You set two goals for yourself this year: to lose some weight and to train for endurance races. But while the training part is going well – you’re running or riding more days than you’re not, and you’re able to go longer and faster each time – the pounds just aren’t coming off.
It’s a common occurrence among runners and cyclists. We pick up the habit hoping to shed some weight along the way, but instead our pants end up feeling tighter and our weight creeps up rather than down. Why? Jonathan Cane, an exercise physiologist and founder of City Coach Multisport in New York City, says there are a few reasons this happens.
You’re consuming more than you’re burning.
It’s Saturday morning, and you just finished your weekly long run or ride. You take a steamy shower followed by a quick nap – and then you proceed directly to the kitchen, where you slam a protein shake followed by a stack of pancakes and a handful of bacon. You’re understandably ravenous – but overeating after a hard workout is a common occurrence among endurance athletes.
“It’s prudent to refuel after a workout,” says Cane. “It promotes muscle repair and glycogen replenishment, but also helps athletes refuel wisely. Even if your primary goal is weight loss, it’s better to put back a reasonable amount of calories shortly after your workout than to wait a few hours and binge when the hunger gets to be too much.”
You’re taking in too many mid-workout calories.
“Nothing makes me shake my head more than a runner who hopes to lose weight, but then eats a gel before heading out for a three-mile run,” says Cane. Many people overestimate the caloric expenditure from their training, and therefore take in far more calories than their exercise justifies.
Do the math to determine whether you really need to take in fuel and replenish any lost electrolytes and calories during your workout, or if you can do without. (Chances are, if your workout takes less than an hour, you don’t need to take in calories until it’s recovery time.) Using the Smart Calorie count on your Polar M430 or Polar M460 is the best way to keep your calories in check after your workout.
You’re losing fat – and gaining muscle.
If you’re working out efficiently and effectively, there’s a good chance you are losing weight – at least in theory. But you’re also gaining muscle.
“Though running or cycling aren’t necessarily the most effective or efficient ways to gain muscle, it’s not unusual for runners or cyclists to add muscle mass in their legs,” says Cane. “That can obviously affect the reading on the scale.” Consider your body composition, and pay attention to how your clothes fit or how your athletic performance is improving instead of focusing strictly on the number on the scale.
Plus, if you’re super active, you’ll also develop an increase in your body’s ability to store glycogen. “Since glycogen holds three times its weight in water, an increase in glycogen stores will be reflected as weight gain, even though it’s not unhealthy,” says Cane. “That phenomenon is why I often get panicked emails from athletes who are loading up on carbohydrates in anticipation of a marathon and freak out when they see their weight shoot up by a couple pounds.”
You’re not mixing it up enough.
Steady-state cardio workouts are great for training and upping your endurance. But going for the same five-mile run or 20-mile ride every few days probably isn’t enough to reach your weight-loss goals.
Mix it up by adding some high-intensity interval training, track workouts, or speed sessions into your training. This is when heart-rate training comes in handy: If your heart rate stays steady for the duration of your workout, you’re not maximizing your potential calorie burn.
Your goals aren’t a good match.
“Running is a great exercise for a number of reasons,” says Cane. “But weight loss isn’t necessarily at the top of that list.” A 132-pound runner burns roughly 100 calories per mile. At 154 pounds, it’s 116 calories per mile. “And despite what most people think, running faster doesn’t burn significantly more calories per mile, though you’re burning more calories per minute by running faster,” says Cane.
If 3,500 calories equal one pound (roughly), a runner needs to cover 30-35 miles each week just to lose one pound. “While that may not seem like many miles to an experienced runner, it’s probably too much for a newbie,” says Cane. “When I’m working with someone who’s new to training and wants to lose some weight, I typically introduce running gently and gradually, but supplement it with other, lower-impact activities like cycling or swimming, since there’s less orthopedic stress. Then I can be less conservative with the increases in training volume.”
In most cases, diet has a greater effect on weight loss than exercise. If your goal is to lose weight, start in the kitchen and add workouts to supplement your diet plan. If your goal is to complete a 50-mile race, focus first on getting your miles in, and eat up in a way that allows you to perform your best.