Q No matter what I eat or how much exercise I do, I can’t shed weight. Is something wrong with me? – ELLIE
A I’m glad you wrote in, Ellie, as I see this question quite frequently in my inbox. On the surface, you’re doing a lot of the right things in eating a clean diet, exercising regularly, and getting plenty of sleep.
As women, we are blessed with the gift of creating life. With that gift comes a flow and balance of hormones to make the magic happen. When our lives get out of balance, so do our hormones, which in turn, can cause weight issues (among other things). Before I launch into how to modify your plan, it is important to mention that your weight may in fact be at the optimal level for you. That is, I’d recommend measuring your body-fat percentage to see where you stand.
Although many female athletes try to reach lower body-fat percentages (14-16 per cent) to improve their speed, doing so can also alter their hormones and have a cascading effect in increasing cortisol levels from perceived stress, disrupting the menstrual cycle, increasing risk of bone injuries, and decreasing overall performance. The key is to understand you may run stronger with a normal body-fat percentage, as running at low body-fat can lead to trouble down the road even if it’s currently helping you run faster.
I personally experienced this in my 20s when I was training to qualify for the Boston Marathon and teaching step class and more. I was burning the candle at both ends, eating a low-fat, highly veggie diet, and my body-fat was near the low limit (14 per cent). Sure, I ran faster, but I also discovered I had thyroid issues due to the imbalance in my life and had to take frequent naps to get through the day. There’s a limit to what we can do, and often with women it won’t show up in the form of an injury but rather in a hormonal shift that causes all kinds of issues with our endocrine system.
Long story short, I’d measure your body-fat percentage and use that as an additional tool for finding your ideal running weight. You might find you have more muscle tissue and less fat at 60 kilograms than if you try to lose weight and lose muscle along with it.
As for the reasons why you may not be losing weight, if I were coaching you, I’d first want to know a little more about your training goals and the flow of your training workouts. Training two hours per day works okay for some, but for many it can drain our energy and create more stress on a daily basis. In a big-picture sense, it’s all about energy management. That is, looking at the energy we expend during the week versus the energy we replenish to measure those variables against recovery time.
Many elite athletes train twice per day. Sometimes that includes two runs; other times, it is cross-training and a run. All their workouts are designed by flow of intensity, duration, and time.
For instance, they wouldn’t run a hard interval workout in the morning and follow it with a tempo run in the afternoon. Doing so would lead to overtraining, injury and decreases in performance. A hard workout (day) is always followed by an easy run, cross-training or recovery. Their lives evolve around their training to assure optimal stress and recovery cycles.
For a mortal runner, running is something we weave into our busy lives. It’s not our career, it’s our passion. And to that extent, we all need to train with the flow of our life schedule, our experience level, and our body’s ability to recover.
While training two hours a day and trying to add in more high-intensity workouts, you may also be stunting your endocrine system as well. That is, if we push too hard too frequently, our body believes we are in a state of fight or flight and releases the hormone cortisol in an effort to fend off the tiger that is chasing us. When we continue to live our lives on “high,” the cortisol continues to flow and leads to an imbalance that can create thyroid issues and adrenal stress.
When we reach this point, our body hangs onto body fat, thinking it’s going to save our life. Some signs to watch out for include:
- Fatigue in the morning (non-refreshed sleep)
- Needing to nap during the day
- Waking up frequently during the night
- Weight gain, especially around your waist line
- Irregular cycle (longer, shorter or not at all)
- Unable to finish workouts or poor performance
- Requiring a caffeine hit to get your morning started
- Feeling cold all the time
- Feeling puffy, stiff and sore all the time
- Feeling exhausted, post-workout, and slow recovery
Everyone responds differently to training, diet and life schedules. Some can do more, some less, but it’s important to tune into your how your body is feeling. I’d recommend looking at the flow of your exercise time during the week and considering the following modifications:
- Ease back on the cardiovascular exercise volume. Unless you can match that time with adequate recovery time, it can lead to weight and performance issues. For instance, you could cut back to three days per week, where you work out for one hour versus two, and see how this makes a difference in how you feel.
- Quantify your workouts by effort, run by your body rather than pace, and alternate hard days with easy ones. This is an effective way to avoid overtraining as pace and effort vary daily based on how you’re feeling, the weather, your hormonal shifts and more.
- Avoid training hard on back-to-back days even with cross-training. Sometimes we think if we’re on a bike doing high-intensity intervals it’s active recovery. It’s not. It a hard effort on your body and one that will also require a longer recovery phase.
- On the days you’re training for two hours or more, match it with a nap and plenty of fuel to replenish your muscle stores.
- Balance your exercise regimen with body-weight strengthening exercises to maintain lean muscle tissue and boost your metabolic rate at rest.
- A vegan diet works wonders for many runners but also causes issues with others. We all have our own personal recipes, and experimenting with a variety of menus is a great way to identify what works best for you.
- Create your own case study on yourself. Measure your body fat and weight, and track your food and exercise habits. Then as you begin to shift your activity and diet, measure the outcome. More often than not, it is about balancing your life, exercise and fuel in order to run in your optimal zone daily.