In a media driven world, body image has become a critical issue as it relates to athletic performance and health. Whereas one would think that athletes would be obsessed with eating enough to perform well in training sessions to prepare for race day, athletes are constantly worried about eating too much, constantly obsessing with being "too big/fat" or not looking like an athlete. Far too many athletes are training for leanness instead of training for performance. With the idea of body weight and performance having an inverse relationship (the less you weigh, the better you will perform), you may be attempting to reach your race weight in order to be thinner, leaner and lighter for race day.
With so many misguided strategies on sport nutrition and daily eating for athletes, it doesn't surprise me when I see/hear athletes intentionally underfueling/undereating in an attempt to lose weight or change body composition.
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. As an athlete, 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. Only at certain times during the year will/should your body naturally change as you peak for your main event.
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. Self-identity to a lean/strong body image (or race weight) 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 for the entire year. Let your body change as you maintain healthy lifestyle habits. 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.
As it relates to race 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 you 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. Excessive accumulation of visceral fat is associated with negative 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, a healthy weight may be your race weight but your race weight is probably not your healthy weight. A healthy weight is not a number or a look but a feeling - it's a weight where you feel healthy. A race weight is where you perform the best.
In my next blog, let's consider two athlete scenarios for achieving race weight and the big takeaway as it relates to "race weight" for athletic performance.