Race Weight & Healthy Body Image

Written By Ironman Certified Coach Becca Kawaoka, Elite Triathlete, Cyclist, and USA Swim Coach

As a coach and competitor, I often hear commentary on weight and size. Endurance sports like swimming, cycling, running, rowing, and triathlon are often associated with words like “lean, light, and skinny.” One of the most commonly asked questions I get from my athletes is “What should my race weight be?” Perhaps you’ve asked yourself or your coach that question, or perhaps you were given misinformation as a child and are still experiencing trauma from that experience as an adult. Let’s talk about it.

The Number One priority for any athlete should be mental, emotion, and physical health as a result of balanced and structured training, eating, and sleep. I could probably end this blog on that statement, but if you know me you know I love to elaborate. A coach holds a lot of power on how an athlete views themselves, and sadly this power can be misused. Its far easier to spit out a random calorie recommendation than sit down with an athlete for an in-depth nutrition analysis. Its far easier to tell an athlete to lose weight then to take personal responsibility for training stimuli or discuss unhealthy sleeping patterns or stress levels.

I understand that its appealing to hear a coach say “let’s get you to X weight in X amount of time and I’ll hold you accountable!” I’ve had coaches say that to me. The truth is that coach isn’t around when key decisions are being made, such as wake up and bed time, meal choice, etc. A more proactive approach is to discuss lifestyle rituals, mental mantras, etc. so the athlete develops autonomy and self-confidence. Remember: it’s not up to your coach, it’s up to you. I want to share the proactive approach I take with myself and my athletes regarding weight and body image.

  • A coach should start by getting the full picture. This means reviewing performance goals, current training intensity and load, current nutrition and fueling strategy, potential resting/active metabolic testing, stress load (work, school, etc), and sleeping patterns. If your coach spits out a competition weight or daily calorie intake for you, or even makes comments on your current size without going over any of these items, please walk away. 
  • After getting the full picture, a coach should discuss 1-3 daily rituals to the athlete could try implementing. This could mean aiming for 8-10 hours of sleep, eating breakfast, fueling properly before and during workouts to prevent overconsumption or bonking, and/or coping strategies to decrease stress from unhealthy or challenging relationships. It may be as simple as positive mental mantra’s to try when experiencing negative self-talk or pre competition/workout anxiety. A good coach will follow up regularly with the athlete and potentially incorporate ways to benchmark progress, such as mood tracking, sleep or nutrition journal, and/or performance benchmarks.
  • From here, an athlete will either make an effort to improve the areas discussed or continue in unhealthy patterns of training, eating, and sleeping. If there is marked improvement in mood, performance, etc., a rapport has been most likely been established between coach and athlete. This is a fantastic platform to continue building and progressing the athlete in a healthy dynamic. If an athlete does not report improvements, its important the coach follows up with WHY. Is there another route to take? Are you barking up the wrong tree? Is this the wrong time for this athlete to have said goals in training and competing? Would another coach or professional of expertise be more impactful? A great coach won’t give up on an athlete, but rather take responsibility for the approach and commit to setting them up for success even if it means parting ways.

From my perspective as a fierce competitor AND proactive coach, an athletes weight and their relationship with their weight is very important. Weight is something almost everyone is aware of, and likely feels either positive or negative about it. Weight, and one’s relationship with weight, can certainly positively or negative affect performance. I may be beating a dead horse here, but a healthy and confident weight is a result of specific training load and intensity, intentional fueling before during and after exercise, healthy consistent sleeping patterns, and stress management. A competitive triathlete will not be successful if he/she completes 20-25 hours of training a week but fuels with bacon double cheeseburgers or only maintains 5-6 hours of sleep at night. A runner won’t PR in a marathon if she is significantly under-weight and experiencing amenorrhea. It’s important to have a good coach to look over the details and patterns in an athlete to promote a healthy self-perception. I truly believe a healthy “race weight” will be a result of those action items.

I often encourage my athletes to ditch the scale for a training cycle, and when they feel at their best on all three platforms (mental, physical, emotion) they can step back on and observe what their body is telling them. Then, we can discuss the result together in a positive and controlled environment. Maybe they went through a huge volume cycle and lost a few pounds, but they have good energy without signs of burn out and training data is headed in the right direction. Perhaps the athlete is in out season training, so peak power and weight training are the focus point, and the athlete gains a few pounds while consuming healthy foods and getting more sleep than usual. The scale may not move at all, but performance metrics point to improvement … or an athlete simply realizes they feel great at that weight. All scenarios mentioned are wins.

In conclusion, please hear me acknowledge that weight does matter, for some people and specific sports (I see you rowing!) than others. The approach is critical, and coaches are responsible for taking a proactive and dynamic approach with their athlete(s). It’s ok to refer an athlete to another coach or professional for help. It’s ok to try one way, backtrack, and try another way. Its ok for you, the athlete, to have highs and lows in training and competing. You are not alone, there is a way to find success with your body and your sport while improving your relationship with yourself. Please don’t carry that burden alone; communicate with your coach, family, and friends. Lastly, it’s ok to ask for help, both as a coach and an athlete! No one has all the answers. Let’s help each other out and move forward together.

Wishing you all the best. Please let me know if you have any questions, I’m here for you!

Love,

Coach Bec

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