Increase lean muscle mass and you'll perform, look and feel better. Why? More strength means more joint stability, stronger bones and ligaments, and increased calorie burn—even during rest—because muscle burns more calories than fat.
We're not talking about putting on 10 pounds of muscle—that amount of extra bulk could impede performance in endurance athletes. Rather, improve your body composition by shedding excess body fat and adding lean muscle, and you'll become a better and, most likely, lighter athlete. This plan requires a mental shift in how you view and approach weight loss—simply slashing calories won't get you there.
"Athletes who restrained intake in order to be lighter didn’t fare as well," says Dan Benardot, Ph.D. and professor of nutrition at Georgia State University, who has conducted studies of elite athletes' consumption and training. "They thought an 800 to 1,000-calorie deficit would lower their weights. But that lowered the wrong weight. It lowered the weight that needs calories—the lean muscle mass."
For the best and fastest results, follow a double-pronged approach that includes specific workouts, but emphasizes eating to get lean. Why focus on eating to get lean? Because you can negate a large part of the calorie-burning efforts of your training with less-than-ideal eating habits.
Here's a sample workout strategy:
- Include functional strength training in your weekly regimen
- Add intensity to your sport-specific training by completing speed intervals, or increasing frequency of training (for example, if you’re a runner, add more miles by completing two runs the same day—one 30 to 40 minutes and the other 20 to 30 minutes—once a week to start)
- Add a cross-training session for a calorie-burning boost
Eat to increase lean muscle mass and you'll improve your body composition, which will make you look and perform better.
Eat the Right Amounts of Food
It's a common misconception that athletes focused on building muscle should greatly increase the amount of protein they eat. But, eating more than the required amounts of any food—be it carbohydrates, fat or protein—will result in unwanted fat storage.
"The cellular capacity for nutrients is finite, and whatever you overfill will turn into something else," says Benardot, who has worked with several U.S. Olympic teams over the years. "Amino acids dissipate and they’re either stored as fat, or you burn it as you would a fuel. It's then not used as protein to build hormones, and build and repair muscles."
Make the most of the muscle-building and repairing properties of protein by eating smaller amounts of protein throughout the day. For example, if your daily recommended value (an amount that varies according to your weight, and fitness and activity levels) of protein is 100 grams, have a little protein at each meal and snack, particularly in a snack that falls within the 30-minute post-workout recovery window, so your body can use the amino acids optimally.
Athletes Need to Eat Carbs
Carbs don't make you fat. Overeating carbs makes you fat.
With high-glycemic carbs and low-glycemic carbs making headlines, and high-glycemic carbs being demonized as one of the main culprits of weight gain, it's hard to know what information to trust. High-glycemic carbs (found in candy, cookies, white foods, some fruits and vegetables) are made up mostly of simple sugars that are broken down by the body much faster than low-glycemic carbs (some fruits and vegetables, beans and lentils, quinoa), which are complex sugars that take longer to digest.
Low-glycemic carbs tend to contain more fiber and nutrients than high-glycemic carbs, so they're often recommended to people with weight-loss goals because they satiate hunger longer.
Athletes should think of carbohydrates as the front-line soldiers of the body: Carbs are the body's first source of energy during exercise. When you're training, don’t eliminate or severely restrict your carb consumption because your body could turn to protein as a secondary energy source—and then you won't be able to use protein to build and repair muscles.
"Humans can store plenty of fat and protein, but our carb storage is very low, and it's stored locally and not shared," says Benardot.
Here's how to use carbs to fuel your training efforts:
- Eat high-glycemic carbs (white bread, jelly, white pasta, juice) 30 minutes or less before a high-intensity workout
- Eat lower-glycemic carbs, or combine high-glycemic carbs with protein (for example, in a smoothie with fruit and protein powder), after a workout to refuel glycogen stores
Strive for Energy Balance
- Complete one long workout per month in the morning without consuming anything first except water so you burn through your body's carb stores. Your body stores roughly 90 minutes worth of carbs; after that, it moves to stored fat as the energy source. Prepare yourself mentally for this fat-burning effort—enduring a long session without taking in carbs can be rough.
During Benardot’s lab research on how the eating habits of elite athletes affected their body composition, he found that the leanest athletes balanced what they eat with how often they trained.
"The athletes who figured out how to avoid energy deficit or surplus did great—they had higher lean muscle mass, lower body-fat percentages, and they felt and performed better," says Benardot.
If you're strategic about when and how much you eat, and combine this eat-to-be-lean philosophy with increased training stimuli, you might be surprised at how quickly you can increase your lean muscle mass.