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The Three Pillars of Exercise After-Burn

Posted Feb 16 2011 9:18pm
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Exercise After-Burn Will Get You To Race Weight

I’m a pretty thin guy.  When I’m doing my normal 60-70 miles per week, my weight fluctuates from 125 – 128 pounds.  This was my standard “summer weight” before collegiate cross-country and one of two indicators that I’m in good shape.  The other indicator is that my body considers a ten mile run a “recovery day”.

Every season, and since then post-collegiately when I start to get real serious about training, I noticed that I lost an additional 4-6 pounds when team practices start in late August and we started racing.  Despite already being in great shape, and arguably incredibly skinny, how could I lose even more weight?

I was confused because my appetite always grew at this point also.  I referred to meals as “feedings” and made boisterous claims that I didn’t know what “full” felt like.  My post-practice dinners consisted of a bowl of salad, a bowl of spaghetti, a full plate of the main dish (meat, veggies, and a grain), dessert, and 1-2 bowls of cereal.  I often went for seconds of the main dish.

Nevertheless, my weight declined over a period of 3-4 weeks and I became even skinner.

After a lot of experience with different training volumes, intensities, and workout programs I figured out that weight loss for runners comes down to three important variables.  These variables always allow somebody who was trying to lose those pesky “last few pounds” get to their target weight.  Or in my case, they brought me to race weight.

The three pillars of exercise-induced weight loss are duration, intensity, and frequency.  All of them contribute to a massively spiked metabolism I like to refer to as “exercise after-burn.”

Duration implies to the length of your workouts.  Many people who can’t seem to get to their target weight simply aren’t exercising long enough.  Runners who go longer than an hour can usually reap the rewards of a long duration workout.  If you’re already very fit or a competitive runner, long runs exceeding 15 miles will be needed.  Personally, I start to see effects on my weight when I reach 17+ miles (or two hours of running).

If you’re a cyclist, this often means 2.5 – 3 hours of riding or more.  I cycle for 45 -90 minutes frequently, but rarely go for longer workouts.  I find that it takes too much energy that I would rather put in to running.  With this limited experience, I don’t know how long on a bike it may take.

I only recommend doing one long duration workout per week as it’s fairly taxing on the body.  Runners would consider this workout their weekly long run.

Long workouts burn more calories not only because they’re longer, but because of what happens to your body when you finish running.  Several studies have found that the longer a subject exercised, the longer it took for their metabolic rate to return to pre-exercise levels.  Other studies have found that the exercise after-burn is more than doubled when exercise is increased from 30 minutes to 45 minutes.  And what happened after 60 minutes?  A five-fold increase in metabolic rate.  Read more.

The bottom line?  Lengthen your workouts to an hour or more once per week to reap the metabolic rewards of exercise after-burn.  If you’re already trained, aim for 90 minutes to 2 hours.  You’ll probably lose a few pounds and get faster in the process.

How intense are you working out?  The majority of runners don’t incorporate enough high-intense or maximum effort into their training programs.  It’s absolutely vital to do 1-2 workouts per week that bring your heart rate close to its maximum if you are aiming for the highest after-burn possible.

These workouts do not have to be very long but they must challenge you to push yourself way outside your comfort zone.  Two examples that I like to run myself include hill repetitions and 300m intervals on the track.  I prefer to do 8 hill reps at slightly faster than 5k pace and five 300m reps at roughly 3k or two-mile pace.  The key is to spike your heart rate for several intervals.

Alternatively, you could do fewer repetitions of much faster running.  Once per week, I hit a very steep hill at the end of an easy run and do 6 x 10″ hill sprints.  These are run at 100% intensity.  If you’re not a runner, a 15 – 25 minute high-intensity gym session will accomplish the same metabolic spike.  For cyclists, four to six 30 second sprints will work.

The reason high-intensity sessions work is because they increase your resting metabolic rate and post-exercise oxygen consumption.  Even though you are training far above your VO2 max, studies have shown high-intensity workouts to actually improve your VO2 max.  If you’re pressed for time and can’t complete a long run, an intense workout on the hills or track will create a very similar exercise after-burn.

When I talk about exercise frequency I mean running seven days per week.  That’s just the baseline and how I get to my fit weight of 125 – 128 pounds.  To really increase your resting metabolic weight and start shedding pounds, you need to work out twice per day.  A trained person who runs seven days per week should work up to 2-3 “doubles” per week for optimal results.

I consider this exercise after-burn principle #3 because it is the least effective in my view.  It doesn’t work as fast or effectively at boosting your metabolic rate.  Nevertheless, it has always been present when I get to my racing weight of 120 – 123.

Simply put, the metabolic boost you get from running is doubled when you run twice per day (shocker!).  Even if you only add a 5 mile morning run to your normal day, you are getting a more consistent metabolic spike and a few extra hours of exercise after-burn.

If you’re running 40-50 miles per week, start by adding one morning or afternoon run to your week depending upon your schedule.  Keep it very easy and only 3-4 miles.  Over the course of 6-8 weeks, work up to 2 runs per week of 4-5 miles run at your normal distance run pace.

So how would fitting these principles into a weekly schedule look like?  To keep it simple, I have drawn out a sample schedule for a 60 miles/week athlete who can handle this volume and intensity.

Monday: 6 miles easy

Tuesday: 7 miles easy + 4 x 10″ hill sprints (intensity – neuromuscular)

Wednesday: 7 miles with 4 x 400m at 3k pace (intensity – anaerobic)

Thursday: 9 miles easy

Friday: AM: 4 miles easy PM: 6 miles moderate (frequency)

Saturday: 5 miles

Sunday: 15 miles moderate (duration)

With this schedule, this athlete will not have a problem getting to their ideal body weight.  It’s fairly easy to restructure any training program to increase the exercise after-burn principles and lose more weight.

Of course, diet is key and I will attack that monster in a different post.  But from an exercise perspective, these three principles will do the trick.

Interested in having me tweak your training plan so you can get to your racing weight?  The first ten subscribers to my email newsletter who email me at support@strengthrunning.com will receive a training consultation to add more Duration, Intensity, and Frequency into their program.

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