Want to Get Skinnier? Get Faster

You probably won’t think this study is as interesting as I do, but it’s really interesting — I think, anyway.

What’s the difference between well-trained athletes and recreational athletes? For one, well-trained folks have done a lot more cumulative exercise than us schmoes. They have more muscle as a percentage of their body composition. And they typically have less fat.

Here’s another difference: they burn more fat than we do — even at higher intensities. See, usually, the more intensely you workout, the less fat you burn. But as it turns out, even when they’re exercising at high intensities, well-trained athletes burn three times as much fat as recreationally trained athletes.Graph answering the question, "Are you or aren't you a fat burner?"

Furthermore, the rate of fat burn seems to correlate with VO2max. What is VO2max? It’s a measurement of how much oxygen you have per liter of blood, and it’s a performance predictor for endurance sport success. How do you increase your VO2max? With a lot of endurance training and with occasional high-intensity intervals. In fact, according to one article from Alex Hutchinson’s Runner’s World blog, the best intervals for improving VO2max are around 3–5 minutes.

Improving your VO2max will make you a better athlete. And as it turns out, it will also make you a skinnier person. So if you want to get skinnier, focus on getting faster. And if you’re focused on getting faster, expect to get skinnier.

(Image borrowed from Asker Jeukendrup’s blog. Asker, if you want me to remove it, please just ask instead of filing a lawsuit or sending a cease-and-desist letter. Thanks.)

About your rear end …

Yes, this whole post is about your rear end — your bum. Not that there’s anything wrong with your bum, personally … I mean … this is already awkward … so let’s just get on with it.

So you’ve probably read all of this stuff about “sitting disease” or how “sitting is the next smoking” or “sitting will kill you even if you exercise” — good ol’ doom and gloom headlines. Well, they’re probably true. And what’s worse, you’ll miss out on a lot of life because you’re too busy suffering a long, slow, miserable death in front of a screen.

I write this with some sense of chagrin, because I have a desk job too. And even though I take the stairs as often as I can, walk places when possible, and try not to spend all day sitting and staring at my computer, I still spend a lot of time on my derriere. And unless you have an on-your-feet job, you probably do too. Kinda stinks, right?

What’s so bad about sitting? Sitting has a negative effect on all kinds of stuff — cholesterol, fat storage, etc. etc. But I specifically want to talk about atrophy in your gluteal muscles. One of the consequences of being a sitter is that you end up with really weak gluteals (any time I write “glutes” spellcheck changes it to “flutes” – ha ha!). And if you’re also an athlete, that can cause all sorts of problems, not the least of which is the so-called “dead butt syndrome.” For me, I find that butt weakness is somehow connected with my recurring battle with iliotibial band syndrome.

There are actually three gluteal muscles, not just your gluteus maximus, and they all play a role in what’s popularly come to be known as your “core” — the muscles that control how the top half of your body interacts with the bottom half — abs, lower back, psoas, etc. So when they get weak, that weakness translates to other issues throughout your body.

So what do you do about gluteal weakness? How do you fix sitting disease? Well, since most of the articles about sitting say that exercise alone isn’t enough, I can’t guarantee this will prevent your premature death — sorry! But there are nonetheless ways to fix the ol’ gluteals.

BvaXi9CIcAAbibA.jpg-largeMost people head straight for the gym, and if that’s your preferred route, here’s what you need to know about the sort of exercises that will make the biggest difference for your duff:

But I’ve found what I think is an even better way to train your gluteals. For years now, when I’ve felt ITBS coming on, I’d go find a really steep hill and run up. The next day, my ITBS would be worse, but the day after that, it’d be gone.

I’d been doing this little routine for years when I came across a Runner’s World article that claims that on a 7% incline, “muscle activity in the men’s glutes was 83% greater than when they ran on the flat.” The author’s conclusion was that you need to go strengthen your gluteals so you can run uphill better. MY conclusion was I’d magically stumbled upon the cure for a bad butt: running uphill!

As it turns out, I’m not the only person who thinks this way. Even Arthur Lydiard — the famed kiwi running coach whose insights probably serve as the backbone for that half-marathon training plan you downloaded — believed that running uphill fixed most biomechanical issues.

“But running uphill is MISERABLE,” you say? Well, when you’re gasping on the ground holding your chest, dying a fast, painful death after running up a hill, just think how much better off you are than all of those people in front of their computers …

Okay, so I stink at the whole motivational thing. So what. Instead, just watch this video about uphill running and see for yourself that somewhere in the world there are people — aside from me — who run uphill for FUN. Who knows? Maybe you could be one of them someday.

Exercise & Weight Loss

Be forewarned: This is going to be a long one.

I DON’T REALLY NEED TO LOSE WEIGHT. If anything, I wouldn’t mind gaining back a pound or four (as long as it’s all mitochondria-rich type 1 muscle fiber).

However, I have a friend at work, a guy I’ve worked with for a long time, who, a few years ago, needed to lose a lot of weight. Furthermore, I had an audience that was fairly interested in the subject as well. So for years on end, I read, researched, evaluated and shared what I learned about weight loss. But, at least for my friend, it never quite did the trick … until this one day.

He was so fed up he’d grown desperate. At the same time, I was pretty sure I’d figured it out. So I barged into his cubicle and sat him down and said, “Look, I think I have an answer for you, but you’re going to need to stick to this—exactly this—for a long time. You can’t bail on it after four weeks, because it’s going to take longer than that. You’ll need to keep it up for months on end.”

Then I explained to him what I’m about to explain to you.

And over the next year, he proceeded to lose over 100 pounds.

He’s gained a few pounds back, but for the most part, he’s kept it off.

So that was my preamble. Are you ready to hear what I told him? It’s not going to be pretty, and it’s not going to agree with everything you read on the internet. I don’t have a PhD or a fitness certification. My science might be a little bit messy, but that doesn’t mean it’s wrong.

Here goes …

Different types of exercise use different energy systems. And there’s really only one energy system that directly burns fat. It’s not the system you use when you do a clean and jerk, and it’s not the system you use when you do pull-ups, sorry to say. It’s also not the system you use when you do a 100-meter dash. Take a hard look at this chart:

Table showing that aerobic metabolism is the only fat-burning energy system in your body.
I totally swiped this chart from Alan Couzens. Alan, if you don’t want me to use it, please just say so, and I’ll remove it.

Got a good look? Look across the top of the chart. Those are the continuous durations of particular exercises. An example of an exercise that takes 6 seconds or less might be bench press or squats done with 80–90% of maximal load. Another example might be full-out sprinting as fast as you possibly can. On the far right, an example of an exercise that lasts eight hours might include an Ironman Triathlon, long-distance cycling events such as the 206-mile LOTOJA, or swimming from Florida to Cuba … yes, seriously.

Now look down the left side. Those are all energy systems. Underneath every “duration” is the percentage of each energy system being used. Bench press to exhaustion, for example, uses ATP, the most basic unit of energy in your muscles, for 44% of its energy. “CRP,” which refers to creatine phosphate, keeps restocking your muscles with ATP as you use it up, and is responsible for 50%. Then “anaerobic glycolytic” — aka, carb-burning anaerobic exercise — gives 6%.

Now look at the bottom left. Notice that word “lipolytic” in the light-blue box? That word means “fat-burning.” Notice what percentage of your lipolytic system is being used for your 6-second max-out bench press. Yep, zero. Now look at what percentage of your lipolytic system you’re using to do your 8-hour Ironman Triathlon (which, by the way, makes you fast enough to be a pro — go you!). Yep, 71%.

Okay, I just stuck this in here because I didn't want you to get bored with the nonstop text. Keep reading.
Okay, I just stuck this in here because I didn’t want you to get bored with the nonstop text. Keep reading.

That’s not something science needs to prove; it’s an axiomatic truth in exercise physiology. Lifting weights and sprinting don’t use fat. You don’t even TOUCH fat unless you do an exercise that lasts for 30 minutes nonstop. Ever tried bench pressing for 30 minutes? (Okay, maybe you have.)

That’s not to say weightlifting and sprinting don’t have their place — they do. And studies have shown that they burn more calories than the experts used to give them credit for. And sure, I’ll concede that weightlifting can even enhance your weight loss. But weightlifting and sprinting don’t directly burn fat.

What does? Well, look at the chart. It’s aerobic exercise that lasts for 30 minutes or longer. In fact, if you want to burn a decent amount of fat, you should be aiming for 60 minutes, not just 30. (Although there is a study that shows beginners lose more when they start with 30-minute aerobic sessions. So that’s a good place to start. But eventually, it will take more than that.) If you can, you’ll metabolize more fat doing a workout that last 90 minutes.

When you do consistent aerobic workouts over time, your body makes important adaptations, even before you see a change on the scale — and those adaptations will eventually lead to the right kind of weight loss. Your heart grows larger and pumps more blood. Your blood volume increases. You actually get more mitochondria in your cells. Remember those guys — mitochondria? They’re the little power plants your body needs to process energy at the cellular level.

And when all of that stuff happens … (drumroll please) … you get better at burning fat!

You’ve probably seen this. You’ve seen the skinny marathon runner or triathlete in your neighborhood. My brother recently took up training for and running half marathons, and he’s lost probably 50 pounds with that regimen. I promise I’m not making this stuff up.

You’ve also probably seen some people who look like they’re doing the right things but aren’t losing the weight. Perhaps they’re counteracting aerobic exercise with a poor diet — having sugary snack before every workout (which will predispose your body to using carbs during the workout), or guzzling HFCS-laden “sports” drinks as they slog through a session on the treadmill. Or, just maybe, they’re doing all of their workouts at too high of an intensity …

… on to the next chart:

Once again, I totally swiped this from Alan Couzens (find him at http://alancouzens.com).
Once again, I totally swiped this from Alan Couzens (find him at http://alancouzens.com).

Part of why long so-called “cardio” works to burn fat is the fact that you simply can’t do a 90-minute workout at the same intensity at which you can do a 90-second workout. As you can see from chart #2 here, the higher the intensity, the greater the proportion of carbohydrate to fat — until you simply aren’t using fat at all. The trouble on the other end, though, is that your total calorie burn (i.e. energy expenditure) is lower when you’re burning a higher proportion of fat. (In this example, the fat burn is even greater than it would be for you and me, because this chart shows the fat usage of a highly tuned endurance athlete.) So if you exercise at too low of an intensity, it won’t be worth your time because you won’t be going through a significant amount of calories. But if you go too hard and for too short a time period, those calories won’t be coming from fat.

When my wife was earning her biology degree, she had to go to the library and watch these outside-of-class lectures. In one of them, I distinctly remember the lecturer talking about how your body cannot process fat for energy without oxygen.

I don't remember what website I lifted this off of … so I apologize if it was yours.
I don’t remember what website I lifted this off of … so I apologize if it was yours.

“Aerobic” means “requiring oxygen.” “Anaerobic,” on the other hand, means, “requiring an absence of free oxygen.” It’s kind of silly, because you always need oxygen while exercising — it’s not as if you stop breathing to do an “anaerobic” sprint. But “aerobic” exercise is the only type of exercise that primarily taps into your fat by using oxygen.

I’ve only ever had one period of significant weight loss in my life — when I took up cycling. I started riding ~90 minutes three days a week. And I wasn’t taking it easy. I tried to ride the most consistent pace I could for the full distance — up and down hills, over soft dirt farm roads, into the wind and rain, and eventually back to my apartment. After two months or so of this regimen, someone told me I was looking kind of gaunt. So I finally stepped on a scale … and learned I’d lost 15–20 pounds over the previous two or three months.

It’s a delicate balance: riding, running, swimming or hiking hard enough to burn through lots of overall calories but doing it at a low enough intensity that a significant amount of those calories come from fat. If you need help keeping yourself in the right intensity, and this is an important point, buy a heart rate monitor and read this article by Mark Allen.

Now, again, I’m not saying you can never do high-intensity intervals. But I am saying you need to build up your aerobic metabolism for a few months … or years — to really take the time to achieve those adaptations we talked about earlier. That means that, for a while, yes, I want you to stay away from intervals and high-intensity stuff. Just build up your aerobic system. Then, when you come back to doing intervals, the adaptations will be in place for you to burn through more fat while you’re doing them.

So let’s recap on our action item for just a second:

• Work out aerobically for 45–90 minutes at least three days a week (preferably four or five)

That’s it. That’s all I’ve told you to do so far. Nothing else. That’s your foundation. If you do nothing else, do that. And for goodness’ sake, don’t tell me exercise doesn’t work for you until you’ve done that for AT LEAST 6 months — yes, six months!

Is this everything I have to say about weight loss? Not at all. There’s more where this came from. But this is probably enough for now. I’ll give you the rest in another blog post soon.

Biggest Loser? (aka The Case for an Off-Season)

I’m mostly writing this for my benefit. If you happen to read it and find it beneficial too, well, that’s a bonus.

You might’ve read a few comments from well-known endurance coaches or athletes about how if you want to really preserve your fitness over the long term, you need to keep pushing it all year round.

The logic goes something like this: It takes only two weeks to give a goodbye kiss to all of that cardiorespiratory endurance you spent all summer building up, so if you take too long of a stop, you could be setting yourself up for failure next season. Oh, the insecurity!

Now, the caveat to all of this is that that has been my mindset for the last few years. My off-season has consisted of three days of R&R each September. And in all fairness, I’ve had decent fitness going into the early season. So who am I to say it doesn’t work?

Enter: Bernard Lagat. The most decorated American middle distance (and possibly distance) runner in history, Bernard owns six or seven American records indoors and out as well as the second-fastest time EVER (emphasis on EVER) in the 1500-meter.

Ladies and gentlemen, behold the nicest guy you'll see on the internet today (present company not excepted).
Ladies and gentlemen, behold the nicest guy you’ll see on the internet today (present company not excepted).
Bernard has been to four Olympics and brought home medals twice. He’s also the only guy I know of who has scored gold in both the 1500 and the 5000 at the same World Championship.

So what does he have to do with the subject at hand? Well, as this fascinating article in the Wall Street Journal explains, Bernard takes quite the off-season every year — five weeks, in fact! Find me a 30-year-old triathlete who’s willing to skip out of five weeks of aerobic exercise at any point during the year. Go ahead, find one.

Bernard, it should also be mentioned, is also one of the older guys in this business. While most track athletes bow out in their early 30s, Bernard is about to turn 40 and is going strong. The guy went under 13 minutes in the 5000m last year, and he just set a new American record for the road 5k to boot!

But what really got me thinking about this is all the stuff I keep reading and hearing from Dr. James O’Keefe. O’Keefe, in case you don’t know, is a cardiologist who is promoting the idea (based on some research) that prolonged amounts or pronounced intensities of aerobic exercise aren’t actually healthy after all. As he points out, tests of runners just after they complete marathons reveal a high amount of troponin, which is a marker of cardiac damage. In other words, running a marathon may kick the snot out of your heart.

Of course, your heart may adapt to the repeated snot-kicking you give it by overdoing your workouts … by developing scar tissue, hypertrophic cardiomyopathy (an enlarged heart) and irregular heart rhythms like atrial fibrillation or the much-scarier ventrical tachycardia.

(Before anyone freaks out, bear in mind that the evidence shows running 15 to 20 miles per week at 8.5 minutes per mile — for a total of just under 3 hours — will reduce your mortality risk, your likelihood of dying, the most. So, unless you can walk a 8.5-minute mile, don’t stop running just yet.)

The thing is, every time I read about the cardiac changes that occur as a result of repeated bouts of endurance training, the studies also suggest that some of those changes can be undone if you simply take a little time off. Scar tissue is a different subject, but you can avoid that with a simple behavioral modification: never run a marathon. Whew, that was easy.

Okay, granted, I’m not a cardiologist, and I don’t even play one on the internet (i.e. follow my advice at your own risk). But like I said in the beginning, this is more for me than it is for you anyway. So, self, the moral of this story is: Follow Bernard’s example and take an off-season once in a while, even just for a week or two. Doing so may help you reduce your risk of heart issues in the long term and help prolong your amateur endurance hobby.


A month or two ago, I walked into an important work meeting, and my boss’s boss’s boss (aka the Big Boss) said to me, “How far are you running these days?” I answered, “I haven’t been running much. I broke 20 in the 5k, and I switched over to the bike. How about you?” And he responded, “I’d rather grind down both of my knees than switch over to the bike.”

Whoops. Well, you can’t win them all.

These days, though, he’d be proud of me. I’m running plenty. I put in nine miles this week. NINE MILES!! That was my average volume when I broke 20 minutes last year. Okay, so it’s not much. And, in truth, I eventually worked up to 19 miles.

Running, you see, is a transitional sport for me. I do it when I can’t ride the bike, or I do it to complement riding the bike, or I do it when there’s torrential rain and lightning and I’m worried about wrecking the paint job on the bike. Don’t get me wrong; I like running. I like running uphill so much that I’d even consider switching over to it if I didn’t expect it to result in a calf strain. Heck, it’d probably be better for my bones, and it might even make me a better cyclist.

Just a couple of weeks ago, we had our first snowfall of the year. Just this morning, we had our second. I just walked my road bike down to the basement, where it’ll stay comfortably until mid-February, assuming we get the mild winter we’re anticipating. It’s too sloppy outside for the road bike, and the snow isn’t deep enough for snowshoeing just yet. So it’s time for a transition.

Usually, during this time of year, I hook that thing up to the indoor trainer and start grinding out the miles (do they really count as miles when you don’t go anywhere?). But ever since I raced the 2011 Widow Maker in the snow, I’ve been a little more willing to take my mountain bike out and enjoy the great outdoors during the frosty season. Consequently, the bike is becoming part of my transitional workout routine, and the run is slowly melding with my year-round exercise plan. My transitions, in other words, are becoming the norm.

So am I going to become a duathlete? Nah. I’d rather grind down both of my knees than do something silly like that.


Last year’s disaster-of-a-race at the Snowbird Hill Climb
As you can see from the little reminder at the top right, I’m about seven days away from REALLY starting my race season. It’s exciting stuff, as any olympic spectator can attest.

I was thinking the other day about everything I’ve done as I’ve prepared for this season. I broke 20 minutes in a 5k for the first time ever. I snowshoed and ran my way through the snow in winter and spring. I rode my mountain bike up a snow-covered trail in December and January. I weaved in swimming and running and raced a triathlon in May. I ran through the streets of Salt Lake City at 6 a.m. when I went there on business.

I rented a bicycle in Homer, Alaska, for the one day we stayed there and rode from “the spit” all the way to the end of town and back. I swam in 45-degree water from the beach. I rode a Huffy mountain bike up a 3-mile, 1,200-foot climb in Alaska … even after grizzly bears knocked over a bunch of garbage cans along the route … and even when a cross-country ski team accompanied me for the ride.

I rode 3,300 feet of elevation gain on the day I turned 33, despite having my chain break after only 700 feet of climbing. I’ve been doing regular climbing repeats on a doubletrack trail that climbs 930 feet in 1.2 miles on the mountain bike. I’ve ridden in 95-degree heat and in below-freezing temperatures.

I’ve kept up a steady regimen of four to five hours of riding, running, swimming, snowshoeing, hiking, weightlifting, etc. for the last eight months at least.

So you’d think I’d be feeling pretty confident going back to the races.

But the truth is, I have no idea how it’s all going to shake out.

And for some reason, that’s really exciting to me.

Running Stinks!

I’m still planning to run the big half-marathon in four weeks; I’m just suffering from a little calf strain at the moment. I think I’ve realized I picked it up from running uphill. So my damage control plan now dictates that I eliminate hill runs entirely from my regimen. I’ll just ride the bike for that instead. Besides, the weather’s been semi-nice lately; I’d rather be riding anyway.

And if that doesn’t work, maybe I’ll try some Super High-Intensity Interval Training.

(By the way, I HIGHLY recommend you visit the link above; it’ll be worth every moment you spend on it.)