Improving Body Composition in the OutSeason and Beyond


For 2016, the significant directive of our reworking of the OutSeason training plan to create the OutSeason/Run Durability training plan was to bring the best practices of our top athletes more into the mainstream of the greater Endurance Nation community. That is, we want everyone on the team to consider adopting the mindset and focus on small details that the coaches and other top athletes on the team bring to their training, racing, and preparation.

Improving, or optimizing, body composition is a significant factor for success in long course triathlon. Our top athletes:

  1. Set realistic goals
  2. Have a process for reaching those goals.
  3. Begin working the process far enough out from their key races so that they can reach those goals at a sensible rate.

The OutSeason is an ideal time to begin to set goals, develop your process, and begin working towards your goals because you will have months and months to reach them before your race. And, as we all know, the holidays can be a particularly dangerous period for our body composition and so having a process in place can do a lot to avoid or minimize the body composition damage that can happen during this time of year.

The purpose of this post is to lay out for you the process that I used to improve my own body composition from a high of 178lb in October 2014 to a race weight at Ironman Wisconsin, September 2015 of 152lb.

Setting Goals

“Light is Right,” and, as we’ve said, being light is especially powerful in the long course triathlon game. But what weight should you target and how do you know when light is too much for you? My goals for each season are based on my historical experience across a range of body weights and my experiences with those weights in both training and racing. Below are “my numbers,” and as a frame of reference I’m 47 years old, 5’9″, former swimmer and Marine. I’ll start with the “bad” numbers and work my way towards the “good,” speedy numbers:

  • 175 pounds: I’m not very good about watching my body composition during the OutSeason and this is usually about the weight that I wake up in early January. I do not like this weight, at all, especially since it’s also accompanied by poor fitness and that combination puts me squarely in the No Fun Zone in the hills that I train in. Boo.
  • 164-161 pounds: here I feel like I’m definitely making progress towards a good training weight.
  • 161-158 pounds: this is an excellent training weight for me, as I have good power, recovery is great, I don’t need to strip any muscle to get here, clothes fit well, etc.
  • 158-154 pounds: here I’m definitely inching towards an ideal race weight, and I feel particularly good on the run when I get under 154lb
  • 151-153 pounds: I have two data points at this weight, both associated with excellent races. In 2002 I bounced around 152-154lb before Ironman Wisconsin and qualified for Kona. I was only two years out of the Marines, likely had more muscle mass, especially upper body, than I do now so I suspect I was extremely lean. My second data point is Ironman Wisconsin 2015 when I raced at 152lb and came within 2 minutes of my 2002 time.

The point of this exercise above is to demonstrate that:

  • I have some historical numbers, on the low end, with which I can associated excellent performances. These are my targets, because I’ve achieved these numbers in the past.
  • As I progress towards my goal weight, I have a lot of experience what I should be feeling, the sticking points, etc that I’ll experience along the way.

How do I set a goal weight if I don’t have a history across a variety of weights, as above?

In my experience, it’s better to (1) develop a process for improving body composition, (2) begin working that process far enough out from your goal race so you don’t lose power and speed through too-rapid weight loss, (3) pay attention to your body for signs that it’s pushing back — poor recovery from workouts, poor sleep, etc.

The Process

This is the process I use and it works, for me:

  • Focus on Calories In vs Calories Out, creating a sensible calorie deficit each day.
  • Have a system for logging both sides of this equation, diet and exercise, so you can achieve this sensible calorie deficit each day.
  • On the Calories In side of the equation, focus on making better food choices vs eating less. For me, this comes down to choosing nutrient dense vs calorie dense foods. For example, I choose to have a plate of fruit (nutrient dense) rather than choosing to have a bagel (calorie dense). I choose to target my intake of calorie dense foods to immediately before, during, or after exercising, viewing them as an excellent workout fuel source. But once the purpose of fueling the workout has been achieved, I do my best to get back on the Nutrient Dense Train.
  • On the Calories Out side of the equation, try to adopt the perspective that burning calories through aerobic exercise earns me permission to eat and not be hungry. As endurance athletes, we burn a lot of calories. And so I view my typical 45′ run from two perspectives.
    • That 45 minutes equals about 600-700 calories that I can eat because I exercised.
    • However, if I choose to eat empty calories, I’m disrespecting / negating the work I did with that run.

In my experience, once you adopt the mindset that aerobic exercise earns you the right to eat and not be hungry all of the time then a lot of other pieces of the puzzle fall into place.

Logging Diet and Exercise

I first starting logging my diet and exercise in 2010 and the results were dramatic. Quite simply, nearly everything I’m sharing with you here is the result of the lessons I learned from logging my stuff. I started with an iPhone app called LoseIt! but have since moved myself and the Team to MyFitnessPal due to it’s integration with Trainingpeaks and it’s social sharing and accountability features.

Regardless of the app you choose to use, this is generally how they work:

  • Your Profile: set up your profile by inputting height, weight, sex, age, and choosing activity level. I recommend you choose Sedentary. The app will use this to estimate your Basal Metabolic Rate*
  • Goal Weight Loss per Week: next, tell the app how much weight per week you want to lose. Understand it takes about 3500 calories to burn away one pound of fat. So if your goal is to lose 1 pound per week, you will need to create about a 500 calorie deficit per day. My recommendation is set a goal of losing .5-1 pound per week.**
  • Log Your Diet: next, you’re going to log everything you eat. Yes, it can be cumbersome at first to log everything you eat but between barcode scans, the ability to save recipes, meals you frequently eat, etc, it gets easier over time***.
  • Log Your Exercise: finally, you’re going to log all of your exercise. This is easiest if you use a Garmin running and/or cycling computer, as your Garmin will sync to Trainingpeaks, Strava, LoseIt!, MyFitnessPal, or anywhere else you want to park it.****

Begin the Process Far Enough Out from Your Goal Races

There are several reason for this:

  1. Lose fat vs muscle: by creating a small, sensible calorie deficit each day resulting in sensible weekly weight loss, you are more likely to lose fat (good) vs muscle (bad).
  2. Learn before your training gets hard: by starting these processes in the OutSeason, you’ll be learning a lot of valuable lessons — about logging, diet, how your body reacts, etc — while your training isn’t super critical to your race day success. These lessons will become extremely valuable when you’re able to apply them closer to your race.
  3. Don’t set yourself up to be making up for missed homework: the worst time to be stretching yourself to meet your body composition goals is when you are closer to your race, training volume and intensity have been dialed up way up, and it’s critical that you fuel yourself effectively. This is not the time to be working to create massive calorie deficits to meet goals you should have been working towards for months and months. Your training will suffer for it.

In Summary

As triathletes, a significant but overlooked component of our game is simply reducing the mass of our bodies that we have to lug around the race course for hours. Even small improvements can make a significant difference on race day and these differences increase dramatically as race distance increases. And as endurance athletes training 8-16 hours or more per week we have a powerful tool in our corner: we burn a LOT of calories, every day. However, what’s often missing is a simple process that ties together the Calories In vs Calories Out nature of improving body composition.

This simple process is what I’ve tried to explain to you here, the process I’ve used to make big steps towards improving my own body composition. More importantly, I’m confident that you’ll find your own implementation of this process to be extremely educational, as you learn more about your body and how to fuel it with healthy food. I’ve found that the perspectives gained through this exercise have become significant components of living a healthy lifestyle.

Good luck!


*Basal Metabolic Rate: this is how many calories you need to eat to maintain your current weight, given your activity level. The idea behind choosing Sedentary is that you will then be logging all of your exercise and activity against this number. However, if you have an active non-exercise life (your job requires a lot of physical activity, for example) you may find yourself needing to choose a different activity level, or perhaps using a FitBit or other device to dial in your own personal numbers more accurately.

**Goal Weight Loss Per Week: the key is that you want to choose a sensible weekly weight loss target that (1) doesn’t leave you hungry all the time and (2) results in fat vs muscle loss. Generally, if your weight loss is too aggressive, your body will strip muscle as well as fat, resulting in a loss of speed or power on the run or bike. A slow and steady weekly weight loss is the best strategy and my recommendation is a goal of .5 to 1lb per week. In my experience, if I set a higher weekly weight loss goal on Monday, my dog Riley begins to look like a pork chop by about Wednesday and I fall off the wagon hard Wednesday night. Don’t worry, Riley remains uneaten, as he’s pretty quick on his feet.

One trick I’ve used is to bounce my weekly weight loss goal from day to day, based on my activity level on that day. For example:

  • For a light exercise day (ie, the only thing scheduled is a 30-45′ run), I’ll toggle over to .5lb loss per week, so I can eat a bit more and not be hungry all day.
  • For a heavy exercise day (ie, long bike or long run day), I’ll toggle to 2lb loss per week, to ensure I don’t use the workout as an excuse to eat a ton that day, undermining the excellent weight loss opportunity I created with my training session.

***Diet Logging: You may find a food scale and measuring cups to be helpful, until you learn what a cup of X or 8 ounces of Y look like.

****Exercise Logging: it’s helpful to keep in mind that the more tracking tools you add to your training more accurate will be your calories burned data for each workout. For example, riding with a powermeter and heart rate monitor will give you more accurate calories burned data than riding with a powermeter or heart rate monitor alone. However, no need to get crazy with this and, when in doubt, consider logging a lower calorie number when recording your exercise.

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