VeloPress has emerged as the preeminent publisher of books about cycling. That the publisher is doing stellar work isn’t surprising, but the fact that they have so little competition from other publishers is.
Matt Fitzgerald’s new book Racing Weight: How to Get Lean for Peak Performance is the only title I’ve ever encountered that addresses weight loss for endurance athletes. Rather than just a manual on how to shave pounds from your frame, it addresses the larger issue of how to right-size your body.
It’s a question I’ve considered many times over the years. After all, there’s more to being fit than just have a single-digit body fat composition. So just what is a right-sized endurance athlete? More pointedly, what is right-sized you? It’s an intriguing question and one I never really found an answer to for me, personally, in all the different training manuals I’ve read over the years. Yet, in Fitzgerald’s book, finding an answer is easy.
The book weaves a very big-picture, integrated perspective on not just weight loss, but sport-specific considerations, diet evaluation, when you eat, dealing with hunger pangs, fuel sources and dietary supplements. Think of all the facets of fitness that relate to your weight and your performance and Fitzgerald has covered it. The title is nearly overwhelming in its thoroughness.
Even more impressive is Fitzgerald’s mastery of the underpinnings of the science. He cites study after published study showing how the human body behaves in response to any number of conditions. The sheer number of studies he cites is staggering. His mastery of the science involved allowed him to weave a sort of scientific narrative, where each new study is brought to bear upon the story of achieving a proper weight the way a bricklayer selects bricks according to the composition at hand.
At best, I would have imagined you might devote two, maybe three, chapters to weight and weight loss in a book on training. I’d never have believed anyone could compose a thought-provoking volume of more than 280 pages on the subject. Every now and then someone writes the giant-killer text, the volume that becomes the bible of a subject. Ten years from now most of us will be wondering how we managed before this book came along.
For my part, in the last 18 months I picked up more than 15 pounds thanks to a honeymoon and an injury that kept me off the bike for longer than I thought possible, like holding my breath for a day. All the old tricks didn’t work through the summer. And if a cyclist can’t lose weight during the summer … clearly new strategies are necessary. Nine pounds later, I’m on my way and can say this book taught me some important lessons.
Some years ago I sat through a time-management presentation by a motivational speaker. I was the managing editor for a magazine that hit deadlines the way Rocky Balboa hit Apollo Creed. We were but one of many trade magazines our owner published; the room contained nearly 100 editorial and production staffers. We needed the presentation the way James Cameron needs technology lessons.
The presenter’s big show-stopper was a routine in which he took two-gallon glass jar and put a number of large rocks in it. He compared them to job, family and financial obligations. Next, he inserted a number of smaller rocks. Those were meals, personal passions, etc. Then, he shook in a liberal amount of sand—grocery shopping, oil changes, mowing the lawn. Just when you thought it couldn’t hold anything else, he poured in at least a quart of water. Along the way, he kept egging the crowd on, asking them, “Is there room for more?”
By the end, he had the audience wound up enough that when he asked, “What’s the lesson?” They cried, “There’s always room for more!”
“No!” he thundered back. And the room fell silent.
Again, he asked the question, “What’s the lesson?”
As I’d already read about the same presentation in Fast Company, I knew the answer.
“Plan ahead. Decide what your priorities are, first.”
The image of that jar with the rocks, pebbles and sand flooded with water came back to me recently. I was on a group ride that had dwindled in numbers until I found myself riding with a single other rider, a guy into his fifth decade but was on his longest ride ever; it would be 75 miles by the time he returned home.
He was intrigued by the fact that as the group had surged in speed, I had refused to up the ante.
“How come?” he asked.
“I’m fat and I made a promise to myself.”
I told him how my old tricks for weight loss weren’t working anymore. Bumping up my mileage a bit and cutting calories a bit had made no appreciable difference in my waistline. I had decided I must follow the advice of experts; I was resorting to the standby—Friel—plus a new title by Matt Fitzgerald.
The heart rate monitor was a recent acquisition for my companion and he was full of questions about percentages. We talked about junk miles, the yin and yang of really easy and really hard and the curse of living far enough south that the cold cannot crush your will to go hard.
There is little arc to the year for most of the guys I ride with. The average Sunday in April isn’t too different from the average Sunday in August or the average Sunday in December.
This is where our love of the bike can undercut the discipline necessary to build granite-hard fitness. The truth is, I’d love nothing more than to ride every weekend day like it was a stage of a grand tour. Fast, hilly and long, my rides take seconds on everything.
It was in explaining the hard/fast, slow/easy dichotomy that the image of the rock, pebble, sand and water-filled jar came back to me.
“You have to choose your priorities,” I said. “And I’m having to sacrifice my favorite rides so I can focus on burning fat.”
Envy runs deep in our species. We envy neighbors with bigger houses or nicer cars, co-workers with better salaries and offices, and Brad Pitt with his looks, his talent, his money, his homes, and his Angelina Jolie.
You know what I really envy? I envy the guy who can drill it and burn fat at the same time. I’d love to have that kind of metabolic efficiency, kind of like being the human version of the Doc’s DeLorean in Back to the Future, flying around, burning garbage for fuel. I also miss $2.00 movies. So it goes.
Training smart has always been about choosing a priority and focusing on it, but we’re so accustomed to trying to get more out of our training—going faster, going deeper, going longer—that it’s easy to try to add too much to a ride, isn’t it? I’ve known for a long time that it’s okay to make a long ride longer, or a fast ride faster, even to add hills to a hilly ride, but I’ve paid a price for trying to make all my weekend rides long, hilly and fast.
It’s a new year and the time has come to go back to the basics. I’m asking myself what my priorities are, riding-wise, for the year. To get on track, there may be some lonely miles, but my body has taught me tomorrow’s goal is built on today’s priority.