I’ve always considered my racing weight to be 154 pounds (70kg). Why? That’s what I weighed when I was 18 years old. Over the years my out-of-season weight has gradually climbed. In my 30s and 40s I had no trouble staying around 154 pounds year round. In the following decade it rose to the high 150s. In my 60s it would climb to the mid-160s in the winter. I had to very careful with how much I ate. I viewed weight management as calories in vs. calories out (more on that shortly).
What I’m going to describe here is the changes I’ve made in my diet in the past year and what the results have been both for body weight and performance. Not all can expect the same results from dietary changes. These are quite individualized. So please realize that I am not telling you or anyone else how to deal with body weight issues. In fact, I usually avoid talking or writing about either nutrition or weight. Both are hot button issues for a lot of people and for some unknown reason produce emotional reactions. I get angry emails from people whenever I write about either. It always amazes me that there is such a reaction. I’m afraid some get nutrition and religion confused. Both are generally belief-based systems. I much prefer to work with data rather than belief. So that’s what I’m going to describe here.
With that caveat out of the way, let’s get back to racing weight and age.
Why do we commonly gain weight as we age?
The following excerpt is from the book, Why We Get Fat by Gary Taubes and may help to explain what’s going as we age.
“One reason men get fatter above the waist as they age is that they secrete less testosterone, a male sex hormone, and testosterone suppresses LPL [an enzyme – lipoprotein lipase] activity on the abdominal fat cells. Less testosterone means more LPL activity on the fat cells of the gut, and so more fat.
In women, the activity of LPL is high on the fat cells below the waist, which is why they tend to fatten around the hips and butt, and low on the fat cells of the gut. After menopause, the LPL activity in women’s abdominal fat catches up to that of men, and so they tend to put on excess fat there, too.”
So, back to my personal battle with about 10 pounds of annual fat gain. Last fall I started following Tim Noakes on Twitter. He’s the author of The Lore of Running and several other excellent books. It just so happens that Noakes was also dealing with a weight gain issue as he aged into his 60s. He’s a runner. He had discovered a solution and tweeted about it frequently. In fact, he still does (you can follow him on Twitter at @proftimnoakes). He simply adopted a low-carb, high-fat diet (LCHF). It’s not like this was his invention. LCHF has been around for well over a century (you can read his brief summary of this way of eating in his new book Challenging Beliefs). I decided to give a try.
At first, I was a bit reluctant to do it for several reasons which I’ll get to soon, but I’ve always used myself as a lab rat when it comes to new ideas. I’ve discovered some interesting things this way of which I originally was skeptical. That’s largely how the training methodology I describe in my Training Bible books came about. I just tried new stuff I heard of from other athletes, coaches and sports scientists. This is how I came to eat a Paleo diet and why I now place my bike cleats at the midsole.
So why was I a bit reluctant to give LCHF a try? Well, for one I was concerned about my training and racing. Would my glycogen stores be low? Might that mean poor performance? Also, we’ve been told by the US government, the medical profession and nutritionists since the 1970s that dietary fat causes coronary artery disease. And in my world (I enjoy racing well and being alive!) these were big concerns. So I began to read anything I could find on these topics. I’m not going to go into all of these here as it’s now been 10 months of almost daily reading of online articles, books and research. (If interested in an introduction to these topics I’d suggest reading The Art of and Science of Low Carbohydrate Performance and Good Calories, Bad Calories as starting points.)
After initially reading both sides of the issues, I decided to give it a try. The bottom line is that last fall I lost 8 pounds in 9 weeks by eating more fat and less carbohydrate. That was 5% of my body weight (160 pounds – at the time I was well on my way to my normal winter weight). I was never hungry. In fact, it seemed like the more fat I ate, the more weight I lost.
I learned that weight loss is not just calories in vs calories out. I used to lose weight that way. It works in the short term. When it was time to lose weight in the base period I’d workout, estimate the calories burned and not quite replace all of them. But there is an obvious downside. Not replacing the calories means you are hungry - a lot. So in order to lose excess fat by relying on not replacing expended calories, I had to be willing to put up with hunger. This isn’t easy for me or anyone else. But I used to view it as one of the “sacrifices” I must make to perform well. As soon as the race season ended and I abandoned frequent hunger the weight would slowly come back. Hunger is not pleasant. There is a limit to how long I could put up with it.
What I learned from all of this is that weight loss can also be achieved by changing the foods I eat. Hunger does not have to be an issue. This is where LCHF comes in. It has to do with insulin production and also with something called “insulin resistance” in more extreme cases than mine. (I’m not going to go into the physiology of insulin here as that’s a bit outside of the scope of this post. But if you want to read the details go here and here.)
The primary change I made was greatly reducing sugar and cutting back on fruit. I used to eat 5 to 7 servings of fruit a day. That’s roughly 600 calories of carbs from fruit, about 20 to 25% of my calories for the day. I now eat less than one serving per day on average. Foods high in fat I now eat a lot more of are olive oil, coconut milk, nuts, nut butter, eggs, avocado, and bacon along with the normal Paleo foods I’ve eaten since 1994 — animal products, especially fish and poultry, and vegetables. Foods high in fat I eat only a little of are dairy products. I avoid as best I can trans fats (“hydrogenated” on the label) and omega 6 oils (for example, soy, peanut, cottonseed, corn, safflower). Both categories are found in almost all processed and packaged foods in the grocery, especially junk foods. I seldom eat grains — probably less than one serving per month. I once used these as recovery foods on an almost daily basis.
So what’s happened to my training and performance since the switch to LCHF?
During rides I take in only water unless it lasts longer than 4 hours. In that case I will carry a sports drink in one bottle and save it for the latter portion of the workout. I typically do intervals of various intensities both above and below the lactate threshold, tempo, and aerobic endurance sessions. These are all less than 3 hours. Water only. In the summer I do rides well in excess of 3 hours in the mountains of Colorado with Intensity Factors generally between 75 and 85%. I’ve done rides of greater than 5 hours several times this summer at 70 to 80% taking in no more than a few ounces of a sports drink. There has been no bonking, unusual fatigue or loss of performance from how I’ve done in the past when I was taking in a lot of sports drink.
So what’s going on? Apparently my body has adapted to using more fat for fuel thus sparing glycogen since my diet changed back in October. In exercise physiology terms this would be called a lowered respiratory quotient (RQ).
I should point out that eating a LCHF diet has not directly improved my performance. I’m not faster now than I was before. This is common in the research I’ve read on the topic. What it has improved is getting to and staying at race weight without calorie counting or hunger.
Of course, what’s missing in my recent experience is long road races with lots of deeply anaerobic efforts with each lasting several seconds to a few minutes. I’ve not been able to do any such races this year (a long story that has to do with my annual pilgrimage from Arizona to Colorado every summer). It could well be that my top end power in frequent max efforts during a race won’t be sustainable on this diet. Such efforts are typically the determiners of road race and criterium outcomes. But I don’t see any downsides for steady state events done at or below the lactate threshold. This would include non-drafting triathlon, road running, and time trialing.
Will this work for you? I can’t say. There are simply too many variables when it comes to the metabolic systems of individuals. All I’ve done is an experiment with 1 subject – me. And, obviously, there was no control or double blind administration. There’s only one other person who has tried it along with me – a friend of many years, Bill Cofer. Bill is a 65-year-old, serious recreational cyclist who has been trying to shed more than 30 pounds for the last 20-some years by restricting calories. He started a LCHF diet in February and has so far dropped 27 pounds. His experience with hunger and refueling in workouts has been much the same as mine.
Okay, so now I have n=2. But again, that doesn’t mean you should expect the same results.
This post is not intended as a general guideline for all aging athletes on “how to lose weight” or “how to improve performance.” It is simply a description of something that seems to have been working for me for about 10 months. I’ve still got a lot of learning to do on this subject.
As always, your comments on personal experiences with an LCHF diet would be greatly appreciated.