Fat Loss for Athletes: Part 1

Losing body fat is often an issue for athletes and there are various and sundry (yes, sundry) reasons that they either want or need to do this. Clearly for the physique sports (bodybuilding, fitness, figure), it’s an issue of appearance. For performance sports (everything else), losing fat or weight can often improve performance. Either the athlete can get into a lower weight class (if their sport has such) or they can improve their strength or power to weight ratio, improving performance.

I’d note, and this would be a topic for an entirely separate article, that leaner is not always better. Most sports end up having an ideal level of leanness where higher and lower levels aren’t consistent with optimal performance. Many athletes will over train or lose muscle mass and performance in the quest to get as lean as possible and this often does more harm than good.

Unfortunately, athletes often approach the goal of fat loss in an absolutely awful way. It’s altogether too often assumed that they should simply do what the bodybuilders do since bodybuilders are, at least for one day per year, the leanest folks of them all.

The problem with this mentality is that, fundamentally, the physique sports aren’t performance oriented (fitness competitions are sort of an exception since the fitness round does require quite a bit of performance oriented training). But bodybuilders and figure girls aren’t usually interested in performance per se, it’s all about looking good on stage. What happens in the gym or in training is only a means to an end in this regards. So some of the dietary and training approaches that bodybuilders would follow might not be appropriate for a performance-oriented athlete.

At the same time, there are clearly some good ideas that have come out of the physique sports; to say that individuals in those activities are competitive dieters isn’t far off and they have figured out a lot of good things (much of which modern research has subsequently validated). You simply can’t apply them wholly uncritically to every sport. I’d also note that some performance sports (women’s gymnastics and figure skating jump to mind) also have an aesthetic aspect to them; little girls are being judged on appearance and body in addition to how well they can fling themselves through the air.

In this article, I want to talk about how athletes of different sorts can go about best losing body fat without sacrificing (too-much) performance. The parentheses may seem odd but it’s not always possible to completely avoid performance (strength, power, etc.) loss while dieting down. As long as the reduction in fat or total weight is greater than the performance loss, the strength/power to weight ratio still usually goes up.

To avoid talking about every sport known to god and man, I’m going to subdivide sports into one of three rough categories (I’d note that I used the same three in my protein book and usually apply this scheme in some fashion in all of my fat loss books) which are

Pure strength/power: Think Powerlifting, Olympic lifting, throwing events, etc. These are athletes who do the bulk of their training as strength/power training of some sort and their sports don’t require endurance or metabolic conditioning outside of work capacity considerations to handle their massive training loads. The competition itself usually involves very little endurance component (unless you consider sitting on your ass for 3 hours between squat and bench while you eat sandwiches to require endurance).

Pure endurance sports: This includes cycling, running, swimming, cross country skiing and anything of that sort. Any sport where the majority of training is pretty much pure endurance style training (lower intensity, long durations) goes in this category. And yes, trust me I realize that many of these athletes also do stuff in the weight room and higher intensity interval work is done. I’m talking about the majority of training that they do. In competition, the events can actually vary pretty significantly in terms of duration and intensity. An hour criterium race for a cyclist is a very different event than a 5 hour stage race; same for a 5k vs. marathon in running. Regardless, the majority of training done in these sports is of the long-duration endurance type.

Mixed sports: And then there’s mostly everything else, sports that end up having to cover all of the bases with both a good bit of strength/power work (in the weight room or on the track sprinting) and metabolic conditioning (which can take on a variety of forms, I’ll talk about this a bit below). Football, basketball, hockey, mixed martial arts, boxing, wrestling, etc. all belong here. These are athletes that need high levels of strength/power (varying with the sport) and high levels of metabolic conditioning (which also varies with sport). Competitions usually require these athletes to express strength/power over and over and over again.

Of course, I’m sure there are going to be sports (Curling? Archery? Extreme Frisbee?) that don’t fit neatly into any of the above categories. Since I doubt they have the same requirements (outside of technical stuff) of the main three categories, I’m not too worried about them.

Simplistically, when I look at fat loss, I take 5 components into consideration in their rough order of importance. I’ll look at each below.

  1. Total calories and the rate of fat loss
  2. Protein intake
  3. Fat intake
  4. Carbohydrate intake
  5. Training and how it can or should be changed when fat loss is the goal.

Yeah, I know. Cutting edge shit there. I’m only spelling it out so that I can look at each within the context of each of the types of sports I discussed above. I’d note that frankly components 1-4 (and especially 1) are the more important aspects when fat loss is the goal. All of the training in the world won’t overcome a diet that sucks. Ok, maybe ALL of the training in the world but you pedantic assholes know what I mean.

Continued in Fat Loss for Athletes: Part 2.

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