For access to all of our training, gear, and race coverage, plus exclusive training plans, FinisherPix photos, event discounts, and GPS apps, sign up for Outside+.
Body weight is important, but performance is more important.
Written by: Matt Fitzgerald
Have you heard about the Healthy At Every Size (HAES) movement? It is a reaction against the current paradigm in the treatment of overweight and obesity. This paradigm, as you know, treats excess body weight as essentially a problem in itself that is inseparable from associated health consequences such as diabetes and heart disease, and it seeks to correct the problem with a direct short-term focus on weight reduction. However, those in the HAES movement note that the long-term track record of this approach is poor, and that it often causes collateral psychological damage in patients by stigmatizing their bodies and more or less setting them up for failure.
The HAES alternative seeks instead to nurture healthy habits of activity and eating in overweight and obese persons without concern for how these habits affect body weight. The rationale here is that skinny people who eat junky diets and who do not exercise are just as unhealthy as overweight persons who do the same, while overweight persons who eat right and exercise are as healthy as skinny people who do the same. So why get all hung up on weight when it’s sort of beside the point and the evidence clearly suggests that weight-loss initiatives seldom work in the long term? Of course, weight loss certainly can be an outcome of the HAES approach, but it is treated as a side effect. The healthy habits themselves, along with improvements in chronic disease symptoms and risk factors, are the explicit objectives.
I am not familiar enough with the HAES case to judge whether it goes too far. But in my view its emphasis on process (healthy habits) over outcome (weight loss) is sensible. Does the philosophy that underlies HAES apply to endurance athletes, though?
Yes and no. On the one hand, while the relationship between body weight and health is controversial, the relationship between body weight and endurance performance is not. We know indisputably that the best endurance athletes are light and lean and that all endurance athletes perform best when they have a minimum of excess body fat. So while the HAES approach discourages the general population from stepping on the scale, I encourage all endurance athletes to step on the scale (and have their body composition measured) regularly.
On the other hand, ideal racing weights and body fat percentages differ widely between individuals. Not every runner can healthily attain the 6 percent or 13 body fat level that is seen in the top male and female runners respectively. What’s more, ideal body weight and body fat percentages can’t be predicted. Racing weight is functionally defined—that is, defined by performance. When you achieve the best race you can possibly have, you’re at your ideal body weight, by definition.
A key implication of the functionally defined nature of racing weight is that you can’t just pick a number and aim for it. That number may or may not represent your true racing weight. What you must do instead is focus on the process of maximizing your fitness through smart training and appropriate nutrition. Wherever your body weight and body composition end up after an extended period of smart training and healthy eating is where they are supposed to end up, even when it’s not where you thought they would end up.
There’s certainly nothing wrong with tracking your body weight and body fat percentage, because by doing so you can establish your ideal numbers and target them in the future in the likely event that you regain a little excess body fat between fitness peaks. But it’s more important to track performance, because performance is the true goal. A 2:59 marathon at 175 pounds is better than a 3:11 marathon at 168 pounds.
In this sense, the proper approach to racing weight is analogous to the HAES approach to promoting health through lifestyle. In the latter, healthy habits and improved health parameters are brought to the foreground, weight loss is pushed to the background. Likewise, in the proper approach to racing weight, training and eating right and improving performance are primary, losing weight is secondary. The key differences are that, as an endurance athlete, 1) you can be 100 percent certain that you will become leaner and lighter as you become fitter and 2) that you will want to know your ideal body weight and body fat percentage for maximum performance so you can use these numbers as future targets.
Check out Matt’s latest book, Racing Weight Quick Start Guide: A 4-Week Weight-Loss Plan for Endurance Athletes.