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Thread: On Getting Too Damned Skinny

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    Heisenberg's Avatar
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    Default On Getting Too Damned Skinny

    This is a bit of a branch out from the weight loss thread and direct crosspost from my blog: Help losing 20 lbs and THE LOCALS ARE PAINTING MY NAME ON THE ROADS.

    Thought I'd toss it in here as food for thought. Even with all of the science being poured into the sport, oftentimes old traditionalist adages can still reign supreme in the psyche...this year was a bit of proof of that for me.

    The Hell of 2012: A Neopro Cautionary Tale

    It's the eve of the Tour of Utah.

    The race that I've been wanting to do since I shot it in 2010 for PezCyclingNews. One of the many motivators for riding, training, and racing like a man possessed the year after. The local big show, where all of my friends and family would surely turn out to lend support and serious amounts of crushivation. I'm even on a professional cycling team that received an invite this year.

    And I'm not racing it.

    It's okay. I've accepted it. In fact, I've accepted the fact that it would be a pretty unlikely event by the end of June. You know those stages of grief? I'm kind of through it. The hard part is answering the inquiry from everyone who pays attention to cycling in Utah - "Why not?"

    To answer "Why not?" is to also answer the thought that bounces around inside my cranial nether regions, and has since a dismal showing at USPRO: "Damn, this year sucks."

    It took until late July to figure out why.

    Piles of blood tests. Piles of doctor visits. Revelations that my body was in complete survival mode. It kind of took me aback - I generally consider myself a pretty resilient bastard. I can usually thrash with broken bones, blood flowing out of every limb, and head injuries. No, my decrepit state couldn't have just been from a few (fairly harrowing) wrecks and nasty interactions with cars.

    My family practice doctor, unfamiliar with the rigors of bike racing, suggested I had a brain tumor, and then she figured out just how much hell your average Cat 1/Pro cyclist in the US puts themselves through on a daily basis. She suggested training stress. Again, this wasn't a solid answer - very little had changed from the prior season when it came to what I was doing. If anything, I was in a better situation - working less, resting more, eating better, more focused on training than ever before. In fact, it inspired a bit of guilt. In 2011, I was working full-time, training, racing, and partying like a relative rockstar. In 2012, I was hardly working, training, racing, and living like a monk...and yet, having trouble pinning the break in a local race.

    Then, while we (the doctor and I) were leafing through one of her huge tomes of medical knowledge (entertainingly, figuring out what was wrong became a joint exercise with the medical professional), it struck. She asked what my bodyfat percentage was. I knew from some spring testing that it was hovering around six percent.

    A simple explanation, a simple problem, and a simple solution. When bodyfat dips below certain levels, the body begins to shut down non-essential processes in order to survive. In my case, it began taking down most hormone production - stuff essential for drive, recovery, motivation, and that ever fleeting "HTFU". In May, still in recovery from a broken wrist and Speedweek thrashing, my hematocrit was well into anemia and I had the testosterone levels of a menopausal woman. A few crashes coupled with a malnourished state was all it took to push my body over the edge, and make me feel like a shell of a human being for a few months. I didn't want to ride. I didn't want to write. I couldn't have an intelligent conversation. I didn't want to do anything. I wasn't depressed, I was simply vacant, like I had a permanent "Out to Lunch" sign hanging from my neck.

    I presented the answer to Kevin Nicol (my coach), who in turn consulted Dr. Inigo San Millan. The answer? "Duh." Their collective response was something along the lines of not seeing healthy racers under nine percent bodyfat. It made sense. I'd become hell-bent on getting as skinny as possible over the winter. I've always had a really screwed-up body image of myself. Body dysmorphia is pretty common amongst cyclists. I was convinced that if I were to be competitive in anything with a hill, I needed to drop to around 145-150lbs with minuscule bodyfat numbers, even though the year before with good form I was able to hang with the best climbers in the US at 160lbs. So, I ran massive calorie deficits through the winter. Our title sponsor accused me of being "skinnier than a starved cat". He was right. At my lightest, I was tipping the scales at 147lbs. I'm 6'1. And I was still convinced I needed to lose more weight.

    When the theory of the causality for my anemic performance surfaced, I immediately began eating. A lot. In fact, so much that when I journeyed to Boulder at the end of July to do some testing with Kevin and Dr. San Millan at the CU Anschutz Human Performance Lab, I was shocked I was able to pack on so much weight in about 2.5 weeks (somewhere around the weight of a standard Santa Cruz V-10 downhill frame) - and successfully brought my bodyfat up to the acceptable 10% metric.

    Immediately, I started feeling better. I could train and recover. I felt like a cyclist (and a human) again, instead of a corpse on a bike. While it's too late to save 2012, the lesson I've learned this year is invaluable. I won't hit 2011 fitness levels before the year is out, but I can once again race without feeling like I'm on the verge of collapse every time the shit hits the fan.

    I'm going to miss the Tour of Utah. It's going to be hard seeing the team line up and crush it without me. It's going to be tough knowing that I can't contribute on the roads I've ridden hundreds of times - but I've learned. 2012 might be a wash from a racing perspective, but the hell it's been has armed me to the teeth with wisdom that few others can match. I've got a few more races this year, and then I'll be heading to warmer climes as fall turns to winter. I know exactly what I need to do, and exactly how to do it.

    The future is bright.

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    Jayme is offline VSalonistas
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    Default Re: On Getting Too Damned Skinny

    Thanks for sharing this Nate! Unfortunately, I'm in no danger of having too little body fat ;)

    Jayme

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    Jayme is offline VSalonistas
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    Default Re: On Getting Too Damned Skinny

    Forgot to add, glad you are feeling better!

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    Default Re: On Getting Too Damned Skinny

    Thanks for these details. Glad you are on the other side of this.

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    Matthew Strongin's Avatar
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    Default Re: On Getting Too Damned Skinny

    Glad you're back on track and feeling better. I know a few guys who could benefit from this read...I'll pass it along.

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    Chance Legstrong's Avatar
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    Default Re: On Getting Too Damned Skinny

    This is awesome!
    "make the break"

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    roseyscot is offline 2KClub
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    Default Re: On Getting Too Damned Skinny

    definitely gonna file this one in the "duh" pile. glad you figured it out Nate, and bummed you are missing out on your main goal, but next year you'll come back in proper overall health.

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    Noteddy is offline VSalonistas
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    Default Re: On Getting Too Damned Skinny

    Thanks for sharing. Glad you found your way through.

    I had (arbitrarily) set my goal at 145, (6') but I could tell my body didn't like it. I basically had to starve myself to maintain it. Just a few pounds heavier seems to be maintainable. I thought I was faster when lighter. But I'm still setting PR's on local climbs.

    My far better half says I'm too skinny. She is wiser than I am.

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    boots2000 is offline VSalonistas
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    Default Re: On Getting Too Damned Skinny

    How are you attacking this in terms of diet?
    Eating everything in sight including junk food?
    Or working with a nutritionist/plan?

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    DOOFUS's Avatar
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    Default Re: On Getting Too Damned Skinny

    I knocked myself off the bike for four years by getting too skinny

    like Mickey, I jumped on the SRM thing early. my coach at the time hooked me up with a rebuilt-rebuilt second gen unit in 1998, and I got all obsessed with watt/kg

    got down to 145 (I'm 165 now)

    could fly up 5-10 mile mountain climbs. was pathetic at everything else.

    I lost too much muscle, and my manorexic quads were so weakened that I ended up with chondromalacia in both knees that was so bad it took me until 2003 to start riding again -- at 163 lbs.

    your natural appetite is actually really good at regulating your intake. if you're a uscf joker like all of us but nate, once you hit that 10-12% fat range just eat according to appetite, lay off the junk, and train adequately. your weight will stabilize and you'll be healthy.

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    j44ke's Avatar
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    Default Re: On Getting Too Damned Skinny

    Thanks for this. I am going to talk about it with my doctor.

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    professerr is offline VSalonistas
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    Default Re: On Getting Too Damned Skinny

    Interesting post. Any insight on what is going on with Wiggins who certainly doesn’t appear 9%. Very careful monitoring?

    Coincidentally, I was at the mall a couple weeks ago and there was a mobile testing truck being sponsored by a fitness place that was offering body fat testing (the underwater version) for 40 bucks. I’d last been tested in college after experiencing something similar to you (not nearly as bad), and registered less than 3% mid-season. Anyway, always eager to learn more about me, I paid my $40, exhaled a couple times and came in at 9%, which I thought seemed healthy for a recreational rider in his 40s.

    The guy testing said “are you interested in losing some of that weight?” Surprised, I said “Um, I don’t think so.” He then rattled off “weight control recommenations” to go from 159 to 150 to bring my percentage down to 5%. It seemed a weird suggestion – I would be very skinny at 150. Thanks for your post.

    PS,I just looked at the chart the fitness place gave me and it says 9% puts one in the 97th percentile for men in their 40s (95th for men in their 30s, 80th for 20s).

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    Heisenberg's Avatar
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    Default Re: On Getting Too Damned Skinny

    Quote Originally Posted by boots2000 View Post
    How are you attacking this in terms of diet?
    Eating everything in sight including junk food?
    Or working with a nutritionist/plan?
    Neither. While trying to gain, I was just eating everything - but now that I've stabilized, I just do exactly what I did when I was trying to lose weight - record calories and expenditure, then balance it out instead of burning more than I'm eating.

    The hunger metric is good if I'm not riding, otherwise I end up losing weight. I've considered a nutritionist, but it's another expense and responsibility I don't know that I want to take on.

    Quote Originally Posted by professerr View Post
    Interesting post. Any insight on what is going on with Wiggins who certainly doesn’t appear 9%. Very careful monitoring?

    Coincidentally, I was at the mall a couple weeks ago and there was a mobile testing truck being sponsored by a fitness place that was offering body fat testing (the underwater version) for 40 bucks. I’d last been tested in college after experiencing something similar to you (not nearly as bad), and registered less than 3% mid-season. Anyway, always eager to learn more about me, I paid my $40, exhaled a couple times and came in at 9%, which I thought seemed healthy for a recreational rider in his 40s.

    The guy testing said “are you interested in losing some of that weight?” Surprised, I said “Um, I don’t think so.” He then rattled off “weight control recommenations” to go from 159 to 150 to bring my percentage down to 5%. It seemed a weird suggestion – I would be very skinny at 150. Thanks for your post.

    PS,I just looked at the chart the fitness place gave me and it says 9% puts one in the 97th percentile for men in their 40s (95th for men in their 30s, 80th for 20s).
    I can't comment on Wiggins, but the likes of Jani Brakjovic are at least 9%. Through the HPL, Dr. San Millan works with a lot of PT guys. Anyone who tells you they're racing below it is probably full of shit or worse. If you're not subjecting your body to extreme daily load like an elite/pro cyclist is, it may be possible to get away with a very low percentage and still function nominally. Then again, I don't really see the reason to get silly-low unless you're competing at a UCI level.

    That said, bodpod and UW weighing have pretty big margins of error (in the realm of superlean athletes) - 3 to 4 percent. My Tanita claims I'm around 6% still. It's all relative, but from my research DXA is pretty much "it", followed by a set of calipers with a very skilled operator.

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    DOOFUS's Avatar
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    Default Re: On Getting Too Damned Skinny

    Quote Originally Posted by professerr View Post
    Interesting post. Any insight on what is going on with Wiggins who certainly doesn’t appear 9%. Very careful monitoring?

    Coincidentally, I was at the mall a couple weeks ago and there was a mobile testing truck being sponsored by a fitness place that was offering body fat testing (the underwater version) for 40 bucks. I’d last been tested in college after experiencing something similar to you (not nearly as bad), and registered less than 3% mid-season. Anyway, always eager to learn more about me, I paid my $40, exhaled a couple times and came in at 9%, which I thought seemed healthy for a recreational rider in his 40s.

    The guy testing said “are you interested in losing some of that weight?” Surprised, I said “Um, I don’t think so.” He then rattled off “weight control recommenations” to go from 159 to 150 to bring my percentage down to 5%. It seemed a weird suggestion – I would be very skinny at 150. Thanks for your post.

    PS,I just looked at the chart the fitness place gave me and it says 9% puts one in the 97th percentile for men in their 40s (95th for men in their 30s, 80th for 20s).
    like Nate said, all the methods of measurement have a margin of error that is makes measurements under 10% sketchy, at best. At my current weight, I've tested as low as 4% with UW before -- no freakin way.

    pro tour body fat % have been the object of a lot of flim flam since 1991. The standard explanation for sudden improvement to podium finisher was "lost kilograms." nyuk nyuk nyuk. some crazy low fat %s were maintained with HGH and T supplementation to achieve leanness (and decent hormone function while stupid lean) that were not possible in earlier eras, and not possible without some serious "medical support."

    as for wiggo, only he and brailsford know his power numbers, but it would seem reasonable that he can't whack around a huge gear in the team pursuit like he could in 2008, given the weight loss -- some mass had to go.

    spinelli would be the one who could tell us the real deal about pro tour body fats, and what you can really hold and what might require (ahem) some assistance.

    a powermeter is the best pragmatic "lean-o-meter" imho. when you find what weight you have the best overall power profile from 10sec to 60min, stay there and don't fark with it. in general, when you get too thin you lose a lot of power from 5min on down. when I was 27 and 148lbs, I was probably close to 5 w/kg. I also couldn't put together more than three months in a row with some little injury or cold. My Wingate tests at that weight were beyond terrible -- one from 1995 was 390w for 30sec, when I was doing 320w at 4mml of lactate (so real-world, on the road FTP was probably 330-ish).

    at 165 and 45 years old, I'm at 4.5 w/kg at threshold, and 5min power is 5.5. 1 min power is still terrible (nature left me an anaerobic pauper), but 510w at least means I can hang on -- when I was super skinny in my 20s, I got blasted out the back when shit got real.

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    plug is offline VSalonistas
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    Default Re: On Getting Too Damned Skinny

    Interesting stuff, and I'm glad you're working it out.

    Did you do much resistance training while dropping to the low BF state? I ask because high-volume endurance training has been shown to suppress testosterone production -- independent of body fat percentage. Inversely, resistance training stimulates production -- particularly really low rep stuff, 4-6 reps of slightly below your max load. This matches my personal experience... a lot of riding and racing and I begin to feel like crap. I can avoid this, and still have the weight come off, if I punctuate the riding with weight room days and sufficient rest.

    Hence, these days I go to the weight room and load up the bench press to experience the post workout HGH spike, and all-round benefits of that, more than maintain my massive (not really) pecs and quads. I find that it's especially important to mix in resistance training as I get older (late 40s) and my T production naturally declines. The weight-room work doesn't make one 'big', as in hypertrophy, either, at least it doesn't for me as long as I'm riding lots.

    Sleep quantity and quality are another big determinant of T production. And diet. Fish and grass-fed red meats, with high O-3/O-6 fatty acid ratios are good... a lot of us are probably out of whack, from modern seed- and vegetable-oil based diets, and grain-fed meats.

    I guess what I'm saying is that while being too skinny can be a problem, how you get there is another big determinant of how you perform at low BF.

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    Chance Legstrong's Avatar
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    Default Re: On Getting Too Damned Skinny

    Quote Originally Posted by plug View Post
    Interesting stuff, and I'm glad you're working it out.

    Did you do much resistance training while dropping to the low BF state? I ask because high-volume endurance training has been shown to suppress testosterone production -- independent of body fat percentage. Inversely, resistance training stimulates production -- particularly really low rep stuff, 4-6 reps of slightly below your max load. This matches my personal experience... a lot of riding and racing and I begin to feel like crap. I can avoid this, and still have the weight come off, if I punctuate the riding with weight room days and sufficient rest.

    Hence, these days I go to the weight room and load up the bench press to experience the post workout HGH spike, and all-round benefits of that, more than maintain my massive (not really) pecs and quads. I find that it's especially important to mix in resistance training as I get older (late 40s) and my T production naturally declines. The weight-room work doesn't make one 'big', as in hypertrophy, either, at least it doesn't for me as long as I'm riding lots.

    Sleep quantity and quality are another big determinant of T production. And diet. Fish and grass-fed red meats, with high O-3/O-6 fatty acid ratios are good... a lot of us are probably out of whack, from modern seed- and vegetable-oil based diets, and grain-fed meats.

    I guess what I'm saying is that while being too skinny can be a problem, how you get there is another big determinant of how you perform at low BF.
    weights killed the cycling star
    "make the break"

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    plug is offline VSalonistas
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    Default Re: On Getting Too Damned Skinny

    Quote Originally Posted by Chance Legstrong View Post
    weights killed the cycling star
    Yeah sure, but so did suppressed hormone production.

    There are a bunch of knobs which can be twiddled to influence T production while training : BF, diet composition, sleep, on-bike training volume, weights. And for douches include pharmacological enhancement on that list. Half the battle is figuring out how to twiddle your own knobs effectively. I wouldn't rule out weights a priori, especially for anyone with natural T levels on the low side (dunno if that is the case for the OP, though).

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    Default Re: On Getting Too Damned Skinny

    Something to keep in mind is stress (training and otherwise), hormone response (read insulin, adrenaline, and cortisol), body composition (body fat, muscle mass, etc) and the intake/timing of macro-nutrients are all interrelated and should be managed as such. Getting nutrition right is just as important as all the other aspects for serious athletes.

    I've known a number of highly trained and very successful cyclist that were in the midst of, or on the brink of, adrenal fatigue. Much of that driven by poor diets along with overtraining. Defining a 'good' diet starts to get into the territory of a religious conversation so I am always cautious about making specific recommendations. WRT this working with a nutritionist you trust, respect and relate to is of upmost importance whether it's an in-person or online. With first sentence of this paragraph caveat in mind, I'll step out there and recommend Marlene Merrit. In addition to all of her nutruition, health and wellness smarts she is also a cyclist. Check out some of her story here and articles here.

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    hidayanra is offline VSalonistas
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    Default Re: On Getting Too Damned Skinny

    Good post - thanks Nate.
    Two years ago I knocked myself off the bike via starvation (135 at 5'10), and I had pretty much the same symptoms you list. I could climb like a scalded cat, but that was the sum total of what I could do at any reasonable speed.
    I'm glad to hear you are getting help & getting back to it.

    All the best finding the right range for your body.
    FWIW - if you are interested in other reading, both boxing & wrestling have larger bodies of published stuff on this issue than cycling does.

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    boots2000 is offline VSalonistas
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    Default Re: On Getting Too Damned Skinny

    What are you at now? Did it work?

    Quote Originally Posted by hidayanra View Post
    Good post - thanks Nate.
    Two years ago I knocked myself off the bike via starvation (135 at 5'10), and I had pretty much the same symptoms you list. I could climb like a scalded cat, but that was the sum total of what I could do at any reasonable speed.
    I'm glad to hear you are getting help & getting back to it.

    All the best finding the right range for your body.
    FWIW - if you are interested in other reading, both boxing & wrestling have larger bodies of published stuff on this issue than cycling does.

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