my weight fluctuates between 143-145 based on when I weigh which accounts for fluctuations in hydration and glycogen stores. I always go with the higher number because that reflects good hydration and glycogen storage. So at 145 pounds, if I wanted to get back down to 24%-25% body fat and keep my 104 pounds lean mass, my target weight would be 138 pounds–10 pounds more than my marathon weight of 128 pounds. If I were just to take into account the scale and lose down to 128 pounds again, I would be giving up 7 pounds of hard earned muscle (lean mass)! And for those of you who are curious, I haven’t bought a whole new wardrobe since the marathon. I’ve sized up in some of my slim fit pants, but now if I get comments on my appearance they are about how fit and strong I look. #strongnotskinny
- Consult with your doctor before you any supplementation or dietary regimen
- Focus on health not the weight
- Make sure to account for the calorie expenditure of your activities
- Make sure you are getting the right balance of macronutrients including fiber
- Be sure to be getting quality nutrition including complex carbs
- Make sure you are getting enough iron from real foods
- You need to be getting enough calcium AND magnesium
- Consider supplementing with vitamin D during the winter according to your sun exposure
- Keep an eye on your B6 and B12. B12 is especially a consideration for vegetarians who need to eat fortified or fermented foods to get this vitamin.
- Anti-inflammatory foods can be a good consideration for a runner’s diet
- Don’t rely on the scale to tell the whole story