I'd like to ask the advice of runners who have tried(and succeeded) at lowering their fat percentage.
I am female, 19 years old, 5'3, 126lbs and 19% body fat. I have been running for three years now, starting from pretty much 0 fitness, to now having a half pb of 1.29. I do well in my running, however I don't feel happy about my physical state. I know that I am within a healthy range BMI wise, but physically I do not feel as though I am the leanest that I could be. I know people say that if you're running well don't worry about the rest, but I believe that I could be much faster by lowering my fat percentage. I'd like to be around the 12-13% fat percentage mark. I worked out that I currently eat an average of 1500-1800 calories a day, however sometimes under 1500(I use livestrong myplate). I run about 50 miles a week, so I do not understand why it is that I have been unable to lose the extra fat that I would like to lose. I have been eating this sort of intake for about 1.5 years now. I can't keep upping my mileage in an attempt to lose fat as my coach has put an upper limit on the amount of mileage I should be doing at the moment to prevent injury etc.. I don't eat sweets, chocolates or crisps at all, or anything battered or deep-fried. I just want to make it clear that I don't by any means wish to be overly thin or anorexic looking, I simply want be lean and strong( Steph Twell type). Sorry for the long explanation- I'd just like some advice on what others have done to lower their fat percentage, or get closer to their ideal racing weight. Any tips welcome(I'd especially like to hear from any females who struggled with this issue)
Thanks for taking the time to read image


  • RicFRicF ✭✭✭
    What drove me in to running was one day getting up and finding that I could hardly get my trousers on. I'd always been around 126lb's so 145lb's was too much of a shock. My diet was simple. I eradicated every bit of refined sugar and fat that I could. Much of this stuff is hidden, energy bars and drinks are packed with sugar. They are just sweets in different clothes. Even now I can state the fat% and possible sugar content of all sorts of food. Fat=Fat and refined sugar=fat too.
    Within 6 months I'd dropped to 120lb's.
  • maybe your body is at its natural optimum weight for you........
    i thought 19% was pretty low for a female as we have so much more natural fat than men.....

    otherwise i would look at the type of food you eat.......listening to radio 4 i have heard a lot of discussions recently about calories is a very old way of calculating food values which isn't really suitable for food.......

    the best calories are those from natural products.......if you have a lot of processed foods then the body does not know how to break them down efficiently and therefore you are left with more crap in your body and less nutrients...

    if you change your diet to totally homemade food form natural ingredients it might help make those small changes that you want...
  • From what I have read 12-13% body fat for a woman is bordering on dangerously low. Women do need more body fat than men and if it drops too low you will find yourself developing other problems.

    To be honest I think that 19% for a woman of your age is low enough..... I would add have you tried circuit training in addition to running ? I'm a similar height and weight to you and currently have a body fat percentage of about 22-23% I have a few areas that I would like to improve on but just accept that we have no control over where our bodies decide to store fat or burn it from !
  • Not being rude but you're still growing probably and I wouldn't want teenagers to restrict their nutrition unless they actually had a weight problem. Your BMI is 22.3 which is quite well within the acceptable range, nowhere near overweight. A lot of people would dream of that. Many calculators of body fat and BMI are aimed at older adults so don't be misled by advice based on that.

    You have a good half time. I don't think you need to take supplements to train for or run a half, personally, so you may want to watch any refined sugars you are taking for training. If you are doing long runs of more than this time then you could consider it. On general diet, as a rule of thumb avoiding anything that is already made will help, i.e., just buy veg, fruit, nuts, grains, etc. and cook from those.Things like baked beans and wholemeal bread you don't have to make yourself image

  • if you're only eating 1500 calories a day or less you're not eating enough!  if you don't eat enough, your body holds on to as much as it can because it thinks it is in starvation mode.  Cardio is also not the way too lose weight; your body adapts to cardio very quickly and reachs a kind of plateau.  If you introduce some conditioning and weights to your exercise regime, you'll lose weight.  However, you need to take on board sufficient nutrition to allow you do undertake the exercise you're doing.  BMI isn't a good measure of health, ratio of hips to waist is better (google it)

    I've spent my whole life very overweight, and it is only in the past month of totally changing the way I eat (i.e. more protein, more fat, less carbs, cutting out refined sugar and flour, eating regularly and drinking lots of water) and doing more weight bearing exercise than cardio, that i've started to lose weight, balance out my blood sugars and feel good all the time. There is a lot of info on line about why we need more fat etc in our diet (scientific evidence based info) that is worth looking for.  It totally contradicts the government messages about eating low fat and high carbs, but I think you should have a read.  Don't starve yourself to lose weight, it won't work, and will just leave you unhealthy and frustrated. 

  • Lee the Pea wrote (see)

    I've spent my whole life very overweight, and it is only in the past month of totally changing the way I eat (i.e. more protein, more fat, less carbs, cutting out refined sugar and flour, eating regularly and drinking lots of water) and doing more weight bearing exercise than cardio, that i've started to lose weight, balance out my blood sugars and feel good all the time.

    What Lee said.  The look you want is rarely achieved through cardio alone, especially not steady state cardio like long slow runs...  The "fat burning zone" is a myth!!

    Google "The Final Nail in the Cardio Coffin" by Rachel Cosgrove, start lifting some weights, do interval-based cardio (like fartlek runs or spin classes), up your protein and reduce your processed fast carbs.

  • image yeah you pointed me to that article Nam, it is really good.  Lots more articles like that about now too. image
  • Without wanting to sound too blunt, you're already at a sub-optimal fat percentage for a woman, and especially so for a woman of your age. Aiming for 12-13% is quite frankly dangerous. You're lining yourself up for all sorts of health problems, in the short and long-term. Your body needs fat - it can't function properly without it.

    I wouldn't be surprised at all if your running progress wasn't being hindered because of the stress you're putting on your body. You need appropriate nutrition to enable the training and physical adaptations you're looking for - fat loss doesn't come about purely by virtue of being in an energy deficit. Weight loss does, but that weight may come from either fat or muscle.

    You need to re-focus your attention away from a fixation on body fat percentage and instead to ensuring that you have adequate nutrition to suit your training and nutrient requirements. I'd be amazed if you ran faster with a body fat percentage of 12-13% - you'd run faster if you nourished your body to allow the training to have a positive effect.

  • I think when a lot of women say they want to reduce their BF%, what they ACTUALLY mean is that they want a leaner and more toned look.  That doesn't necessarily mean a huge drop in BF, but some development of lean mass instead.

    That's where the term "skinny fat" came into, i.e. you can have an optimal BF% yet still look flabby because you've got no muscle mass to create any tone.

  • All of what Nam said.

    I don't know enough about the difference between male and female physiology to know how much of this is applicable, but I've been able to compare two very different regimes I've put into practise and their effects on my body.  Pre-injury I was running 60-70mpw and doing little else besides.  Am now doing max 50mpw plus cycling and lots of gym work - a couple of proper core work-outs per week plus some strength/cardio.  I am back to my equal lowest weight but much more toned.  I've never had my bf% accurately measured* but the jeans test and the mirror test strongly suggest that I'm much leaner than I was previously.  (Ominous signs of a six-pack beginning to show! image )

    The added benefit of introducing strength and core related training is that it can only complement (IMO) your efforts to avoid injury.

    *I've used the hand-held bioimpedence fat measurement thingummies before but I really don't believe they're at all accurate.

  • Why the seemingly random 12-13 % body fat dream ?

    You're looking to lose a full 1/3 of your fat there - 8lbs or so. That seems a hell of a lot ?

    Your half time is very good though - focus on that rather than the weight issue ?
  • I think you also need to think that Steph Twell is an elite athlete, and whilst your 1/2m time is one many people would envy, you are not an elite athlete. She can devote her whole life to running, other exercise to support her running training, and has support with diet etc. Comparing yourself with her body shape does not seem sensible.

    Your current fat levels, BMI and happiness with your running performance suggest you are great as you are.
  • Yes, there's a lot of good advice above. If you want to stick to your BF% then you should know you are bang in the middle of the ideal range for your age and sex - take a look at
  • The whole 'calorie in vs calorie out' argument is far from straightforward either.

    It is easy to assume that if you put a certain amount of calories in, and burn off more by exercise, you'll lose weight. If the calories you're eating aren't giving you sufficient nutrition for all the exercise you're doing, then if you lose weight, you'll lose muscle mass, because your body will hang on to your fat stores.  The more muscle mass you lose, then the harder it is to 'burn fat' as your muscles help in that respect, but their mass is being depleted.  Then you get into a vicious circle.  I think that is right anyway, Booky can probably correct it if not.

    I always thought it was a case of 'eat less, move more' but it isn't that simple.  Sadly, lol.

  • I can see why the OP wants to lose some body fat - she wants to go faster and at 19% there is some scope to get faster by losing body fat irrespective of what else she does. No she isn't an elite athlete but you don't have to be elite to take your sport seriously. Saying you are already in the middle of the healthy range etc etc is all a bit patronising isn't it ?

    I don't buy that 19% is sub-optimal body fat percentage for anyone and I don't think we have a natural body weight either - if you want to be leaner then you need to do something about it - not just assume that's how you are built. I wouldn't give much credence to charts based on average figures from the USA or UK either - we are in the middle of an obesity epidemic - our average is overweight.

    I do agree though that there are potential health risks involved in wanting to get very lean - 13% fat for a woman - seek the advice of a nutritionist experienced with working with athletes.
  • If you eat 1500 kcal/day that's 10,500 kcal/week.  If you are running 50mpw, even at 75 kcal/mile, that's 3,750 kcal/week.  Your body is left with 6,750 kcal/week for its general calorie requirements.  I'm not surprised it's struggling on fewer than 1,000 kcal/day.  I don't think there's much dieting advice suggesting such a limited calorie intake.

    You mention that you have a coach.  I think you should discuss with him/her: (a) if you should try and lose weight/fat and (b) if so, how.

  • Thanks for all the responses image

    @Lee the Pea - true what you say about calories in/out. It's soo not simple and certainly doesn't work for everyone. It's what led me to keeping my intake around the 1500-1800 mark, didn't experience any change at all.

    @ KittenKat- I actually own the book "racing weight" and applied many of the rules/guidelines to my eating habits. I try to follow it as closely as possible, however it can be difficult when you are not a full time athlete, but a full time student. I also own the book "Go faster foods".

    @Cougie - the 12-13% "dream", is actually more of a goal. It's based upon the range of bf% most commonly possessed by elite female athletes. However, I think realistically I should aim for something like 15% for now. @ exiled claret - believe me I know I'm no elite athlete, but I consider myself to have quite a lot of scope for improvement and would l like to one day be sub-1.20, I think it's possible considering that many of the current GB elite women are aged 32yrs+, giving me another 10-12 years of training to reach that goal.

    @Popsider-- you seem to understand where I'm coming from-- I don't want to be unhealthy, but I do believe in order to be a top-standard distance runner you are obviously going to need to be somewhat lighter than a recreational runner.I know that a lot of it is down to the heavy training, but I'm sure diet and other training comes in to play, and this is what I'm interested in. The other thing is, I know women who have been running the same amount of time as me, starting out heavier, and somehow they just shed the weight( I say weight, what I mean is, they look lean, toned and not jiggly or heavy) effortlessly just from running a couple times a week, eating more and running less than myself.

    I've heard of starvation mode- however I am a skeptic, because I hear a lot of people on the internet saying it is non-existent and just an "excuse" for people to eat more in order to prevent this occuring(not my opinion-just what I've read) . Also, surely after a long period of time living on a calorie deficit your body would begin getting rid of fat slowly, realising that you are not "starving", I don't know, I'm just speculating. Anybody actually had any experience of being in "starvation mode" and over coming it by eating more?? As for other exercise, at the moment I do some weights 1-2 times a week if I get the time (studying full time), I also do medicine ball work and core sessions as well. I suppose I should try and increase the amount of time spent doing weights.....

    Thanks again for the advice, look forward to any more comments!! image

  • What I read from the OP, in a nutshell, is this:

    "Despite being fit, healthy and active I don't want to look like me I want to look like someone else".

    You need to realise that you might not be built to look a certain way - you have to make the best of what you've got.

  • I completely agree with Screamapillar.

    I'm a dietitian, and am specialising in sports nutrition, and I know what I'm talking about when I say that aiming for such a low body fat percentage - even the amended 15% - is unhealthy. Fat serves a function within the body, particularly so for females where it is required for hormone regulation and healthy bones. Not only that, but when your body fat percentage drops too low your performance will be dramatically hindered, you're more prone to injury and infection, recovery time is extended, and you're likely to suffer with low energy levels. At a certain point you'll stop menstruating and you're then more likely to develop osteopenia, osteoporosis, and infertility.

    "I do believe in order to be a top-standard distance runner you are obviously going to need to be somewhat lighter than a recreational runner.I know that a lot of it is down to the heavy training, but I'm sure diet and other training comes in to play, and this is what I'm interested in."

    Diet and training are essential. I can't state strongly enough how essential adequate nutrition is if you want to see the benefits of your training. A sufficient protein and carbohydrate intake is fundamental to determining the physiological adaptations you're training for. Strong muscles and bones require protein, essential fats, minerals, vitamins, etc. Endurance requires sufficient carbohydrate for the intensity and duration of the training/event. Add in considerations of hydration, healthy blood for oxygen transport, adequate vitamins and minerals for the various metabolic pathways, etc. etc. and you can begin to see just how fundamental a role diet should play, not only if you want to improve your running, but also just to be healthy.

    Making the demands of your body that you are and doing it whilst intentionally under an energy deficit is counter-productive. You'd be far better off putting your time and attention into good nutrition that suits your training.

    Get some advice from an expert, and please stop focusing on your body fat percentage. You've got a good half time and the motivation to improve - don't waste it by fixating on the wrong thing!
  • RicFRicF ✭✭✭
    I should have added that what I did was also untenable.
    Sarah the bookworm is correct. I operate now at 130lb's. One set of fat monitors shows me at 11.5% fat and another at 6%. My wife stands on her setting and it comes up at 27%. As she is the same height as me she tried my setting (tanita scales) and was 15%. So the scales are clearly sexist. Incidently, I met Steph Twell at the Aldershot road relays. She doesn't strike me as really thin. You can't believe how fast that women can run until you've seen her go by, a sustained sprint. Sub 5 minute miling!
  • Screamapillar - what you are reading isn't what I'm reading - she doesn't want to "look like someone else" she wants to run faster. I'm trying to shed half a stone myself - not for looks but so I can ride my bike up mountains faster - if I wasn't a cyclist I wouldn't have the slightest interest in losing weight - I think as a 43 year old man that's accepted but because the OP is a young woman people instantly think uh oh potential eating disorder.

    I'm not saying that people don't have to be careful - but at the same time some people run because they want to be fast - not for stress relief, social reasons etc etc but as a competitive sport. Yes what starts as a desire to be fast can become an unhealthy fixation with weight - but it doesn't for everyone. I know very good amateur cyclists who are incredibly lean and are very strict with what they eat and when but I don't for a minute think it's out of control - they are just very disciplined in trying to be the best they can.

    Bottom line is there are no world class runners who aren't incredibly skinny - and whilst the OP may never be world class (and she accepts that with a goal of sub 1.20) she wants to be the best she can be. There has to be scope for her to get lower than 19% without it being dangerous imo - maybe not to the levels the worlds top marathon runners are at but lower than she is. Otherwise we shouldn't be promoting running as a sport for women as it obviously requires you to be unhealthy to be very good at it.
  • Well, whatever your thoughts/theories about how your body should adapt to operating with a constant calorie deficit , it obviously isn't working for you. That alone tells you that you need to rethink your strategy!

    When I was at my leanest I didn't count calories and I didn't restrict food intake. I was just very careful about what I ate and when. And by that I mean I was careful to eat enough and very careful to never go hungry! I cut out all refined carbs and upped my protein intake significantly. I ate mostly porridge, brown rice, brown pasta, brown bread, chicken breast, turkey, tuna, salmon, and loads of fresh fruit and veg. I took little tupperware cartons of prepared food with me everywhere I went and anytime I felt hungry I'd eat a few mouthfuls. I also took a protein supplement. This was in addition to normal meals. I did heavy weight training three nights a week (basic programme of chest and arms, back & shoulders, legs) and I did 60-120 minutes of high intensity cardio (85-95% MHR and absolutely dripping with sweat!) 6 mornings a week.

    I also cut out alcohol altogether and slept more than most folk thought was normal. Quality sleep is very important. I wasn't a runner at that time but I did do a lot of treadmill work with the cardio sessions. All this might not be suitable for you and I'm not in any way recommending it as I'm not a dietician or an exercise specialist, I'm just telling you what worked for me.

    It got me from 160+ lbs to 130 lbs in under a year. I'm 5' 6" and I was 26 at the time. I have no idea what my bodyfat % was but it must have been fairly low as I had the beginnings of a sixpack and size 10 jeans were almost loose on me. I wasn't skinny, just very lean and toned looking.

  • Noanie wrote (see)

    It got me from 160+ lbs to 130 lbs in under a year. I'm 5' 6" and I was 26 at the time. I have no idea what my bodyfat % was but it must have been fairly low as I had the beginnings of a sixpack and size 10 jeans were almost loose on me. I wasn't skinny, just very lean and toned looking.

    Photographs or it didn't happen. 


  • made some good points there about eating good stuff and what works for one might not work for another.......
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