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Nutrition

The Great Race Weight Debate

Race weight can be a confusing topic, fraught with pitfalls. We break it down into three simple pieces of advice.

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The first edition of my book Racing Weight was released in 2010—and it was inspired by my observation that athletes often approached performance weight management in ineffective and sometimes unhealthy ways. As an alternative to the fad diets and other extreme measures that were leading so many athletes into trouble, I took a different view on performance weight management based on mainstream science and elite best practices.

Much has changed since Racing Weight first hit bookstore shelves. Fad diets have come and gone (remember Paleo?), and the very practice of performance weight management has been questioned by many. Yet my own views on the subject have changed very little, and that’s because elite best practices and the science that supports them have remained remarkably consistent. I do frame my guidance somewhat differently, however, taking pains to help athletes maintain a healthy perspective on the process.

If I were to rewrite Racing Weight today, I would add three key messages:

1. Know Your Priorities

Losing excess body fat and building endurance fitness cannot co-exist as top priorities. The reason is that the most effective methods for shedding fat, which include moderate calorie deficits and a low-volume, high-intensity exercise regimen, run counter to the goal of building endurance performance.

It’s OK to make fat loss your top priority, but this should only be done during the off-season or at other times when you don’t have a race in front of you. When you do have a race in front of you, focus on eating and training for maximum fitness. You might still get leaner along the way, but only as a side effect to the main goal of getting fitter.

Woman posing in yellow athletic shirt
(Photo: Jacob Lund / Getty Images)

2. Let Form Follow Function

The most important thing to understand about racing weight is that it’s defined functionally as the combination of body weight and body composition at which an individual athlete performs best—not how they compare to others or appear on social media, for instance. What this means is that the only way to determine your optimal racing weight is to attain it through proper training and diet. It’s impossible to accurately predict your best race weight ahead of time, and you most certainly can’t judge it by how you look in the mirror.

Because of this, it’s best to avoid setting any kind of weight-related goal and instead focus on the process of training and fueling your way toward peak fitness—let the weight be a result of that focus. In other words, let form follow function in your pursuit of race weight. On the diet side of the equation, I encourage triathletes at all levels to emulate the eating habits of the pros in three key areas: quality, quantity, and timing.

Quality

While much of the focus in popular diet discourse is on macronutrients, research has shown that overall diet quality has a bigger impact on body weight and body composition than any particular ratio of carbs, fat, and protein. A high-quality diet is one that features a variety of unprocessed foods (vegetables, fruits, nuts, seeds, healthy oils, whole grains, dairy, unprocessed meat, seafood) and limited amounts of processed foods (sweets, refined grains, foods with added fats, processed meat).

Increasing your diet quality overall will help you achieve a lean body composition by satisfying your appetite with fewer calories. My Diet Quality Score (DQS) smartphone app is a simple tool you can use to monitor and increase your diet quality.

Quantity

Elite endurance athletes don’t count calories. Instead they regulate their food intake by eating mindfully, which entails tuning out external cues such as food advertising and excessive portion sizes and allowing internal signals of hunger and satiety to determine when they eat and how much. As four-time Tour de France winner Chris Froome put it in his autobiography, The Climb, “I don’t count calories or know the values of most things; I just let my instinct guide me as to what is the right amount to eat.”

It takes practice to build a consistent mindful eating habit, but studies show that even those with a history of disordered eating can do it.

Timing

It’s not just what you eat and how much but also when you eat that affects your body weight and body fat level. The same calories are put to different uses depending on the timing of their intake. Calories consumed at times of energy need are used to fuel activity and build muscle, while calories taken in at other times are stored as fat.

The times of greatest energy need are first thing in the morning and around workouts. Concentrate your food intake within these periods without further changing what or how much you eat.

3. Be Kind to Yourself

I’ve never met an athlete who was consistently happy with the results from their diet, but unhappy with the diet itself. In the long run, you simply cannot be a healthy eater without a healthy relationship with food. If your diet feels like a chore, or if it creates a lot of anxiety and guilt, then it’s very unlikely to lead you to your performance goals, no matter how healthy it looks on paper. Never lose sight of the fact that you not only can—but must—enjoy eating to maximize  the performance benefits of food.