March 20, 2012

Racing Weight (Part One)

As I started to write my recap of the book "Racing Weight" by Matt Fitzgerald, it quickly became clear that it was going to be an intensely long and information-dense post. So, I've broken it up into two parts. Today, I'll be talking about calories out; Thursday, look for a post on calories in.

In short, I loved the book. I got it through my university's interlibrary loan system, but fully intend on purchasing my own copy soon so I can take notes in it. It offered a lot of perspective not only on how to find your ideal weight as an endurance athlete, but how to get there in a healthy way.

"Racing Weight" talks about how to determine your optimal racing weight, and what things you can do to help get to that point. It breaks it down into calories in and calories out, and clarifies further by explaining how the needs of a cyclist, for example, are different than those of a swimmer.

Ideally, you should be measuring body composition (namely, body fat percentage) over your weight on a scale, since that will take lean muscle mass into account. The average body fat percentage ranges, again, by sport - for example, the average female swimmer has a body fat percentage of 19-21%, compared to 11% for the average female cross-country skiier [p. 12-16].

So, how to reach your ideal performance weight? Once again, it depends on your sport. For runners, it's less about keeping calories low and more about longer distances:
For runners, higher mileage is a better way to get lean than calorie restriction because calorie restriction does not send the same message. Calorie restriction tells your body to conserve energy, which it will do by reducing its metabolic rate to retain fat stores, dismantling more muscle tissue than it otherwise would, and making you feel sluggish in workouts so you go slower, quit sooner, and thereby burn fewer precious calories.
[p. 75]
And voilĂ , my personal revelations.

I was talking to one of the people in my French conversation group the other night. He's a cyclist, and said that when he first moved to our city, he lived right near me, so he also rode his bike to and from work. In the first month, he lost 10 pounds. It struck me as interesting, because I had an identical conversation with someone else last semester.

I was commuting by bike to work, too. But I wasn't losing any weight. In fact, for seven months, my weight essentially stayed the same. Yes, there were off-plan things eaten - not daily, but more often than they had been back in Chicago. But I also ran hundreds of miles - and biked thousands. Surely I should have seen some change, right?

Well, not necessarily.

Because even though it takes 3500 calories in/out to gain/lose a pound, not all workouts are created equal.

Stick with me.

In the beginning, it was pretty simple. When I first started getting healthier, I was limited with what I could do. At 345 pounds, I could barely get out of bed without pain, let alone go to a gym and workout. So, I used what I had: I walked around my block. Once at first, then twice, then three times, building up as I felt physically capable of more. Then I started getting off the bus a few stops earlier, in addition to the laps around my neighborhood. And when a friend from work suggested walking the Race for the Cure 5K with her, I had my first distance goal.

And as I lost weight, I sought different challenges. I raced up the stairs of my office building. I walked 5Ks, and then 8Ks. I ran a 5K, then an 8K, a 10K, and a half marathon. And I started biking - first as a commuter, and then as my main form of exercise.

My bike was stolen in early February, and I started to lose weight again. It immediately struck me that this was not likely a coincidence. When I got my new bike, I was back on it every day, riding 10-25 miles and burning over 1000 calories at a time. And my weight loss slowed, then halted, then started to climb back up.

Time to reassess.

Based on the readouts I've seen from my Garmin's heart rate monitor, in my current weight range, a 1 mile bike ride burns about 50 calories on average. A 1 mile walk burns about 100. And a 1 mile run burns about 150.

But my body doesn't feel the same after burning 1000 calories biking as it does after a 1000 calorie run.

The term "aerobic" refers to oxygen and breathing, and while you shouldn't be working out so hard that you cannot breathe or that it becomes painful, you *should* have a change in your breathing patterns when you work out versus, say, sit down and have a conversation with someone. After a long bike ride - even over 2 hours, 25+ miles - my breathing isn't all that different. I'm less sweaty than even a 20-30 minute run. And I don't have that full-body I've-just-worked-out feeling. My legs feel it, but not my arms, or my abs.

There are ways for cyclists to lose weight while riding, for sure. The book covers this in great detail. But I'm not a high intensity cyclist. The ground here is flat and at my current weight, I can only ride 14 mph, max, and usually average 10-12 (for perspective, the local cycling club does group rides, and you must be able to maintain 18-28 mph for the 1-3 hour round trip). So biking, while fun, really isn't a fantastic workout for me.

My legs are the proof that the biking hasn't been a complete waste of time. My weight stayed the same last semester, more or less, but my legs are considerably leaner than when I simply ran and did workouts on machines at the gym. Cycling is good - no, great - for my legs, but my main trouble area right now is still belly fat. And I need a higher intensity aerobic exercise, paired with smarter eating, to take care of that.

So, as tough as it is right now, I'm doing a little test. I've been doing my run streak for a few days now, and am biking considerably less - about an hour once a week. The next step is to work on finding an ideal balance with my workouts and eating.

Stay tuned for more information on that on Thursday!


Taryn said...

Very interesting info! I'm looking forward to the next part! :)

Anonymous said...

Sounds like a good read! And you've come a long way - wow, thanks for inspiring me! I have had my body composition tested, twice - my chiropractor thought I should have it b/c I was so discouraged at the scale. I really thought I'd be fattier than I was, but still, my results weren't good (39.9% fat), but it did open my eyes (like my chiropractor said it would!)

Frickin' Fabulous at 40 said...

Fascinating information! You would think burning 1,000 calories, no matter how you did it, would be a good thing! Damn you science!

Amy said...

This makes a lot of sense. I've had the same experience with swimming. I heard that swimming was wonderful exercise and began a swimming regimen thinking it would directly lead to weight loss. Instead, swimming made me voracious and I wasn't swimming with the intensity or efficiency of Michael Phelps and weight loss did not follow.

Leigh said...

Really interesting. I just started running. Looking forward to part 2.

Lealah said...

Love this blog! Makes a ton of sense when looking at it from a runner's perspective!

timothy said...

too bad it took a theft for the "aha" moment! does it make a differenece if it's a 10 speed or a regular bike. my friends sheryl aka bitch cakes rides a regular bike in heels no less all over ny city.
i'm just glad you're getting fit/healthy and doin it sensibly and having fun too! that makes it soooo much better. i always enjoy your blog whether it's funny/informative or venting. you are one kick ass babe , yes you! love it! xoxoxoxoxoxo

Katie Foster said...

This is SO interesting, and it makes so much sense! I always feel the biggest workout when I run--like you said a 30 minute run leaves you feeling sweatier than a bike ride that is twice as long.

I'm going to see if my library has the book.

Tim said...

I've just written a post about how frustrating it has been this week for me after exercising lots, walking 70+ miles etc yet seeing a gain. So it's actually really interesting that I'm now reading this post because it's exactly what's happening to me!