Breaking Thru the Weight Loss Plateau
Whether you are an athlete or not, you've most likely experienced a weight or fat loss plateau at some point in your life (especially if you have ever tried to improve your body composition for health reasons and/or athletic performance). A plateau is defined as reaching a state of little or no change after a time of activity or progress. In this case, we're referring to those little numbers on the scale that won't budge, or that disappointing moment when your trainer/coach pinches you with calipers and the same measurements come back again and again…Although frustrating, there's no reason to throw in the towel or go to extreme measures when this happens, as that will only hurt you and your performance in the long run. Chances are there are one or more factors you may have overlooked that could be the key to breaking through this barrier.
If you have suddenly found yourself at a weight loss plateau, it's time to assess the situation from all angles so you can make the necessary changes. Following are some of the common scenarios that athletes find themselves in when they encounter a plateau, and some tips to get back on track.
- Are you experiencing your first week with no weight loss? If you've been making regular progress and have just recently encountered a lull in the action, don't worry just yet- you haven't reached a true plateau. It's quite common to have some weeks with more weight loss than expected, and others where there is none. Your body weight fluctuates from day to day, and it's possible that you could be putting on lean body mass during the process. For this reason, we recommend targeting weekly average macronutrient goals as opposed to daily food goals when food logging-it's about the big picture!
TIP: Weigh yourself only once per week on the same day, and get a body fat test completed by a professional rather than relying on the body fat percentages that some scales give. This is a much more accurate way to track progress.
- Do you underestimate what you are eating and overestimate what you are burning on a weekly basis? Let's be honest-we've all been guilty of cutting a few workouts short here and there, and we've all indulged in an extra snack from time to time. It's the combination of these that derails our focus, as the weight loss goals will suffer. The good news is that this behavior can be an easy fix for most people, if they are willing to put in the work for at least a week.
TIP:You got it,food logging! I'm sure you have all done some form of tracking before. When done correctly, this old-school method is still one of the best tools to manage weight and is the key to many success stories. And food logging is easier than ever these days with apps such as MyFitnessPal. In order to get a true picture of what's happening with your diet, you must commit to tracking for at least seven to fourteen days. Remember, your nutrition should be supporting your training. Just as your workouts vary from day to day, and cycle to cycle (training periodization), your nutrition should vary accordingly, as well (nutrition periodization). Get in the habit of looking at your diet from a weekly perspective (remember, it's about the big picture!). For example, if you're targeting 1800 calories, try to make your daily averages over the course of the week equal to this. Some days you'll be higher, some days you'll be lower, but the average should come close to 1800.
- Are you eating enough? Not eating enough to support your training will slow the amount of energy you expend (i.e. calories burned) because the body will begin to adjust to this deficiency in calories. Severe calorie restriction over long-term periods can do more harm than good by negatively impacting your metabolism, resulting in fat storage and muscle wasting. Yes, initially the calorie reduction will produce a weight loss, but eventually it will go into "starvation mode" and start storing the calories you do eat for the next time it is "starved." Your body learns fast! Additionally, these nutritional deficiencies put your body at risk and can lead to injury, poor performance, and sickness due to a weakened immune system.
TIP: If you are guilty of "starving" your body, the goal should be to get your engine (i.e., metabolism) up and running efficiently again. Take a step back and aim to create a deficit of about 10%-15% below what is needed for weight maintenance. For example, if you need 2000 calories per day (this includes what is needed for workouts or training), cut it down to about 1800 calories. Be sure to eat every two to three hours by including small snacks, and do not skip meals. You may have to eat smaller portions to keep up with the frequency and stay within your calorie goals, but the important thing is to eat and be mindful of what you are putting in your mouth. If this is a huge jump from where you currently stand in terms of calories consumed, do not be surprised if you see the number on the scale go slightly up before heading back down again. This is a symptom of your metabolism adjusting after being used to starving. It needs to get over that hump first!
- Are you getting enough of-or too much of-one macronutrient? As a quick refresher, macronutrients are those essential nutrients (proteins, carbohydrates and fats) that make up total calories. There are four calories each in a gram of protein and carbohydrate, and nine calories in a gram of fat. While carbohydrates provide the energy necessary for life and training, it is very common for endurance athletes to over-consume those less-nutrient carbohydrates (such as pastas and bread) and under-consume high-quality foods that are rich with micronutrients such as phytochemicals, antioxidants, vitamins and minerals found in vegetables and true whole grains. Even if you're currently hitting your target calories, it's worth taking a closer look at where they are coming from. This will factor into your weight loss success.
TIP: When it comes to finding the right balance, each athlete is different and one must consider his or her unique lean body mass and training volume. However, a good place to start is to target 20% of overall calories to come from protein, 50-60% to come from carbohydrates, and 20-30% to come from fat. The higher your weekly training volume is, the closer you should aim to be at 60% for carbohydrates, and 20% for fat. Prioritize your carbohydrate sources to come from three to five servings each of fruits and vegetables daily, pre- and mid-workout training fuels, recovery drinks, and those foods meeting the "Core Ratio" that contain whole grains (not those "made with whole grains"). Cut calories by ditching foods that are not providing key nutrients or fuel for training such as sweets, soda, and processed foods. It is not uncommon for athletes to cut out their training fuels or recovery drinks in order to create a calorie deficit. But, this is can have a negative repercussion as your post-workout fuel teaches your body to store carbohydrates in the form of glycogen more efficiently, and the protein is needed for the recovery process. NEVER skip this step!
- Do you have low lean body mass? For some athletes, strength training is the missing component in their program. When time constraints make it hard to complete training throughout the week, athletes are inclined to skip strength-training workouts in favor of keeping a session in the pool, cycling, or running…when in reality, strength training is one of the most important ways to improve this specific limiter. If you are not sure about your lean body mass, work with a professional trainer or coach to get a body fat test completed. Remember that the scale isn't a reliable source for this initial baseline data, but you can use it to track your progress once you have the body fat test data to use as a starting point. Each pound of muscle you gain helps to improve your metabolism, and can burn an extra 50-100 calories per day without doing anything else in your training!
TIP: Work with a professional coach or personal trainer to determine the best way to include strength training in your program. If you are training for a specific event such as a triathlon or marathon, a professional will recognize the periods during the year where strength training could help you, and help you to avoid the times when it could hinder you. Remember to adjust your calorie and protein needs accordingly!
- Do you find yourself being somewhat sedentary when outside of your formal training? While it is important to get adequate sleep, rest and recovery, hanging out on the couch all day after a training session might be contributing to your plateau.
TIP: Incorporate more low-intensity activity into your non-training time. The trick is to avoid activities that could increase hunger or hinder workout recovery, but still provide another opportunity to create a deficit. An example is an easy 30-minute walk! This kind of activity also helps improve aerobic efficiency, which is key for endurance athletes!
Once you have identified the factor(s) that may be contributing to your plateau, be sure to give your body adequate time to adjust. How much? There is no magic number, but I recommend sticking to your new game plan for a minimum of two weeks before going through another assessment.
Bonus: Remember that all of the steps that you are taking to lose weight and improve body composition are contributing to your overall health-not just your progress as an athlete. Incorporating healthy practices into your lifestyle is always a positive-never lose sight of that!
** Keep in mind that the above recommendations are general and may not apply to all athletes such as Elites or Professionals in their athletic field.
Jaime Windrow, RD is a Registered Dietitian and the Nutrition Programs Director at The CoreDiet, and Triathlon Coach for QT2 Systems under the immediate direction of coach Jesse Kropelnicki. Jaime's experience in sports nutrition and triathlon started long before receiving her formal education and credentials as a Registered Dietitian and coach. For 12 years she danced professionally with the Radio City Rockettes in New York, and continues to race as an elite amateur, with a number of age-group wins and podium finishes in the past 10+ years, as well as a finish in Kona at the Ironman World Championships.