Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Fueling the Runner

Fueling a runner is broken down into two parts:  how much you should eat and what you should eat.  In this first post I will discuss how much to eat and how to determine the right amount for you.  Most of you that know me -- or anyone that has read my story -- know that I have lost more than 65 pounds in the past decade. The majority of that weight loss came in the last two and a half years (40 or 50 pounds of it). Ultimately it took me realizing that eating was the way to weight loss before I could make it happen. Now I am trying to understand how to create a maintenance plan that keeps me feeling energized and fueled for big miles without gaining weight.

Let me begin by laying out some truths, things that took my years to learn and accept. People that don't want to hear the truth about weight loss attribute my story to being a "crazy runner" that logs "sick miles". They don't want to hear that I gained weight during training for my first marathon. Like most people, I viewed the calories I burned as a license to eat more. That mentality is the primary reason that running is not a great way to lose weight. In fact, exercise in general is not the way to lose weight. An hour of exercise is generally less than 1,000 calories for even the most rigorous workouts. One extra helping of dessert or one more cheeseburger can erase that hard work in minutes. What's worse, most people work out for closer to thirty minutes of minimally rigorous exercise -- burning maybe 300 or 400 calories -- and then reward themselves with extra food. They unintentionally create a bigger imbalance between their calorie intake and expenditure. It only takes 100 extra calories a day to gain 10 pounds in one year.  That is less than one soda or one cookie or just a handful of chips to gain 10 pounds! Exercise is great for a weight maintenance plan, but it is lousy as a weight loss plan. I suggest to readers that you view exercise as a motivation to eat less. Don't waste your hard work!

I encourage anyone that is serious about weight loss to consider tracking all their calories for at least two weeks. Track the following: what you ate, your serving size, the calories, the fat, and the sugar. It sounds like a lot of work, but it's really not. There are tools out there to help you. In two weeks time you will get a pretty good idea of your calorie intake and where those calories are coming from (fat, protein, carbohydrates). I found that I was consuming way too many calories in beverages (soda, Starbucks, energy drinks, beer, etc...) and too many simple carbohydrates (surgar, corn syrup, etc...). And, I discovered that things that are sold to me as health products are often coated in sugar or filled with fat to make them taste good.

Lately I have been feeling a little bit lethargic and that led me to research my calorie needs and whether I am getting enough. Perhaps I have gone the other way and become obsessed with calories to the point of fatigue?  I found a great blog post that addresses exactly this subject. I have seen a ton of information that suggest basic rules of thumb on how much to eat: number of calories per pound, percentages of your body weight, or something like that. But this post helps to break down the components of where those calories are needed so that I can adjust as my training adjusts. To determine your calories needed for this model you need your body weight and mileage run.

My weight has settled at about 185 pounds (84 kg). Here is a breakout of my calories needed based on that:
Calories For Calories Per Day Total
Basic Metabolic Rate 1200 8400
Normal Daily Activity 600 4200
Running 55 Miles Per Week 140 cals per mile 7700
Total 20,300 2900

Honestly, I think that is a little low. And I'm not sure I buy the general assumption that everyone needs 1800 calories per day for normal life. As an example, don't I burn more calories at a younger age? Don't I burn more calories as a male that weighs 185 pounds? I continued to research and found an even better post from Runner's World that helps you calculate how many calories you need with a slightly different approach.  This approach uses your age and sex to determine a basic metabolic rate and then applies a multiplier for activity level.  My basic metabolic rate, coincidentally, is roughly 1800 calories (same as above).  But that would not be the case for a woman or if I were younger.

Calories For Selection Calories
Basic Metabolic Rate Male, 31 - 60 years: (84 kg * 11.6) + 879 1853
Activity Level Moderately active x 1.7 3150 per day

Note that I selected "moderately active" as a 55 mile per week runner. Running only takes about one hour a day (averaged over the course of the week). And several of those runs are at moderate/easy paces. More importantly, my job is pretty sedentary and I sit at a desk the rest of the day. Thus, I would not categorize myself as "very active".  When deciding how to classify your activity level, think in terms of your whole life (exercise, job, home life, etc..). For exercise, consider how much time you exercise (on a per day average) and the intensity (heart rate) during the exercise. I would guess that what most people consider exercise falls more closely into normal activity for a human being.

Up to this point, I have sort of smoothed all these calculations over a week to get a daily value. In table 1, I multiplied my weekly mileage and then, after the calculations, I divided by seven to get a daily figure. In table 2, I forced my activity level up to "moderate" because of my running. One could certainly figure out their daily calories needed based on lifestyle only (not including exercises) and then net out exercising. If you are not in a consistent exercise regimen, then it probably makes sense to track your "net" calories on a day-to-day basis.  But, as a runner that consistently hits 50 miles per week, tracking my calories this way would be difficult and may prove to be a detriment to recovery.

Here is an example of how to track your calories day-to-day:

Day Base Calories Calories "Earned" Total Calories
Monday 2200 0 2200
Tuesday 2200 1341 3541
Wednesday 2200 1099 3299
Thursday 2200 794 2994
Friday 2200 0 2200
Saturday 2200 2940 5140
Sunday 2200 845 3045

Using any of the tools above (or MyPlate) you can determine your basic metabolic needs. My lifestyle (without running) is sedentary, meaning my basic calorie needs are minimal (2200 per day according to MyPlate). To make calculations simple, I used 2000 calories per day. On days that I run, I am "earning" more calories to eat. Tuesday I earned an additional 1341 calories for the day, or a total of 3341 that I can eat to maintain my weight. The problem that I have with these calculations is my off days and my long run days (like Saturday).  It would be difficult to adjust my eating each day such that I have a spectrum from 2000 calories all the way to almost 5000! Worse yet, I would have a difficult time eating good quality foods (slow burning carbs and protein) in high enough quantities to eat 5000 calories on Saturday. Instead, I would be forced to eat a diet high in fat (2.5 times the calorie density) in order to achieve that 5000 calories. Smoothing out the calorie intake over the week is much healthier so that I can feed it constant sources of good food. Doing so will allow my body to recover in between runs and on off days.  (By the way, the average of the seven days comes out to 3200 calories per day!)

After reviewing all of this, I am not sure if I am getting enough calories per day.  I think I am close.  Following my own advice, I will monitor my calories for a few days and make sure they are between 2900 and 3200.  With that said, I have a couple other hypothesis about what I can do to help my energy needs in the meantime.  First I will try to eat more, smaller meals (or snacks) throughout the day to keep my energy constant.  Hopefully adding some healthy snacks like almonds or meal replacements (protein shakes) can help with that. And, I will begin to monitor what I'm to make sure I am getting a better breakdown of the major energy sources (protein, carbs, and fat).

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