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Triathlon training: Are you really 'lean enough?'
July 14th, 2011
02:45 PM ET

Triathlon training: Are you really 'lean enough?'

Since January, we've been tracking the training of Dr. Sanjay Gupta and six iReporters as they prep for the August 7 Nautica New York City Triathlon. Now we're adding expert advice from our friends at Triathlete.com

Swiss exercise scientists recently focused their attention on 42 recreational female runners who participated in a half marathon. They quizzed the runners on their training habits and also took various anthropometric measurements and then attempted to correlate this data with their race finish times.

The researchers found that body-fat percentage was among the best predictors of race finish times - an even better predictor than training volume.

This finding isn’t too surprising. We all know that being lean is critical to running performance.

We also know that fitness is critical to running performance, and as fitness goes up, body-fat percentage tends to come down.

Among recreational runners, there tend to be large differences in leanness, and it’s only to be expected that the leanest recreational runners will perform best in races.

Among elite-level runners it’s a different story. All elite runners are very lean, and the small differences in body-fat percentages have little correlation with differences in performance.

Within the special population of elite runners, it’s small differences in VO2max, maximum speed, and running economy that determine who wins and who loses.

Learn how to get lean for peak performance with Matt Fitzgerald’s "Racing Weight" video series on CompetitorTV.com

Except that nothing I said in the previous paragraph is true.

Believe it or not, differences in body-fat percentage predict races times as well in elite runners as they do among recreational female runners. This was shown in a 2009 study involving 24 elite runners in Ethiopia.

Skinfold measurements were used to estimate body fat percentage in 12 male and 12 female athletes. These estimates were then compared to the runners’ individual race performances.

The researchers found an 80% correlation between skinfold measurements and race times in the men and a 78% correspondence in the women. All of these runners were very lean and very light, but the leanest among them were the fastest.

At every level of the sport, leanness is as important as aerobic capacity, speed, and running economy. And even at the elite level, it seems, some runners could get faster by getting leaner.

A good case in point is Chris Solinsky, who made a quantum leap in performance last year when he broke the American record for 10,000m (26:59.60) and lowered his 5000m PR from 13:18.41 to 12:55.53.

That leap coincided with a visible leaning out that was widely commented on at the time. While it’s impossible to separate the direct effect of Solinsky’s fat loss from those of the training that contributed to the fat loss on his performance, I think it’s reasonable to speculate that the fat loss did have a direct effect.

Many high-level runners who look very lean assume they are “lean enough,” but there is cause to believe that some of these runners could perform better by getting even leaner.

What is certain is that leanness is critical enough to performance that every serious runner should monitor his body-fat percentage as closely as he monitors his training.

Naturally, there are right and wrong ways to get leaner. Eating too little is definitely the wrong way.

Not only will it fail to make you leaner by causing you to lose muscle along with (or even to some degree instead of) fat, but it will also sabotage your training by leaving your muscles under-fueled for maximum performance.

The right ways to get leaner are to sensibly increase training volume, add more high-intensity running to your training, lift weights and clean up your diet.

The last of these measures probably has the greatest potential to yield results in most cases. A lot of runners think they’re “lean enough” when they actually aren’t because they assume their diet is “good enough” when it’s actually not.

If you look closely at your diet, you will probably find some flab that is very likely keeping a little extra flab on your body. Even small improvements could yield a small reduction in your measured body fat percentage, which may in turn result in your own Solinsky-style breakthrough.


soundoff (85 Responses)
  1. Lincoln

    So when - oh when? - will the medical profession stop using the Body Mass Index? It's been obsolete for about 20 years now. These days if you hurt your knee you can get an MRI, performed by a $250,00 machine. But if you struggle with poor fitness you can't get your nurse to use a $10 skin fold caliper. Or use a $3 tape measure to compare your hip-to-waist ratio.

    July 14, 2011 at 14:57 | Report abuse | Reply
    • T3chsupport

      Doctors are only really good for sickness and injuries. They're mostly about as informed as anyone else as far as diet and exercise are concerned. The only reason someone should go to a doctor for weight loss is if they're planning on being prescribed something.

      July 14, 2011 at 16:48 | Report abuse |
    • Satirev

      They use it because it's accurate for more than 90% or more of the population. It loses accuracy only when someone has a really low body fat percentage which most people do not. Someone who has 15%, 20%, 25% and greater body fat percentage can't just scream it's not accurate without trying to understand the basic science behind it.

      July 14, 2011 at 22:55 | Report abuse |
  2. shane

    If you want a lean body and an outstanding performance from that body of yours then go on the Brendan Braizer THRIVE DIET. All whole and raw food. He is a world class triathlete who has come up with an amazing plant based way of eating that gets results.

    July 14, 2011 at 17:46 | Report abuse | Reply
    • AlwaysTri

      Agree! I've been vegan for every one of my triathlons (going on number 4 next month) and I've never felt more energetic! I love the smoothie recipes in his book 🙂 perfect as post-run fuel!

      July 21, 2011 at 09:51 | Report abuse |
    • Kristin

      Agreed! With high training volume the body needs as much nutrient-dense food as possible. Animal products may provide macronutrients, but that's about it. If you need protein, why not choose a source that also packs 13 grams of fiber (like beans), or if you need fat, why not choose the heart healthy unsaturated fats found in nuts and get a good dose of vitamin E at the same time?

      August 8, 2011 at 15:03 | Report abuse |
  3. beth

    the woman pictured doesn't look like a triathlete to me! it would be great to show a REAL triathlete body

    July 14, 2011 at 18:39 | Report abuse | Reply
  4. Hannibal Lecter

    Shane, if you really want a lean body, do what I do: Lots of hamburgers, BBQ, frozen foods and a 12-pack of Dr Pepper every day. The caffeine and sugar in the Dr Pepper ups your metabolism so you burn off all the other calories. I'm 6'2", 145 pounds, and did an Ironman in May.

    You can't argue with success! 🙂

    July 14, 2011 at 18:56 | Report abuse | Reply
  5. cmh

    Great – now even if you are lean, you still aren't lean enough. Really? Last time I checked I wasn't trying to win any races so what do I care? How about I just strive to be at a healthy weight, active and eat right?

    July 14, 2011 at 20:51 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Susan

      This article wasn't about anything but athletes performing in a certain sport. It was not about you, so don't worry.

      July 15, 2011 at 07:01 | Report abuse |
  6. jm

    Well, this definitely reflects the perspective of many of the "elite" high school runners I trained with as a teenager–many of whom did successfully acquire the leanness of a prepubescent boy, only to find that their bodies often couldn't stand the stress and dissolved into a series of stress fractures, not to mention obsession with food and disordered eating (including many on my state champion team). I guess I'm confused about how you can have a quest for "leanness" if "eating too little is definitely the wrong way."

    July 15, 2011 at 06:32 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Susan

      The other way to get lean is simply running it off. There is no obsession with food if you do it that way.

      July 15, 2011 at 07:03 | Report abuse |
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  8. Mikel

    The article contains the following sentence: "While it’s impossible to separate the direct effect of Solinsky's fat loss from those [sic] of the training that contributed to the fat loss on his performance, I think it’s reasonable to speculate that the fat loss did have a direct effect." I respectfully disagree with the "reasonable" speculation and suspect the author has confused correlation with causation. It is easy to accept that leaner athletes tend to perform better, but why assume that one causes the other? It is just as likely, even more likely in my opinion (I've been an endurance athlete for 42 years), that the enhanced training that causes improved performance also causes increased leanness. In other words, leanness is correlated with performance, but does not cause it.

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