I am a 25-year-old former football player and I’m training for my first marathon. I carry a lot of muscle weight from my playing days and it’s killing me on these long runs. What can I do to shed some of this upper body mass?
Culver City, CA
There’s a reason former football players don’t win marathons. A very different set of genes is required for success on the roads than on the gridiron. These genes are not limited to those that affect muscle weight and muscle growth in response to exercise, but these genes are as relevant as any. If your history of weightlifting were the only factor responsible for your excess muscle weight, losing it would be as easy as steering clear of the gym while you train for your marathon. But your genes favoring muscle hypertrophy are as much responsible as the years you’ve spent pumping iron, and there’s nothing you can do about those.
I’m not saying you can’t lose a fair measure of that bulk. I’m just managing expectations. That said, I’ve seen lots of guys make rather stunning transformations in their physiques after seeing the light and coming to endurance sports from the weight room. There are three keys to success in this transformation:
1. Don’t lift weights!
Some guys put on muscle when they even look at a dumbbell. You’re probably one of them. Although I am a strong advocate of strength training among runners, I think you’re an exception to this advocacy. You’re strong enough already and you stand to gain more performance from losing muscle weight than from increasing muscle strength. If you do any strength training at all, limit it to core work and bodyweight corrective exercises for muscle imbalances (e.g. side lying leg lifts for weak hips).
2. Run as much as you can!
Nothing causes the upper body musculature to waste away like high-volume running. I believe the human body has a deep intelligence that enables it to understand and respond to the messages you send it through your actions. If you want to shed extra muscle weight, you need to maximize the cost your body pays for keeping that weight. And the best way to do that is to run a lot. Your body will get the message: Throw the ballast overboard before this hot air balloon crash lands!
The catch is that two of the factors that are most closely associated with injury risk in runners are body weight and running volume. So when you put a heavier runner and a high training volume together, you may be asking for trouble. It’s important, therefore, that you proceed with caution. When I tell you to run as much as you can, I mean run as much as you can and no more. As you gain endurance, recovery capacity, and durability, push to increase your weekly mileage as much as possible without breaking down. But listen to your body and cut back, take days off, etc., as much as necessary. Expect a two-steps-forward-one-step-back sort of progress.
Keep your pace slow in almost all of your runs until you’ve gotten up to the maximum running volume you’re comfortable with. Running slowly will not only help you run more, but it will also maximize the muscle-wasting effect of each mile you run.
3. Burn more calories than you eat.
The formula for muscle loss is the same as the formula for fat loss: you have to burn more calories than you consume in food to make it happen. Most people think that gaining muscle mass is all about protein intake, but that’s not true. A modest level of protein intake is sufficient to promote muscle growth. What’s essential is that you take in more calories when you burn. Likewise, you don’t have to cut your protein intake to lose muscle. You just have to achieve a general calorie deficit.
If you have excess body fat along with excess muscle, you will tend to lose the fat preferentially. But once you’ve gotten pretty lean, your body will start to dismantle muscle tissue next.
Now, you have to go about achieving the caloric deficit required to shed muscle carefully. You’ll gain nothing if your calorie deficit is so great that you can’t run well. Fueling maximum running performance is priority number one.
Indeed, the best way to achieve the small calorie deficit required to balance adequate fueling with muscle dismantling is to maintain a very healthy diet, eat as much as you want, and rely entirely on your high running volume to generate the deficit.