RACE WEIGHT HAPPENS IN THE PRE-SEASON
It’s common to hear about athletes working to hit their “Race Weight” in the weeks leading up to their big ‘A’ race with the idea that weighing less will make them faster. While there is some consistent correlation that shows faster triathletes having lower body fat percentage1 and lighter runners having faster splits2, I have unfortunate news – dropping weight in the weeks right before your big race is a huge mistake.
THE COMMON PATH IS NOT NECESSARILY THE BEST PATH
Following the last big race of a season, a triathlete will typically enter what is commonly referred to as the Post-Season. This is a period to focus on the physical and mental recovery of the accumulative training leading up the race as well as the race itself. For Ironman athletes, this can last for about 2 – 3 weeks. Following this recovery period, we enter a Pre-Season phase where we will often focus on some of our limiters, maybe work on our aerobic base or high-end speed, but the overall load and training volume is still relatively low. The length of this phase is dependent on when your next ‘a’ race is among other factors, but the typical range is somewhere between 8 – 16 weeks.
After a solid Pre-Season, we then enter another 8 – 16 week ‘Build’ phase where we start increasing the training load and volume. This is when we really try to push that fitness and performance needle. With the exception of intermittent recovery weeks, this load continues to increase until it’s time to taper before the big race. Athletes can struggle to adapt their eating habits enough to compensate for the increase caloric expenditure that is needed for the uptick in training and needed recovery. Even worse, some athletes can even intentionally hold back nutrition in order to hit race weight. They may hit their magical number of weight, but they are going to be quite disappointed come race day.
WHY SHOULD YOU MAINTAIN YOUR WEIGHT BEFORE A BIG RACE
The build phase should be some of the heaviest training loads you will endure. Your body needs to recover from all of this training, and it needs calories to do so. If you are under-fueling your body throughout these hard training days to lose weight, your recovery will suffer. Ignoring this needed recovery long enough can result in prolonged fatigue at best, as well as illness or injury at worst.
Some athletes continue their calorie deficit throughout the race taper with the reasoning of “Well, I’m not training as hard, so I shouldn’t be eating as much”. However, your body is still recovering throughout that taper. The tissue and muscle repair takes days to fully recover. Additionally, your hormonal response can be negatively affected when in a constant calorie
deficit due to the chronic increase in cortisol from the extra stress. If you are trying to drop weight in the few weeks leading up to your race, you are setting yourself up for underperforming after all the hard work you have done.
WHEN AND HOW TO WORK ON BODY COMPOSITION
The good news is there is still a perfect phase of training to work on your body composition, and that time is the Pre-Season. During the Pre-Season, our training loads are much lower than build phases. With the reduced stress on our bodies and more importantly, less recovery needed, we have a much better opportunity to reduce body fat. First and foremost, you need to understand what your body burns in terms of calories. I highly suggest getting tested for your resting metabolic rate as well as your metabolic rate during training. At Playtri, we can measure both and give you the information you need to understand where you are, calorically, on a day-to-day basis.
I also want you to implement two key strategies that not only reduce body fat but also enable you to be a better endurance athlete. Strength training can assist in growing lean muscle and increasing your resting metabolic rate as well as increasing your strength endurance and form throughout a race. Additionally, strategic fasted workouts not only help reduce body fat but also improve the body’s ability to use fat as energy.
TWO STRATEGIES FOR LOSING WEIGHT DURING THE PRE-SEASON
Emphasize strength work two to three times a week. I cannot promote this enough during the Pre-Season. It is a simple fact that muscle is calorically expensive, or in laymen terms, muscle burns fat. The immediate calorie expense of strength training may not be as great as your typical cardio-driven runs or bike rides. However, the repair of muscular tissue increases the metabolic load throughout the day or even days afterward, depending on how stressful the strength session is. While you should be constantly working your stability muscles throughout the entire year, the Pre-Season is a great time to focus on the larger muscle groups in your legs and lats. This will not only help improve your power production needed in triathlon, but you will get more calorie burn from working the larger muscles in comparison to the smaller. If you want extra credit, lift heavy. The greater the strain we place on our muscle, the greater the growth hormone response we will get3. Of course, you should always start with good form and technique when introducing a strength program into your training. Work with a coach if you’re not sure what that looks like or new to strength training.
Implement fasted workouts twice a week. Burning more calories than one consumes is an obvious path to reduced body fat, but utilizing fasted workouts or workouts with low caloric consumption can have additional benefits beyond the direct weight loss. Endurance athletes need to achieve a certain
adaptation to burning fat for energy. The more time we spend training in a carb-deficit state, the more adapted we become to burning fat. With a higher efficiency to utilize fat, athletes will have less of a dependency on carb consumption during a race which is the usual culprit of the dreaded ‘bonk’. However, shifting your fat/carb adaptation takes time and the sooner you start this process, the better, which is why the Pre-Season is a great time to start. Including fasted workouts does come with a few precautions. DO NOT FAST BEFORE EVERY WORKOUT. Constantly training while fasted can have detrimental effects on your hormones in the long term. You should also avoid fasting before any workouts with high stress or hard intervals. Instead, fasted workouts should be targeted for the lower stress workouts. Examples would be 2-hr or less easy bike ride on the bike or a 1-hr or less easy run (think a ‘go-all-day’ kind of pace or heart rate). Do not forget to hydrate with the proper electrolyte concentration. Of course, you need to fuel immediately after the workout. Staying in a fasted-state will hinder your recovery and prolong higher levels of stress hormone in the body.
If you need additional guidance into how to include strength work into your endurance training, please reach out for a consultation or talk to me about one-on-one coaching. Additionally, Playtri has great resources to determine your current metabolic demands in terms of how fat dependent you are and how many carbs you need to consume for a particular race. Checkout the VO2 metabolic testing service that we offer to see where you currently stand and how to better fuel during training and race day. Also, don’t forget to look into the Resting Metabolic Rate Assessment which let’s you know how much carbs and fats your body need regardless of your training or lifestyle.
Coach Chad is a Level 2 Playtri Coach and IRONMAN World Championship qualifier. He brings a strong strength and conditioning background to his coaching programs. Learn more about Coach Chad at www.playtri.com/chad-carpenter.