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


Building a Healthy Body Image

It’s Eating Disorder Awareness Week, so let’s talk about body image! I think it’s safe to say everyone struggles with the way they look, or feel about themselves, at some point in their lifetime. There are the dreaded middle and high school years, ravaged by puberty, social cliques, and the final years of bending to parental expectations. Then the stressful, roller coaster ride of college, filled with pressure to lay the foundation of adult life on three hours of sleep. Adulthood comes next, with magazines, TV shows, and social media providing a constant reminder someone out there is doing it better, faster, and skinnier or stronger than you are. Comparisons are present in every stage of life and are often a trigger to feelings of “not good enough.” How do we work through that, and why should we try to heal the relationship we have with ourselves?

Let’s start with some introspection:

  • When did you feel the best about yourself? What was your lifestyle like in terms of nutrition, exercise, relationships, sleep, and stress level?
  • On the flip side, when did you feel the worst about yourself? What was your lifestyle like in terms of nutrition, exercise, relationships, sleep, and stress level?
  • What are some things that triggered your positive and negative views of yourself?
  • When was the last time you communicated with someone about those positive or negative triggers?

Appearance assumptions combined with stressful triggers can lead to a negative body image. This often leads to a state of distress. Some behaviors associated with a state of distress and negative body image are:

  • Preoccupation or obsession with appearance
  • Comparison or envy of other’s appearance
  • Regular negative thoughts or disparaging comments about yourself
  • Assurance-seeking tendencies or actions
  • Negative assumptions about how others see you
  • Withdrawn behavior or avoidance; protecting yourself from peer judgement

While these behaviors are intended to reduce distress and hide your perceived flaws as a way to protect yourself from being judged by others, they may actually increase long term distress. These behaviors may fuel negative body image and/or appearance assumptions, which in turn may push you deeper into disordered eating, body dysmorphia, depressive states or anxiety.

Do you find yourself in this vicious cycle when you face one of your triggers?

Let’s move into some helpful coping strategies and self-talk cues that may help you.

  • Adjust appearance expectations. Challenge yourself by building new vision of how you see yourself, both long and short term. Release rigid or absolute values, like certain weight or aesthetic desires, and find ways to embrace, or even highlight, your one-of-a-kind qualities.
  • Utilize breath awareness and meditation to alleviate attention or assurance seeking actions. Work to be in the present moment. Embrace non-judgmental thoughts of yourself. In short, try giving yourself grace and space to be more unique.
  • Acknowledge assurance seeking behaviors and work to find other solutions.
  • Talk through your negative assumptions about how others may or may not “see” you, be it in a journal or with a trusted source. How effective are your predictions and assumptions to begin with?
  • Make intentional space in your week, or day, to work on positive self-talk. Journal, meditate, or openly discuss qualities you enjoy about yourself, or are working to improve.

Moving forward, it may be helpful to write down some warning signs, along with a coping strategy or phrase to avoid cyclical, negative self-talk or disruptive body imagery.

Some examples:

Instead of: “I hate how I feel after eating poorly. Work is so stressful, I don’t have any energy to take care of myself.”

Try: “I know I have to work overtime this week, which often triggers unhealthy eating and negative thoughts about myself. I deserve to fuel my body well, so I’ll plan to pick up some pre-prepped health foods to keep me going. I will try to limit social media/screen time to get ample sleep, and try to get in a short but effective workout so I feel confident and energetic.”

Instead of: “I wish I looked like so and so. He/She has it so easy, I’ll never look or feel as confident as them because I’m not as talented. I should just give up.”

 Try: “I’m inspired by my peers, but acknowledge my path is different and unique. I need  different training stimulus and nutrition/fueling to fit where I’m currently at. I am willing to improve my health and fitness on my terms so that I stick with it long-term.”

Be aware of problem situations that may be a trigger, and work to find productive, healthy solutions. Keep a personal mantra or encouraging phrase in your mind to help you. Arm yourself with a plan, because your best self is worth fighting for!

Sending love and confidence,

BK