There is a conundrum in the triathlon world that tends to start digging at the back of the brain at about this time of year for those starting their base training for the season ahead. Christmas is long since over and the parties and celebrations have ended and with this comes a view of the scales that shows a winter gain in weight. This is all perfectly natural and in fact very healthy, as it allows the body to rest, rebuild and prepare to go again.
So there in lies the conundrum: the sudden thoughts of optimal race weight and how to strip out those additional holiday kilos to get as light as you can before you hit that first race of the season. But should this be a thing? And does optimal race weight actual exist? And should it be strived for?
Why is Race Weight Important for Triathlon?
Becoming lighter, or reaching your optimal race weight, can have a massively beneficial effect on both your performance and endurance sustainability. Being lighter and obtaining the same levels of fitness not only will give you a greater enhancement in overall performance but can be a catalyst for that additional ‘feel good factor’: you feel lighter, you look leaner and body composition is good. This in turn can motivate you to train and enjoy your training ready for the big day. Weight loss also improves muscular and vascular economy, meaning you use less effort to maintain your required pace or effort levels. These ‘feel good factor’ benefits can lead athletes to strive continuously towards being as light as they possibly can and this can often lead to dropping calories, even meals and maybe going harder than required on training plans just to try to burn additional calories. I for one have been trapped in this self-spiralling destructive pattern and at the time I was even coached to believe that I had to be under 74kg (163lbs) to be competitive. Where did this lead? Burnout and illness that I am only just recovering from three years later.
5 Tips for Optimal Triathlon Race Weight?
So how do we approach this conundrum, and can we leave the phrase ‘Race Weight’ buried in a lead lined coffin in the triathlete graveyard of stupid ideas and phrases?
1 - Don’t Skip the Calories
We have heard this a million times before and it is sewn into the very fabric of the triathlon mantra, yet this is often the first go-to with the idea that more training and less calories will be an instant win for weight reduction.
This strategy is an absolute non-starter. Yes, it will potentially reduce your weight, but it will also reduce your performance. Your body is a powerful engine in triathlon and it needs fuelling. If you owned a high-performance car and didn’t put fuel in, it would take you to a certain point pretty quickly but then ultimately stop dead in the middle of the road, so why would you stop putting fuel into your body and expect it to continue to perform in a positive way. There are certain times when you can get away with not fuelling your system and these are fasted training sessions which are typically morning workouts before breakfast where you haven’t eaten since the previous evening. But to conduct these effectively the pace and duration should be set at a level which is enough to gently push the body, but not begin to really test it. For example a 45min to 1 hour run at a steady paced in Z1 to low Z2. You could opt to go harder or put in some seriously high-level reps in the view that this would boost your burning potential, but the trouble with this is that the quality of the training will be sacrificed due to the body’s inability to be able to draw on fuel sources. If you push too hard during fasted workouts, then over time you will struggle to recover from these sessions, which will affect every other session in your training chain.
2 - Breakfast IS the Most Important Meal of the Day
There is an odd driver with some athletes that chopping out breakfast (or reducing the amount eaten to a minimal portion) is the way to reduce calorie intake for the day’s count. For example, I once knew an athlete who was convinced that having a breakfast consisting of under 100 calories would mean they would start the day in deficit and therefore have more room to manoeuvre later in the day when it came to food choices.
Of all the meals to skip or reduce, this is the worst one. If you are training for an Ironman or Ironman 70.3 distance triathlon event then your body is in a constant fluxing cycle of build, repair and recovery. Since finishing the previous day’s sessions your body has been hard at work rebuilding and replenishing glycogen stores, repairing minor muscle damage and strain, and building adaptation to training stress. Overnight your system effectively shuts down when you sleep, but this is where all this magic happens which causes a drain on your overall stores to make these adaptations and repairs. Supplying the body with the nutrients it needs to replenish the overnight work is absolutely essential to keep this recovery and adaptation processes going. In another example let’s look at children. They are little machines that are growing at an exponential rate, forming new building blocks in relation to muscle, brain, nerve and vascular function on a second-by-second basis. They are in effect sponges that download their days absorption overnight. We encourage our children to sleep well and have a good breakfast before sending them out of the door to school, as we know that if we don’t then they will be tired, grumpy and ultimately become ill. We know this - it’s instinctive. So as triathletes we need to put ourselves into this mentality and use the first available feeding pattern to help to give us the regenerative boost we need to survive the day ahead.
3 – Water, Water Everywhere
Fluid is key to every part of your system, it’s effectively the oil that keeps everything supple and in motion. The thing with water is it can cause massive daily fluctuations of the needle range on your weighing scales. Daily consumption, heat, muscle density and a myriad of other factors affect the amount of water your body is holding onto and can be the factor that means you are a kilo or so heavier or lighter at any given time. Due to this, I have encountered some athletes who will decrease their daily hydration levels to combat this fluctuation and gain a more stable weight reading. These athletes will certainly be lean but will ultimately cause themselves irreparable damage in the pursuit of weight loss. Also, athletes who follow this methodology do not seem to realise that the body often cannot distinguish between the urge for fluid or food, which results in more food being consumed unnecessarily when in fact taking onboard fluids is the real requirement. Oxygen is delivered to functional systems in the body by haemoglobin, which requires a significant amount of water in the form of plasma or plasma haemoglobin. Therefore, to starve your body of fluid is to lower the ability of oxygen rich blood to reach the muscles, which in turn is a precursor to cramps, fatigue and a degeneration of rebuilding adaptation throughout a session.
Keeping a balanced fluid intake is actually the key to keeping everything in motion. It will also support losing additional weight as fluid will help you to feel full and curb the tendency to unnecessarily snack. If you are unsure about the right amount of fluids then try as a start consuming 450ml to 550ml of water between meals and in addition to fluids taken during training and see how you get on. Alternatively you could look into your hydration requirements through companies such as Precision Hydration [https://sweattest.precisionhydration.com/pages/why-personalise-your-hydration-strategy] who can calculate your daily requirements and build a structured hydration plan.
4 - No Two Calories are the Same
This tip is the best, and the one that is so often overlooked. It seems such a simple concept and we have heard it in many different guises, ‘You get out what you put in’, ‘Nutritional foundation is key to success’. There are endless phrases that effectively say the same thing: look at what you need to fuel correctly and how your body will utilise your food intake to get the best out of it. Let’s go back to the car example from earlier: you have a high performance car and you turn up at a service station to fill up. When you get to the pumps you see that the first pump has regular unleaded petrol which you know will work and will get your car to your required destination. On the other hand at the second pump you see the new high purity fuel designed for better performance and slower burning, which also helps to clean your engine as it is used. Yes, it is slightly more expensive than regular fuel, but the benefits far outweigh the small increase in price. You choose this option as you have a high performance machine, and sure enough your car performs better, accelerates cleaner and when you get to your destination you realise that you have got slightly more miles to the gallon out of your vehicle because everything has just been working that little more in tune. Simple right? In theory yes, but in reality this can be a never-ending cycle of testing foods and how we work with them. After years of trial-and-error I have come to realise that no "one shoe fits all" and there is no fast & clear-cut way to achieve the correct balance and quality of nutrients your individual body needs. What I can say is that making even small changes to diet such as reducing refined sugars, removing processed foods and looking at caffeine intake, can shape a way forward to gaining a better view on what works for you. Timing is also key, i.e. fuelling around sessions to get the best out of them.
All these elements will ultimately lead to a more sustainable weight and better body composition as you achieve your optimal balance between calories in and power out. Working with an endurance sports specific nutritionist is a great step if you seriously want to maximise your knowledge and get the best out of your diet. I have worked with the team at The 4th Discipline (https://www.4thdiscipline.com) for a while now and even though it is an additional investment from both a financial and time base, it has radically improved my awareness of how my system operates holistically and how fuelling correctly around sessions and getting the right balance really does equal a better, healthier and naturally leaner athlete.
5 - Evenings are a Time to Snack?
Guilty as charged my lord! I can whole heartedly say that despite my previous statement about the correct timings of fuelling, I have a habit of perfecting this during the day and then the minute the kids are in bed I hit the sofa with the TV remote in one hand and a chocolate cookie in the other - and not the small kind of cookie, I am talking the Tesco Finest double chocolate cookies. And did I say cookie? I meant bag of cookies, four in a pack, two for tonight, two for tomorrow.
This is an all-too-common side effect at the end of the day and one that I still struggle with. Most unnecessary calories are consumed between dinner and bedtime when your system starts to shut down and prepare for sleep. Why? Well the simple answer is either you have not fuelled enough during the day or it is simply habit, and it is not an easy habit to break. This is also possibly one of the most destructive times to consume non-required calories, as the choices are usually higher in sugar, especially as when you are tired your body reaches out for a quick fix so the urge to consume, chocolate, cake, biscuits, alcohol or other high sugar products is strong. But we are about to go to sleep, so our system is looking at shutting down to begin the repair work that was mentioned earlier. We have now just filled it full of sugars which will send our blood sugar spiking and can be detrimental to the required internal repairing, increasing inflammation and potentially causing a disturbance in sleep patterns. As I said, this is a hard habit to break but by looking at your intake during the day you can see where you may be lacking in nutrition and add in additional healthier options. If you get to this point and you are still looking for that cookie in the cupboard at nine pm then think about options like milk-based drinks or yogurt, which not only has protein properties to help fill you up but is loaded with sleep promoting tryptophan.
Remember that a bit of what you fancy is always good. I think the phrase ‘food for the soul’ can be lost on triathletes, who feel they have to be rigid about every little thing, but it’s about the amount and the timing.
I am still working on this one myself………………….. TBC
So What About Optimal Race Weight for Triathlon?
So should we bin the phrase ‘Race Weight’? In short, No. I would just say we should adopt a more measured and realistic approach to developing our ultimate fuelling plan on a day to day basis. Race weight is not all it is cracked up to be and I am always drawn to the example of Chris McCormack, who decided to stop trying to chase an ideal weight and concentrate on fuelling his system to its exact requirements. He landed in Kona for the 2010 World Championships at the heaviest he had ever been and had the race of his life, winning his second title. He had the extra that was required to go the distance and in the final shoulder-to-shoulder battle with Andreas Raelert on the Queen K he pulled away to victory, and if you look at the pictures his body composition was leaner than it had ever been before.
So should we say an ideal race weight, or an ideal body composition? I will leave that up to you.