7/11/17

Why I never tell my athletes to lose weight



There's not a day that goes by that I don't thank my body for what it allows me to do.
I may be an athlete, but I am also a coach.

As a triathlon coach and Board Certified Sport Dietitian, my job is to help athletes optimize performance for race day. Although many factors contribute to performance improvements, many coaches (and nutrition experts) believe that losing weight will aid in performance improvements.

Unhealthy weight control/loss practices are a serious problem in sport, especially in the two sports that I specialize in - triathlon and running. Too often, athletes are pressured by media, coaches and competitors to change body composition in order to boost performance. If losing weight was a guarantee to performance improvements, than any athlete who has lost weight would find it easy to succeed in sport. But this is far from the truth.

Many athletes are told (or assume) that they would be more successful in a sport if they lost weight or changed body composition. Regardless of whether or not weight loss may contribute to performance improvements, athletes who are asked or told to lose weight or change body composition are more likely to engage in unhealthy behaviors such as fasted workouts, skipping meals, replacing higher calorie foods for calorie-free/diet foods, fasting/cleansing/detoxing, using weight loss supplements, diuretics or laxatives and/or overexercising. These methods are not healthy or performance enhancing. Yet athletes feel pressure from coach to "lose weight."

So how do we break this cycle of brainwashing athletes that weight loss = performance improvements.

First off, it starts with the coaches, or those who are directly related to an athlete's ability to improve. Many coaches and experts wrongly place their own attitudes, thoughts, strategies and personal experiences with weight, dieting and body image on their athletes. Understanding that athletes need good role models that promote a positive self-image and healthy dietary and fueling strategies, I strive to be the change that athletes need to boost self-confidence when it comes to body image and performance.

Secondly, weight is a sensitive and personal issue for many athletes. Unfortunately, many coaches and nutrition experts do not realize how words can hurt or stick with an athlete. When a coach suggests to an athlete that weight loss may/will improve performance or if a coach makes comments about weight, the athlete is no longer able to recognize his/her individual strengths, improvements or skills but instead, feels a significant amount of pressure to change the way that he/she looks, often at any cost.

Coaches should consider how an athlete's lifestyle choices, mental and physical health, emotions and individual development can contribute to performance. Assuming that if an athlete weighs less that he/she will become a better athlete is not only wrong but it is on the verge of being unethical. There are so many other ways that an athlete can become a better athlete. We must stop assuming that when an athlete looks differently, he/she will become faster, fitter, stronger or better.

When I work with athletes (coaching or nutrition), I always consider the possible outcomes of my advice. I do this through getting to know my athletes as much as possible. I listen to my athletes to understand where they are at in their individual journey and their current relationship with food and the body. I explore every outlet possible to help an athlete improve performance and to get the most out of their body, without placing the focus on the body. Many times, athletes will come to me with a weight loss goal and without focusing on weight, they unintentionally lose weight because lifestyle habits have changed. While a coach or nutrition expert may mean well, telling an athlete to lose weight/change body composition can do more harm than good when coaches do not take careful consideration of the risks and benefits for each athlete that he/she suggests to lose a few lbs. Additionally, most athletes do not seek out professional guidance and support when starting a weight loss journey so no one is there to watch over an athlete for extreme behaviors, reduce misinformation and to debate against unhealthy dietary practices that can sabotage performance and health.

As a coach and nutrition expert, I take performance very seriously but more so, I take eating disorders and the health of my athletes very seriously. I don't believe in targeting weight as the limiter or best next step toward athletic success. Instead, I focus on the many ways that an athlete can improve performance and sometimes this results in a favorable yet unintentional change body composition, like eating "enough", fueling properly, timing food with workouts, strength training, mental strength, quality sleep, good recovery practices and consistent training. While weight loss may lead to performance improvements, we can't assume that reducing body fat will benefit every athlete. There are no shortage of cases where athletes have experienced a temporary boost in performance in the initial phases of changing body composition but it's no uncommon for these athletes to eventually experience eating-disorder/disordered eating symptoms, overtraining, hormonal issues, menstrual irregularities (female athletes), low bone density, a weakened immune system, chronic injuries and a performance decline (or a sporting career cut short) overtime.

Sports are designed to build self-esteem, boost confidence, promote physical strength and endurance, improve skills and teach life lessons. Being an athlete should not involve great psychological and physical stress, especially as it relates to body image. We have too many athletes spending far too much time trying to weigh less because a coach, trainer or nutrition expert suggested to do so.

To ensure athletic success, I advise coaches, nutrition experts and trainers to stop advising athletes to lose weight and instead, focus on good lifestyle practices to help athletes optimize performance. If you think that your athlete may be taking extreme measures to change body composition in an effort to become a "better" athlete, here are some of the warning signs to watch out for:
  • Eating too little, exercising/training too much
  • Increased focus on weight, body composition, size, appearance
  • Using caffeine or boosters to get through workouts
  • Sudden change in mood
  • Feeling the need to be perfect, persistent feelings of inadequacy
  • Rapid/notable weight loss
  • Significant energy deficit during advanced training
  • Injuries (stress fractures) and overuse injuries
  • Symptoms of overtraining 
  • Hormonal/health issues
Coaches - let's help athletes build a better relationship with their bodies and with food. With proper education, support and guidance, athletes are more likely to improve performance and maintain great enjoyment for the sport for many years to come when they don't feel pressure to look differently.

Athletes - love your amazing body and be sure to thank it daily. Rest it, respect it, nourish it and fuel it.