Today is the Spring equinox, and we all know what that means. The start of summer rowing (hurrah) but also (cue scary music) the start of all-in-one season (boo). Much as I’d like to deny it, a winter of eating what I please has resulted in several extra pounds of lard strategically hidden under multiple jumpers. The thought of just one thin layer of lycra separating them from the outside world is frankly terrifying. Something must be done. But here’s the problem. Training makes you hungry, and hunger is not compatible with eating light. So what is a girl to do?
I thought I’d start with asking the people who really know: the lightweight rowers, who have to combine hard training with light eating. Here’s what they have to say.
Paul Mattick, Double World Rowing Champion and Olympian
“As an international athlete who is in a weight defined sport (lightweight rowing), I am well acquainted with the constraints of training, losing weight at the same time and then effectively racing at the elite level. For every ounce of fat I carry, I have an ounce less muscle, hence power and this is closely related to boat speed and success!
“I do find however, that a high volume cardiovascular training program and a large conventional diet, takes care of making me as lean as possible. This same training program results in my alcohol consumption being minimal, which the occasional exception, and these social sacrifices are ones that I choose to make in achieving my sporting goals.
“But how do I feel during my weight lose coming into my racing events where I have to be 70kg? A little bit hungry, I reduce my food consumption by ~10% (so still a substantial diet), I tend to eat early (evening meal around 5pm) and have larger breakfast(s) than meals later in the day and do not eat/drink anything in the evening. But different approaches work for different people, but make sure however the weight loss is achieved, make sure it is done safely and enjoy the training.”
Ben Rodford, Lightweight 1x British Champion 2011
“As you probably know, in competitive lightweight rowing you have a maximum weight you can be on race day (‘race weight’). To be fastest you want as much muscle mass a possible at that weight, so you drop fat and also (as late as possible) your level of hydration. The idea is to drop just to race weight for the weigh-in, then rehydrate for the race.
“Most lightweights will sit above race weight throughout the winter (typically 75kg for men; race weight is 70kg) and drop their weight to about 72kg coming into the racing season. So the relevant bits are probably how we maintain weight through the winter and how we drop in the mid-term coming into the season. For me it’s all about planning & monitoring, both of which develop through experience. I need some sort of routine. During the winter I’ll check my weight once every couple of days, increasing to at least once a day coming into the season and at least twice a day during the competitive season. This lets me know where I’m heading and how far I have still to go. Some people make charts & graphs; I’m content with noting my numbers in my training diary. Keeping track of body weight means I can tailor my diet according to your progress.
“In terms of food I also need a plan. Some people count calories. For me it’s just about eating the right things for fuel and health (vitamins etc). I tend to plan my meals for a few days ahead. If you think of food as fuel for training then it makes sense to plan your diet (within reason) just as you plan your training. It also lets me know what’s coming up so I can look forward to favourite meals after a particularly tough session. Fresh, tasty food is key. Obviously avoiding excess fat is important but if you’re training enough it’s not critical. It also helps to know what fills you up.
“Hunger isn’t something to worry about. You have to put up with a little bit of hunger but also realise that if you’re hungry you probably don’t have enough fuel for a good training session. It’s all a balancing act between under-fuelling and over-eating; hunger is your feedback. ‘Front-loading’ or ‘pre-fuelling’ your day is important. Fuel your body before exercise as afterwards you’ll tend to overcompensate and eat what makes you feel good instantly. Breakfast is critical. I tend to have two smaller lunches during the day if I’m at work and I have an evening training session. Eating a small amount of carbohydrate and protein (cereal bar, toast, yoghurt) within 20mins of your workout will tide you over until the next meal as well as being great for recovery.
“Snacks are good as long as that’s all they are (not replacement meals) and they’re planned and reasonably healthy. I have a snacks with me for times of need, but am disciplined about quantity. I don’t often see my diet as sacrifice (only the last week before a race usually feels that way). I make sure I eat good tasting food as well as keeping it healthy. I love cooking, and flavour is really important to me, so I seek out recipes which taste great and are healthy.
“In summary: ‘plan ahead’, ‘eat a balanced diet’, ‘breakfast is the most important meal of the day’; the old ones are the best.”
Nick English, formerly GB LM4-
“Food right after training, going to bed hungry (enough training and you can sleep any time!) and generally cutting out and cutting back. Take a sports drink on the water so you have energy when you need it. Also never let yourself get too hungry and don’t eat too little.”
So that’s how the pros do it and I must say I’m in awe of what they do.
But what about the rest of us? As one club rower said to me this week, “It’s easier if you’re a full-time rower. Club rowers on the other hand… I’ve spent the last fortnight trying to adopt a suitable diet and have actually gained weight. I sit at a desk for 10+ hours a day and have client entertaining to do, so the 4-6 kg I need to lose is looking near impossible. I do two ergs a week, four water sessions and cycle to work most days, and I am CONSTANTLY HUNGRY!”
I think most of us can relate to that, so tomorrow I’ll be bringing you the stories of ordinary rowers (and a runner and a bodybuilder, for a bit of variety) and how they managed to combine exercising with weight loss. Can you lose weight and still train hard? Find out tomorrow.