Achieving And Maintaining Race Weight

In achieving and maintaining race weight, there are a number of factors I take into account, including different weight loss strategies, the adverse effects of caloric restriction while training simultaneously, how to mitigate these adverse effects using various diet and lifestyle factors, as well as the methods and tools I am using such as counting calories this season in order to achieve and maintain my desired race weight.

Coming into the 2017 season, I’d like to do things a little differently than last year, where I only achieved race weight towards the end of the season. I want start the season at race weight and maintain it throughout.

Why would you work on losing weight when you’re racing every weekend? The best best time to lose your weight is in base season, which is counter intuitive for most endurance athletes.

Weight Loss Strategies

There are a number of weight loss strategies: caloric restriction, refining the times of day at which you eat, improving sleep, improving circadian rhythms, decreasing stress, varying macronutrients by metabolic type and reducing the amount of processed foods in the diet.

The one weight loss strategy that seems to be consistently reliable and repeatable is caloric restriction. For those that are sedentary, the risks seem fairly low with significant benefits in longevity and metabolic health.

Athletes on the other hand need to understand the physiological stresses of caloric restriction and training when done at the same time.

Effects of Calorie Restriction on Testosterone and Cortisol

Testosterone is an anabolic hormone that helps ensure low body fat, high muscle mass, good brain function, high red blood cell counts and a high libido.
Cortisol is a catabolic stress hormone that prepares the body for a fight-or-flight response. Chronic high levels of cortisol are linked to weight gain, cardiovascular disease and depression. It can break muscle tissue, induce visceral fat gain (the fat surrounding your organs) and reduce testosterone levels.

Cangemi et al looked at the testosterone levels of men who had been practicing calorie restriction for an average of 7.5 years, and found that they had a 32% drop in testosterone levels.

A. Janet Tomiyama et al looked at the levels of cortisol of women restricted to 1200 calories per day and found that they had increased levels of cortisol.

Cortisol levels rose in the calorie restricted group - Psychosom Med. 2010, Tomiyama AJ et al.

There is also an assumption that cortisol is bad for you, all of the time. There is evidence however that acute cortisol spikes which occur after exercise may actually be beneficial.

Will lower levels of testosterone and higher levels of cortisol result in reduced performance? A study by Hoogeveen AR suggests this is perhaps not the case, although I cannot find further studies that either back up or refute their results.

These results suggest that in endurance trained cyclists, decreased testosterone levels, increased cortisol levels and a decreased testosterone: cortisol ratio does not automatically lead to a decrease in performance or a state of overtraining.

The evidence then on whether the testosterone / cortisol ratio is detrimental to performance is inconclusive. From a health perspective however, it seems wise to be cautious with both the degree and the length of time in a caloric deficit.

Minimizing the Adverse Effects of Caloric Restriction

Weights, HIIT, Sleep and Decreased Stress

It appears beneficial to include some weight training and high intensity intervals within the training plan, and place sleep quality and decreased stress as a priority to keep cortisol levels low and testosterone levels high.

Calorie Shifting

There is evidence that calorie shifting, in which there is a period of refeeding ad-libitum after a period of caloric restriction, such that you may find in alternate day intermittent fasting, is more effective than regular controlled calorie restriction for fat loss.

The principle is as simple as effective. You’re dieting for 11 days and “refeeding”, i.e. eat ad-libitum for three days. The intention is to achieve a temporary deficit that’s large enough to induce significant weight and fat loss in spite of the potential of temporary over-indulgence on the refeeding days.

Another study showed that the testosterone levels of rats who were underfed and subsequently had a refeeding period, i.e. calorie shifted, had testosterone levels that rebounded and exceeded the control group.

Saturated and Monounsaturated Fats

Saturated fat is extremely calorie dense, and it’s often touted by weight watchers as something to avoid to keep calories in check, or incorrectly blamed for causing heart disease. One study shows however that both saturated and monounsaturated fats significantly increased resting testosterone levels, and therefore may help offset decreases in testosterone due to calorie restriction.

The correlation was the inverse however for increasing protein, carbohydrate and polyunsaturated fats. I would have expected a bell shape curve instead of a linear relationship for fat level to testosterone due to the requirements from the body for protein and carbohydrate. The graphs from the study as shown below only show results up to 32.5% of the macronutrient profile as fats however, so I can only hypothesize.

Circadian Timing of Food

As mentioned in my blog post, Circadian Rhythm Entrainment using Light, Food and Exercise, the timing of food is important as well. Keeping the consumption of food to daylight hours with breakfast being the largest meal of the day entrains circadian rhythms which leads to better sleep and therefore lower cortisol and higher testosterone.

How to Achieve or Maintain Race Weight Safely

Taking our research of how to minimize the adverse effects of caloric restriction through weight training, high intensity intervals, calorie shifting, meal timing and sufficient intake of saturated and monounsaturated fats, we can formulate a plan in order to calculate the net calories that should be consumed on a per week to week basis.

Firstly, we need to calculate the net caloric intake for our ideal race weight after training energy expenditure is accounted for.

  1. Use a calorie calculator and put in values for your ideal race weight, not the weight you are currently, and choose the sedentary option.
  2. Multiply this value by seven to get the number of net calories that can be consumed each week.
  3. Count calories for every single bite of food over the week.
  4. Subtract calorie expenditure from exercise each day to get the net calorie value.
  5. Ensure that you are consuming at or less than your weekly net calorie target.
  6. Structure the week to utilize calorie shifting, i.e. refeed days.

Using myself as an example: My ideal race weight is 141 lbs. The net calories I need to consume is 1,915 calories, and on a weekly basis, 13,405 calories. As I am currently already at my desired race weight, I need to try and not under-eat or over-eat to maintain race weight.

Given that I typically train 5 days per week, it is easier to have my “refeed” days on my non-training days, rather than consume an extremely large amount of food on one or two training days. On a typical Saturday for example, I may expend 2,000 calories, and so having a calorie intake of 3,500 calories to induce a 1,500 net calorie day is realistic. Trying to use a Saturday as a refeed day is not feasible due to the sheer quantity of calories required to do so.

This is how an example plan for myself then would look like on a week to week basis:

Tools and Practical Tips

I use MyFitnessPal to record calories and macronutrient amounts and use a digital scale to weigh food. Estimating calories when eating out is far more difficult as restaurant food has typically higher levels of both sugar and fat than home cooked food. Some restaurants such as Chipotle offer a nutrition calculator.

I use the TrainingPeaks measurement of caloric expenditure. TrainingPeaks uses the data from my power meter and converts that to a calorie value. I do not use the Strava calorie values - I find this is always higher than the TrainingPeaks values and they do not seem to provide me with confidence that they have put as much thought into their algorithm as TrainingPeaks have.

Heart rate variability is a metric that I measure every morning to make better training decisions with as it quantifies the physiological stress my body is currently going through. A high or increasing HRV value indicates that my body is recovering well from training with the current caloric intake. A low or decreasing value is a warning that physiological stress is high and I may need to reduce training load or increase caloric intake.

Putting It Into Practice

The lowest weight last year that I felt I was climbing well and recovering quickly was in late October at approximately 141 lbs morning weight. I’m currently using this value as my ideal race weight.

In January, my morning weight was approximately 146 lbs. At the time of writing this blog post, my average morning weight over the past week was 141.8 lbs, so I’m mostly at race weight right now. Using the strategies described above, I lost approximately one pound per week to achieve my race weight, and now I’m looking to maintain this. I have lost weight faster than I planned to, due to finding it difficult to eat enough on my current regimen of very large breakfasts, large lunches and skipping dinner. I’ll be looking to adjust to incorporating small dinners into my refeed days, especially as the daylight hours increase.

I have seen many benefits from my changes in eating schedule though - I seem to no longer want to drink coffee at all, my sleep seems to have improved and my alertness during the day seems to be better. I used to always take a melatonin supplement before bed and I now find this is no longer necessary. These benefits should hopefully manifest in a stronger circadian rhythm with a decrease in chronic levels of cortisol and hopefully an increase in testosterone.

Next Steps

I’m going to try and keep to a daily net intake of 1,915 calories average each week, which should maintain my race weight, but to do so with refeeds on my rest days. This does require discipline, but I seem to be doing this well so far. I’m going to try and increase my intake of saturated fat by eating more butter, coconut oil and red meat. I’ll be continuing with my timing of food and exercise according to circadian biology.