Who doesn’t know this scenario: for the optimal preparation for the race season you need to get down to race weight – but what is the most effective way to get rid of the unwanted ‘love handles’ without compromising athletic performance?

There are always reports of new ‘wonder-diets’ in the media that have one thing in common: through restricted or selective choices of food a reduction in the total amount of energy consumed is achieved. The body is supplied with less energy than it actually needs. This calorie deficit is crucial for a reduction in body weight, and there’s no way around this.

A reduction in body weight is typically achieved through the combined breakdown of body fat and muscle mass. Although a high or radical reduction in calories also leads to the biggest weight losses, muscle mass is also attacked more and broken down. However, for athletes it is much more beneficial to maintain / preserve existing muscle mass during weight loss, as it is critical for exercise performance. Therefore, instead of focusing on the maximal (quantitative) weight loss, the nutritional strategy employed should ensure that the most amount of body fat is lost, with lowest possible reduction of valuable muscle mass. In addition to specific (strength/weight) training, the macronutrient protein also plays an important role.

A higher protein intake supports the maintenance of muscle mass during a calorie-restricted diet. However, there are also other reasons why foods rich in protein can be beneficial. For example, studies have shown that the feeling of satiety is higher after the consumption of protein in comparison to carbohydrates or fats. Feeling fuller reduces hunger and appetite, and therefore makes sticking to a calorie-reduced diet easier. Logically, with an increased intake of protein there needs to be a reduction in calories somewhere else to be successful. That means that foods that contain a lot of carbohydrates and / or are rich in fats need to be reduced.

It is important to point out that a diet low in carbohydrates does not allow optimal performance during high intensity activities. For athletes the recommendation is therefore to save calories from a reduced fat intake during periods of high intensity training, or when the aim is to improve the intensity of training. This is also something the German Biathlete Simon Schempp recommends:

“I think getting rid of carbohydrates completely is definitely wrong, and is out of the question for me. During periods of high intensity training the body needs sufficient amounts of carbohydrates – not just during competition, but also during training.”

Schempp was the first ever Biathlete to win both the Sprint event and the Pursuit in Antholz (Italy) in two consecutive years.

During periods of low intensity training and volume it can indeed be sensible to use a carbohydrate restricting strategy for weight loss. In studies, calorie-restricted “low carb high protein” strategies are associated with a higher reduction in body fat. Schempp is already putting the latest scientific recommendations for body fat reduction into practice:

“If I need to lose a bit of weight to reach my race weight I plan my calorie restriction carefully. During periods of high-intensity training I mainly reduce the amount of fatty foods. In contrast, on days where I have easy sessions that are supposed to stimulate fat metabolism, I eat less pasta and bread. But I definitely always make sure I get the sufficient amount of protein. This strategy also works in the long term.”

The timing for body fat reduction is crucial, Schempp explains:

“Any diet should always be planned during periods without any competition. During the racing season I try to maintain my body weight, because during this period it’s much more important to concentrate on the maximal possible performance – physically and mentally.”
  • Excessive diets are taboo; instead only moderately restrict the intake of calories.
  • It’s easy to save calories by limiting the intake of fatty foods, such a deep-fried food or rich sauces, and sweets, such as cake, biscuits and chocolate.
  • Carbohydrate intake should be matched according to need: during periods of high training loads or intensity the body requires more carbohydrates. If however, the volume of training and intensity is reduced, the portion sizes for e.g. pasta, bread, potatoes and rice should be reduced also.
  • Try to avoid sugary and energy-dense beverages such as soft drinks, fruit juices and alcohol during the day and instead have calorie-free beverages, such as water and unsweetened tea (e.g. fruit or green tea), and a moderate intake of black coffee/espresso.
  • Eat as natural/clean as possible. Convenience foods (e.g. packet soup, fast food) should be avoided. Instead wholesome, nutrient-dense foods such as plain yoghurt without added sugar, whole grain instead of white flour, home-made salad dressings with virgin olive oil, lemon juice and fresh herbs instead of ready made salad dressing should be preferred.
  • Include adequate amounts of protein-rich foods such as lean meat (lean beef, veal or lamb), fish, eggs, low-fat dairy products (e.g. cottage cheese, low-fat plain Greek yoghurt) and soya products at breakfast, lunch, dinner, snacks and after training sessions.
  • Eat a minimum of 3 portions of vegetables / salad, and 2 portions of fruit per day. Bulky foods such as vegetables and fruit don’t just contain important vitamins and minerals, but also have a high fibre and water content. This leads to a greater feeling of fullness for only a small intake of calories.
  • Be smart in your food choices to support losses in body fat and improve health, such as:
    • Boiled ham instead of salami
    • Make your own muesli from cereals (e.g. oats or spelt), nuts and seeds (e.g. sunflower seeds, linseed) instead of ready made muesli or granola.
    • Refine vegetable soups with yoghurt instead of having creamy soups
    • Baked potatoes instead of fried potatoes
  • Strict restrictions don’t work! Once a week plan a small cheat meal /snack to avoid the munchies / cravings.

Clever cheating

© Corinne Mäder, Senior EU Sport Nutrition Manager PowerBar. International Olympic Committee postgraduate Diploma in Sports Nutrition

Selected references:

– Chaston, T.B., Dixon ,J.B., O’Brien, P.E (2007). Changes in fat-free mass during significant weight loss: a systematic review. Int J Obes (Lond), 31(5):743-50.

– Garthe, I. et al. (2011). Effect of two different weight-loss rates on body composition and strength and power-related performance in elite athletes. Int J Sport Nutr Exerc Metab, 21(2):97-104.

– Krieger J.W. et al. (2006). Effects of variation in protein and carbohydrate intake on body mass and composition during energy restriction: a meta-regression. Am J Clin Nutr., 83(2):260-74.

– Mettler, S. et al. (2010). Increased protein intake reduces lean body
mass loss during weight loss in athletes. Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise, 42,

– Paddon-Jones, D. et al. (2008). Protein, weight management, and satiety. The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 87(5), 1558S-1561S.