Thursday, December 16, 2010

Heavy holidays

As we are heading into the Christmas-New Year's binge period it is good to remember rule number one for endurance athletes: keep your weight down. Excessive weight is the enemy of all endurance athletes, but none more so than runners and cyclists. Cycling is a bit more forgiving than running and heavier people can still do well in the sport, provided they either have the genetic make-up of a sprinter -sprinting ability is largely genetic according to those who studied it extensively -, or they focus on short-duration, level events such as track racing.

Swimming is the most forgiving of all endurance sports and probably the only category where (slightly) overweight competitors have brought home the dough.
Gold medalist taking a break

For many athletes fighting weight is never ending battle and in their desperation, many seek help in the medicine cabinet. Others, like Dutch champion mountain biker Rudy van Houts and Alberto Contador stick to eating a lot of meat instead. Both approaches are wrought with danger and it is always wise to check your meat provider, especially in Spanish speaking countries.

Weight loss, like training is surrounded by a lot of mythology and magic. There are special diets such as Atkins, Mediterranean, South Beach and others. Some of these are backed by scientific rationales but most are not. There are magic (read scam) potions such as Zylotrim and CentriLean, backed by pseudoscientific hoopla and there is even an FDA approved pill (alli) that will prevent fat uptake in your gut and result in gastric upset, bloating and diarrhea. If the latter does not stop you from overeating, I honestly don't know what will.

There is also a long list of failed products, some of which are somewhat effective but dangerous (Acomplia, Phen-Fen, amphetamines), but most of which are not. Recently a new entry, Contrave, got the thumbs up from an FDA panel, the first drug to do so in a decade. We will have to wait until next year to see if FDA will act on the panel's recommendation. Like most entries, Contrave shows marginal effectiveness and some potentially troubling side-effects. But the nation is desperately overweight and something needs to be done.

The bottom line in weight loss is quite simple. You will lose weight if and only if you eat less calories. For the sake of completeness I can add that you can also try to burn more, but that is pretty much a losing battle as your ability to burn excess calories is extremely limited. Burning more is an insignificant factor in weight loss programs.

So it all comes down to eating less.

How you achieve your goal of eating less is immaterial, especially for adults. It does not matter what foods you eat, when or how you eat these foods, whether or not you perform rituals such as drinking water beforehand or after. It does not matter how often you eat, what time of day or night you eat, as long as you eat less than you did before. Granted eating less is easier with certain food choices -fats make you feel full easier than carbs- but ultimately it all boils down to the calories you ingest.

Also, and again for completeness sake, some programs may show a small initial advantage, but in the long run (say four weeks or more) it all evens out. And remember, even programs that do show some advantage initially do so through consuming less. Ultimately it all comes down to calories ingested.

Exercise and sleep are important but probably more so because these activities prevent you from eating for extended periods of time, or limit your uptake, or both.

Although some weight gain in the off-season is normal and may even be beneficial, it is probably better to limit your gains. The more your weight oscillates back and forth, the harder it becomes to lose the excess when you want to.

The best advice for the holiday is, indulge but keep it under control.

P.S. Although less weight will benefit any endurance athlete, there comes a point where further weight loss will no longer be of value. If you are lean and have been competing well for a many seasons chances are you have found that optimal weight and you know what it is. Trying to reduce your weight even further will most likely result in worse outcomes.

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