Macrofactor: How to Lose Weight in 2023 as an Endurance Athlete

Let me tell you how to reach and maintain your target weight as an endurance athlete.

Weight loss is a difficult subject for endurance atheletes. Eating disorders, obsession with intake and crash diets are big problems in athletes historically. While the idea of fitness for all body types is a great inclusivity goal, it’s true that for most endurance sports, body weight and composition are among the most important factors in performance.

I’ve been training seriously as a cyclist for 4 years now. By nature, I’m an endomorph, meaning that I tend toward body roundness. After graduating from high school, I was never able to wear 31 inch waist shrink to fit Levi 501’s and remember one dieting episode while in medical school when my weight was as low as 137 pounds. As someone who is 5 foot 5 inches tall, my usual weights in the 150 lb range are in the overweight range on the standard BMI chart.

I did make some progress with simple food logging using Lose It which provides a comprehensive food database. Regardless of calorie target, honest food logging reveals where exess calories are coming from and provides feedback for better eating and nutrition.

Even riding thousands of miles a year on the bicycle, my weight has been remarkably stable. For endurance athletes, the challenge is fueling the efforts that need hundreds of calories for energy yet create a minor deficit that creates a negative caloric balance. THe problem with simple food logging is handling the daily expendature variations for big effort days, regular training and rest days. Without good control, the body adjusts intake for stable weight at its setpoint. Which for me as a cyclist has long been unnessesarily high. There’s no real reason why I need to walk around with 25% of my body weight as fat that needs to be accelerated and dragged up hills on my super light carbon fiber bicycle.

The solution I’ve found is an iPhone app called MacroFactor. I discovered Macrofactor from this post at Lifehacker The Best Paid Diet App. That title is not really accurate because MacroFactor is really a weight management system, not a diet app.

The new approach taken by the system is to control caloric intake based on weight trajectory. So if one wants to maintain a weight, the app will find the daily calorie intake that produces a flat weight curve without gain or loss. If the goal is weight gain, it will increase calorie target until the desired positive weight slope is achieved. And the same for weight loss. Since expenditure is varying day to day, week to week and month to month, the process is dynamic, adapting to the rate of change. The algorithm used isn’t explicit, but after using it for a few months, I can see that it is primarily looking at slope over time to predict current expenditure.

Here’s a screen capture of the last 3 months of my weight data:

You can see that the dark blue trend line doesn’t run through the center of the data like a moving average or a smoothing technique like a loess curve. Instead, it looks like the line is showing the slope in the underlying data, often sitting above the line as it trends down. And yes, I’ve been able to get back down toward that goal weight in just a few months. A few flat sections as well- when I had recovered from COVID and the last week or so.

Now here’s what the. expenditure curve looks like over the same period.

The initial suggested daily burn was way too high and as my weight was not trending down at the targeted rate, the algorithm reduced it day by day until the desired rate of decline was in view. Actually, it overshot a bit and then, when my weight leveled off, it brought the expenditure down to a pretty low level of 1800 kcals/day. This oscillation is one of the problems anticipated with a simple feedback loop where the output is controlled by a lagging input. Like a simple thermostat, temperature oscillates above an below the target temperature as the thermostat cycles the furnace on and off. But the oscillation is around the correct value, providing a homeostatic control over time. We’re talking about one or two hundred calories a day- a 10 or 15 percent error range.

The app tracks macronutrients in a nice display as well with targets for protein, fat and carbs. So as it shifts the calorie allowance based on weight change, it pushes me to keep protien intake up. So I base all of my meals around protien often supplemented with a protein shake, fueling the exercise sessions with all the allowed carbs. I’ve shifted body composition without being underfueled and without being too hungry between meals.

For me, one of my favorite aspects of the program is how non-judgemental it is. If I go over the day’s caloric intake target to fuel a big workout, the app doesn’t care. In fact, the whole approach not only discourages cheating, it encourages complete entry of all dietary intake. After all, the more I say I eat, the more it allocates as calorie expenditure, since all it knows is what I say I eat and what I weigh. Expenditure is based only on the relationship between calories in and weight.

The monthly subscription is $11.99 a month, but has certainly been worth it for me. I believe that even once I’m at a goal weight and stable I’ll be happy to support the developers and see how training and life influence my metabolism over the longer term..

Performance, Fitness and Health

Cycling has been a major focus of mine over the last 3 years. It started with an indoor trainer to get some more regular aerobic activities, but one thing led to another and now I’ve got a coach and I’m riding Gran Fondos, 100 mile rides in the mountains with timed segments. I’m still seeing improvements and I’m enjoying the challenge and time on the bike, so I’ll be continuing into next year.

It started with a concern for health, became fitness, then a focus on performance itself. Other than some walking, it’s been my exclusive fitness activity.

Now I’m being influenced by those advocating a more balanced approach for “Grand Master” athletes like me. A big influence here has been Colby Pearce who has a fascinating podcast that fits into my philosophy of teaching to learn what it is you’ve learned.

Colby had Phil Cavell as a guest on his podcast which he calls Cycling in Alignment. The discussion of the effects of hard, focused training on the aging body led me to Phil’s book, The Midlife Cyclist: The Road Map for the +40 Rider Who Wants to Train Hard, Ride Fast and Stay Healthy.

Most impressive is the evidence that the book lays out supporting a U shaped curve of the effects of training on health. Like many stresses, as you turn up the heat, there are positive adaptation. But at some point, more stress is not better, and outcomes are worse.

For example, working at a boring job is not good for mental health. As the challenge and stress increase, the accomplishment is good for mood, mental energy and relationships. Go past a certain point and you get depression, anxiety, burn out and illness. Lots of individual differences here, but the general principle of dosing stress seems to hold whether its physical or mental.

It seems these issues of aging and fitness are a consequence of an aging population, like me, who has pursued some kind of physical activity since youth, a trend that started in my youth as outlined nicely in this Sports Illustrated story: Sports aging: The quest to prolong athletic mortality – Sports Illustrated

In the late 1960s and early ’70s regular people began running, not just to catch the bus but for fitness and longevity. Jane Fonda and Richard Simmons and Jim Fixx became icons. Weightlifting, long avoided in high-level sports for fear of injury and decreased flexibility, was embraced.

It looks like it doesn’t take too much added general conditioning activities to counter the lack of weight bearing along with the unnatural position and biomechanics of cycling. It seems to me the Apple Fitness program has come along at exactly the right time to give me the perfect complement to the aerobic activities on the bike by adding some weekly strength training and general conditioning.

2008 Fitness Summary

Concrete Study, originally uploaded by jjvornov.

I use Ascent to track my training recorded by the Garmin Forerunner 305 Since it organizes by weeks, months and years, when Jan 1 rolls around a new training year begins.

I actually bought the 305 in February 2007, so 2008 is the first full year I’ve recorded. I was just short of 200 hours in 2007, so I would have accumulated somewhere around 215 had I started Jan 1. I started 2008 wanting to average at least 5 hours a week, which would be around 250 hours. As it turns out, I did 242. Had October and November been more typical and consistent, I would have topped 250 pretty easily.

In 2009, a 10% bump seems to be an attainable goal, so I’ll shoot for 275 this year. I hope to put some of the lessons I learned this year to good use in attaining it.

What did I learn?
1. Consistency is the single most important factor for improvement. In December my fitness for running built nicely with 5 or 6 runs a week with most sessions under an hour. By using daily, moderate to easy runs as the base pattern, I avoided days or weeks off due to longer recovery or lack of motivation. The overall energy level was good.

2. Keep working at a given level until adapted. I have a tendency to push myself to the edge of my state of adaptation continuously. I think I need to consolidate gains by staying more consistent within a comfort zone.

3. My greatest weakness is muscular endurance. I’ve always had pretty good stamina, an ability to work at a level of intensity for a long time. But I’m not a gifted athlete. No matter how long I work at low levels, I don’t see large improvements. My workout schedule is limited by time.

I’m going to try to keep the slot on Sunday as my long session at lower intensity, but I’m going to push intensity to the upper aerobic level for the other weekday workouts. This month I’ve done that with running exclusively and am getting more comfortable with working for 20 to 30 minutes at about 80% of maximum. I’d like to be able to push for an hour at that level on the bike during training sessions.

This is the upper end of what Joe Friel calls Zone 2:

Joe Friel’s Blog: “Maximize 2-zone training time each week. For now, try to get about 40% of your training time each week in this zone. “

At this point, with a constant power output, my heart rate drifts up after about 20 or 30 minutes. I don’t have the aerobic fitness that I should at what for me is a higher level of effort than I usually awm working at. During the summer I’ll then see whether the longer rides are faster having spent as much time as possible around aerobic threshold.

4. I’m better off mixing up the training modalities. I lost out because I stopped the bike abruptly and started running. It took too long to build up running ability to maintain my overall fitness level. This year I’ll try to switch gradually to the bike through March, but run at least once a week through the summer. Then I’ll transition in fall to mostly running, but stay on the bike weekly.

Year End Fitness

Lichen on Log, originally uploaded by jjvornov.

Sometime in August, after the family vacation, I turned entirely to running, putting the bicycle aside. I had declared the start of the bicycling season to be January 1 last year, so I thought I would try a break of a few months this year.

In the end, the plan did not work out as intended. Between holidays, travel and a cold, October and November ended up being my two lowest volume months of the year. This month, I’ve become consistent again, so I’ll end up with December being a more typical volume month.

I’m just now feeling like I’m getting the strength in my legs to run effectively. Last year at this time I had been running more frequently through summer and fall, so I can’t claim to be in better shape now than last year. Perhaps I was able to build up the running strength faster and more consistently this year, but that could be just wishful thinking on my part.

So my plan is to start on the bike again in the next few days, knowing that I’ll have to spend time building up specific leg strength. At the same time, I’ll keep on using the running as cross training, switching roles of the two once the weather becomes conducive to longer bicycle rides in a couple of months. Using the summer for base training worked out well in 2008, so I’ll try it once again. That means, shorter, higher intensity tempo workouts through the spring building strength and what Joe Friel calls “muscular endurance”, putting out high power for many minutes in the higher end of the aerobic zone. Once summer comes, then it becomes time to build more stamina with longer rides.

Training Goals

Topping Out Tuckerman’s, originally uploaded by jjvornov.

One of my main goals for fitness is to be able to undertake something like this hike. While it was a physical challenge, I had cardiovascular fitness, endurance and strenght from my cyclilng. None of it was as specific as months spent on hiking trails, but enough to match my 15 year old son’s endurance at least. By the way, that’s him at the top of the ravine, posing very nicely for the image.

Google Earth: Mount Washington via Tuckerman's Ravine

Here’s the Google Earth projection of the GPS track up the mountain.

Summer Base

Haystacks, originally uploaded by jjvornov.

I took this image with my iPhone during my long ride on Sunday. I had brought the Sigma DP1 with me once or twice and the Nikon P5000 once or twice, but I’m generally pretty hard to stop when I’m out riding.

The Geolocation by cell phone tower is quite a bit off, showing the image about a mile south of where it actually was shot (It was near the intersection of Carroll and Glencoe Roads, not off of Papermill Road.). But not bad for the iPhone.

My training season is moving along according to plan. As school let out and vacations started, I’ve been able to put in several higher milage weeks. During the March to June period, I tend to be limited by time, so it made sense to push intensity more and more in an early build. But now that I have more time, I’ve lowered the intensity and upped the time. Once September comes back around, I’ll go back to higher intensity shorter rides as time permits.

Joe Friel in his Cyclist’s Triaining Bible shows an example of a “summer base”. He recently talked about it on his blog:

Joe Friel’s Blog: Summer Base: “I’m doing an organized ride this week – the Bicycle Tour of Colorado. 400+ miles in 6 days and all in the mountains. I’ve noticed several competitive riders and teams doing the tour. A few triathletes, also. What a great way to rebuild base fitness after the first (or second) A-priority race of the season. Lots of climbing to re-establish force and lots of zone 2, aerobic, steady state. Perfect.”

For me, a week of 150 miles in the rolling hills of Baltimore County is a very big week (and almost 12 hours of riding). I feel like these high milage weeks get me to an endurance place that I just can’t achieve with shorter intervals.

Reverse Periodization

The kids are all out of school and I’m in a bit of a lull in the travel schedule. Since I decided to try hard to work my exercise program around my schedule rather than allow my schedule to kill my program consistancy, I had thought about a “summer base” season. I began on the bike in earnest earlier this year, but I didn’t try to build up miles in a typical base. I just went from running and indoor intervals to longer outdoor riding sessions combined with hard interval rides when time was short. I tried to time longer travel weeks to be recovery weeks or I piled up effort at one end of the week knowing the other end of the week would be spent in airports, on planes, recovering from jet lag or photo walks in cities.

I was happy to see Chris Carmichael put together a similar program for Outside Magazine this year. It’s an interval based twelve week program building to a 3 and a half hour long ride, very similar to the idea that I had going into the spring. So much nicer to see some emphasis in these programs on speed in addition to long endurance riding.

Now that the time pressure is eased a bit and the days are long, I’ve upped the hours and dialed down the intensity. Joe Friel mentions it in cycling “training bible” and has written about it on his blog:

Joe Friel’s Blog: Summer Base: “I’d highly recommend it as a way of kicking off the second half of the season. “

June may be the first month where I top 30 hours of training. Hopefully July into August will be similar. I’ll then dial back the hours and up the intensity as fall arrives. It’s something of a reverse priodization where power and intervals are emphasized early on and as time on the bike increase they are used to build endurance.

Carmichael Field Test Result

This week was an R&R training week, so today I did the first CTS Field Test of the year. While the idea of period all out testing to track progress isn’t a Chris Carmichael invention, his test is very well suited to cyclists. I’ve written previously about the Cooper 12 minute run which is well established and even normed for age groups against VO2Max.

The CTS test for cyclists consists of a warm up, a three mile all out effort, a rest (returning to the start) and a second all out effort. The average heart rate that’s the higher of the two efforts is used to estimate Lactate Threshold Heart Rate and Anaerobic rate to construct training ranges. One of the nice aspects of the two trial test is that it gives one a chance to repeat if the first effort isn’t really maximal and it also provides insight into muscular endurance if the second effort falls short of the first. According to Carmichael, they should be pretty similar.

Subjectively it was interesting. On the first effort, my heart rate rose to about 167 BPM and just stayed there. I was breathing regularly and loudly but in a well controlled manner. My legs just didn’t seem capable of pushing the heart rate higher toward the end. My average HR 164 at an average speed of 17.7.

The second effort was much harder. My heart rate was pegged lower at about 164 and my legs just wouldn’t work hard enough to push my heart rate up any higher. I did get my breathing ragged toward the end, but overall I was breathing just a notch easier. My conclusion was that I didn’t have the muscular endurance to push as hard a second time. My speed on the second dropped to 17.4 and average heart rate was 161.

It’s interesting that the numbers- speed and heart rate seem relatively small compared to the big subjective difference I felt. It’s an indicator though that I probably can improve by working on muscular endurance.

And am I more fit than last year? Last year I tested a bit earlier- April 2. I only felt comfortable with a single effort. My average heart rate was 154.7- substantially below the first test this year. Average speed was 16.5 mph.

So training over a year allows me to work for longer periods at higher heart rates. I’m faster over the measured course. It’s nice that I’m actually better than I was at the last test which was Sept 18 last year, showing that I should be on track to be fitter than last year even looking out 6 months.

Fitness Update

Illuminated Leaf, originally uploaded by jjvornov.

It’s now the end of April and I haven’t written here in the fitness category for some time.

Having the Garmin 305 creating a diary of time, distance and heart rate allows for easy tracking of training volume. SInce I started in Feb 2007, I now have 3 months of overlap. No surprise I guess that my monthly times are hovering around the same 16 to 20 hours per month. With work, travel and family obligations, I’m time constrained. I don’t expect that I’ll really be able to push the hours much higher than my current 200 or so hours a year.

I’m working harder than I was last year, in general. Those 20 minute intervals of 8 sec hard, 12 sec spin have now become on bicycle intervals. I did one 20 minute period, building to a similar intensity which was embedded in a ride of an hour and 20 minutes. I did two rides the next week with 3 x 10 minute intervals. I thought the latter was a better way to provide training load, so expect to resume next week, pushing time and possibly number of intervals. The indoor training was good preparation.

Am I more fit? I certainly am riding faster consistently compared to last April. It’s not a huge difference though, probably less than one mph. And working at higher intensity, one would expect some higher speeds. Matching ride to ride at similar average heartrates seems to show about the same speed difference.

Subjectively, I feel like I’m producing more power for a given heart rate. I’m pushing up hills in lower heart rate zones than I recall previously. My expectations are modest now that I understand where my VO2 max stands relative to the population. It will be interesting to see whether I can continuous build on this and be yet more fit next year.

Tomorrow or Friday, I’ll be doing the Carmichael Field Test. I haven’t done one since the fall, so I’ll get a direct comparison of whether I’m holding steady or doing any better.

Work Capacity

Vern Gambetta:

Functional Path Training: Connections: “You will find if you grasp the idea that you will need to do less %u201Cfitness%u201D oriented training when you realize the cumulative effect of all the components of training.”

This was my first week of what I’m thinking of as my second Base period for the cycling year but is really the start of longer rides on the road. The weather here in Baltimore is finally holding above 40 and rain has been no more than intermittent.

For the last month and a half, I’ve taken a few shorter rides out of doors that were generally no more than 45 mintutes at high intensity. I’ve been doing 20 minute high intensity interval sessions (8 sec hard, 12 sec recovery) on the bike on the trainer. It seemed from testing that my VO2max was possibly higher than in late fall. So I was hopeful that I was starting at a higher level of fitness this year than I ended last year.

So, what’s it like to suddenly transition to a 2 hour ride on rolling terrain followed the next day by a similar 90 minute ride? I felt strong both from the perspective of the power I was able to deliver to keep the pedals turning an hills and I was able to place my heart rate where I wanted it pretty easily.

On the other hand I could see that what I lacked was work capacity. I was tired and the level of effort did create a good bit of leg ache on day 3. Not so much that I wasn’t eager to do another 90 minutes on day 4 after some rest. I’m hoping that the winter preparation will allow me to work somewhat harder during these longer rides through the early spring, bringing the whole effort up a notch from last year. Since I expect to be maintaining the power gains I might have made while extending the efforts, I would expect new effort to add. We’ll see how this plays out over the next few months.

At this point, I’m planning to increase intensity again in May and June, using July and August as a chance to increase volume further as the summer schedule allows.