This could be a long one. Here’s a quick summary:
- Burn the Fat, Feed the Muscle a.k.a. BFFM (Tom Venuto) and his related titles are an excellent resource for sedentary/semi-active people seeking a sustainable long term solution for fat loss
- This “system” has enabled me to drop off fat and keep it off for almost a decade
- However, as I “transformed” into an endurance athlete I found I needed to make various tweaks to the BFFM system for endurance training
- Racing Weight (Matt Fitzgerald) – which I’ve recently discovered – reads just like the way I’ve tweaked BFFM for endurance training. Additionally, it also answers (with cited research) some long standing questions I’ve had and brings many useful tips “to the table” for the endurance athlete.
- Initial Impressions: BFFM is what I recommend to all my friends who aren’t endurance athletes when they ask me “how did you get in shape and stay in shape?” Racing Weight looks to be what I’ll recommend to all my endurance athlete friends who ask the same question.
BusyDadCycling – a Fat Loss Journey
Over nine years ago, I was one of “those” guys. Kept fairly active in high school and college. Graduated, got a full time desk job. Commuting to class by mountain bike (steelie Bridgestone MB-5, still got it!) and joining in the daily pick-up basketball game had been replaced by a full-time desk job. Six years into my engineering career I was tipping the scales at 235 lbs. At 6’3″ I could hide some of it, but there was no getting around the yearly BMI talk from my doctor and his nutritionist (“go eat more fruits and vegetables“). I hated that I wasn’t active and felt fat and slow.
I bought a newer mountain bike and started to ride once, maybe twice a week. I hit the gym about twice a week for basic circuit training. I lost about 10 lbs. Still, I was not happy and always thought there was more out there. South Beach Diet along with many more fads were tried. (Aside: it’s a pretty sad state of our medical system when your own doctor is falling for the latest diet fads and pointing you to them as well). In the back of my mind I knew they were all temporary – nothing preached lifestyle change. I didn’t want anything to do with any more hucksters selling snake oil.
After one long night staying up late and searching the ends of the internet for “whatever else was out there” – I found Burn the Fat, Feed the Muscle. In 2006 this was only available in e-book form, and not in the polished & edited version now available in paperback form on Amazon. The front end website looked like an infomercial (and in some ways, still does – sorry Tom!). I was very suspicious. But it did come with a money back guarantee, and many glowing reviews. I took the plunge and dropped what I think was $50 on the e-book (an astronomical amount if you take into account the overhead cost of an e-book!).
I’ll save you the further drama and simply say that BFFM has been my go-to program ever since and it shows in the results. From a high of 235lbs and almost a 42″ waist, over the years I dropped to a low of 185lbs and a 36″ waist (these are actual measurements, not pants sizes people!) – pretty much back to my high school days. The club cut bike jerseys I’d bought in my “fat days” (which fit tight) were now like wearing a tent – I found a seamstress friend to take all of them in.
What are the cornerstones of BFFM? Here’s the some bullet points I’ve learned from Burn the Fat, Feed the Muscle – but know it is quite the extensive publication and I’m sure to have left a few things out:
- Major Pillars in the “system”:
- Mental preparation
- Set and focus on goals to deal with roadblocks (such as emotional eating)
- Understand the effect of sugar / Why nutrient-dense foods are better / Macro nutrient ratios (Carb/Protein/Fat) for fat loss
- Calculating your calorie levels for fat loss (getting the right calorie deficit)
- Understand timing of your meals/snacks to be fueled for your workouts and to recover afterwards
- Strength Training – maintain the muscle you have while you’re in a calorie deficit
- Cardio-based exercise – add activity to burn the fat!
- “Feedback loop” – track your progress and adjust based on results
- Accountability – there is power in telling other people you are on a fat loss journey. Even better if you do it with a buddy. Likewise, it’s easy to fall of the wagon if you’re running solo.
- Mental preparation
- Other points:
- Transforming your body means you have to embrace lifestyle change. This is not a fad diet.
- BFFM is all about “teaching you how to fish.” It’s not a simple one-size fits all plan but rather giving you an understanding of all the tools at your disposal you can customize your own approach to fat loss.
- Much of the BFFM system is based on methods of (natural) bodybuilders to manage their body fat. It works for them and it can work for the average Joe.
- Understanding the difference between weight loss and fat loss – why knowing and tracking your body fat percentage is important (dropping weight is no good if you lost muscle!)
BFFM has often been described as “eat more, exercise more.” This slogan makes sense when you take into account the type of person who often starts the program – coming off of starvation diets. Instead, BFFM drives home the fact that activity is absolutely necessary for fat burn, and that activity coupled with smart nutrition is the key towards transforming your body.
What does BFFM look like in practice?
Fairly simple, once you get the hang of it:
- Get a baseline for your weight and body fat percentage. I use the Slim Guide calipers from Amazon for body fat % in conjunction with a Tanita Body Composition Scale as well. The former is prone to error because it’s a manual method and takes practice. The latter is prone to fluctuations as there are some consistency issues with bio-impedance monitors. So I use both and average the results. A bit OCD so take that with a grain of salt. You just want something to be able to track your trends.
- Calculate your calorie levels for fat loss. Here’s a calculator from the BFFM website. Plug in your current weight, BF% and the rest is fairly simple. There are guidelines included for what activity level and calorie deficit to use for the results you’re after.
- Start with a baseline macro-nutrient ratio and go from there. For example, a sedentary guy (like I started out) might benefit from going with moderately low carbs (50/30/20 for example C/P/F)
- Eat clean! There is no more effective way to destroy your progress than food sabotage. Your meals should focus on whole, nutrient-dense foods. The less processed the better. Whole grains, lean proteins and plenty of veggies should be cornerstones of your meals. Yes, a cheat here and there is fine but be careful with how it affects your results.
- Follow a good strength training plan. There’s plenty out there on the web to follow. For example, a beginner might follow a 2-3x a week plan which covers major muscle groups. The purpose of this is two-fold: Calorie burn (especially if you follow a circuit), and maintaining your muscle while in a calorie deficit.
- Choose a cardio exercise that you like (or any number of them) and spend enough time doing it to get enough fat burn. Rowing, running, cycling, whatever. Add interval training for the “afterburn” effect if needed to burn more calories in limited time.
- Track your results and change as necessary. Now that you’re eating clean, following a calorie level for your goals and exercising, it’s important to adjust your plan when you don’t see results. Dropping fat? Good work. Lost some muscle with fat? Maybe your deficit is too aggressive. Not making any progress? Double check your food diary, your assumptions for calorie burn, add cardio, weigh your portions if necessary…
There you go – the basics of a plan I’ve been following for years to keep my body fat in check. Sometimes I’ve “fallen off the wagon” and indulged in junk foods for a little too long. But I’ve always had the necessary knowledge to get myself back on track.
What changes have I made to apply BFFM to endurance training?
As great a “system” as BFFM is for fat loss, I’ve found the publications (and the Inner Circle website) a bit weak on addressing the endurance athlete. That much is understandable, given the “lean” of the material towards bodybuilding. Many of the principles still apply to the endurance athlete, they’ve just needed a bit more development.
Once I found myself transitioning from “cardio for fat loss” to goals like “I enjoy riding my bike fast and far – wouldn’t completing the Assault on Mt Mitchell be a great goal before I’m 40?” I had to re-think some things. My macronutrient ratios, the amount of strength training I was doing, and fueling / re-fueling for workout performance took some examination.
As of now, I’ve generally settled into the following approach:
- “Off-season” (you know, when it’s cold out and your activity level drops) generally follows my classic BFFM plan:
- Nutrition: Moderately low-carb ratios, keeping protein up to retain muscle. Go for a calorie deficit at this time – especially to counteract holiday eating 🙂
- Get back to strength training which I didn’t have the time for when it’s riding season (and good to keep working on the core anyway).
- Bike training: Most cycling is done as intervals to keep the fat burn going (indoor spin class) with the odd weekend long ride if the weather is good
- Accountability: Sign up for a cyclocross race. Nothing like the possibility of being last to motivate you away from the Christmas donuts
- “In-season” (you know it’s in-season when you start chasing Strava segments again) :
- Nutrition: Raise carbs and drop protein within the range of my overall calorie needs. Do not be afraid of fueling correctly before, on or after training – remember this is the time to think about performance. Keep the calorie deficit small or none at all. However, keep an eye on “justified eating” – “I just had a big ride so I’m going to the buffet.” Oops. If that gets out of hand I’ll run a few deficit days, but knowing I can’t do this too long or performance suffers.
- Strength training: Not much time for it but it would be good for me to at least stay with core exercises
- Bike training: Following anything out of Chris Charmichael’s Time Crunched Cyclist book. Either on an interval plan, in an endurance block in between, or stringing together long charity rides over a few summer weekends (i.e. fun time!)
- Accountability: Any number of events on the calendar!
Is this all the advice you’ve got for endurance athletes? Read the entire BFFM book and figure it out on your own?
Thankfully, no. I’ve just read almost through a book I’ve just discovered called “Racing Weight” by Matt Fitzgerald. Once again, I bought this with skepticism. I bought the main book, the companion cookbook and the “Quick Start” guide. (Great job Velopress to valorize the concept into multiple books and purchases).
First impressions – it looks as if Matt Fitzgerald and Tom Venuto spent some time in a conference room and decided together to take “two sides” of the athlete market. Tom took the bodybuilding side and Matt took the endurance athletes. Fitzgerald’s book reads like everything I knew from BFFM, plus lots of extra help for the endurance athlete. It really is uncanny…
What I like that I’ve read in “Racing Weight”:
- Clearly states that low-carb fad diets have no place in the endurance athlete’s nutrition, with research to show it; however,
- Does give room (with the Quick Start “pre-season” fat loss approach) for lower than normal carbs and many of the “tricks” I’ve learned from BFFM for focused fat loss
- Addresses the importance of body composition (measuring BF %) when tracking weight loss. Shows the relationship between body composition and endurance performance (i.e. of two guys weighing the same, odds are the guy with more muscle is going to finish ahead)
- Describes a clear method for quantifying how “clean” you are eating
- Easy recipes in the cookbook
- Deals with our current “food environment” and helps you understand physical vs psychological (emotional) hunger
- More detail than simple macro-nutrient ratios and addresses absolute carb/protein/fat needs (i.e. in grams not percentages) of the endurance athlete
- Points to the importance of tracking progress – not only your weight and BF% but your endurance performance (you can lose too much weight and be below your ideal race weight)
- Importance of timing your meals / snacks around your training for best performance (and what you should be eating too)
- Example meals from pro endurance athletes and considerations for young/old and vegetarian and vegans
- Includes strength training examples
What I’m not too sure about:
- When Fitzgerald gets to the section about training, it’s obvious to me that he could use a talk with Chris Charmichael about the Time Crunched Cyclist Method. I’d like to see what kind of conversation the two would have, as Fitzgerald’s training section obviously draws from the classic endurance training approach (lots of volume) whereas Charmichael’s approach (out of necessity for busy people with little time) is lower volume with higher intensity. Fitzgerald’s argument is clear – as his nutrition principles have been gleaned from watching elite athletes, so it makes sense that replicating their training would work as well. As Charmichael says in The Time Crunched Cyclist – that would work if you have their kind of time. If you only have 6 hours a week, you have to do something different. Given that my PRs all have come only after switching over to TCC type training, I’m going to stick with that.
- Edit: They may not be too far from agreement – on page 146 Fitzgerald does address the “intensity” disparity across the range of endurance coaches. Some prescribe more high intensity than others … still I’d like to see this conversation 🙂
What great timing for a New Year’s resolution – the beginning of the year and AOMM 2015 is ahead in the spring. I will be following “Racing Weight” and will blog about the progress. Today’s numbers are 194lbs and 19% body fat. Let’s get to work!