We have been told for decades that weight loss is a matter of calories in vs calories out.
We were told that cardio workouts were where it was at and that we should slog away running or cycling or to do some sort of cardio exercise that raises the heart beat for long periods of time.
We were told to stick within the aerobic zone where you could still talk and train at the same time. That this was the magical “fat burning” zone and not to go “anaerobic” as you were only going to burn glucose in that range and not fat.
As women we were told not to lift heavy weights as we would bulk up too much and be masculine looking and that as a woman the beauty ideal was the thin, frail waif of a girl.
These were some of the early reasons I actually took up running as a sport, originally to help me lose weight for my main sport gymnastics this eventually lead to running ultra marathons later in life.
I thought it was the best way to get super fit, to get a lean body the one we were told we needed to have.
I reckoned if I ran long enough I could eat more of the naughty stuff and I would still lose weight by the sheer amount of hours I spent running.
Did it work? Not really.
To a certain degree yes, and sitting on the couch eating chips is certainly not the answer but there were as I discovered later, far easier, far more time and effort efficient methods of achieving far better results.
I wish someone had told me these learnings earlier and it’s one of the reasons why I am writing this now.
I found this sort of training controlled my weight and kept me aerobically fit but I couldn’t “lose” the weight with this system.
Even after horrendously long ultramarathons where I might be running for days on end, on very limited food intake, I still didn’t get lean, still didn’t see the results I thought I would.
It really hit home for me after running through New Zealand, 2250km in 42 days and finding at the end I had lost nothing and in actual fact within a month I had gained weight. That’s when the lightbulb went off in my head and I started to look a bit further than the standard fallacies we had been told.
I started experiments with different training regimes, started researching deeper into the workings of the body and the latest findings and research, speaking with experts and slowly a new picture evolved for me.
Ok, so I didn’t have a lot of weight to lose so maybe that was why I didn’t see the results but to be race fit I was still too heavy and I felt cheated. Here I was slaving my ass off and my ass wasn’t going anywhere.
In fact I noticed after big events like the run through NZ and others I tended to initially gain fluid, from fluid retention and kidney problems then I would lose that water weight and drop 1 to 3 kgs and then with in a couple of weeks it would be back and often with more.
It turns out my hormones were in chaos. My adrenal glands were exhausted, my stress or fight and flight hormones, adrenaline and cortisol were working overtime and this was causing a number of hormonal problems, a slower metabolism, disrupted my menstrual cycle and led to burn out and feeling exhausted all the time.
So I decided to change it all up.
Because I was addicted to training I had to keep working out or go slightly nutty so I stopped doing the long slow stuff that had made up most of my ultramarathon training and started doing shorter but extremely high intensity workouts, both cardio workouts and lifting heavier weights in a circuit, tabata or crossfit style. Whole body training working both the cardiovascular system and strength systems.
Some very interesting things happened.
Firstly I have to admit I did lose the ability to run extremely long distances and the kind of endurance I was used to having, however I very quickly lost the little bit of weight I wanted to, the last 3 or 4 kilos that had bugged me forever and I also gained some (not huge amounts) of lean body mass i.e. muscle which in turn helped turn up the metabolism so I burned calories better. The muscle was functional muscle not bulky but defined.
I was thrilled, this was awesome, literally 1/8th of the time I had spent on training previously, was all that was required and by increasing the intensity (and it was intense work, puking on the floor intense somedays) I suddenly saw massive change.
Not only in my weight but also in my ability to run with better form and technique and even a bit more speed in my running.
So I knew that high intensity anaerobic cardio and weight training was where it was at for burning fat.
After a high intensity workout session your metabolism stays elevated for up to 36 hours. That is another 36 hours of burning more calories and that is why you lose weight and of course get more toned and stronger.
HOWEVER, and this is a big however, after a time and due to the fact that the stress levels in my life went up exponentially due to a family members illness, this lovely system no longer worked as well either.
The total stress in my life was immense and by trying desperately to still smash myself with intense although short workouts I was tipping my body over the edge.
When I wasn’t caring for my very sick mum, I was working to keep all my businesses afloat, burning the candle at both ends and still expecting my body to perform as per usual and that’s when things started to unravel.
As I had no downtime, no time to destress or find balance or recovery I found that too many of these types of workouts while not too time consuming, led to other problems such adrenal fatigue, burn out, sleeplessness, emotional instability and irritability. My metabolism started to slow down and my hormones became unbalanced and I ended up with some major health issues that, I don’t know for sure, but which I believe to partly be attributable to the stress levels I was dealing with.
The upshod of all that was, that I spent nearly a year, totally exhausted and having major menstrual problems leading to the severest anaemia and blood loss, horrific pain and transfusions etc.
Through this experience I decided to dive deep into research around hormone balance, hypothyroidism, the effects of chronic stress, I did test after test, working with experts, took all the supplements I was recommended and eventually I found my way back to health but what I learnt from this experience in regards to workouts was this:
That I had to balance the high intensity workouts with an equal amount of working “in” sessions. By that I mean breath focused workouts that stimulated the parasympathetic nervous system, calmed the adrenals down and lowered the amount of cortisol and adrenaline being pumped out.
The high intensity workouts while burning fat well, also led to cortisol and adrenaline release and the body going into the fight or flight mode and while this is ok if the rest of your life isn’t stressful, this wasn’t a good combination in conjunction with huge amounts of stress and lack of sleep.
So I went back to the drawing board and put all my new found knowledge to the test again by including a lot more yoga, pilates, stretching and mobility workouts into my week, cut the high intensity to max 2 to 3 very short sessions and added some gentle running in to the equation as my health returned and my blood levels started to normalise.
This balance in the workout programme combined with a concerted effort in keeping my total stress levels down (not always possible) is I believe a good weight loss, fitness and health regime. One that I hope will see me right for years to come.
You can’t just push hard on all levels and aspects of your life all at once. This is especially true as we get a little older. Finding balance doesn’t mean being a wimp and giving in to ageing it just means being wiser and more considered and strategic in your approach to your overall wellbeing. Considering all the stress factors in your life when planning your fitness goals and your fitness regime.
This is my personal journey and yours will be very different, but I have witnessed similar stories in the lives of many of the athletes I help coach as well as amongst other extreme sport colleagues.
Yes you can do amazing things, well into older age and I have friends who still do the toughest ultras well into their sixties and seventies but you must look at the total stress loads you are under. The body doesn’t really differentiate between the types of stress so just try not to let your stress bucket levels get to overflowing. If it is threatening to overflow, try and take or one or two stressful items out of your life even if it’s temporarily until things come right again
The lesson in all this is that you don’t have to run 1000’s of kilometres in order to lose weight and that can actually make you gain weight if you are pushing your body into fight or flight mode too often.
It means that the likes of yoga, pilates and breathing exercises and meditation can actually see you getting stronger, fitter and losing more weight than that run you had planned because it stimulates the parasympathetic nervous system and calms the body so its doesn’t look at every calorie you take in and think, crikey we are in a dangerous world, who knows where our next meal is coming from we better store it all as fat. That is what is happening when we live in this constant stage of stress so chill the hell out and lose that extra weight.
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