Tuesday, September 6, 2011

How I got fast Part 1

I'm going to write a series of posts with some details of how I got "fast". How do I know I'm fast? Other people keep telling me things like "dang John, you're really fast". I know how I made the jump from running 10 minute miles to running 7 minute miles and that's really what I'm going for here. I still compete against people running 5:30 to 6:30 miles, and I think that's fast. When I start finishing in the top 10 for my age group in triathlons, or winning small 5k's; then I'll admit to being the fastest for that day. These fast guys are putting in 16 to 18 minute 5k's.

So the first thing we have to admit is that there's always a bigger fish. My bigger fish is the 16:xx 5k that makes me feel slow. Your big fish might be the elusive sub-4 hour or 5-hour marathon. I know I might be the big fish for other people. But there's always a bigger fish.

Step 1: Weight Loss

If your goal is to complete (not compete) then weight loss should not be an issue. For years, I championed "the scale is nothing but a number" from finishing my first marathon in 5:07 to the second one in 4:31. I said I could run as many marathons as I wanted to over 200 lbs. They would all be over 4 hours and I would never get that sense of improvement, but I really could complete as many as I wanted.

Then last year at the Patriot's Half Ironman I had a goal to break 3 hours in the bike split and 6 hours overall. I picked the Patriots because the bike course was supposed to be so favorable for the sub-3 split. No excuses, can't blame the course or conditions, just have to muscle up and hit my speeds. The swim was hard so I missed the 6 hour target, finishing in 6:55 instead. But the killer was the 3:08 bike split. I knew then that I just couldn't push 200+ lbs on the bike any faster than I did that day and I would never be able to complete a full ironman by pushing 200+ lbs over 140.6 miles. I did not want to push 200 lbs around for over 140 miles.

I know plenty of clydesdales do finish ironmans. Some 200 pounders even win ironmans. But that doesn't mean I could do it. If I wanted to get faster, it was time to get lean.

I bought a copy of Racing Weight by Matt Fitzgerald. I read it, and wrote a nice review if you want the specifics of what I got from the book. I set a pretty lofty goal to have visible abdominal musculature (show the 6 pack abs), and discovered it normally requires getting a body fat percentage down in the 9-11% range before they start to show up. I bought a body fat scale from KMart and established my starting point.

Well, really my starting point was established here:

Right after the Evil Genius was born was when I started this whole gig. I was 235 lbs at my heaviest, I sold the stressful business, took a work-from-home job, stopped smoking, signed up for my first triathlon (actually registered for the race before I stopped smoking, bought a bike, or ran my first mile), and Kelley went on weight watchers and got us eating right. So for most of the last 4 years I have been floating between 195 and 205 lbs. Otherwise known as:

One of the thinner times I was racing, but still right around 200 lbs.

To achieve my goals for Racing Weight, I had to take a multilayer approach.
  • Go vegetarian - We decided to stop buying meat from the grocery store. It saves a ton of money and made the biggest difference in my health and energy levels. I would still eat meat at restaurants, but not more than once a week - a cheat meal.
  • Log everything at trainingpeaks.com - Every morsel I ate and drank and every workout got logged. I didn't know I was drinking 12 cups of coffee a day, all I knew was that the free coffee machine at work kept brewing more.
  • Limit my intake to 1800 calories a day - more on that later
  • Run for weight loss - more on that later too
  • Consistent Monitoring
  • Establish a target date for completion
Ironman Florida and the Beach 2 Battleship are around the same weekend every year. My preference was IMFL, so I started with that date - 11/5/11. I'm doing this in September last year, remember. Reading the Racing Weight book, developing a race schedule for 2011, researching Ironman training plans, all with this one focused goal of completing a 140.6. I use a spreadsheet to log all of my workouts, so I loaded the training plan up into the spreadsheet.

This gave me the end date for weight loss. I knew I needed to be at my target weight by the time Ironman training started on Feb 28. An old friend from college wanted to get in on some weight loss too, so we kept weekly tabs on each other. I stayed in constant contact with the Snail, and we pushed each other to faster 5k times throughout the spring. He lost a bunch of weight in that time frame too, and got really fast, actually besting my half marathon and 5k pr's by a few seconds each. {{shakes fist like an angry old man}}

I picked my start date when I finished reading the book. I wanted to show slow, consistent progress over the time frame I allocated, and I needed some accountability. Thus was established the Monday Morning Naked Weight (MMNW). Every monday at 6 am I would weigh myself totally naked, and record the numbers on my training log spreadsheet and post them on the blog. I started at 208.8 lbs and 28.5% body fat. There's a long way to go to see 11% body fat.

The good thing about numbers is that you can multiply 208.8 times 28.5% and discover that I contained 59.45 lbs of pure fat. I know some of that is needed to function. But watch this math. 208.8 - 59.5 leaves 149.3 lbs of muscles, bones and organs. Multiply that by 11% = 165.7 lbs is my target weight to get to 11% body fat. That means if I can lose 43.1 lbs of pure fat (no muscle or water loss) then I should get there. Of course there will be some other losses, you never lose pure bodyfat. But under the other bullet points I came as close as possible!

This was the "after" shot taken yesterday. Certainly much closer to the goal, this is an iron hardened body. Less than 60 days to go until Ironman, this is about as sculpted as I'm going to get.

I still weigh myself every monday morning and record it in the spreadsheet. Yesterday I came in at 170.8, and a flat 16% bodyfat, rocking 27.3 lbs of fat. So my weight loss since I started tracking on 10/18/10 is exactly 38 lbs, and 32.13 lbs of that is pure fat. That's a pretty high muscle retention weight in my book. Watching my body fat % drop with the sheer number of pounds lost was the biggest motivator. Since I knew I wasn't losing muscle it became easy to stay strong mentally and physically, and just keep running faster.

So from the bottom up in my bullet point list, I've got my target date established and monitoring systems in place. Running for weight loss is considerably different than running for speed or endurance.

Running for weight loss

Weight loss is about establishing patterns. You eat on a schedule. You workout on a schedule. No tri training, multisport, bricks, or two-a-days. Running for weight loss has to be simple. As the pounds come off, running gets easier. That will naturally make you faster. How and how much you run can also make a difference.

Calories Count

Everyone has to establish a magic number for their own intake. If you are shorter than me (I'm 6'1"), or female, or have a higher starting weight, then your magic number will be different. The best way to find your magic number is through trial and error. It needs to be high enough to sustain bodily function, yet low enough to promote weight loss. Slow, consistent weight loss. My magic number was 1800 calories a day.

I created a free account at Training Peaks. Their food database has almost everything I would eat with calorie and micronutrient values. So everything I would eat and every workout got logged in there. I eat the same oatmeal breakfast every day now, and I cut out the snacks in between meals. Breakfast should really be the largest meal of the day, but it doesn't always work out like that. A large high carb breakfast should keep you going throughout the day, and a smaller protein based dinner or snack before bed should allow the metabolism to stay revved through the night.

Ideally, it should be 500 calories for breakfast, 400 for lunch, 300 for dinner, and a 200 calorie snack after dinner. That leaves 400 calories to cover the overages (a 300 calorie dinner? really?) and any post-workout recovery snack. I knew if I stayed under 1800 calories I was well setup for a loss. My typical day would take in between 1650 - 1775 calories according to training peaks. A meatless lean cuisine became a staple for lunch. Dinner was usually 3 or 4 veggies on a plate. I stayed full the whole time, and fueled up for my workouts. I cut out the pre-workout powerbar, no more sports drink during the run, and I would eat a regularly planned meal afterwards (lunch or pre-bedtime snack), so I needed no extra intake for the workouts.

Workouts needed to be no more than once a day, 5 days a week. My magic formula was 4 days of running, 1 day of cycling. Running burns more calories per mile than any other sport. This is the important part:

*Each workout should burn 400 - 600 calories.*

I liked using the treadmill for my runs because the machine calculated my calories for me. Long runs burned more than 600 calories. I would have to eat more to recover from those 8-10 mile runs, so eventually I cut those out too. As the pounds came off, the run time went down, 3-5 miles to get in that burn range went to 4-6 miles, I started getting faster, and I started walking less. The treadmill lends itself to tempo or progressive runs in this phase, not intervals or other hard core speedwork. Certainly no long runs.

However, it is a perfect opportunity to perfect your running form, and that's what I did. Forward lean, landing with a midfoot strike, pushing off with my quads, using large muscles over smaller muscles. That felt really good, and made a huge difference.

If we take a typical 5 mile run on the treadmill as our example, at the start of the plan it would look like this: Warm up, build speed up to 6.0 max, take walk breaks when needed, finish the 5 in maybe 56:xx to an hour. By the time I was ready to start ironman training (end of the weight loss phase) the same run looked like: warm up, build up speed to 7.2ish, no walk breaks needed, finish in 45:xx to 48 minutes.

Straight weight loss took me from running 10 minute miles to 8 min/miles. I was at a weight where I could conceivably begin Ironman training, so I started the plan. Time to get faster at swimming and biking now too, and see how much I could push my run speeds.

Also, today was Evil Genius's first day of the pre-k program we've got her in at the church. She's a TK Tiger now, in with the other 4 year olds. Daddy is so proud!


Alisa said...

John, thanks for this post. While most of us are no stranger to "diets" it is always helpful (at least for me) to see real world examples of those who have lost weight and seen measurable training goals accompany that loss!

Way to go!

I found the Fitzgerald formula online and for me to be in the range of body fat for my age group I'd have to weigh like 135 lbs...on a 5'11'' frame I'm not sure that's a reasonable goal. However, I definitely want to see the bodyfat numbers decrease. While I'm still recovering from the neuroma issue I can't run but have been swimming like a fish and started lifting weights again.

Here's to a successful weight loss effort and success in training.

This post was inspiring and honest, both things I enjoy in blogs. Keep it up!

Unknown said...

Awesome post!! Was it hard for you to stick to 1800 cal/day? I feel like even on a non-running day for me, I'm starving on that many calories. Looking forward to part 2!

Unknown said...

Loving these tips and ideas. I need to get that book.

Amy said...

That was a great post! I have some similar plans for next year, and will definitely be bookmarking this.

Wes said...

1800 calories a day doesn't even fuel your RMR, much less exercise. I'm not knocking your results, they are IMPRESSIVE! I just think you were very aggressive.

do you manage your protein/carb/fat ratios on your new diet? I'd like to cut back on my meat too.

Katie said...

wow, great post - I love how methodical you are!

Anonymous said...

Great article!

sarah said...

WOW! John, I had no idea you had lost so much weight. Congrats. ON EVERYTHING!!

Tyly said...

Awesome post!!!! You are my idol! Buy you already knew that... :)

Sophie @ threetimesf said...

Great post John! I only started reading recently (around the time we started commenting eachother!) and had no idea you have only been doing 'this' for about a year - seeing those pictures shows the amazing progress you have made!
As you know, I work in a school and have to eat schooldinners with the kids, so healthy eating is becoming more and more of a struggle for me - I pledged on my blog yesterday to get more of a grip on it and get my weight back down. Yesterday was also my first run in about 6 weeks.....
Let's do this! Thanks for all the tips and advice :) You are a real inspiration!
ps - as a sidenote, I always have problems opening up the page to comment on your blog?! Not sure if it's just me...

Lisa from Lisa's Yarns said...

Great post! I got that book this summer and just need to start reading it.

I definitely want to take your advice and start working on this. I will probably really commit to it after my half when I am not doing all the workouts with run club. Those work outs have been good for me, but I think i need to work on my own like you have in order to get to that faster pace! I know I can do it.

it's all about pace said...


Well planned, well executed, and well written.

Thanks... I really enjoy yor blog.

Parkison Family said...

Way to go! This is awesome!

Amber said...


I have always tried to lose weight while training for things and working out 6-7 times per week for 7+ hours a week. Clearly that is not the way to do it. I think after my half in October I'm going to cut way back on exercise and focus on my eating. Not only do I want to lose weight for the wedding next July but I'm also going to start training for another marathon in January and I'd like to drop 5-10 pounds before then.

Have you been doing any strength training? Eric swears by strength training for weight loss and I'm wondering if I need to up my strength training and cut back on my running + eating to see real results.

Super informative post.

Jess said...

Lots of math in there :)

Congrats on the achievement! The results are amazing.

Reese's Runner said...

So so very helpful. I LOVE your blog. Decided to quit being a secret creeper and actually comment.

Missy said...

Looking good brother! Calories in, calories out and not all calories are created equally. That's my mantra.

Christy Z. said...

Great post! Yes, some great books, tips in there.

Tara @ texasrunnergirl.com said...

Amazing post. Thank you so much for putting that together. I'm gonna start being a stalker... I mean...follower.

RunToTheFinish said...

excellent post! i have been meaning to do one about how it helped me maintain a 35lb loss, but I think yours was much better!

raulgonemobile said...

Killer post, man. The pictures show what a difference all of that makes. I'm going to check out that book.

Jess said...

Loving your How I got Fast series. (I've sort of been reading backwards...oops, but still really enjoying these posts.) I'm looking forward to this training cycle wrapping up so I can start focusing on some speed over the winter.