NOTE: I am not (necessarily) intending to impugn high school and/or collegiate coaches in this article. It is imperative to note that coaches of institutional teams have different incentives- they HAVE to care about consistent performance/winning because their paychecks and bonuses depend on it. That kind of pressure is rife for bullying- can you IMAGINE your performance review being contingent upon a group of high school or college kids following directions??
(I'm NOT saying bullying is ok. I AM saying that blaming a bully for being a bully without looking at the structures that create and support bullies is piss-poor management anywhere you go.)
Weight is a third rail super-emotional issue and something I loathe discussing with all athletes. Which is why I'm distressed to realize it's a theme in the running world this week in the wake of Allie Keiffer's article. The subsequent conversations are not providing a framework for analysis, which means bad choices and confusion can result if we don't talk about it. In order to have a productive conversation, we need to start with a simple definition of the 'race weight' concept and then provide a little context as to when or why it matters.
Short Answer: I love you. I am here to show you all of the amazing things your body can do. I don't need to know what you weigh in order to do my job well.
What does "race weight" refer to?
Broadly speaking, coaches throw this phrase at competitive high school and collegiate athletes as a reminder to 'get in shape'. If most of these kids took the Summer off, they may find it tough to get back into the mindset and schedule-adherence that high-level competition requires. When it comes to sports like distance running, cross-country or track and field, extra weight or softness on body parts that were angular in the spring can be held up as proof that a kid needs to get back into the training habit before competitions begin.
...and yeah, they may be a little heavier.
I want to believe this is benign. I want to believe this is a coded phrase used to avoid a conversation most of us coaches aren't qualified to have, to avoid hurting a kid's feelings when they return from a summer of fun to find their fitness has slipped.
Even if the team has an engaged nutritionist nearby, this cue has historically caused shame and led to bad choices and eating disorders in both men and women as they focused on shedding the weight via undereating and/or overtraining.
This is the definition you are likely familiar with, a bad cue that can lead to bad choices as we focus on lowering the number on the scale instead of building up muscle, power, endurance and aerobic capacity.
When I use this phrase, I'm either referring to a (previous version of) myself or speaking to my elite runners in a TOTALLY different context.
Elite-level distance runners log 80+ miles per week at fat-metabolizing rates. We are literally gearing their bodies to use fat for fuel, and we have to make sure there's enough fuel in the tank to get them through a race. Being overweight is rarely a problem in this crowd, the perpetual fear SHOULD BE that they will become underweight or shed so much body fat during a workout or race that they can't perform at their best.
There is no perfect number for body fat %. Normal (non-competitive-athlete) human ranges medically considered to be healthy are 15-20% for men and 20-25% for women. Male distance runners tend to hover around 8% and women around 12%. Essential body fat, which is the amount needed for maintenance of life, is estimated around 13% for women and 3% for men. Below these thresholds your body starts cannibalizing your muscles for energy, which is both inefficient and dangerous.
Read those figures above CAREFULLY and you see how this can be a real concern for my elite female runners. When I'm talking about race weight, I am talking about a floor they don't need to fall through for their own safety; a figure they have calculated with their RD in conjunction with their doctor. When you are 5'7 and weigh 120 lbs while running 120 miles per week, every pound matters because it impacts your body fat. (concerns for pro cyclists and triathletes are very different, so I am limiting this discussion to running).
When I refer to my own race weight, my floor past which performance suffered, my brain is discussing a version of MK you've never met, who fell trap to a lot of this chatter but was lucky enough to have a nutritionist nearby to answer questions. That number was 128. Anything below that number prompted a conversation to make sure my macronutrient needs were being met.
I was rarely more than 8 pounds above that figure but honestly my performance at 130 vs 135 wasn't predictably different. It's not like, "yay I got faster!" each time I shed a pound, because those numbers don't reflect WHY they changed. My training was completed no matter what, but I had a very demanding job and meal planning could fall apart if I was dragged into a 4-hour meeting at 6pm. The variable was the content and timing of my meals. When I would get to 130 I was usually tired and cranky and hungry. When things would settle down at work, I would hover around 135 and run well enough to not be worried. So really it's no wonder I performed better above my race weight- I was nourished and probably sleeping 8 hours each night.
Well, I'm not elite and never will be. What's my race weight?
I never, ever use this phrase with non-elite runners. So if you ask me, you don't have one. YAY! Isn't that freeing? One less thing to worry about!
Are you saying weight doesn't matter?
I'm saying exactly this: unless you are elite, I do not care at all about your weight (and only then because it's easier to track day-to-day than body fat).
I care that you are taking care of yourself. I care that you are making good choices (like getting enough food and sleep). I care that your macronutrient needs are being met. I will never tell you that you need to lose weight in order to get faster because it isn't categorically true. At most I will say that nutrition is a really big and important lever, and of all the levers we can pull to improve your performance, the nutrition lever can make the biggest impact during a training cycle.
If you are obsessed with the number on the scale, then you are likely to start cutting things with zero regard to how those cuts will affect you. Worse, if small cuts lead to small changes, you will be tempted to make bigger cuts in pursuit of bigger changes...which can have you starving your muscles and shutting down your metabolism at ANY weight.
This is why I'm often accused of beating up on Vegans. Every single time I meet a Vegan, I ask if they work with a nutritionist. Yes I'm judging, but no I'm not judging the Vegan lifestyle. I have no opinion on the Vegan lifestyle.
Here's what I care about: when I was diagnosed with Celiac in 2006, I was ordered to work with a nutritionist for as long as it took to get the diet down pat. My insurance company estimated I'd need a dietitian as well as a nutritionist for 18 months. A YEAR AND A HALF. FOR CELIAC. All I had to eliminate was wheat, rye, barley and most oats. Not even a whole food group. If you've gone Vegan, you've eliminated at least 2.5 food groups. If we extrapolate from my Celiac example, it could at least 18 months of professional assistance to get those patterns down pat. I hope you have more guidance on this journey than Pinterest can provide, and I hope you asked for help when you made this huge life choice.
This is why I push all of my athletes who express concerns about weight or interest in following a trend like Paleo or Whole 30 to work with a functional nutritionist. If you are counting calories, if you are restricting caloric intake, if you are eliminating whole food groups without regard to the nutrients you could be eliminating in tandem, you may not be making good choices, full stop. If you are avoiding meat and fat and dairy and foods you think are 'bad' without the specific assistance of a hired professional, you are as likely to be mimicking disordered eating patterns as you are making better choices.
One of the nutritionists I work with, works with a professional Vegan cycling team. If she can meet their special needs she can totally help you meet yours.
I'm not a Vegan, are you still talking to me?
Why, yes I am. Because you are a human who has probably thought about your own weight at some point and may do so again. When you do a Google search about how much 1 pound impacts performance, you will go down a rabbit hole and do #badrunnermath and get numbers with no context. Happens all the time.
So, I shouldn't try to lose weight?
In general? I don't really care. During a performance-based training cycle? Absolutely not. Your adrenal gland doesn't multitask. What matters is that you feel empowered and supported in making nutritional choices year-round.
If you are 130lbs or 330lbs, caloric restriction with no regards to macronutrient needs can shut down your metabolism and have the opposite effect- making you gain weight as your body prepares for famine. I'd much rather work with the properly nourished runner who is 150+lbs overweight than the 120lb runner who consumes no more than 1500 calories per day and has no idea what their daily fat intake requirements are because they think fat is 'bad'.
Final note: if you suffer a lot of stress fractures, Imma force the nutrition conversation. If you aren't sure why, read the opening line in the Allie Keiffer article. Stress fractures are common. They are never, ever normal. To coaches and nutritionists, they are a great big red flag. Luckily, this can be an easy fix if you are willing to be #coachedandloved
Links that are worth reading: