Focusing on nutrition for performance, it’s easy to skip straight to protein, fats and carbs, but there's a bigger gain waiting for many - weight loss. Here we’re looking at weight loss for athletes, how to do it right and create sustainable changes that last
Weight loss for athletes: why bother
This one’s simple - the more weight you carry, the more effort needed to shift it. So if you’re well over your sensible racing weight it’ll be like driving your car with the handbrake on. Drop some excess and your power to weight ratio will improve, making you faster for the same effort - it's one of the biggest performance gains going.
Beyond this, too much spare tyre is highly correlated with a host of serious health issues from diabetes and hypertension to heart disease and arthritis. Losing the excess won’t just make you faster, it will also be one of the biggest health gifts you can give yourself.
Weight loss for athletes: what’s the target?
For context, let’s first look at what isn’t the target.
Looking like a Crossfit world champ, a Tour de France cyclist or a ripped movie star is all very well, but it’s unlikely to be healthy in the real world. Those extremities are exactly that - extremities, created by insanely focused lives, training regimes and conditions.
Power to weight is everything in pro cycling, but for 99.9% of us the extreme weight loss of these superhuman stickmen is a deeply unhealthy model
Unless you too are a genetically gifted freak who’s spent their life focusing on one thing and one thing only, or have the time and money for an army of personal trainers, dieticians and nutritionists, these bodies are both unrealistic and unhealthy.
Instead, all you want is to lose the jiggle when you run, fit comfortably into clothes you like, and feel good about yourself naked. That’s it. This is a flexible enough target to be achievable, with enough focus to know what you’re aiming for.
Drop weight to your sensible sweet spot and go faster, easier. You'll also cope better in the heat too (shaved head optional)
Weight loss for athletes: how to do it
There are three core strategies for cutting weight well as an athlete, and by 'well' I mean ‘healthily’ and ‘sustainably’.
In reverse order from most, to least, hard core they are:
Fasting means not eating or drinking any calories for a fixed period. 24-hour to 7-day fasts are the most common stretches and while results for both health and weight loss can be incredible, this is not something to be taken lightly.
It is physically and mentally demanding, particularly as you go beyond 48 hours. It's also a subject that needs a lot of research and even medical advice before taking on, again particularly if you're heading beyond 48 hours.
A quick caution - fasting should not be seen as a silver bullet, something you kill yourself doing a few days for a result and then never touch again. That approach is only a fast track to an eating disorder and is to be avoided at all costs.
Instead, fasting should be incorporated as a tool in your performance toolbox to be deployed regularly and in small doses. Intermittent fasting is a great place to start.
When it comes to fasting and training the two don't mix well and you ideally want to avoid training when fasting.
Juicing: keep it simple, keep it fresh and keep it real for optimal results
Fasting makes juicing look very attractive.
For juicing simply swap your daily food for juiced fruit and veg instead. It’s an excellent way to rest the digestive system and let the body get in some great healing, while also being a powerful weight loss aid.
Quality is everything so make all of your juices yourself from whole fruit and veg only.
This is so you get all of the nutrients possible - nutrient density really matters because at a time when you’ll be eating way less you need to make sure that what you do consume really counts.
As with fasting, you only drink water, and just like fasting you may also feel a bit rubbish at times during the juicing period, especially if this is your first time.
The advantage juicing has over fasting though is that it’s easier to fit into your life and can go hand in hand with light training if you’re careful.
As long as you’ve got a decent juicer and a ton of fruit and veg in the cupboard, plus some handy resealable bottles/jars, you can blitz up a day’s juice in no time and deploy as needed. Making in bulk and storing in the fridge is a good idea.
The best place to learn more about juicing is via the excellent documentary Fat, Sick and Nearly Dead.
3 Ditching the animal products and going plant based
Fruit and veg - awesome
Dropping meat, fish and dairy from your diet for a period has huge benefits and for most is also a great way to lose that stubborn bit of spare tyre that simply won’t budge.
It needs commitment but the results can be stunning, and there’s no need to stop training either. In many cases you don’t even need to eat fewer calories, you just need to swap where those calories come from.
Of course, if you swap your regular meals for chips, crisps and doughnuts it won’t work. You’ll still be 100% plant-based and won’t be consuming a single animal product, but junk food is still junk food and the results from eating it don't change.
Build your diet on purely wholefood sources however and it’s a different story. This is where the results come flooding in given time.
It's easier than fasting and juicing, but making the switch - even temporarily - is still challenging. Don’t be disheartened if you get it wrong a few times on the path to getting it working.
This blog post goes into way more detail on a plant-based diet for athletes and how to go about it.
Weight loss for athletes: the landmines
These are the small things that will blow up your best intentions. Avoid when fasting, juicing or dropping the animal products and your chances of success will skyrocket.
- Sodas and soft drinks: liquid calories of the worst kind, best avoided. Forever ideally
- Salad dressing: hides innocently on your healthy salad, is normally about as good for you as ice cream. When eating out ask for dressings on the side - if it does turn out to be a sugar/sweetener bomb your salad hasn’t been ruined. Olive oil and salt is all the dressing you need. Add fresh garlic, a squeeze of lemon and/or chilli flakes to get really flash
- Processed foods: processed and in a packet? Run away!
- Ordinary sports nutrition: far too much of this is as bad for you as sweets and junk food because it's made with the same ingredients, sweeteners and additives despite being dressed up as healthy. It’s because so much of it is so bad that we founded 33Fuel in the first place
- Alcohol: more liquid calories, and no low-calorie options. For a deeper dive on all things booze and performance you might like this post
- Low/no-fat and low/no-sugar products: the low/no-fat ones just got sugar and sweeteners added instead of the fat, while the low/no-sugar ones got packed with dodgy sweeteners. All are less healthy than their full fat/sugar counterparts
Weight loss for athletes: motivation
The hardest part to manage, but the simplest to execute. The golden rule is to think longterm.
You’re looking for change that lasts over months or even years and sticks, not to drop every ounce of weight and hit your perfect athletic body in weeks before bouncing back to normal thanks to a dieting regime so hard core even supermodels would think twice.
Aim for visible and tangible change over a six-month period and achieving results that keep you motivated is way easier.
Think longterm, ignore your monkey mind and stick to your plan. Then watch the results come flooding in
The best way to keep motivated as you cross the chasm from early enthusiasm, through the trough of disappointment as you don’t turn into a chiseled Adonis overnight, and safely onto the other side of success, speed and performance is to couple the longterm view we’ve already described with a weekly selfie snapshot in your underwear and a hop on the scales.
The key is combining the photo and the scale session into a weekly routine.
The photo provides a much clearer reflection of your progress than your mind will. Your mind will often be unhelpful, telling you that you suck so when you look in the mirror you don't see results. Ignore your monkey mind, it's not on your side.
Instead, stick to your weight loss plan and weekly photo. At the end of each month compare the shots. Here you’ll see what you’re really achieving and can tell your monkey mind to stick it.
1-0 to you. Back of the net.
The weekly scale session does a similar trick.
Just remember that if you’re training through all this too, muscle weighs more than fat. So you can be seriously changing your body shape (the photos will prove this) without nudging the scale numbers down as you increase your ratio of muscle to fat.
Stay on track with 33Fuel - here to help
Down a glass of water with one spoon of our Greens every morning to upgrade your daily nutrient intake from the get go. Use our Protein to power up smoothies or simply enjoy mixed with water for the highest quality (and fully-plant-based) protein shot to help maintain muscle as you cut calories.
Scroll down for more performance-boosting content
From the Podcast - lessons from the world's best triathletes