I Gained Weight by Doing Cardio….

ok not really.  But I’m going to discuss the phenomenon that people often experience of “cardio made me fat” by discussing my own weight loss/gain experience during my cycling racing stint.  It seemed so mysterious to me at the time, but I kept rigorous training logs through that period which included my body weight. Now several years later, it’s totally obvious what was happening.  There has been a lot of “cardio makes you fat” stuff around the internet, which was pretty well debunked by the guys at examine.com in a guest blog at Go Kaleo. I’m going to discuss what happened to me…because the same thing may be happening to you if you aren’t getting the results you want.

I’d like to make this a more personal post also and include some pictures.

This is what I looked like at my leanest and meanest (the one standing up).

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I wrestled at 135 pounds my senior year of high school. I wasn’t a great wrestler by win:loss ratio, but I trained as hard as anyone. I was also wrestling at a weight class lower then I really should have. There was a state level competitive wrestler at 141, which (in retrospect) would have been a metabolically healthier weight for me.  I didn’t want to wrestle JV so I “sucked weight” constantly to 135.  I don’t know what my body fat was, but I almost always had to dehydrate to make weight. I once got a haircut day of weigh in because I was cutting it close to not tipping the scale at 135.0.  After season I hydrated/re-glycogened back up to about 150.  I continued to lift weights regularly at Gold’s Gym and actually ramped up my running and ran a marathon as a senior in high school. I mean…I was in good shape.  That summer I worked at Godfather’s PIzza, ate all you can eat pizza buffet (and salad bar actually), rode my bike to Gold’s, lifted like a body builder, and ran a lot.  I was basically carved out of wood. Weighing roughly 155, though I don’t have actual data to know that for sure.  Freaky hybrid athlete kid, great endurance, strong as bull, eating big, I did that for 2 months, then got what I think was mono was laid up for 2-4 weeks, summer ended, I moved to college.

Fast forward 5 years, I’m graduated from college and haven’t really been working out regularly since that summer. I’m 205 pounds, BMI firmly into obese.  I don’t know if people would call me “fat” per se.  In fact a lot of people and family members are amazed to hear I weighed that much. I had lifted weights some and was just kind of “big”, certainly not fit or “ripped” at all.  I had definitely just been eating too much food and drinking too much alcohol without any real regular exercise  I start applying for medical school and think “I can’t be like this”.  Back story: my dad had a heart attack at 40 and I started to get scared I was heading down that path.  I start running. Eventually that leads to biking and swimming, I get into medical school and join the University of Washington Triathlon team (club team, not school sponsored). There’s a lot of great athletes in medical school so I start a UW Medical School Running Team, and we win a bunch of team relays, etc around Washington.  I get back in decent shape, weight gets down to a low of about 165. This picture is from the US Collegiate National Triathlon Championships in 2004::

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It’s hard to tell in the picture, but I still look more like a “wrestler pretending to do aerobic sports”. Eventually I do a half Iron Man and decide “I like biking best” in the middle of that 6 hour race. I start bike racing.  Bike racing was great. Long rides with a huge team all winter, racing all summer.  I was pushing new envelopes metabolically with my body. Off season after my first year of bike racing I go on “Operation 158”- a concerted effort to shed body fat to make hill climbing and bike racing more efficient. It works.  I train all winter, long miles, lots of eating and weight stays down. Racing season comes around and I gain a reasonable amount of weight even while in the middle of a hard bike racing season.  I repeat this cycle two more times and can never keep my weight down while racing but easily shed weight during the fall after the season and keep it down during the winter of long slow distance. I got to a low of 154.  The best picture to show how lean I am also shows me after a crash with a ton of road rash. I’ll spare you all that one. My face is somewhat gaunt, my arms are really quite skinny for me.  Full six pack.  I’m low 160’s here:

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I kept gaining weight every bike racing season!  Cardio was making me fat! I look back and really am amazed I couldn’t figure out what was going on at the time.

How was I losing weight? Greatly decreasing my calories for about two months after the season ends while lifting weights and cross training. Feeling a little hangry and couldn’t exercise very hard but losing weight. I was always working a ton, upwards of 80 hours per week so I couldn’t be very sedentary.  Almost certainly losing weight too fast.  Hard to know if I was losing lean mass, because I was typically weight training during that period, but I know my calorie intake was greatly reduced. Then when we started the long slow volume phases in November I would increase my intake.  I would usually gain about two-four pounds during that period, but I usually just attributed that to glycogen regain after going hungry for a month or two.  I would have to eat a lot during this part. I would frequently ride for 4 hours both Saturday and Sunday and a few 1 hours rides with higher intensity during the week. It was a lot of time on the bike for a guy in late medical school and into residency. My weight would stay pretty stable.

Then: the bike racing season would start and the efforts would get even more intense, though often shorter time on the bike (training rides would be longer than races for me). I would need more time to recover so the rest of the week I would ride less.  I continued to eat huge amounts of pasta during all this.  Like massive plates of pasta, beyond satiety.  I didn’t want to get carb depleted!  I wanted to make sure I had enough fuel for my races.

Summary: I reduced my mileage greatly (though relatively increase intensity) while keeping my intake very high…..I ate more then I burned.  Why I couldn’t see it at that time, I don’t know.  I have no idea if my body was still angry about the restriction from the fall before, because as you know- I now really, really don’t think rapid weight loss is a good idea or good for the metabolism.  I also know that before bike racing I never really had any tendency toward binging, but I started having episodes of significant overeating after I started bike racing despite knowing that I was going to feel ill from it.  Usually in the form of a pot-luck where I would eat way beyond what was comfortable. I even knew and dreaded a pot-luck because I knew I would eat so much that going to bed that night would be uncomfortable. Despite knowing that, I would do it anyway.  I suspect these periods of restriction helped initiate that in me.

I started to fall back into my sedentary weight gain phase after I stopped bike racing and moved to this small town, my wife had our first daughter and life was turned on it’s head. I continued to have issues (which I didn’t recognize at the time) of eating to excess, especially on dessert. I was using it as a stress management technique while trying to “eat healthy” in the context of not getting enough exercise.  That wasn’t working for me- it probably won’t work for you.  I gained weight, but more than that my body composition suffered. I ended at about 172 pounds.

I finally got to a good place when I was exercising regularly and figured out what I was doing. I realized that I was using food as a stress management technique and not for fuel or even just as food for enjoyment (because I didn’t enjoy that stress management eating very much).  I eat dessert now and sometimes if I’m hungry I’ll eat a lot of dessert, but since I’ve stopped vilifying food and gotten right with my relationship with body and food. I now just Eat the Food without the binging. It’s not a fight anymore, now that I have my mind right about my health and body.  I still can’t decide what I want my “goal” to be, but I have a future post to discuss that in greater detail. Below is me as I am now, right around 170 (though dramatic composition difference from 172 squishy me). Right now its basically two days of lifting a week and more movement and martial arts the rest of the week. More of a 4 pack abs guy now, but look at them triceps!  The picture on my front page is probably only a few weeks before this one.

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