People: I have to work harder to burn fat.
Biology: Fat burn only occurs during low-to-mid intensity.
People slave to get leaner, working out HARD because an informercial said so, because a local nouveau fitness business built its whole model on this, because a coked out instructor said to “push it.” But, alas, science reigns supreme over all this nonsense. The optimal fat burn occurs at 47% to 64% of ability: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/15212756
That is, long before you get winded, long before you can’t hold a conversation, long before the effort accumulates fatigue/exhaustion, you will stop effectively burning fat. If you have to stop or slow because you’re getting out-of-breath, you already passed the fat burn window a while ago. If you’re having a hard time imagining keeping your current pace for 10 hours or more, you are precisely training the body to be unskilled at fat burn.
I value sprints. I value resistance training. Yes. During those brief efforts of 5-55 seconds, go all out. But the moment that over 20% of your workout time is performed at a perceived level above 50% of your capacity, you are DEtraining the body from utilizing stored fat.
Recently, a client of mine discovered he had gained 10lbs over the course of two months WHILE he was compliant with nutrition and performing more endurance training. To be clear, he ate less and worked out more. It turned out that the heart rate at which he performed his endurance training was too high. You read that right. TOO HIGH. What that does is make you increasingly better at pain tolerance, not fat burn. Body composition follows suit (fat gain, not loss). When you just experience a lot of discomfort, the body will try to get bigger. With him, we’ve now instituted a do-not-raise-heart-rate-above-this limit. While he trains running or cycling, I don’t want him higher than a heart rate which feels too low to him. This strikes most people as paradoxical or counterintuitive. But it’s actually a defined scientific reality in all of exercise physiology.
I encounter this more often than not. Among the sedentary populace, sure, they need to work a little harder. Among the regular exercisers, no, probably they don’t need to push it. Too high of exertion for too long a period of time tends to be the problem I identify among regular exercisers.
I marvel at the massive amount of time people throw away at the gym and on the trails. It’s remarkable. They spend hours and hours every week only to have identical athletic ability or worse. Last summer I spent 27 minutes per week working out. Intelligent progression models don’t require piles of time.
Regular exercisers should be getting definitively better in their 30s than 20s, 40s than 30s, 50s than 40s, 60s than 50s, 70s than 60s, and perhaps hitting a tipping point of maintenance in their 80s or 90s.
At a level, I believe that people do actually know this. But they chase their tails, always believing that if they don’t suffer incredibly then the effort was futile. It’s exactly the opposite. Think back to elementary school, middle school, high school, college. The slowest kids were forced to train at a pace that impeded improvement. To this day, a lot of unknowledgeable coaches still make this mistake. They essentially punish slower kids by requiring them to run harder and more. Outcomes are obvious. Slow kids need to train slowER in order to become more efficient and therefore consequently faster. We know this to be true. We let the fastest kids train below their thresholds. And voila. They improve. We force slow kids to suffer. And voila. They are destined to struggle. It’s a physiological law. You cannot will it to be untrue.
It remains true for adults. You must train BELOW hard effort in order to improve speed, body comp, and athleticism. You know what else is below hard effort? Rest. And that’s why nutrition is critical. You can burn fat and primarily fat at complete rest. No exercise required. However, if there is always food in your face and stomach, and always blood sugar volatility, then yeah, you’re going to have to workout a lot, both frequently and lengthily in duration. But this is where exercise becomes a trap. People work out so hard that they MUST eat. The high intensity burned up lean tissue. Then the eating grew fat tissue. They feel fatter, so they work out longer and harder, burning up even more lean tissue, consequently eating even more to grow even more fat tissue. The feedback usually ends up in one of two places. Either people quit, because it’s “not working.” Or they continue binging and exercise purging without ever calling it that.
There’s a third way. In this third way, the manner in which you think is important. You must think about resistance training as a skill. It does not exist to burn calories. It exists to prevent osteoporosis, sarcopenia, cachexia, and to make you more capable. You develop the skill. Higher skill will eventually lead to more calories burned. Aerobic training, on the other hand, has a primary objective to improve efficiency. This means that low-to-mid intensity is the directive. And THAT may mean FEWER calories burned in a given time period at the beginning. Over time, without “pushing it,” if you are training at a low-enough intensity, you will naturally move faster. If you are struggling to get faster, it’s because you are thinking about it incorrectly and training too fast too long. Slow down. You will naturally get faster. Then, you will burn more calories within the same or less time. With regard to eating, remind yourself that you are a fully grown adult. Stop eating to grow, unless that’s your goal. Fast when you can. Protein and fiber when you can’t.