Healthy Weight vs. Race Weight? A must read for performing at your best.
Athletes are constantly being told to lose weight.
Whether it's directly from a coach or from the messages and images viewed on social media and in articles and on TV, we live in a body obsessed society.
With so many different body types and so many different styles of eating (aka "diets"), driven by misconceptions about food, body dissatisfaction and misguided strategies for eating "right", it doesn't surprise me when I see the health and performance of competitive, body conscious, goal oriented and driven athletes, deteriorate.
Most athletes have no idea how much energy is needed by the body to perform at a high level. Most athletes do not feel they deserve to eat "that much food".
Now more than ever, most athletes are very obsessed with how much they weigh. Due to so many false statements relating to body weight and performance, athletes are constantly trying to be thinner, leaner and lighter, while trying to get faster and to go longer.
As it relates to your healthy weight, it's very hard to define a healthy weight as an athlete. Most charts (ex. BMI) do not account for the extra muscle and denser bones that you will develop through training. I know for myself, I am always on the high end of a "healthy" weight for my height because of my athletic build and from my genetics. For much of the year, a healthy weight is one that puts you at little risk for disease or illness, is a weight that allows you to function well in life without following dietary rules or restrictions, is one that allows you to have great energy throughout the day and is a weight that is easy to maintain with your activity regime.
Unfortunately, many athletes try to maintain and achieve a weight that is based on a look or a number on a scale for much of the year, often comparing this "ideal" image to one that was achieved in peak training. Self-identity to a body image is often a struggle for athletes because your healthy weight may not be the one that you accept for what it looks like, but it may be the best weight for you to maintain great health for much of the year. My advice for athletes is to work on body acceptance and to not try to fight for a certain "lean or defined" image, size or weight. Through good lifestyle habits and a great relationship with food and your body, a healthy weight will be easy to achieve and easy to maintain regardless how much or little you are training.
So now we get to the topic of race weight. As it relates to the topic of athletes being obsessed with weight, far too many athletes are using a number on the scale to determine athletic readiness for an event. Unfortunately, this approach does not tell athletes what type of weight is being lost - is it fat, muscle or water?
Your body composition provides very specific information about your body make-up, much more than simply looking at a number on a scale. As it relates to body composition, you are focusing on the proportion of fat and lean body mass in the body.
Your body is made up of body fat and lean body mass.
Body fat can be found as storage fat and as essential body fat.
The human body stores fat in the form of triglycerides within fat (adipose tissue) as well as within the muscle fibers (intramuscular triglycerides). Through endurance training (without any dietary manipulation), there is an increase in fat oxidation from intramuscular triglycerides. As exercise intensity increases, fatty acid mobilization from adipose tissue slows but total fat oxidation increases due to the increase use of intramuscular triglycerides. Let's not forget that dietary carbohydrates influence fat mobilization and oxidation during exercise.
Storage fat is located around organs and beneath the skin, which protects the body and acts as an insulator. I don't need to tell you this but excessive accumulation of visceral fat is associated with health issues, which is why it is important to keep your body composition within a healthy body composition range - not too high but not too low.
As for essential fat, this is fat found in the marrow of bones, the heart, lungs, liver, spleen, kidneys, intestines, muscles and lipid rich tissues throughout the central nervous system. Essential fat is critical for normal body functioning. Women tend to have higher essential fat compared to men.
Your lean body mass represents everything in your body that is not fat - the weight of your muscles, bones, ligaments, tendons and internal organs. Certainly, you don't want to lose any of this "weight" through dieting or exercising.
As you can see, athletes should not be using a scale to assess a "healthy weight" and a number on the scale is an impractical method to determine "race weight."
Let's continue on with this discussion for application purposes....
Athlete A is motivated to lose weight in order to improve athletic performance for an upcoming endurance event. This athlete does not want to hire a sport dietitian but has his/her own methods for weight loss. Let's not forget to mention that this athlete is not aware of how much energy is needed to support the metabolic demands of training and this athlete does not have a practice method of lowering body fat while retaining lean muscle mass. This athlete only uses the scale to asses weight loss. Seeing that a number of key hormones play an important role in the regulation of body composition and energy production, the glands in the endocrine system (ex. adrenal, hypothalamus, ovaries, pancreas, parathyroid, pineal, pituitary, testes, thymus, thyroid) are slowly being compromised. Athlete A has no professional guidance on his/her quest to weigh less and through diligent dietary adherence and structured intense and high volume training, this athlete loses weight. While this athlete may have arrived to race day at his/her race weight, this athlete will now spend the next few months or year, trying to fix his/her overtaxed, overloaded and damaged endocrine system. It's worth mentioning that even for athletes who are not seeking weight loss but do not understand the energy that is needed to support endurance or high intensity training, may end up unintentionally damaging hormonal or metabolic health by not "eating enough" or timing food appropriately with training, to support training stress.
So how about Athlete B. This athlete follows his/her training plan and works with a sport dietitian to better understand how to time nutrition with training, to understand individual energy and nutrient needs and to learn how to use sport nutrition properly to support long and intense training sessions and to maximize recovery. This athlete can train consistently throughout the entire season and notices a change in body composition over an extended period of time through sustainable healthy eating habits and a well-laid training plan. This athlete increases lean mass while reducing overall body fat without intentionally trying. This athlete recognizes that although the number on the scale has gone up by a few lbs, this athlete has actually lowered his/her body fat and has gained muscle. This athlete is in great health, has a leaner yet healthy and strong body and will arrive to race day confident and prepared.
THE BIG TAKE AWAY
A change in your body composition is the outcome of a well planned and executed fueling and training plan. When a healthy change in body composition is desired, it involves a team approach from a coach, sport dietitian and possibly an exercise physiologist for body composition testing and a doctor for lab work. Most athletes do not take this approach as they want a quick, inexpensive and easy approach to weight loss.
It's far too common that athletes will step on the scale and respond with "I'm too fat/heavy" or "I can never perform well at this weight". This triggers the need for control and immediate action and leads into overtraining, calorie restriction, carbohydrate elimination and improper fueling and hydrating.
Seeing that this approach places the athlete at risk for losing lean tissue, bone mass, depleted energy stores and a possible gain in body fat, why would any athlete want to compromise the body through this approach?
Isn't the point of training to become a better, stronger and faster athlete?
How can this be done with a body that you can't do anything with?
I hear about it all the time but unsupervised, uneducated and poorly guided athletes are most at risk for illness, injury, poor recovery, decreased performance and a host of hormonal, bone, cardiovascular and metabolic health issues. All of which negatively affect training and can compromise overall well-being.
For you to perform at your best AND to adapt to training, while functioning well in life, focus on achieving a healthy weight and let your race weight take care of itself. With optimal fueling and hydration strategies, a healthy and well balanced diet, consistent quality training, good sleep and great recovery habits, you will not only reach athletic excellence but your great daily habits will continue to bring you long-term health benefits.
Fat metabolism during exercise
Metabolic adaptation to weight loss
Getting a grip on body composition
Diets gone too far