Tim Ford lost over 50kgs through triathlon and shares how to balance your weight loss and performance training to maximise your results.
If you are carrying a few extra kgs (or pounds for our less civilised readers), triathlon can be a great way to help get in shape, drop some extra weight and lower all those fancy acronyms like BMI. However, there might come a point where simply losing weight is no longer enough. Instead you want to go faster and start to improve your performance. You know what? You might even be a triathlete who has taken a few weeks (years) off and are now looking to make a return to your skin-tight lycra-clad days.
The main point is that while you can train and both lose weight and improve your performance at the same time, until you focus on each individually, you will never really have proper success at either.
So how can you have your cake and eat it too (brilliant pun, Tim)? How can you make sure you lose weight and then when the time comes, improve your performance?
The first thing to really wrap your head around is that just because you are training hard does not mean you can eat whatever you want. (Sorry to be the bearer of bad news, but it is probably a good idea to get the bad news out of the way.) Go and watch a race. There are athletes of all shapes and sizes. If triathlon was the secret that solved obesity there would only be lean, skinny triathletes on the race course.
The next thing to accept is that motivation is finite. You are not going to be motivated by weight loss or by performance forever. Eventually, you are going to get bored and that is what quite often leads to people falling off their plans and undoing all of their hard work. If you expect to be motivated by the number on the scale dropping every week then you will literally have to waste away to nothing. You will plateau – but that doesn't have to be the end of it.
If you are looking to lose some weight through triathlon, or to be honest any sport, that should be your number one goal. LOSING WEIGHT. Say goodbye to Strava segments, ignore your FTP (at this point you probably don't even know what that is) and leave your ego at the door when you do a parkrun with your friends.
Once you start to lay down good consistent training and make healthy, permanent changes to your diet, your weight WILL start to drop. The best way to make sure this is done properly is to talk to a dietitian like our MX Endurance Dietitian, Chloe McLeod. Your training will probably be quite boring at this stage. Lots of run/walks, easy aerobic rides and longer pool intervals.
This weight loss phase can also be a great time to build strength. Use the extra weight you are carrying to make yourself stronger as well. If you can lay a good strength foundation, you will be even stronger once your weight goes down. Plus, increasing your muscle mass will also improve your metabolism so you will be burning more calories as well.
It’s amazing how motivating seeing the number on the scale go down can be. Once that number starts dropping you want to see it go down even more. It can become a bit of an obsession. You might not even need to step on a scale: your clothes might fit better or soon become too big for you. You might even start to feel comfortable enough to wear the skin-tight lycra. When things are going well it is easy to stay motivated and keep going.
The problem is, it will not keep going. The human body is incredibly adaptive and soon your body will adjust to your new normal. Your weight loss will slow down, and as previously stated your motivation might drop off too.
This is where performance training can save the day. If you have been focusing on your weight going down and have had success, then you will also have improved. If you have run 5km with 10 or 20 extra kgs it is very likely that you will run faster without the excess weight. But now you can really start to focus on your performance.
Your training will change. There will be more of a focus on improving specific areas of performance. You might want to get your 100m pace in the pool to drop. You might want to see your run pace decrease by 10 seconds per km and you might finally be curious about what FTP means and how you can make yours as big as possible.
Once you start specifically training for performance, the improvements in these performance metrics will become your source of motivation – just like seeing the number on the scale drop was. Do not worry, you aren’t suddenly going to put all of your weight back on because you are focusing on performance. Your weight might just stay the same. But seeing your 1-mile time drop or your 40km TT effort improve will fill that motivational need for you to keep going.
Training for performance and training for weight loss at their core involve a lot of the same things. The point of this article isn’t to say that you can’t have them both. You can! But rather than get frustrated and fed up because you have gone stagnant trying to achieve both at the same time, if you really give each the focus they deserve at different phases in your season, you are more likely to have more success at weight loss AND performance.
That is another one of the reasons why triathlon is a great way to maintain a healthy lifestyle. This cycle can be repeated year in and year out. Too many athletes feel like they need to be at their peak all the time. Realistically, this is not possible. Every year, you should give your body a chance to recover and chances are, your weight might creep up a bit. But instead of that being a source of stress, it can be a building block to an everlasting source of motivation.