Now, the real question is this:
Do I really burn 59 calories per mile on average?
Or how about this:
Did I really eat another 14 pounds worth of calories, in addition to the 2,000 calories a day I need anyway so I didn’t waste away to skin and bones?
No, I most definitely did not. In both cases.
However, I never had to push myself away from the table either. Here’s how this worked out over the last four years – because I had four really consistent years. Well, technically three, but stay with me here… My first six months was nothing to write home about, 1,800 total miles. I was building fitness and strength. My first whole year was much better, 5,300. My second year was 5,600 and my third was a bit over 6,000. That notwithstanding, here’s the important stuff…
That first six months, I was building up to a point where I could hammer out some decent miles so I gained a lot of muscle and lost some fat. The next year, 2012, when I really started putting in some serious time on the bike, my weight went from 171 pounds all the way down to 149 (I’m 6′ tall – I was skinny, baby). My wife wasn’t too cool with the skinny me so I started eating what felt like a lot to me. When winter came and my miles slowed down I was up to 165, a place where both my wife and I could be happy.
The next year, all I had to do was eat normally and I stayed the same weight throughout the entire season (“normally” was still quite a bit more than I ate when I was only running 20 miles a week). Last year was much more of the same, all throughout the cycling season… Until I hit Thanksgiving. The previous two years I slowed down on my eating after Thanksgiving, but last year I kept eating well beyond Christmas. I put on some weight. I slowed back down in January, but come springtime, I had some weight to drop. I started hitting the miles hard on March 7th and haven’t looked back since. I’ve eaten sensibly but never “too much”. The weight, while it has come off over the last three months, took an exceptional amount of miles to drop and it was a lot slower in coming off. Part of this is leg muscle – with increased duration and speed comes muscle. However, I also believe that my body is adapting to the exercise and it has, therefore, become more efficient at cranking the miles out.
While it’s still a matter, to an extent, of calories in vs. calories burned, I also believe that I had a “window” where dropping weight was very easy as long as I ate sensibly. Unfortunately, that time has come and gone. It’s gotten to where I have to work a little harder at it when I want to drop weight. I had a friend, a Cat 3 racer, tell me (in the middle of our Club Ride, at 27 mph) that the trackers are all off because the real measure of how many calories are burned on a bike ride lies in wattage measurements which require a power meter. While I do believe this method might help dial it in, they’re just as fallible when scrutinized. For instance, my friend can ride comfortably at 25 mph for several miles. I need a minimum 5-10 mph tailwind to do that. So say we’re cruising down the same stretch of road, at the same pace (call it 27 mph), in the same group and we’re both the same distance from the front (so we’re both in the same draft)… I’m working harder to keep up than he is – in fact, I’m working harder throughout that entire ride. So, who would be burning more calories, even though the wattage output would be very similar? I’d put my money on me and the only difference is that he’s accustomed to that level of output while it’s slightly above my ability.
Better yet, try this (because 27 mph on a bicycle might be hard to wrap your head around): Say my wife and I ride every single day of June together. We put in just as many miles. 17 mph for my wife is work. 17 mph for me is a walk in the park. Who burned more calories? My wife, by a long shot. She worked, I didn’t.
This little variation on a theme would go a long way to explaining why many calorie trackers are so far off and why weight flies off commensurate with effort in the beginning and tapers once a solid base has been established. I’m not going to bother looking up all of the science that bears this out but suffice it to say, it’s out there and it’s plentiful. This would mean it’s wise to hit it hard and early so that you can drop as much weight as possible before the body adapts. Just a thought.
The point of this whole post, other than to say “Yes it does matter, but no it doesn’t”, is to point out the flaws in expectation when it comes to phoning exercise in. Slow and steady might help one lose weight over time (lots and lots of it) if the diet volume is fractioned and the substance of that diet is cleaned up. Gutting it out with hard work will produce better, faster results which require less dietary alteration but eventually you’ll have to pay the piper once the body becomes accustomed to your level of tolerance. This would explain why exercise takes so long to show results in some while producing almost immediate results in others. It also would explain why it’s so hard to nail down diet exercise altogether, because nothing is static. It’s always changing, always adapting, always requiring that we change up to keep the boy guessing.
So, does that top three tenths of one percent in an Endomondo Challenge really mean anything in the long run? Not really, but it’s kind of cool – and it will motivate me to keep it up. So yeah, it does.
UPDATE: In the comments section below, Sandra brings up the heart rate monitor to estimate exertion. While this is often suggested as the best way to understand calorie burn (next to a power meter), when used in conjunction with a tracking software that can do something with the data, it’s still based on a guesstimate. The heart rate “zones”, while I looked into them here myself, are still little more than a guess because they’re all taken off of a faulty equation that starts with a person’s age and gender. Neither all men nor all women are the same so you can’t possibly use the same equation to come up with a number for all of one gender. The only real way to make this work is to get tested at a fitness facility capable of doing so. Equations, while they can narrow the target, still just boil down to guesses. In the end, it is simply about getting close anyway but I have to ask: How much time, money and effort do I want to put into this? My answer is none. Close works both in hand grenades and counting calories.