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  • Writer's pictureRachel Turi, RD

Weight loss and performance gain. Can these concepts coexist?

You’ve heard it before—losing weight makes you faster. But is that really true? It may be in some cases, sure. But, if it is done incorrectly, it can actually do the exact opposite. Read on for some insight into whether you should try to do both at the same time, and if so, how to go about it safely.

As runners, we are always making goals. Time goals, place goals, pace goals, training goals—performance goals, we could call them. We also tend to have some additional goals such as having fun, working hard, making new friends, or improving mental and physical health- purpose goals we will call them. Afterall, what is the point of running mile after mile if we don’t have some sort of goal? The thing with runners is that we tend to make a lot of goals and are willing to do what it takes to be our very best out on the course and in life. Making goals is great, but it is important to step back and think “Are my goals realistic? Are they smart? Do they complement each other?”

If you are someone who has goals of both weight loss and exceptional performance, you may want to ask yourself these questions. Both can be valid goals to have, but there is definitely a time and a place for each. As highly motivated individuals, runners sometimes have a hard time accepting that they should sideline one goal while prioritizing another. But in the case of weight loss and performance, this may need to be the case. Not always, but occasionally. Why you ask?

As runners, our bodies require a lot of energy. Not just to function, but also to exercise and run. Energy is provided to our body by the food we eat. Afterall, a “calorie” is literally a unit of energy. If we eat less calories, we have less energy coming in. This makes us more fatigued and therefore effort into performance goes down. In order to lose weight, we typically need to be in a caloric deficit. Being in a caloric deficit means we are eating less than the body is burning. The body can still function, but only to a certain extent. When the body is not getting the food energy it needs, it must produce and burn energy from somewhere inside the body. The body first burns its favorite source of energy—carbohydrate, which is stored in the body as glycogen. Unfortunately, we don’t store a whole lot of glycogen. Once that runs out, the body must find the second-best thing. Ideally, it burns fat, but the body really hates to do that. Afterall, without fat the body is in danger. So, as many of us have experienced, the body does what it can to try and keep some of that fat on. Contrary to what many individuals wish to be true, undereating doesn’t just magically result in fat burn. If we under eat by too much the body thinks it is in starvation and therefore preserves fat stores. Instead, it will pull protein from the muscles and convert it into energy. This results in loss of muscle and maintenance of fat. If you are doing strength training to compliment your running, you simply won’t build muscle. Additionally, low caloric intake results in hormone imbalances and nutrient deficiencies, both of which take a massive toll on bone strength and density. This muscle and bone loss will not only result in less than ideal body composition results, it also puts a runner at high risk of injury. Recovery from workouts and injuries takes a big hit, as does mental and physical health. Not to mention, running becomes far less enjoyable if we are always tired or hungry. Didn’t we say above that those are often reasons for why we run in the first place? Counterproductive, if you ask me!

The good news is that we can indeed work to lose fat while still performing highly, if it is done carefully. Weight loss should be slow- not more than 1-2 pounds a week. I prefer to lean more towards the 1 pound/week goal, but oftentimes up to 2 pounds in a week can still ensure it is fat being lost rather than muscle. And, if you are working towards fat loss I highly recommend halting efforts for the couple of weeks leading up to a race. The last thing you want to do is go into a race already low in energy! In summary, if you are hoping to both lose fat and perform at your best you need to be patient, eat enough, eat consistently, eat a balanced diet including all food groups and macronutrients, and think about your priorities. If it is peak racing season, you may want to sideline weight loss efforts, or at least accept the idea that it should be very slow progression. The off-season is a much better time to focus on weight loss efforts when the body doesn’t have quite so many demands. Don’t be afraid to reach out for help if you identify with this article. Having a professional guiding you in the process can better ensure you are able to accomplish all of your goals all while maintaining and healthy and happy body.

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