Lean vs. Mean: Emphasize Nutrition to Fuel Optimal Fitness


By Mark Deterline


My coaching business partner, Dave Harward, and I are receiving an increasing number of inquiries regarding nutrition from potential as well as existing clients. Many are feeling pressure to lose weight now that the event season is underway and temperatures are rising.

Although determining a healthy target weight, as well as a reasonable path to losing it, is part of what we do as coaches, our primary objective for each of our clients is a healthy path to fitness – the real focus is on training fueled by quality foods.

We strive to keep our athletes from obsessing about being “super lean”, focusing instead on a structured training plan – including recovery cycles. Individuals need to sustain high energy levels in order to accomplish quality workouts.

In simplified terms, our nutritional priorities should always emphasize:

1. Health

2. Sustained Energy

3. Motivation

“Lean and mean” is a great idiom, and in the context of this discussion I’d like to add some dimension to the expression by broadening the interpretation of the word mean. Look in a dictionary and you’ll find that mean can connote other things, like greed, baseness and even a state of being in between extremes. The implications of those other definitions have particular relevance to our discussion of those three priorities.

Above all we should strive to be healthy. Exercise and training fit nicely into that objective, with the added benefit that a healthy body is generally a more attractive one. Proper nutrition dictates proper consumption of key nutrients through a healthy and well-rounded diet. We are looking for a balance, and so are our bodies.

Finding that healthy mean between extremes is not only key to good health, it is also key to being a good athlete. Structured workouts designed to tax an athlete’s physiology and effect adaptations to make it stronger require energy.

Most of our clients tend to understand the notion of quality over quantity, and that too much emphasis on quantity – in either direction – detracts from our physiological need to replenish our bodies each day with sufficient nutrients in order to minimize stresses on our system and to recovery from physical exertion. These clients recognize immediately when inadequate energy (calorie) and nutrient intakes begin to negatively affect their energy levels. Not only can these conditions result in an inability to train effectively, they can also affect an athlete’s mood and motivation. Undermining workouts undermines training, which undermines the ability to burn calories… You get the point.

Explains Katherine Beals, Exercise Physiology and Nutrition PhD at the University of Utah, “carbohydrate is needed during exercise to support muscular ‘work’; it is needed after exercise to replenish glycogen stores in order to prepare the athletes for the next training bout. Protein is required for muscle tissue repair—inadequate protein intake will lead to poor training adaptation as well as increase the risk of injury. Vitamins and minerals are needed to support the metabolic processes involved in training and recovery. Failure to meet your nutritional needs can undermine the larger goal of increased strength and fitness.”

Training as the foundation

With those three priorities in mind, our lifestyle will naturally fixate on training. In other words, by following a good training program, weight loss and weight management usually come naturally.

For our coaching clients particularly concerned about their weight or eating habits, we often recommend they meet with a sports dietitian (a certified specialist in sports dietetics, or CSSD) to map out a healthy – as well as realistic and sustainable – diet. Athletes share with the dietitian the goals they’ve set for themselves, or have worked with us to establish. That goes for fitness as well as moderate and gradual weight loss in combination with structured training. Then we help them stay on track as they provide feedback each week along with their completed workout updates.

Having guidance and regular support as well as supervision can prove immensely helpful, though individuals can effectively self-supervise and moderate. Either way, having a scale is generally beneficial. Not to become obsessive with, quite the contrary; as with many things, taking the uncertainty out of the equation can actually serve to keep one from worrying.

The emphasis should be a solid training plan. We consider this approach ideal since the focus is less about diet or preoccupation with weight, and more about getting fit, strong and healthy. An individual who is training in a smart and dedicated fashion is usually lean or getting leaner.

Energy is the key

Our overall philosophy is one of moderation and balance, emphasizing health and sufficient energy to fuel effective workouts. Some of our clients have taken an aggressive approach to weight loss that we don’t recommend for most athletes. Through a training plan, Garmin HR and power uploads, as well as post-workout interaction via software like TrainingPeaks, we strive to ensure that our athletes are not undermining their well-being or energy levels.

Individuals should give themselves plenty of time, gradually working toward a healthy and sustainable percentage of body fat, then maintaining it through an active lifestyle. For those with high expectations regarding fitness and athletic performance, proper nutrition and sufficient caloric intake are essential in order to fuel what can be demanding structured workouts, as well as fuel recovery. Recovery is a huge part of fitness, and nutrition is a huge part of proper recovery.

A good place to start is calculating one’s Basal Metabolic Rate using a simple online calculator. For a male who is 40 years old, 5’9” tall and weighs 175lbs, for example, his BMR would be about 1,761 calories per day. That is what he would need in the way of nutritional replenishment at a constant state of rest – i.e. just to lay around all day! Typically, he could expect to burn an additional ~400-1,000 calories through modest exercise. He would also want to factor in calories burned through movement at work, keeping busy around the house, etc.

Patience is the virtue

We suggest setting a flexible goal of approximately ½ pound of weight loss per week based on however many hours of exercise an individual is regularly getting each week. “With athletes we generally recommend .5 lb per week by incurring a 250-500 kcal energy deficit by a combination of decreasing energy intake and increasing energy expenditure,” notes Beals.

Keeping it real

A good training plan can help you sustain or transition to a nice balance where you won’t feel like you’re sacrificing – we certainly don’t! Dave is vegan and I am not. We love a variety of foods, and certainly identify with many of our clients’ love of pizza, desserts and/or spirits. We’ve both gone through phases of our lives where we have imbibed alcohol, and when we have not. So many viable roads lead to healthful leanness.

Give yourself time, enjoy good food and get out for some quality exercise. You’ll get there before you know it.

Katherine Beals is a Certified Specialist in Sports Dietetics, a fellow of the American College of Sports Medicine and a Certified Specialist in Sports Dietetics. She is completing work on a new book, Nutrition and the Female Athlete: From Research to Practice.

Dave Harward and Mark Deterline offer over thirty years of combined endurance training and competitive experience. Plan 7 Endurance Coaching provides professional coaching, biomechanics (bike fitting) and testing services for athletes of all levels. Reach Dave and Mark via email [email protected] or call 801-661-7988.

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