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Ask the Dietitian: Nutritional strategies for running strong when trying to lose or maintain weight
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What advice do you have on reaching a race weight or ideal composition while training? It’s hard for me to create a substantial calorie deficit and still feel good in training. Sometimes I feel bonked when I’m trying to cut back and consequently will have days where I pig out which negates any weight loss attempt I had made.
-Rachel Bachman, Aspen, CO
It is a common misconception—especially by our sedentary counterparts—that endurance runners can eat whatever they want and the pounds will still melt away because of all the miles. As most of us know, this notion is not a reality. An increase in mileage results in an increased appetite and an adapted metabolism, both of which make it difficult to shed the extra weight—or, sometimes, even just maintain our weight.
Here are a few tips to help you reach your optimum racing weight and natural body composition while still feeling good during training.
1. Keep your blood sugar stable.
Letting your blood sugar drop too low results in not only low energy and a decrease in performance, but also an altered state of mind. Much like alcohol, low blood sugar inhibits your judgment and can lead to making less healthy choices and gorging on too much food at once. Keep healthy snacks readily available in your car, desk and backpack. Whole fruit, dried fruit, nuts, trail mix, cereal and pretzels all transport and keep well with no need to refrigerate.
2. Eat soon after you work out.
Not only will eating after your workout speed up recovery, but it also helps to quench hunger. Grab one of your stashed snacks or try to schedule your run before a meal. For example, run right before breakfast, lunch or dinner so that you can have a solid meal soon after your workout.
3. Think slow and steady, not significant.
As you have experienced, creating a substantial deficit in calories can lead to feelings of burnout, fatigue and uncontrollable hunger. Avoid making large deductions in calories and instead aim for a reasonable reduction of 200-400 calories a day. This could mean one less piece of pizza, skipping a spoonful of peanut butter or passing on a scoop of ice cream after dinner.
4. Eat when you are hungry.
Naturally, you will have days when you feel hungrier. Your body can tell when you run 15 miles versus five miles. Do not expect to eat the same amount every day. If you restrain from eating, your appetite will catch up to you and you can end up losing control. If your stomach is rumbling, do not feel you have to skip a snack because dinner is in an hour or wait to eat lunch because it is still technically breakfast time. By listening to your body’s hunger cues, you will learn to differentiate between hunger, appetite and satiation. You begin to trust your body signals and they become your innate calorie counter.
5. Eat more early and less at night.
Many people have an easier time being in control of what they eat early in the day. This results in a low-calorie—or no-calorie—breakfast, or an insufficient lunch. It only makes sense that an eight-hour workday, followed by a workout, results in feeling starved at night. By eating a bigger breakfast and lunch, you will have more energy fueling your day and your workout. You may be eating more, but you will be less hungry in the evening and compensate by eating less for dinner.
6. Add variety to workouts.
Running the same mileage at the same intensity every day is not conducive to weight loss over time because skeletal muscles adapt to the workload. Challenge your muscles by changing up the intensity of your workouts. Make it a double day to increase your metabolism—take what would be an eight-mile run in the morning and separate it into a four-mile morning run and a four-mile evening run. Not only will your metabolism be revved up twice that day, but you may have more energy during the day which results in being more active instead of more tired and sitting longer in your office chair.
These key concepts apply to everyone, not just those interested in losing weight while training. As you become more in sync with your body and eat intuitively, your optimum weight will fine-tune naturally without having to make huge food or training sacrifices. You will start to feel and perform your best at a body weight that is healthy and maintainable. Like reaching your goal race times, losing weight in a sustainable and healthy way will take time, consistency and patience.
Editors’ Note: This is an installment in our online Ask the Dietitian column with Maria Dalzot, MS, RD, CDN and an avid trail runner. You can visit her blog at www.mariadalzotrd.com and submit your nutrition questions to email@example.com.