Friday, August 27, 2010

Racing Weight....shhhhh

I ordered the book Racing Weight by Matt Fitzgerald recently. Weight is an issue that many athletes refuse to discuss. They’re afraid of leading someone down the dark path of obsession, which is a valid concern, which could ultimately lead to an eating disorder, which we never want to see. However, (hopefully) most of us athletes are smart enough to take a common sense approach to it, understand the importance of maintaining nutrition, the right mental mindset, and know what a healthy weight is.
I asked two-time defending Ironman world champion Craig Alexander what his thoughts on racing weight were. “Do you pay attention to it? How does being thinner help your running? Does it hurt your swimming? If I know it helps my running, can I know if it will hurt my swimming?” This is the struggle with the balance of triathlon. Everyone has different thoughts on it, partially because I believe everyone’s bodies are very different. Some need the extra weight and strength, while to others it feels like they’re racing with ankle weights on. Alexander was answering my questions in front of a large audience, and as I thought he would, he kind of avoided the issue with a few other comments, and then said our bodies tend to adjust to a good weight naturally. He may think that, but I think that’s not the case with everyone. I know it’s not. I think that’s the generic answer that many top athletes have, rightfully so. Heck, if the world champion says skinny is better, I guarantee it would cause many to panic and start checking the scales every morning. The last thing he wants is to cause people to become insecure and obsess to the point where it’s unhealthy. Peter Reid of Canada, also a former Ironman world champion, was more open about his thoughts on weight, however. He quoted that he used to go to bed so hungry it would almost make him sick. He was scared to take an extra bite. He obsessed with his weight, since he knew he needed to stay thin to compete at the top. Reid, however, may have taken it a little too far, but maybe not. After all, he was the best in the world.
My teammates often discuss this issue with me. Most of them don’t agree with me on the “skinny is better” theory. I understand this. For one, they’ve raced very well at their current weight. Some feel the need to gain a few pounds, to stay strong enough for the swim especially. We’ve compared the Body Mass Index (BMI) of other top pros, and often many have a higher BMI than myself. As I said, I believe everyone is unique. There is clearly a point where too thin will hurt you, and make you weak. Personally, I’m still trying to figure out my triathlon race weight. I know what my ideal running weight is: 150 lbs. I’m 6’3”, and I know that is very thin. But, all I have to go by is experience. I tried very hard as a college runner. I worked hard! However, I tried to race 8k cross country at 165 lbs for 2 years. I was a marginal 28 minute 8k runner. Nothing special at all. After working in Missouri for a summer, sweating all day every day in 100+ degree heat, unknowingly I lost about 13 lbs. I returned to Colorado, and felt incredible running. I couldn’t figure out why. I hopped on the scale for the first time in forever, and realized how much my weight had changed. That next season, I committed to staying at 152 lbs or so. I cut out all cheeses and salad dressings from my diet, replaced this with fruit on salads, and drank more water and less juice/Gatorade for about 8 months. I also cut my calorie intake a fair amount, and cut out late-night binge snacking. My problem with Craig Alexander’s theory, is that WE put the food in our mounts. If our bodies adjust naturally to the correct weight, what does that say about how much we eat? If I eat well versus terribly, a lot versus a little, clearly that will affect my weight. By body will adjust based on what I put in it. It’s a simple equation. Calories taken in = calories expended = no weight gain nor loss.
On the same exact training, I ran over 2 minutes faster in the 8k my senior year. The ONLY thing I have to account for it is weight loss. Because of my experience, I can’t help but subscribe to the ‘lighter is better’ theory, for runners. Fitzgerald, in Racing Weight, acknowledges that in running, athletes will benefit more from staying thin than in other sports, but that it also is beneficial in rowing, swimming, and cycling. I don’t necessarily agree with him, especially in swimming.
When I get very thin, I feel weak. Part of what I left out, was that my senior year of college, my 400m and 800m track times suffered from, I believe, from being too thin for middle distance running. It helps in long distance, but losing strength hurts speed. This brings me back to triathlon. Which is better? A lighter, a faster runner? Or a bigger, stronger swimmer? Maybe it’s possible to become faster in the water while thinner as well? And what about cycling? It’s a power-to-weight ratio here too. Being thin helps you climb, but being bigger helps you sprint. What about the time trial? Andy Schlek in the Tour de France took 2nd overall. He looks disgustingly thin. He can climb, but he can’t sprint. Isn’t he too thin? I sure wouldn’t recommend anyone getting to the point he’s at…but maybe I’m wrong.
There are always outliers and those who throw a wrench in any theory. The Chris Solinsky argument is definitely one that throws a wrench in mine. Chris recently set the American 10k record, and became the first sub 27-minute runner in US history. Solinsky is clearly the heaviest man in his races. He races on strength, at I believe 165 lbs, and he’s well shorter than I. How he can run that fast in his body, I don’t know. I guess this shows how unique we all our. There may not be any right answer for everyone, and this discussion should be approached on a case by case basis.

I wish I had all the answers for triathletes, but I don’t. I do have an answer for me if I was only a runner, but I'm not. I may try to drop weight, and I may try to gain it. I don’t know yet. I may factor in more weight training and try to maintain where I’m at now, around 160 lbs. Experimenting can be risky, but seems to be the only way of finding out, for me at least. The one thing I know, is that I am stable enough to discuss this, and even experiment with this to a small degree. Some are not. They will obsess too much, and they will take it too far and compromise health and nutrition, which is the dumbest thing they could do as athletes. Staying healthy is the most important aspect of endurance sports success, but there are still a few places to go without those boundaries. The discussion continues…


Adam Beston said...

I am also obsessed with body weight and performance. I have noticed that the BMI score is somewhere around 21.5 to 22.5. Zernesy Tadese (58:31 half marathon sits at 21.8 and lieto, stadler, macca, potts all sit in the 22's. I think it comes down to attrition and being able to train and race without getting injured. I think you are doing fine at 160. Even Reid who is 6'2 trained up over 170 and then would drop to 164 for racing. Pure running requires very very quick turnover with the legs which weight will really help. I just dont think that a 32 min 10k or 2:40 mary requires that weight to be off that helps so much in the other two sports. Just food for thought.

pqueneau said...

Nice read... I think there are two main factors to consider in racing weight. The distance you are training for, and the amount of strength needed to perform well. Excluding swimming for now, the longer the distance (run or bike) the more beneficial a lighter weight (to a point) will be as less energy is expended to maintain the same speed. Consequently, the shorter the distance the less emphasis weight has on performance. Over a short distance is doesn't matter if you are 5% BF or 15% BF. All that matters is power and speed. Look at two extremes (200m sprinters and marathoners). I don't think that weight loss on the swim has that much of a dramatic effect (look at Phelps and even long distance swimmers). Since our bodies are mainly fluids we float naturally. There probably is an effect of weight loss and swimming, but I tend to think that the losses on the swim are minute compared to the gains on the run and to a lesser extent the bike. If you gain 30secs/ mile on the swim from loosing 10lbs of fat, but loose say 2secs/100 on the swim it is a net gain in the end. If the races were more geared to say a longer swim of 10K and shorter run of 13.1 the benefits and thus the consequences would both change to a more "fatter is better" scenario.