Everyone seems to have an opinion on weight, what it should or shouldn’t be, and what the latest trend is. Perhaps you grew up in the 80’s, when cabbage and aerobics were all the rage, or the 90’s, when “fat-free” was all the rage. Then came the Atkins era, then Whole 30, Keto, intermittent fasting, and so on. Do we eat fats? Do we eat at certain times of the day? Are carbs bad? More specifically, should endurance athletes (recreational or pro) weigh ourselves, and aim for a certain weight to perform better?
It’s no wonder this subject is popular and widely contested. People are confused, and health/fitness “experts” (myself included) have probably taken a numerous stances over the years as new information comes out. I think we’re all united in the shared struggle: at some point or another in life we’ve all looked in the mirror and wondered if we’re too fat, too skinny, too muscular here or have too much cellulite there. We’ve all experienced changes in our bodies from puberty to early adulthood, and some of us through adulthood into middle age and onward. It’s normal and healthy to question our state of being and wonder if it’s right or wrong.
I’m not writing this to offer a simple solution, push a method, or recommend favoring a macronutrient. I’m not here to tell you “I love my body, and you should too!” What I am hoping to do is create open, healthy conversations both externally – with people you trust – and internally. How you talk to yourself and perceive yourself is important and impactful. Even if you’re the world’s most reclusive introvert, I imagine you’ve felt societal pressure at some point; felt the glow of a compliment (“You look great – have you lost weight?”) and the sting of an off-handed comment (“You’re really filling out that outfit”) We make choices every day as a result of our goals, wants/needs, societal pressure, etc.
Recently, after years of working with all types of people/body types/athletes, I’ve found the simplest and most effective way to start discussions is with awareness. For example, I may ask a client: “Do you have a good understanding of how much energy your body needs to function and perform, on average, in a given day?” The response helps me gauge how well someone knows their body. Some people may spit out a calorie goal, macronutrient ratio, or have no idea. All responses are acceptable; it’s just a starting point. I invite you to ask yourself this question, perhaps as a journal prompt.
I have found this is a good segue into tricky calorie/weight/weight management discussion. Weight is relatively simple in concept:
- Calories in < Calories expended via exercise/metabolism = weight loss
- Calories in > Calories expended via exercise/metabolism = weight gain
- Calories = expended via exercise/metabolism = weight maintenance
I should note that metabolism is the energy (or calories) your body uses at rest to keep you alive. Even if you don’t exercise, you still need calories to survive. For example, a sedentary person on bedrest probably needs less calories than a normal, active person but their body still needs caloric intake to continue existing. A lot of things impact metabolism (age, activity level, muscle mass, hormones etc.) and it is normal for your metabolism to change. So, awareness of what your body needs on a basic level (metabolism) plus the impact of exercise (calorie expenditure) may help you understand what you need to consume to maintain, gain, or lose weight.
It’s my belief that some people have a good, somewhat natural awareness to what they need to maintain a healthy weight, and others need more guidance. It’s not a bad thing if energy balance doesn’t come naturally to you! Some resources for those of you who feel you may need more guidance:
- Resting and Active metabolic testing:
- Like the name infers, a resting test helps determine what your body’s baseline caloric needs are at rest, for your basic bodily functions. You lay still for the duration of the test and breath into a machine. From there, you can determine a baseline caloric intake without activity taken into account
- An active test is done during exercise, often in a ramp – style format. You breath into a machine while performing an activity (rowing, walking, running, cycling, etc.) Additionally, it’s common to wear a heart rate monitor. The results will help you determine what you burn at various effort both in terms of carbohydrates vs fats and in calories.
- Food journaling and weight tracking
- A less expensive and more time consuming alternative, but often just as effective, the ritual of tracking calories (along with macro-nutrients like fats/carbs/proteins) consumed with regular weigh ins can help you find the right amount of calories consumed to maintain, gain or lose weight. This is also often coupled with exercise journaling to help understand the right amount of exercise and foot intake to achieve a weight goal.
- Apps like MyFitnessPal sync with TrainingPeaks (a common platform for endurance athletes to track training, fitness, and race logs) so you can track both caloric intake, macronutrient balance, and training all in one place.
Now for the elephant in the room – the question I get asked so often – what weight should I strive for to perform well? I would respond to that question with a few questions to help find an appropriate answer. Here are some questions to help open dialogue up a bit more:
- What are your performance goals?
- Do you have a healthy relationship with the scale? If weight is triggering, or not a good representation of health for you, what metric could we use instead?
- What weight have you found to be the most sustainable with your current lifestyle?
- Are you happy with your current physique/weight?
- Have you been at a weight that makes you unhappy, dissatisfied, and lack confidence? If so what is that weight, what factors lead to it (stress, work, etc) and where are you in relationship to that weight right now?
- If you have a “race weight” in mind, what is it and why does that number make you feel like you can perform better?
- Have you tracked weight and performance in the past? If so, can you explain the relationship to me?
Let me be clear: weight is not everything. Bodyweight hardly tells the full picture of health. It is, however, one of the most accessible and consistent tool we have, so having a healthy relationship with it is important. I don’t need to know an athlete’s weight every single day, but I would like to be able to ask them where they are with their weight as an indication of their emotional health and physical awareness in terms of basic caloric needs. That being said, different sport, or specializations within sports, require different demands of the body. A good example is a quarterback vs. an offensive lineman. A healthy bodyweight for a QB is going to be drastically different from the lineman. The same is true for an elite 100m dash and a recreational 5k-er, a 1500m freestyler and a 10km open water swimmer, a track cyclist and a GC contender in a grand tour, a first time Ironman and a pro Olympic distance triathlete. Each distance, each sport and specialty/ability level within that sport, requires different demands, different caloric needs, different training stimulus, and different body fat/muscle mass ratios.
This is a good time to note that the various demands of different sports/distances/positions/body types also require different macronutrient intake. Some people find a higher protein intake gives them more energy and better recovery, for example. Others may need a higher carbohydrate intake, still others higher fat intake. The demands of training may require different caloric and macronutrient intake, so is important to take note of how one feels both before, during and after training sessions/competing in regards to fueling and nutrition. Some athletes may benefit from improving their fat oxidation for long, aerobic endurance events, while others may need to focus on increasing their ability to metabolize more carbohydrates per hour to succeed. Protein intake before, in some cases during, and after training/competing should reflect the individual’s need.
It may be obvious, but being underweight or overweight each has its own risks. Being underweight, or under-fueled, can result in injuries (notably bone stress injuries) burnout, chronic fatigue, etc. Low energy availability and injuries plague many elite athletes, particularly in individual sports and aesthetic sports where being lean is touted as “ideal.” Understanding the right weight to gain maximal performance without energy deficiency or low-energy availability is vital to longevity. A network of professionals and a myriad of resources may be needed to help an athlete reach this point.
Being overweight poses risks as well, not just in sport but also in terms of cardiovascular health and overall wellness. Risks of being overweight, or obese, include mortality, high blood pressure, increased risk of diabetes, heart disease, stroke, overall immunity, and more. As an athlete, being overweight can place more strain on the body, resulting in injuries and limiting cardiovascular capabilities. Again, finding the right weight for an individual is key to help them achieve the right balance to safely respond to the demands of their sport while setting them up for success.
Of course, all of this to be said, how you view yourself and your happiness is really the main priority. If you’re 3-5 pounds heavier than you’d like, but performing well in training and competition, sleeping well, engaging in healthy relationships, and reporting good energy, I think that’s far more important than hitting any sort of metric on a scale. On the flip side, if you’re doing well, but feeling insecure about how you look, or struggling with something like high blood pressure, or chronic fatigue, it may be time to have a conversation about changing your diet so that you are at a more appropriate weight – be it heavier or lighter- so you can have both the quality of life you deserve and the performance you’ve earned.
I hope this has been helpful. In the past, I’ve struggled immensely with being underweight and overtrained. I’ve also experienced a chapter of competition where I was heavier and less fit, which was equally as challenging. My past isn’t perfect, but each misstep lead me to a professional resource that helped me understand what my body needs – increasing my awareness of what works for me and what doesn’t. Everyone is different, every sport is different, and every chapter of life is different. We must continually seek to better understand what it is we need, so we can live the life we want to the very fullest. Please, have conversations with those you trust in your circle. Ask yourself questions, reach out for help, utilize professional resources, and grant yourself grace when you go through times of trial and error.