Our training weight (optimal healthy bodyweight) and our racing weight are two different numbers. Typically racing weight will fall on the low end of ‘Healthy Weight’ on the well-known and widely used BMI measurements chart (but certainly not always), while training weight will be up to 8% higher. This happens to be exactly the case for me – my training weight lands smack in the middle of my BMI healthy range (~132lb) while my racing weight is about 6% lower, falling 2 notches down on the low end of the BMI healthy range (~126lb). However, I’ve worked with many, many people who are exceptions to this rule, so take this method of evaluating goal weights with a grain of salt.
Another way to look at racing weight is determining optimal body fat percentage. Elite distance runners race on average at 7.3% body fat (males) and 12.4% (females). While certainly most runners are not born with the genes to get as light and lean as the elite runners, it’s likely that a few nutritional strategies will allow any runner to toe the start line lighter and leaner than their last race.
In working one-on-one with clients, I find that most people wish to lose weight (among other goals of course, such as performance, energy and health). And although a few need to ensure they don’t lose any more weight (struggle to keep weight on), the percentage who struggle to lose weight is higher. Although we sometimes call it racing weight, the place we all really want to land on is our ideal training weight, which could also be called healthy athletic body weight. Essentially, this is the weight at which you are able to perform strong fitness building workouts in and then recover optimally and quickly from them. What exactly this ideal weight is for us, is rarely the number we conjure up in our minds. We often tend to pick a number that is too low, one that is more along the lines of our racing weight – a weight we are only meant to be at for a very short period of time.
Ten years ago I ran a 10km race that would haunt me for years to come. For nearly a year prior, I consistently weighed 125lbs, ran a bit, worked out at the gym like crazy, ate super clean (albeit not nearly enough) and was obsessed with my muscle definition. I ran that 10km race in 44:16. I was immediately so intensely injured I could barely walk home let alone even think of running for the next 6 months. I spent months in physio before finally beginning to run/walk again (this was pre-eat2run days, I hadn’t a clue I might have been able to help my body heal faster using nutrition!!).
That race haunted me because although I was able to bring down my marathon and half marathon times dramatically once I began eating 2 run, I just couldn’t beat that 44:16. And then finally, 2 years ago, weighing 132lbs, I ran the Vancouver Sun Run 10km in 43:59. And was able to run again the following day, no problem. In fact, 2 weeks later I ran a marathon! Since then, I’ve brought my 10km time down to 43:53, while remaining at about 132lbs.
I usually race at my training weight (which apparently is 132lbs). Only a handful of times have I actually brought myself down to my racing weight (which happens to be about the same weight I once maintained for months on end 10 years ago only to end up ridiculously injured) specifically for marathon day (such as Eugene last year, 3:31:15, a 2 minute PB), and sure enough was rewarded with a personal best. But racing weight is a dangerous place to hang out – sure it feels good and looks good, but often it’s too low to facilitate optimal health for training and recovery. So if I bring myself down to 126lbs or so for race day, I’m quick to eat all the food afterwards and pop back up to my training weight (or maybe even a little above that for a few days haha).
The question then becomes how to reach these weights! Here are 4 strategies to help bring you to your ideal weights.
Dietary Strategies for Reaching Your Training Weight (Optimal Body Weight)
1. Focus on QUALITY not QUANTITY
In other words, we do not necessarily want to focus on eating less and or counting calories / macros – we simply need to eat better (choose healthier real, whole foods most of the time). As mileage goes up in training for a race it becomes easier to feel deserving of treat foods. However, it is much easier to feel satiated (not to mention build a leaner, stronger, more injury-resistant body) when we eat nutrient dense foods rather than the nutrient-poor and calorie-dense, packaged and processed foods so readily available in our society.
2. Practice Nutrient Timing
By strategically positioning the majority of our daily carbohydrates around our workouts (immediately before and immediately after), we succeed in properly fuelling and recovering from our workouts while avoiding consumption of excess carbs the body doesn’t require (and ends up storing as fat). While the body stores preferentially stores excess calories coming from fat as fat, it will absolutely store excess carb calories consumed as fat also. And because we need to ensure we’re consuming enough healthy fats to protect the health and integrity of our cells – it’s most often in fact the carbohydrates in our overall nutritional plans that need to be strategically reduced (determined on a case by case basis of course).
Indeed, it has been shown that eating 15-25 grams of protein at regular intervals throughout the day with plenty of vegetables and healthy fats along with fewer carbohydrates at any point in the day when we have not just gone for or come back from a workout, helps to keep us satiated and promotes a healthy bodyweight.
Dietary Strategies for Reaching Your Racing Weight
3. Avoid Nutrient-Poor Foods
This may seem obvious, but there are certain foods and drink that must be entirely avoided (or minimized greatly) in order to allow most runners to reach their racing weight. These no-no’s include the following:
- Alcohol (beer, wine, spirits, champagne)
- Fried foods & processed cooking oils (such as corn oil, soy oil, canola oil)
- All margarine, shortening & mayonnaise
- Sugar (of all types but especially HFCS, also called glucose-fructose)
- Soft drinks (any drink with added sugar)
- Refined grains (white flours, rice, etc)
- Most baked goods (pastries, etc)
- Processed foods (including energy bars)
- CAFO (conventional) meat /animal products
- Most condiments (full of sugar)
- All foods you have a sensitivity or allergy to (such as dairy, gluten, soy, corn, legumes, etc)
4. Practice Fat-Loading
The strategy of fat-loading, which is implemented 14 days before an endurance event lasting 2 hours or longer, typically allows the average athlete to drop 4-10 pounds in 10 days. While this strategy isn’t appropriate for all athletes, many stand to benefit from it as it tends to help runners not only achieve their racing weight but also enhance their ability to burn more fatty acids for fuel.
This is indeed the strategy I implemented to reach my racing weight for the Eugene marathon mentioned above. I did in fact implement fat-loading again for my most recent marathon, but managed to simultaneously and substantially increase my daily caloric intake (to 3,500 plus per day) so that I did not lose any weight, although I did not gain any weight either. This points to a need to ensure total calories are not increased dramatically over the fat-loading period (a small increase is normal and should still result in weight loss, if weight loss is required).
Putting your focus on quality (not quantity) and practicing nutrient timing will help you reach your optimal training weight, while the addition of avoiding all nutrient-poor foods and possibly fat-loading will help you make the transition temporarily to racing weight. It may take some effort to make the changes and figure out what works best for you, but I can promise you that finally figuring it out and landing on your own individual ideal weight is incredibly rewarding.
To good eats and strong running… Cheers,
Sarah J Cuff, RHN
PS. Emy Coulson is a great example of someone who had been attempting to land on her ideal training weight and racing weight in the past while training for marathons but typically she’d find she’d actually gain weight or stay the same weight. This time however, she lost weight, finally achieving her ideal weight, feeling lighter and stronger on race day than previous races. Of course this wasn’t the only benefit she received from eating 2 run, the first thing she noticed was that her post-run recovery was really fast. Plus her energy levels were higher and most of all her skin allergies disappeared! To read more about Emy’s eat 2 run journey, click here.