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When I was 11 years old, I did my first few running races. They were the types of local events where a county commissioner would come out to the start, call everyone crazy for running when not being actively chased and fire a gun into the air. Given where I grew up, I wouldn’t be surprised if it was real gun and an unlucky goose was served as the post-race meal.
Even though it was a relaxed atmosphere, each event was my own personal Super Bowl. I would get so nervous the night before that I’d barely sleep. I’d go out way too fast and fade hard. I clearly shared some things in common with Jared Goff.
At the end of one of those races, a man came up to talk to me. After saying I had promise as a runner, he said something that would reverberate throughout my next decade. “Good runners are [a formula to calculate bodyweight from height, which I’m not repeating here because it’s wrong].” I wanted to be successful, so I absorbed every word like water in the desert.
Shortly afterward, I burnt out on my little running experiment and focused on football. I got strong and fast, only stepping on the scale hoping to see a bigger number that might attract college recruiters. Football took me to college, but I wasn’t mentally cut out for the sport at the next level. After I quit, I decided to see if I could get back to running. Thankfully, I had a trusty formula that could help guide me.
To satisfy the bodyweight formula, I knew I’d have to lose 65 pounds. I weighed myself at least two times a day for the next four years.
Getting nachos at The Heights Bar & Grill (my favorite!) became a sin, with the next morning spent begging for forgiveness from the scale. Eventually, even eating foods that would make me retain water felt like it required a confession, with the next day or two spent doing my Hail Marys, which in this case meant restricting food and fluids that might make that number a bit too high.
I progressed as an athlete at first, but I eventually started to stagnate, and I wouldn’t call my college years “happy.” It’s hard to be happy or to believe in yourself as an athlete when you first need permission from a number on a scale.
Fortunately, shortly after college, I met a field hockey player named Megan Deakins (now Megan Roche, which never gets old to hear). Together, we learned that food is fuel and fun, and that the scale didn’t care enough about either of those things. For us at least, giving fewer Fs about bodyweight helped us get more of what made us happy from all of life.
Since then, we’ve had good performances and terrible ones, at what I guess are higher and lower weights that fluctuate over time, with the resulting graph being a mostly random scatterplot. I can’t give you an exact R-squared value because we haven’t had a scale in eight years.
OK, OK, enough of that backstory. I get that it’s N=1, so please don’t view anything in this article as telling you what to do for yourself. Your N=1 might be totally different, and that is amazing too. However, in coaching, we have seen many athletes go through a similar struggle with the scale. They’ll unwittingly sacrifice some self-worth for some speed, and they’ll wind up with neither.
The message of this article isn’t to throw away your scale necessarily. It’s to make sure that number is in context and that your self-acceptance is unconditional. If that is not possible for you (like it wasn’t possible for me), then performance psychology and physiology give you permission to put your scale into the nearest trash compactor.
Weight loss does not guarantee performance gain
First, we need to address the formula that delayed my running progress. It captures some truth—across the population, a lower body-mass index (BMI) will generally correlate with faster running to a point. However, it presents a problem with using population analyses to determine individual behavior. Just because the correlation applies across the entire range of BMIs doesn’t mean it applies to smaller ranges or to all individuals. As an athlete that specializes in this area told me after reading a first draft of this article, “I would go as far as to say that BMI is horse[stuff] as a metric.”
Let’s look at why that is. A BMI of 34 (classified as “obese” by the CDC) is probably worse for health than a BMI of 24 (“healthy”). However, that’s not always the case. An athlete at 34 could be way more healthy than someone at 24 based on muscle and bodyfat, not to mention biomarkers like cholesterol or stress hormone cortisol (34 is JJ Watt’s BMI, and that guy is one of the best athletes in the world).
The relationship breaks down even more when the variation is minor. Is a BMI of 21 better than a BMI of 22 (both “healthy”)? No, not necessarily. It’s dependent on the individual, and his/her body type (including everything from essential bodyfat to limb length) and background. And we know that there is a point when a higher BMI would lead to stronger performance and better health for each person, but again it varies a ton.
On top of that, correlation does not equal causation. When looking at BMI and performance, we may be indirectly measuring body type, athletic background, training status or any other variable you can think of that affects those numbers. Some athletes will have breakthroughs by gaining weight. It’s something I see all the time in coaching—athletes developing rapidly after they jettison the idea that they need to weigh a certain amount or look a certain way. Others may need to lose weight for long-term health and reducing risk of heart disease/diabetes.
In other words, it’s complicated, and it depends. The problem is that the scale doesn’t say, “It’s complicated, and it depends.” It says a stone-cold number. Lots of motivated people will look at that number and think lower is better, which is absolutely not true in many circumstances. So consider removing a scale from your life if you’re anything like me and can’t incorporate that complexity into how you interpret the number.
Tracking bodyweight can contribute to unhealthy behavior and psychological distress
Insecurity is a part of the human condition. The insecurity monster is under all of our beds, and for some people, bodyweight monitoring can make it start clawing at the covers, pulling itself out to wreak havoc on our self-worth.
It’s a story that replays constantly. An athlete will have an idea of the weight they should see for top performance. To get there, they’ll restrict food and/or run more miles than they should. Sometimes, that devolves to disordered eating, but, even short of that, it can cause psychological scars that make self-acceptance impossible.
It gets back to the idea that body transformation needs to come from a place of self-love, because love of self won’t be found in the mirror or at the scale (or the finish line). If the scale is part of a broader self-acceptance and mental-health framework for you, that is amazing. If it contributes to self-judgment (and maybe even some self-loathing), then it’s only doing harm.
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Low energy availability increases injury risk – and may have health impacts
Tons of studies show that low energy availability (from too few calories to fuel activity and/or too much energy expenditure) contributes to higher rates of injury, along with impacts to hormones, mood and even sexual function. The scale can sometimes act as an equation that leaves out those variables.
You can imagine it: calories in via nutrition minus calories out via exercise and base metabolic rate = change in bodyweight. The problem with that equation is that it doesn’t incorporate things that are a bit more difficult to measure on a daily basis in an individualized way.
It might be whether you are actually adapting to the training stimulus (which requires energy availability). It might be avoiding higher risk of injuries like stress fractures (which requires energy availability). It might even be more complex, sex-specific factors like amenorrhea (for females), erectile dysfunction (for males) or sex drive (for everyone), all of which can be connected to energy availability and bodyfat. An athlete might think a five-pound weight loss is good, but that might correspond instead to getting far less healthy. On top of that, an athlete can be at a “healthy” weight and still not be nourishing themselves properly for health and performance.
The scale doesn’t cause any of these problems, but it could contribute to a perspective on yourself that has counterproductive mental and physical manifestations. A number on a scale does not determine whether you are healthy and strong. And a number on a scale definitely doesn’t determine whether you are enough. You are enough no matter what.
If you read this article as an overreaction, or much ado about nothing, then you are probably correct for yourself. Instead, this article is for anyone who feels a tinge of anxiety when stepping up to the scale, or finds their self-worth connected to a few numbers that appear near their toes each morning. Mental health resources for endurance athletes, including mental-health specialists, sports psychologists or even caring friends can help you on your journey as well.
Mental health and physical health are what matter. Bodyweight is often a weak proxy for both. And for some people, tracking bodyweight can make it so they have neither.
David Roche partners with runners of all abilities through his coaching service, Some Work, All Play. With Megan Roche, M.D., he hosts the Some Work, All Play podcast on running (and other things), and they wrote a book called The Happy Runner.