The great weight debate…

I’ve had an unprecedented level of response to my last post, mostly asking about weight loss and how I did it while training for long-distance triathlon racing. Below follows an attempt to set the weight loss in the context of the myriad of other changes I made; a brief look at the way coaches and nutritionists are currently approaching – or, in many cases, failing to approach – this issue; and then a discussion of what I did.

It wasn’t just weight loss!

Firstly, my improved performances were not solely due to weight loss. Consistency in training is significant, with my longest uninterrupted period of triathlon training ever leading into the back half of last year. Mental attitude and willingness to make changes were key, and the “virtuous circle” created by the confidence I gradually gained as my speed improved in training also played into the progress. (This noticeably manifested in ways like being brave enough to say hello to some of the other pro athletes at our race briefings, rather than thinking they’d laugh at me for even being there…) Changes to the substance of my training itself were also critical.

The focus-on-weight paradox

However, it is undeniable that weight loss was a factor. At least, you’d think it’s undeniable, but I have found a remarkable reluctance from professionals in the field to acknowledge it or to advise me to lose weight, even in the face of direct questioning.

On one level this is understandable, given some of the issues around athletes and bodyweight. People want to do whatever is in their power to ensure that athletes don’t develop injuries or illness (including disordered eating behaviour), especially if this could be perceived to be as a result of them pressurising the athlete to lose weight.

However, I would argue that “flying blind” as a result of total refusal to discuss it, means that athletes are more likely to make mistakes in managing their weight, potentially ending up injured or with other issues that could have been avoided if they’d been able to obtain the right advice. I was lucky to have just the right level of gentle encouragement and advice from coach Steve, with Ed keeping a closer eye on me. None of us are specialists, but we’re hoping that three smart people doing our best and remaining objective have managed to do it well enough.

What I did

I weighed myself every day and recorded the number; weighed and calculated the calories in almost everything I ate; and netted off the calories I estimated I’d used in training. I then aimed to consume 200-300 calories a day less than I needed to maintain weight. Simple, right?

What I got right

Most importantly, I was crystal clear in my mind that I was doing this for performance-related reasons, and this helped me to be both sensible (I never skipped any meals, I always refuelled after training) and objective (if something wasn’t working, I was able to remain relatively unemotional about it and try to figure out why; I didn’t obsess over small fluctuations in my weight).

As a professional athlete I’m at home most of the time when I’m not training, so it was easy for me to choose what to eat and adjust quantities based on what training I did each day. For people who are in an office most of the day, there will necessarily be a higher level of organisation and meal prep, as well as self-control to avoid the snacks that always seem to be lying around.

Speaking of self-control – I avoided relying on it whenever I could. If there’s no chocolate or ice cream in the house, then laziness wins out over greed a good 95% of the time!

I didn’t try any stupid diets (a reasonably good rule is that if a diet has a name… it’s a stupid diet) and I ate A LOT OF FOOD and A LOT OF CARBS. Most days I was still eating upwards of 3,000 calories a day, some days well over 4,000. It doesn’t matter how much weight you lose, if you don’t fuel and recover from your training, at best you will underperform and at worst you’ll have much bigger problems than how fast you’re going.

I also didn’t eat any fucking kale…

What I had to change

The fact I wasn’t an optimal weight for performance to start with, was about 10% eating “the wrong stuff” and 90% simply eating more than I needed without realising. I was pretty shocked when I started weighing my food by how little I actually needed. (This will obviously vary from person to person – for example, as I already barely drank alcohol, I didn’t have the option of shifting a few kilos by simply giving that up, but if you do, that could be a great place to start.)

I discovered fairly quickly that I really had to weigh EVERYTHING I ate (except the occasional meal out, where someone else makes a predetermined amount for you, so you can’t portion-creep). And I continue to weigh everything most days to make sure I don’t gradually start eating more than I need – or, more importantly, eating less than I need and not making it through training.

I was also significantly underestimating calorie burn from cycling when I started out, which led to a few spectacular sense of humour failures and canned sessions due to low blood sugar. (Beware of trusting what your Garmin says here – mine appears to vastly overestimate calories used in high intensity bike sessions and underestimate for low intensity.)

I was hungry. A lot. It was hard. I drank too much caffeine in the mornings and I lay awake hungry a few nights when I would probably have been better off eating a little more and losing weight slightly more slowly, although I do think some hunger is inevitable if you have a relatively high quality diet to begin with.

Advice

First, get advice from someone more qualified than me…. but also:

Remain objective and do not associate your self-worth with your bodyweight (or your speed, come to that)

Always carry emergency food with you when you are training!

Build habits (for example, I now weigh food without really thinking about it or needing to remind myself to do it)

Make those habits easy (for me, the kitchen scales live on the worktop, with a notepad and pen next to them to write down calories)

Don’t necessarily aim for a target weight. I started this project with no real idea how much weight I had to lose, so when I’d lost 2kg I thought “great, I’ve lost 2kg” rather than “ugh, I have another 8kg still to go”.

Stay healthy, and remember that when you’re aiming for performance, health > training > weight.

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