Working harder but losing lean mass...who do I talk to?
November 9, 2019 12:14 PM   Subscribe

TLDR; my DEXA scan shows a lean mass decrease of approximately 3kg, and a fat increase of about the same, in spite of increasing my strength work outs. Why is this happening and what sort of professional do I talk to figure out how to reverse it?

I've had three DEXA scans over the last 18 months. The results of the first one were unsurprising, the second one was fine and the third one made me go WTF??!?!

The first was prompted by curiousity and showed pretty much what I expected, a reasonable amount fat/lean mass in proportion, leaning towards the squishy side of things.

The second scan was done in early June. It showed a slight increase in body fat but also in lean mass, roughly in proportion. Fine, people do often gain weight while training for a half marathon, and I'd trained for two in the intervening period.

For comparison purposes, training consisted of Maffetone method (low heart rate) runs, (2x 30 minutes, 1x long) and one weights/cardio interval class each week.

Five months later I had my third scan; I was interested in was seeing if/how my body changed during marathon training. Unfortuanately I didn't get myself organised, so it's actually about 4 weeks after my marathon.

The scan showed a decrease of about 3kg of lean mass and an increase of roughly the same in fat.

Training consists of interval runs, (2x 30 minutes), run-walk-talk with a friend (1x45 min), 1x long run and three (machine) weights sessions each week, plus 4x 10 minute core sessions, one yoga class and currently a 100 squats per day challenge.

I don't know what to make of the result. I don't understand how I can work this hard and lose lean mass. The scan clearly shows that my body fat is distinctly denser now than it was previously.

Who do I talk to to understand what's happening, and work out how to reverse it? Ideally I'd like to add muscle and remove fat.

Random thoughts:
1. Same company, same technician, same machine (presumably; I was in the same office at least)
2. The technician had seen several people already that morning and their results were pretty much as expected
3. I thought DEXA was the gold standard for body composition analysis; am I wrong?
4. I turned 40 in April; is this aging at work? (In which case, why am I even bothering...)
5. My diet has been pretty consistent. Protein shake after work outs, salad and fish lunches, stir fry style dinners. I don't really watch my intake and I do enjoy the more delicious things in life.
posted by eloeth-starr to Health & Fitness (9 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
 
Muscle mass loss is not unusual for marathon training, even at lower volumes. If you were marathon training with a volume above around or above sixty km a week, it can very hard to retain muscle.

Our metabolisms absolutely do slow down as we get older, and it's certainly possible to outpace your calory burn, unless youre racking up serious miles.

So I would chalk up muscle loss to the training. You can pump a lot of iron but mass won't increase if you are running at volume.

The fat gain, well, that happens in the kitchen. And as you get old older, you get less of a "free pass" from running, for sure. The protein shakes, for eg. Was that just additional calories, or did you reduce somewhere else? They can have as many calories as a chocolate bar, for example, and some of them are loaded with sugar and carbohydrates (anything about "gaining mass" stay far, far away from.)

Broadly speaking, unless youre vegetarian, it's unlikely those shakes are helping you much. Most people get enough protein in their daily diets, what the body can't process it literally just pisses away.
posted by smoke at 1:17 PM on November 9, 2019 [3 favorites]


It's very difficult for most people to decrease fat and increase muscle at the same time - generally if you're eating enough to make significant muscle gains, you're also eating enough to put fat on too. What bodybuilders usually so is go through a bulk cycle, where they're eating a lot, while strength training hard to put on muscle, followed by a cut cycle where they eat less than their caloric needs to cut the fat they put on while bulking.

That's really easy to turn into disordered eating, though, and isn't for most people, but without you going that far, I think you should be setting more specific short term goals for particular periods of training. It's very difficult to do everything at once by trying to recomposition both fat and muscle at the same time you're also doing endurance running training. There are just too many outputs you're trying to optimize at once when they need contradictory inputs.
posted by strangely stunted trees at 1:33 PM on November 9, 2019 [5 favorites]


What the two people above said about short term goals and the difficulty of retaining muscle while training for a race. Your body is made to do endurance tasks and not die from it so it adapts quite quickly to slow running and walking and then if you eat too much you'll gain fat. It might be worth hiring a coach for a while to get you on a schedule with shorter term goals that fit into long term goals. This is also why so many middle aged runners become tri-athletes btw!

Training consists of interval runs, (2x 30 minutes), run-walk-talk with a friend (1x45 min), 1x long run and three (machine) weights sessions each week, plus 4x 10 minute core sessions, one yoga class and currently a 100 squats per day challenge.

If this is ALL the exercise you get it's not actually a lot in the grand scheme of things. That's less run/ walking than I get just owning a dog. And I go to the gym 4 days per week, bike 5 miles to work at least once a week and do random other exercises too. I do all this because switching from field/ farm work to a desk job was killing me, I could feel my body getting sluggish and falling apart the first year. It's REALLY tough to lose weight with a desk job. It's tough just to move enough to be minimally healthy, never mind very fit or to run a caloric deficit. People who are in really good shape not only work out a lot and are very disciplined in their diets--- they often don't work at a desk. It's tough!
posted by fshgrl at 3:24 PM on November 9, 2019 [1 favorite]


Running, especially long-distance running, is not a good activity for hypertrophy. Marathons are very damaging unless you're exceptionally well adapted, so a drop 4 weeks post marathon doesn't sound crazy to me.

Not all weight training is equal, even if you're sweating and "working hard". If you want to increase lean muscle mass my generic one-size-fits-all advice is to try a Starting Strength or similar 5x5 squat/bench/deadlift program and eat a bunch of protein. The first time I did this it made me realize that I had been wasting my time in the gym for my entire life up to that point.
posted by allegedly at 3:55 PM on November 9, 2019 [1 favorite]


Training consists of interval runs, (2x 30 minutes), run-walk-talk with a friend (1x45 min), 1x long run and three (machine) weights sessions each week, plus 4x 10 minute core sessions, one yoga class and currently a 100 squats per day challenge.

Everyone else has covered the implications of marathon training, but none of this sounds like you're doing a lot of progressive overload in your strength training. It's possible to design a good machine weight circuit, but...yeah. Also, it's not clear if you're doing bodyweight squats? In any case, there's nothing wrong with bodyweight exercises but you're likely to hit the point of diminishing returns faster. Can you swap the machine weight sessions for Strong Curves/StrongLifts 5x5/something similar?

I'm a decade or so younger than you, but my (as well as my similarly-aged friends') experience has been similar to allegedly's in that we didn't see our body composition change significantly until we started replacing some of our cardio with lifting heavy. IMO, the only women I've known who were actually happy with their results from lots of cardio plus bodyweight were ones who started out with a BF% and often BMI very close to their goal.

Broadly speaking, unless youre vegetarian, it's unlikely those shakes are helping you much. Most people get enough protein in their daily diets, what the body can't process it literally just pisses away.

For people who aren't trying to increase their muscle mass, yes, but that's not the OP's situation, so protein supplements may have a place in her diet depending on her caloric needs and what other less-caloric sources of protein she typically eats.
posted by blerghamot at 5:49 PM on November 9, 2019


Ohhh, this is good. Hadn't realised that marathon training would decrease muscle mass! Much less reason to panic, thanks :D

My main aim is to stay mobile, healthy and strong into old(-er) age. I'm not body building or anything like that. It just seemed logical that doing 3 solid weights sessions per week (yes, increasing over time) would result in more muscle rather than less, when compared to previously doing 1 session of combined hand-weights and cardio. Obviously I didn't factor in the marathon training. Still, having done one marathon, I don't think I need to do another.

I'm going to put aside the protein shake comments because it is a necessary part of my routine due to other reasons.
posted by eloeth-starr at 6:11 PM on November 9, 2019


Mo Farah was lifting heavy for a dude his weight, prior to his astonishing London Olympics performance - so don't write off the weights. :)

1) They help you with your running and injury prevention absolutely,
2) You will definitely get stronger lifting whilst running, but
3) You just won't see the mass gains that you would if you exclusively lifted (and your strength may not increase as fast, but honestly, there's so many bloody variables, I wouldn't sweat it too much).
posted by smoke at 9:09 PM on November 9, 2019 [1 favorite]


Can I ask why you've gotten so many scans? If you truly want to increase muscle mass, then I think lifting heavy things seem to be the best approach. And yeah, I think the impact of long distance running can be pretty stressful to our bodies as we age.
posted by bluedaisy at 11:24 PM on November 9, 2019


Yeah, the tl;dr of it all is that running does not appreciably build muscle. Often the opposite. It's about efficiency. Lifting things that are heavier than you're used to and progressively lifting more does.

Starting Strength or 5x5 like someone said above would really be the best route if you want muscle and less fat.

And I do think recomping by gaining muscle but losing fat is possible within reasonable limits especially if you're not used to lifting. I did it. But most people either over or undereat (probably over moooooooost of the time). I had to start eating some very calorie dense foods when I was lifting heavy to stop losing so much weight at the same time as my lifts were increasing.
posted by OnTheLastCastle at 2:45 PM on November 11, 2019


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