As you probably know, I devoted a lot of effort this year trying to qualify for the Boston Marathon. You probably also know that I was unsuccessful, but I will save those details for another post. In this post I would like to explain the diet and weight loss associated with my training.
While running a marathon, any extra fat that you carry around just slows you down. A good rule of thumb is that each extra pound slows you down by a minute over the course of a 26.2 mile race. Sure, you need a certain amount of fat. But, during a run your body doesn't use much of that spare tire. For starters, you already have a lot of energy stored in your muscles and liver in the form of glycogen. Depending on your level of fitness, your body might use glycogen rather than burning fat. And even if you burned 100% fat, you'd use less than a pound of the stuff during a full marathon. So if you've got just 10 pounds of fat on your skinny frame--which is about 5% body fat for a typical adult male--at least 90% of that fat is just slowing you down during a run.
With this in mind, I knew I would need to lose significant weight this year if I wanted to get my best possible marathon time. After measuring my percent body fat, I calculated that my lowest safe, healthy weight would be 155. I had already lost 35 pounds over the last two years. I had worked hard at my diet and exercise and thought I was pretty slender at 175 pounds. But to reach my "race weight" I would need to lose another 20 pounds! Was I not already scrawny enough?!?
After tinkering with my diet for a few months, I finally settled on a diet that worked well for me. It certainly didn't work well enough that I never felt hungry. In fact, I was hungry almost all the time. But, it did work well enough that I was able to reach my weight loss goal. I was able to reach a weight of 155 pounds and maintain it from April to October. Importantly, I was able to still have enough energy to complete my daily training runs. I also feel like it was a very safe, healthy diet. I was very careful to always get enough protein and other important nutrients. I consider it a great accomplishment that I was able to be about 30 pounds lighter than what I consider slender and still do weekly 20-mile training runs without running out of energy.
While developing my diet, I learned a few tricks that helped. Some of them certainly only worked for me, or were only necessary because of how thin I was trying to get, but some of them I think would help almost anyone who is trying to lose weight. Let me first explain my diet and then I will explain the parts of it that I think would be useful to other people.
Details of My Diet
Needless to say, I needed a very precise diet. After all, you can't get ridiculously skinny by just switching to skim milk, and you can't keep up a rigorous marathon training schedule if you try starving yourself. You have to be both disciplined and meticulous. However, I admit that at times I took it to the extreme. I will explain later which aspects of my diet were essential and which were overkill. For now, here is what I did:
- Count every calorie. At first this was a huge pain. I didn't know how many calories were in each food, and I didn't know how much of each food I had eaten. (How big is a serving of Cheerios??) But, after a while it became easier. I bought a food scale so I could measure things. I filled bags with food and wrote on each bag how many calories were in it. I learned things like how many grams were in a banana from my local grocery store. I used caloriecount.com to help me keep track. This was key because when you record the food that you eat it not only counts calories but also counts other nutrients automatically. In the process of making sure I was getting the right number of calories, I was also able to make sure I got enough protein, fiber, calcium, and potassium. By the end of my diet I was so precise that I was practically neurotic. I found myself doing things like calculating how many grams of grapes I should eat to hit my target to the calorie.
- Follow the diet 100%. I didn't give myself any wiggle room. If it were ever an option to waver from the diet just a bit, it was just a matter of time until I gave in to my cravings and wavered a lot. So, even if I was below my goal weight I didn't allow myself to indulge in a bit of junk food. It would just make me crave more. Instead, I increased me calorie allowance a bit and still continued to eat the same low-calorie foods.
- Eat only whole foods. A whole food is one that hasn't been processed at all. So, the only things I ate were fresh fruits and vegetables, whole grains, and fresh meat. No added sugar. No salt. No seasonings. Nothing. If you can't grow it, you can't eat it. For most people, this eliminates everything in the pantry, everything in the freezer, and almost everything in the fridge. Just the vegetable crisper is left. I spent a lot of time in the produce section of the grocery store. I made a lot of my own recipes. I ate a lot of fruits and vegetables that I rarely, if ever, had eaten. I used the grill a lot more than before, and the microwave a lot less. But without even trying, I ate plenty of fiber, plenty of potassium, plenty of vitamins, never too much sodium, and never too much fat. Whole foods are way healthier than processed food.
Again, let me clarify that I don't think this is a diet for everyone. This is an extreme diet. It's not easy to follow. It requires eating flavorless food. It's labor intensive. It's inconsistent with social customs. But, it is what worked best for me.
Suggestions for Others
Here are a few thoughts I've had while dieting that I think will be useful for other people. I haven't really talked to anyone else that's followed these ideas, so I can't guarantee they are useful at all.
- It's hardest to follow a diet 90% of the time. It's easier to follow it 100% of the time. (Following it 0% of the time is the easiest, of course.) This is non-intuitive, but never wavering from your diet is easier than occasionally wavering. The reason is that if you occasionally waver then you will be increasingly likely to waver often. Don't ever think "if I eat this then I'll make up for it later." Don't let "if" enter your brain. Decide what your diet will be and then stick to it. Don't make an exception because your friends invited you to lunch. (I have declined a lot of lunch invitations these past few months.) If you like to go to lunch with your fiends, then define the rules of your diet such that you are allowed to go to lunch with them. But, stick to the diet 100%. There can be no "if".
- Set rules that make you think about what you are eating. If you allow yourself to grab any old food and stick it in your mouth then you set yourself up for failure. You need to have rules that makes you stop and think about every food you buy and everything you eat. Ideally, the rules are nutritionally sound (e.g. set a rule to not eat saturated fat) but they don't have to be; they can be completely arbitrary. For example, you could set a rule to only eat foods whose names start with certain letters. You won't automatically be eating foods that are more healthy. However, you also won't be able to cook, order at a restaurant, or shop for groceries without stopping to think what the first letter of the food is. And while you are thinking about that, you will probably think about whether or not the food is healthy and whether or not you really need to eat it.
- Lower your standards. Face it: You will suffer. If losing weight were easy, everyone would do it. If you are dieting, odds are you have a natural tendency to gain weight. In order to lose weight, you will have to go against your body's natural tendency. In other words, you will be hungry. In fact, you will probably be hungry most of the time. Also, you will need to eat foods you don't like. High calorie food tastes better. Until modern science discovers some new medical technology, you will have to deprive yourself. There is a simple reason why so many people fail to lose weight and keep it off: It's hard.
Whatever you do, don't give up. I find that rather than lack of willpower that causes you to not stick to your diet, it's self-destructive behavior. You sabotage yourself because of stress, self-doubt and discouragement, not because you really like donuts. Remember that your friends and family want you to succeed. You want you to succeed. You deserve it.
Let me know what you think. Have you found these concepts to be true? I'd love to read your comments.
My Current Diet
For those that are curious, I have intentionally regained the weight that I lost this year. I'm back at 175 pounds which is what I consider a very healthy weight. My current diet is to eat only whole foods for six days a week. On the other day I eat whatever I feel like. I don't count calories any of the days. It's a healthy, low-calorie diet, and I find it to be easy. I am rarely hungry because I can eat as much as I like. However, most of the time I still have to stop and think about what I eat. I am able to postpone any cravings I might have for junk food because I know I can eat whatever I want later in the week. My plan is to stay on this diet for a few months until it gets closer to marathon season in the Spring. Then I'll be back on my crazy diet again.