Race Weight: Are you playing the long game?

Our culture in sport has led to this elusive place called “race weight.” It is assumed that at “race weight,” an athlete will be of optimal fitness and health and perform their best. A change in body composition can occur due to being at the highest level/intensity of training. So, is it truly the weight that leads to enhanced performance, or could it be something else?

When the wheels come off the bus

Recently, I listened to the Rich Roll podcast featuring track and field athlete Mary Cain. On the podcast, Cain discusses how her coaches pushed her to continue to lose weight to optimize her running. In this heartbreaking interview, she shares how she continued to push her body until it broke, and she alludes that she may never get back to the runner she was previously.

How long can you push the body to this weight place before the wheels come off the bus? Or would you rather wait and play the long game and consider long-term health and athletic performance?

Resilency- Worth the wait

After years of treating athletes, I propose a mindset shift from this “race weight” culture to “race resilience.” All too often, when athletes hit the elusive place of “race weight,” there is a tendency for perfectionist to take over, and the athlete pushes for more. They may wonder: “Can I lose just a bit more and be faster/lighter?” Then, all of a sudden, the niggles come more often.  You find yourself thinking about food all the time, even though, strangely, you aren’t that hungry. You are exhausted yet can’t get to sleep or wake up rested. Surprisingly you find yourself putting in some incredible workouts, which validates the feeling of “this must be where my body needs to be.”

As a registered dietitian specializing in eating disorders, I ethically am obligated to protect my clients by aiming to find their “natural weight range.” This weight range takes into account not only physical health, but mental health as well. The Minnesota Starvation Study (which used around 1560 calories during the starvation phase) demonstrated that as the study participants (soldiers) reduced their daily calories below their daily caloric needs, they began to be preoccupied around food, their sex drive reduced, and they began to isolate from others. Interestingly enough, despite no changes on standardized testing, participants expressed a decline in concentration and judgment capabilities. Physically, there was a reduction in their basal metabolic rate (BMR) by decreasing their body temperature, as well as a reduction in their respiration and heart rate.

FFF- A false performance enhancement

A common rebuttal I receive from athletes I work with is “But I am performing so well, so I must be healthy enough!” Here is my hypothesis as to why that happens. As the body dips into lower energy availability, alongside increased training intensity, there is a stressor response that can vacillate between fight, flight or freeze (FFF).

  • When cortisol increases, the body is able to convert storage energy, especially muscle, into usable energy. Many of the athletes report this heightened energy level almost feeling stimulated.
  • Epinephrine/norepinephrine increases as well, increasing the volume of blood flow so that muscles can be activated for instant, powerful movements. There is an ability to maintain a level of intensity that at times would cause the body to shut down. This is the same power and strength we have heard others speak to feats such as lifting cars off human bodies. Making them feel like superman or superwoman.
  • There is a reduced perception of pain because if you feel pain, you get eaten by the bear (so to speak). Many, many reports of incredible feats of performance to only have the walls collapse days or weeks later with significant injuries.
  • Pupils are dilated to alert themselves to any imposing dangers, making one have even more heightened senses. This heightened sense leads to a feeling of being in the zone or flow comparing when not to be distracted.

Therefore, they may be performing on borrowed time as FFF was never meant to be a chronic state; it is an acute statement to help you survive danger. While one might be experiencing a once-in-a-lifetime athletic accomplishment the body is paying the costs.

As an athletic provider, I encourage an open discussion. Could we shift this mindset to what weight range demonstrates the most resilient body? A resilient body is one that can sustain a full training session without being injury ridden. A resilient mind is one that is able to put in the focused training needed, but also stay connected to those around them. A resilient soul is one that is able to navigate through nutrition for performance and nourishment for enjoyment. And our athletes deserve all three of these things – a resilient body, mind and soul. An ability to train with joy even when challenged. An opportunity to nourish your soul with connection and conversation on topics not solely related to your sport. A space that food can fuel this incredible machine but also savor the rich complexity of delicious foods we can experience.

Trust the process.. it is worth the wait not the weight

Stay tuned for my next blog as I share how the wait is worth it. Worth trusting the process of science as to how we can create a more resilient body with trusted practices of self-care and training intuition. My colleague Christopher Johnson will share his wisdom how fitness level is impacted when taking time off of sport. Thus leading to the elusive place of performance enhancement lying in the consistency of training by staying healthy.