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


Food & Fitness, Sleep & Stress: Balancing it All

The four pillars of a healthy regimen: Food, Fitness, Sleep, Stress. All four pillars must be given equal attention and intentional planning. We’re going to deep dive each pillar with the goal of gaining more energy, more productivity, and (as always) a more sustainable lifestyle.

Food

One cannot think well, sleep well, or love well if one hasn’t dined well.

– Virginia Wolf

The problem: It’s common knowledge that a healthy diet is the foundation for feeling good, performing well, and living long. So why are 40% of American obese? If its common knowledge, why are three-quarters of Americans struggling with a weight issue (obese or overweight)? America has the highest percentage of obese adults. I can tell you why. Bigger portions, a boom in meat consumption, dieting (you heard me) and inactivity. Americans are eating a lot more, especially meat products, and moving less. They’re also confused on what to it and when. Conflicting diet guidelines are everywhere, and Americans want results fast. People are willing to try anything that works, especially if they saw their friend do it. We’re being pumped full of trans fats and artificial sweeteners while jumping on any fad diet we can get our hands on for fast results. Futile, at best.

The solution: Start by determining a specific, realistic long-term goal. Example: “I’d like to lose 10 pounds by November 2021, increase my muscle definition, and feel more energetic.” Introduce 1 daily ritual each month that will help you progress slowly towards this goal. Examples: Drink 2 liters of water each day. Eat 2 fresh fruits and 2 fresh vegetables each day. Eat 25-50% vegan or vegetarian. Refrain from drinking soda, alcohol, or smoking during the week. That’s a solid start if you can commit to it. From there, try cooking more at home. Eating out is expensive and generally unhealthy in terms of how the food is prepared and the portions you’re given. Not to mention, your far more likely to contract Covid-19 if you eat out (even if you pick up curbside). Lastly, do not be afraid of fat or carbohydrates. They have somehow gotten a bad rep in America. 50% of your diet should be carbohydrates. They’re linked to longevity and provide energy. My favorites are sweet potatoes, organic pasta and rice, and fresh fruit.  Fat is also important for several reasons, but my favorite is they’re filling and satisfying. Avocados, olives, and almonds are fantastic foods that provide rich sources of vitamins and minerals. Don’t be duped into thinking protein equals skinny. Protein plays an important role in metabolism, but if you want the most balanced and sustainable nutrition plan, you need carbohydrates and fats too!

Fitness

Take care of your body, it’s the only place you have to live.

– Jim Rohn

The problem: Inactivity, plain and simple. A lot of working Americans are sedentary, and technology has provided us with everything we need to be inactive. We can order online, take a vehicle anywhere, and eat all our meals without raising a finger to grow, prepare, and/or clean up. I’d like to cite a lack of patience, too. As previously stated, Americans want results fast. That just doesn’t happen in reality. Functional, realistic programs take time. There is no end point. Our bodies should constantly be on a path of self-improvement and growth, challenged with new stimuli and tested.

The solution: Start small. If you aren’t training regularly, start with walking for 30 minutes 3 times a week. If you stick to that, and work on your diet/sleep, you will slowly gain energy and lose weight. Try that for a month, and then think about slowly progressing. I have 70+ videos on YouTube for FREE you can try. They’re fantastic for all levels! If you’re already exercising consistently, good on you! I recommend increasing your intensity, or frequency (minutes per week), 10% each week to find improvements. This may mean adding intervals to your cardio or adding a little weight to your strength routines. A coach may be beneficial for this purpose. My training philosophy centers on balance, literally. All my athletes train to improve balance, then mobility, then muscular endurance. It’s essential to have a stable foundation before beginning a periodized overload program or you will just build strength on existing weaknesses and further imbalances. Training deep core muscles starts at the beginning, as I’ve learned to train from the inside out. Stability first! From a stable platform you can launch into a more aggressive program. Starting with stability is not only a wise and sustainable way to begin, it’s also approachable. If you’re overweight and just looking to make a change, beginning with walking a few times a week and some light balance/core training is a lot easier to stick to then getting crushed at bootcamp- which can be embarrassing. You’re far less likely to get injured this way, and far more likely to stick with it to see results.

Sleep

Sleep is the best meditation.

– Dali Lama

The problem: Americans are steadily averaging less sleep, an inverse relationship that directly correlates with a steady increase in weight gain. According to the Sleep Foundation, Americans get about 7.5 hours of sleep/night. Most people go to bed around 11 pm and wake up at 6:30 am during the week, and sleep about 40 minutes longer on the weekend. Ideally, we get between 8-10 hours of sleep each night. (Some people need more than others, mind you) Lack of sleep can lead to cravings and metabolic dysfunction, as hormones like ghrelin and leptin are affected by sleep deprivation. Then there’s the simple notion that staying awake longer presents more opportunities to eat. The more tired you are from missing out on sleep, the less energy you will have for physical fitness, too. Childhood and adolescent obesity are linked with sleep deprivation, the link likely being skipped meals like breakfast and increased sugar / salt consumption. As an athlete, you’re more likely to get injured if you get less than 8 hours of sleep.

The solution: GET. MORE. SLEEP. Make a plan on when to go to bed and wake up so you’re at your best. Keeping a regular sleep schedule is helpful, as big swings in your sleep regimen can reduce your insulin sensitivity (elevating blood sugar) and cause changes in your metabolism. iPhones have a setting in which you can program reminders on when to head to bed and when to wake up. Avoid snacking late, as this is can cause weight gain and instigate sleep issues. Good old-fashioned discipline is required to turn off the TV and stop scrolling on Instagram. Try reading for 30 minutes before your goal bedtime and sleeping in a dark room.

Stress

It’s not stress that kills us, it is our reaction to it.

– Hans Selye

The problem: According to The American Institute of Stress, 77% of Americans experience stress that affects their physical health, while 73% report experiencing stress that affects their mental health. Those experiencing the most stress are ethnic minorities, women, single parents, and people responsible for their family’s healthcare decisions. Top causes of stress are money, work, and the economy followed closely by family responsibilities, relationships, personal health issues, and housing costs. Side effects of stress are irritability, low energy/fatigue, lack of motivation/interest, anxiety, headaches, feeling sad or depressed, acid reflux, muscle tension, high blood pressure, and appetite changes. Many people also experience sexual problems, weight gain, GI issues like constipation or diarrhea, and forgetfulness. Whew.

The solution: Start by identifying the signs of stress listed above and/or any stress triggers. Getting plenty of sleep (as mentioned before 8-10 hours) and regular exercise (start with 3x 30-minute walks/week and some light stretching!). Practicing relaxation skills like meditation, journaling, or diaphragm breathing (nose inhalation to belly for 4 counts, hold 4 counts, exhale 4 counts). You may try setting 1-2 goals, defining your personal priorities, and forming 1-2 daily habits, like we’ve talked about. Spending time with people you love and doing activities you enjoy, like knitting, baking, painting, and reading, are important to minimize stress.

Putting it all together

  1. Set a long-term goal
  2. Form 1-2 daily rituals to exercise and eat well. Think sustainable and balanced. Progress 10% when you’re ready!
  3. Make sleeping 8-10 hours a priority.
  4. Identify stress and work to relieve it.
  5. Be patient. Nothing happens overnight.

There is probably nothing in this blog that you haven’t heard before. This is a friendly note to get back to the basics and invest in yourself. Fuel yourself well, treat your body like a temple, and rest the amount you deserve.  There is no fad diet, sleeping pill, or hack that will do the work for you. You’re going to have to sacrifice some social media time to cook, set some boundaries in your personal or professional life to decrease your stress and/or make time for exercise. I know you can do it, and I promise you it will be worth it.

Best,

Becca