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Ultrarunners Boost Endurance by Slowing Metabolism: The Skinny Fat Phenomenon

Posted by on Aug 2, 2013 | 5 Comments

Ugly asses win races

I’m a huge fan of exploring unorthodox solutions to common problems. As a society, we have a tendency to develop an “idea fixedness” where we find a single, supposedly logical solution to a problem, then stop looking for better solutions. This causes us to miss a lot of really obvious answers to common problems. Usually the best method of finding unconventional solutions is self-experimentation.

In fact, the idea of self-experimentation to solve problems is the main idea of my trail and ultrarunning book “Never Wipe Your Ass with a Squirrel.” Screw conventional solutions- give me something that works for ME!

Anyway, my friend Pablo (the dude responsible for the title of the aforementioned book) sent me a message last week. He proposed the idea that ultrarunners might consider taking steps to slow their metabolism.

The logic is simple- ultras are exercises in attrition. Specifically, attrition of energy stores. Your body has a certain amount of stored energy reserves that can be utilized when running. If the distance is long enough, the consumption of calories is required.

My solution to this problem has always been to train my ability to consume more calories. In fact, I got to the point where I could eat a ridiculous amount of food during a race. The strategy worked; I got to the point where I could run a hundo without crashing.

Pablo’s suggestion flips that idea around. Instead of focusing on shoveling more coal into the furnace, why don’t we make a smaller fire? We’re trying to make our body as efficient as possible. We want to be a Prius, not a Mustang. Makes sense to me.

I like this potential ultra strategy because it would utilize methodology that contradicts pretty much every single bit of “health advice” that’s popular today. Almost all diet advice is centered around speeding up your metabolism, which allows you to eat more and maintain weight (or eat the same number of calories to lose weight.)

The idea might not even be all that far-fetched. If you look at the typical competitive field in almost any ultra, you’ll see a lot of really skinny folks with little or no muscle mass.

What does this tell us?

Skinny-fat wins races.

Indeed, look at the rest of the field. Most of the midpack ultrarunners are either too fat or too muscular. They’re too inefficient to be competitive.

So… how do we turn our bodies into a more metabolically-efficient skinny fat machines? Here are a few variables that are worth self-experimentation:

  • Starve. Anyone that’s tried radical cuts in caloric intake has experienced this. Most of our body, when severely deprived of food, goes into a “famine” mode where our metabolism slows way down to conserve what little resources we still have available. This is easy enough to do… just stop eating or dramatically reduce caloric intake. The timing would be important because this isn’t a long-term solution (it will eventually kill you.)
  • Abstain from stimulants. Stimulants, especially in moderation, will increase metabolism. Caffeine and nicotine are the most common, but coke, meth, crack, and amphetamines fit in this category, too. Cutting them from your diet (or in a race) would slow metabolism.
  • Skip weight training. And HIIT. And speedwork. All three are going to speed your metabolism. Avoid muscle mass at all costs. In fact, there’s a good reason most elite ultrarunners are “skinny fat” and have noodly arms that look like they could barely lift a water bottle. Skip all weight lifting and just stick to long, slow runs.
  • Eat less fiber, dairy, and protein. Fiber seems to speed the metabolic process, as does calcium and protein. Avoiding these foods will help slow your metabolism. Vegan? Too much fiber. Paleo? Too much protein. Is there a diet that involves eating nothing but ice cream and cheese?
  • Eat more processed junk food. High fructose corn syrup should become your best friend.
  • Eat before bedtime. There’s a reason weight loss experts (like Oprah) advise people to stop eating after a certain time. Screw that. Enjoy that plate of Double Stuff Oreos while watching Leno. Just kidding. Nobody watches Leno. He hasn’t been funny since 1992.
  • Don’t drink cold water. Cold water burns a few extra calories, which we want to avoid. Stick to room temperature water.
  • Eat bland, pesticide-laden foods. Spicy foods burn more calories. So do organics. According to a Canadian study I’m too lazy to cite, pesticides slow metabolism.
  • Drink daily. Regular alcohol consumption slows metabolism, so enjoy that fourth IPA or uncork that second bottle of wine.
  • Maintain a comfortable body temperature
  • Decrease sleep. Sleep deprivation slows metabolism, so stay up too late. This, of course, can easily be coupled with eating junk food and drinking.
  • Age. Our metabolism slows as we age. I can’t help but wonder if this is the reason people tend to improve ultrarunning performance once they escape their early to mid twenties…
  • Relax. We burn more calories when our sympathetic nervous system is activated, like when we’re stressed or nervous. While both of these situations can release hormones that slow metabolism, you’ll probably get more metabolism-slowing effects from chiilling out. Learn to relax. Or develop a taste for Wild Turkey. Two birds…
  • PDD’s. This, of course, stands for “performance decreasing drugs. For those with questionable morals, there are several drugs that could synthetically reduce your metabolism. You know, in case you’re too lazy to not exercise and eat junk food. Specifically, the drug methimazole will slow metabolism by inhibiting thyroid function. There ARE serious side effects, but the risk may be worthwhile for that buckle.
  • Make use of training cycles. There’s one major flaw to this entire idea- we’re training to do an extremely physically demanding task but all of these training methods will make us fat and lazy. Since higher body weight requires more energy to move down the trail, we want to be light but as muscle-free as possible. We want a droopy, shapeless ass, moobs (for the gents), and plenty of love handles and muffin top. We can’t train like this all the time or we’ll add too much mass. The solution would be to train like a real athlete for months or years, then take these steps to slow metabolism several weeks or maybe a month or two before the event.

There you have it- fourteen tips to help you decrease your metabolism and improve your performance. Yes, the idea is ridiculous. Yes, it goes against everything the experts tell us. But it could work.

Anyone willing to give it a shot?

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5 Comments

  1. Kelly
    August 6, 2013

    Great Advice! I’m gonna try skippin the meth for my next race.

  2. Andrew
    August 5, 2013

    Skinny people tend to have faster metabolisms, not slower ones.

  3. Adam
    August 4, 2013

    I’m not sure that the term “skinny fat” is technically correct when referring to elite ultrarunners. To me, this phrase refers to out of shape people who do not appear overweight when clothed or on a scale simply because their fat weight, while more than necessary, has not exceeded the weight that should be occupied by muscle on a fit person. They’re in a healthy (yet not exccedingly light) weight range with no muscle mass beyond what’s necessary to hold their skeletons up. Elite ultrarunners, on the other hand, seem to come in two categories: skinny-skinny (Jornet, Canaday) or suprisingly cut (Olson, Koerner, Schlarb). My hypothesis is that shorter guys might be able to get away with a little extra torso musculature than tall guys. In any case, muscle is never entirely dead weight (it’s useful for holding the spine and neck erect when running 5 minute miles down hill, for one thing), even if you pretty quickly get to the point where it’s a bigger cost than a benefit in runny, cycling, etc. Whereas no elite endurance athlete in any field can afford any extra body fat. Or, what Rob said.

  4. Rob Y
    August 3, 2013

    Thanks but I’ll stick to the old tried and true: hard work, sweat equity, perseverance and extreme patience. Has worked well for me in the past. Keep it simple.

  5. Dave
    August 2, 2013

    Yes, the allure of me developing moobs. That will help me sell my wife on the idea of me disappearing for 5 hour Sunday runs and then coming home to eat all of her ice cream.