I have always been naturally thin (except on my swimming days when I worked super hard to bulk up). But being thin doesn’t mean being lean. Being lean has to do with the amount of body fat and lean muscle our bodies have. It has nothing to do with how much we weigh (When I was at my heaviest weight -around 135 lbs- I was also at my leanest -6% body fat- which means I had a lot of muscle).
Just as it’s dangerous to have extremely low levels of body fat it is also dangerous to be on the other extreme. And having more body fat than the one we need can hinder our performance. A study found out that for a 170 lb. athlete, a fat gain of 3.4 lbs. (2%), could result in a vertical jump height loss of 2”, and a 40 yard dash time increase of 0.26 seconds (If you are not familiar with the 40 yard dash, 0.26 seconds is an eternity. This is the same sprint test all NFL football players must do at the NFL Combine, which tests the athletic ability of all the athletes before entering the league. A 0.1 second difference can mean millions of dollars).
So, What happens if you are a triathlete, or competitive runner with 20% body fat and a good 10-20lb of fat to lose?
Well you are essentially carrying the equivalent of a 10-20lb dumbbell with you at all times, which is going to have a massive impact on your athletic performance, let alone your joints. One could make the argument that losing the excess fat (without losing muscle of course) would help performance more than logging extra miles.
What about increasing weight by adding muscle mass. Does that hurt performance?
The short answer is no, adding muscle typically helps athletic performance. The power/weight ratio, which is meticulously measured by the cycling community is improved when muscle is gained.
So, if you want to look as lean as any pro-athlete there are certain things you can do:
1 Increase your diet quality
I have had a “six pack” (in my abs besides the diet mountain dew ones on my fridge) since I started swimming competitively. While much of it is due to good genetics, the truth is that I watch the quality (and quantity) of what I eat.
Increasing the overall quality of your diet is the simplest and most effective way to shed excess body fat, and move closer to your optimal racing weight. That means eating more of the six categories of high-quality foods—vegetables, fruits, nuts and seeds, lean meats and fish, whole grains and dairy—and less of the four categories of low-quality foods—refined grains, fatty meats, sweets and fried foods
2 Manage your appetite
I am guilty of this too: I eat out of boredom. Whenever I want to go down to my ideal weight all I have to do is just eat when I need it not when I want to.
A study demonstrated that most people automatically eat more food than they need unless they take conscious steps to control their “food environment” and eat more mindfully. These measures do not need to include removing all of the food from your kitchen, but they may include removing all of the low-quality temptations from your kitchen, and replacing your current dishes with smaller dishes on which you serve yourself slightly smaller portions.
3 Eat more often.
Even though it seems contradictory to the previous point, eating more often allows you to increase your metabolism (just make sure you are not overeating).
Research has demonstrated that people who eat six or more small meals during the day tend to have lower BMI’s (body mass index) than those who eat three larger meals a day. What’s more, a study published in the New England Journal of Medicine found that nibbling more effectively keeps the metabolism steady throughout the day versus gorging on three large meals. The key is to identify smaller nutrient-rich meals that are satisfying and keep you fueled for workouts. Taking in protein and fiber-rich fruits and vegetables will go a long way in ensuring satiety.
4 Manage yourself and track your consumption
In business there’s an expression: “What gets measured gets managed.” If you’re trying to reduce your weight and body-fat percentage, it only makes sense to measure these things regularly. Research has shown that nonathlete dieters who weigh themselves often lose more weight than those who avoid the scale. I recommend that all endurance athletes weigh themselves at least once a week and use a body-fat scale to estimate their body-fat percentage once every four weeks. This one is a hard thing for me since I struggled with eating disorders in the past, but I have found that stepping on the scale (I do it every morning) allows me to be more conscious of the quality and quantity of food I put on my body.
Regarding tracking your food I have talked about it in another post (“Want to lose weigh?”) Tracking your consumption on LoseIt.com or on MyFitnessPal (as well as your exercise) can help you determine whether you’re taking in the right number and kinds of calories for your activity level. Since research has shown that we often overestimate the number of calories we burn during workouts, this can be particularly important. What’s more, it can help you assess the quality of your diet. If you’re taking in the right number of calories, but they’re all from less-nutritious sources, you’re going to have trouble fueling your workouts optimally.
5. Add in high-intensity intervals.
While we often get preoccupied with the idea of linking aerobic training and fat burning, more recent weight-loss studies have begun to focus on high-intensity interval training. In fact, in comparing runners who did four to six 30-second treadmill sprints three times per week with runners who did 30–60 minutes of steady-state running three days a week, Canadian researchers discovered that the former lost more fat after six weeks. While about 80% of your training should be easier steady-state aerobic training, if you’re looking to achieve a leaner physique, don’t forget to add in one or two harder sessions each week.
6 Incorporate strength training.
While studies have shown that aerobic training is best for shedding fat, resistance training is tops at building lean muscle. Assuming you’re already running regularly, adding in 2–3 days of strength training can help you reach that ideal racing weight. Perhaps even better: Resistance training has been shown to increase running economy, which means you’ll use fuel more efficiently during workouts and races. More efficient running workouts translate into increased fitness.
I hope this helps you. To me, being lean has been a constant in my life for the past 20+ years and this are the kind of things I do to keep my body close to my race weight. I do watch what I eat. I don’t under eat but I don’t over eat. I watch the quality of the foods I put in my mouth and I run long and easy as much as I do intervals.
Hope to hear your comments. remember to follow me on Twitter (@terezacher), Instagram (@insightfulrunner) and on Facebook (Tere Zacher Page) for daily motivation.