Racing weight--two words that make me cringe, personally and professionally. Many athletes think that there's some magic number that will turn them into amazing, fast athletes if they can hit it.
There are books about how you need to work your way down to that 'magic number' so that for just a few days, at the peak of your season, that magic number will transform you as an athlete. Are there body weights where athletes perform better?
I contend that it really depends on the sport. And more importantly, it depends on the athlete.
The Ironman World Championships featured a running commentary, if you will, by anyone who was watching and willing to speak their mind. The most common comment I saw was about Kristian Blummenfelt. Specifically, his size and weight. Most of the comments were downright nasty. It's incredible what people will write when they can hide behind a username.
It was almost like these people forgot that he'd won the Olympic gold medal and the Ironman World Championships earlier this year in St. George. Blummenfelt carries a lot of muscle, and it is serving him well. His VO2 max has been described as 'obscene,' measuring high 80s to low 90s.
Sub7/Sub8 champion and Ironman World Championships second place female, Kat Matthews, has also faced criticism about her weight, dating back to her school days where she says she faced 'the damaging stigma about what a female athlete's body should look like.'
Matthews continues, "I had a slightly more muscular body than some of the other girls I used to run with, and it was slightly unacceptable that I wasn't running in a crop top and little pants. I experienced that inner thigh rub, and as a teenage girl, I thought it was unacceptable, and I thought, 'I can't do this.'" 2
Holly Bennett, a Triathlete magazine reporter, conducted a few interviews in 2013 about body image. Here are some responses. (I'm using direct quotes.)
Are you self-conscious about how you look during an important race where there are lots of spectators and lots of media–and therefore lots of cameras?
[female] A little bit, but I'm more concerned about how my weight will affect my race. I didn't enter a beauty contest, and I hope the spectators know that's not what they are witnessing.
[male] I think I am self-conscious–but more so after the fact. I don't wake up pre-race thinking how I will look on camera so much. But when I see pictures of myself from a race I definitely dissect the way I look, comparing my performance to the way my body looks in a certain shot.
Do you worry about your weight in the last few weeks before a major race? If so, is that because of how it affects your performance or because of how you will look on course and on camera?
[female] No, but I never weigh myself except yearly at the doctor. I close my eyes and turn up my iPod on race morning during the weigh-in because I really don't need to know.
[female] I don't worry about my weight in the last few weeks before a major race. If you have followed your plan and are confident in the work you did to get to that point, everything else should fall into place. Control what you can control, and don't worry about things out of your control. I find that if I lose too much weight anyways, my performance goes out the door. I tend to race a little better with junk in the trunk–which is there all year long, by the way! Keeping it simple and less complicated seems to work best for me personally.
[male] I very much like to look lean and light and have flattering photos from a race. But ultimately, the result is what matters. I watch my weight a little, but it is not worth watching it too much and being little and lean for looks but losing power or strength–or worse, getting sick or injured from being too fragile. It is professional and nice to look good and healthy, but the main goal is a solid performance on race day. Lighter and leaner is better for performance, but there is a line that you can cross and lose performance by dieting. It is all a balance, and getting the result is priority number one in my mind.
This was my favorite question/response of all the interviews:
Do you react in a particular way–smile, suck in your gut, try to look extra tough, etc.–when you see the race photographers?
[female] I learned my lesson with that. I once pulled in my belly in an Olympic distance race to look good for the photographer. I remember it very well. I was running 3:30-km pace, and it was not a good thing to do. I was running in the lead, and it messed up my breathing. I had huge problems straight after–I got side stitches and couldn't get rid of them. I finished second because of it. Never ever am I going to keep my belly in again. I learned my lesson.
Great, you say; wonderful to know that the pros are concerned about their racing weight. But what about ME? Should I worry about it? The answer is that it really depends on what your focus is. I had another coach ask me if I had any literature about racing weight, and I groaned and mentioned a few books about nutrition and weight.
I don't find the books to be helpful at all - I really do find them to be shameful. I told this coach that if the end of the world was near and if there were absolutely no other books on the planet, then maybe I would say read "X" book. That is how little I think about books focusing on racing weight.
In 2010, my Dad, a Boston qualifier, went to a sprint triathlon with me. There was a look of wonder on his face, and I heard him say several times, "all shapes and sizes, all shapes and sizes." See, I grew up going to the Denver Marathon with my Dad in the 1970s and 1980s, where everyone racing was rail thin and wore those crazy short, silky shorts. I'd like to believe that things have changed and all athletes and all body types are accepted at races, regardless of the sport.
The other interesting comment from my Dad was, "this was a much happier crowd than I expected. I was expecting everyone to be hypercompetitive." While there were some of those competitive folks around, there were many newbies and many athletes out to have a good time.
I would challenge athletes to follow Shaun T's advice. (Anyone taken any of his classes ever? Yikes!) It is straight from Instagram: "New rule: we will no longer let a scale determine our worth. Fit doesn't have a size; it has a mentality."
He followed that up with, "Your GOAL WEIGHT should be where your body lands when you prioritize your health without sacrificing your joy or happiness." #goals
So, where's your joy and happiness in racing? Find it, and you'll find your racing weight.
Maria Netherland is a Northwest Florida-based coach who is a USA Triathlon Level II Endurance and Youth & Juniors Certified Coach as well as a NASM Certified Personal Trainer and Performance Enhancement Specialist. Coach Maria loves working for athletes of all abilities, military athletes, and new triathletes as they pursue their goals. Maria is a veteran of the US Army and a United States Military Academy at West Point graduate. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.