When a healthy change in body composition is desired, it should not involve restriction, elimination and obsessive strategies. While some sports may reward a "leaner" build, this doesn't mean that you can't be successful in your sport with a little more cushion with your strong bones. As it relates to the sport of endurance triathlon, you are not penalized if you are carrying around a little more body fat on your frame for a strong body can better tolerate training stress versus a weak and fragile body that may be lighter. Furthermore, if you desire weight loss for a performance boost, you should not be unsupervised in this process as it can lead to performance and health declines. You should reach out to a team of professionals to help you safely lose weight without sabotaging your health. Most athletes do not take the "hard work" approach as they want a quick, inexpensive and easy fix to assist in weight loss.
When an athlete steps on the scale (or looks in the mirror) and responds with "I'm too fat/heavy" or "I don't look like an athlete" or "I will never perform well at this weight", this thinking may trigger the need to make an instant and drastic change in the diet and/or pushing harder or going longer than the workout calls for. When a vulnerable athlete feels uncomfortable in his/her skin or feels pressure to lose weight, the next step is not a patient and long-term approach. Typically, athletes will go the route of calorie restriction, carbohydrate elimination and improper fueling and hydrating strategies to try to gain control over eating and body composition - none of the former strategies assist in weight loss OR performance gains but instead, the body becomes weak and you lack the energy and motivation to stay consistent with training.
Let's consider two athlete scenarios as it relates to attempting to reach race weight:
Athlete A is motivated to lose weight in order to improve athletic performance for an upcoming endurance event. This athlete is not aware of how much energy is needed to support the metabolic demands of training and despite consuming around 1500-2000 calories a day, he/she is not losing weight and always feels as if he/she is "too big" for the sport. This athlete only uses the scale to asses weight loss and each time she/he doesn't see the scale change, he/she makes more and more food restrictions during the day and around/during workouts in order to see a drop in body weight on the scale. Eventually, the athlete does lose weight through his/her tactics. But 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 - unbeknownst to the athlete. Athlete A doesn't realize that his/her diligent dietary adherence to a restrictive diet and poor fueling/hydration strategies alongside strict dedication to training are actually destroying his/her health. While this athlete may have arrived to race day at his/her "race weight", this athlete is in poor metabolic health and race day performance is likely to be compromised. There's also a good chance that this athlete will need to spend the next few months or year, trying to fix his/her overtaxed, overloaded and damaged endocrine system (and potentially poor bone health). It's worth mentioning that even for athletes who are not seeking weight loss but do not understand the great energy demands that are needed to support endurance or high intensity training, many endurance athletes may suffer from health issues during training as a result of unintentionally damaging hormonal or metabolic health by not "eating enough" or timing food appropriately with training, to support training stress.
Athlete B follows his/her training plan by keeping the easy sessions easy and hard sessions hard. She/he works with a sport dietitian to better understand how to time nutrition with training, to understand individual energy and nutrient needs (to eat "enough"), he/she always eats before/after workouts and learns 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 puts the focus on performance over weight. Although the athlete would like to lean-up or lose weight, she/he is not making it a focus. Ironically, athlete B notices a change in body composition over an extended period of time through sustainable healthy eating habits that support training demands (especially as the volume and intensity of training increase in the hot summer months). This athlete increases lean mass while reducing overall body fat without intentionally trying and has improved strength to create a more resilient and durable body to withstand training. She/he also has great training sessions to build confidence for race day and also has a great relationship with food and the body. There is little risk for injury or sickness because the athlete is properly supporting training stress with proper eating and fueling. This athlete arrives to race day in great health, with a strong body and feels prepared to perform and just like with training, can bounce back relatively quickly from the race to get back into structured training.
THE BIG TAKE AWAY
Intense/high volume training + extreme caloric/carb restriction places athletes at risk for losing lean tissue, bone mass, depleted energy stores and a possible gain in body fat. So why would any athlete want to compromise health with this approach? Isn't the point of training to become a better, stronger and faster athlete? Your race weight should not come at a cost of damaging your health and performance. If you are training 10+ hours a week and struggle to see a change in favorable body composition, there's a good chance that you are not eating enough to support your training demands and/or not using sport nutrition products properly and/or improperly timing food with workouts to delay adaptions to support lean muscle mass and strength gains.
If you are attempting to reach your race weight through extreme measures, you may placing yourself at risk for illness, injury, poor recovery, decreased performance and a host of hormonal, bone, cardiovascular and metabolic health issues. ....All of which will negatively affect training and can compromise overall well-being.
For you to perform at your best AND to adapt to training, while still functioning well in life, focus on lifestyle strategies to achieve/maintain 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, stress management, a healthy relationship with the body and food 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 with a body that you can be proud to call your own.
For more on this topic of when to reach your body composition goals, check out a past Ironman article that I wrote on this topic.