Hello fellow distance runners, fitness lovers, and distance runner stans! Today we’re tackling another topic that requires a disclaimer upfront, just like Confessions From The Trail: Nutrition. Ready for it?
I am not, nor have I ever been a certified nutritionist, dietitian, or even remotely trained/certified in telling people what to eat.
Got all that? Cool. Don’t sue me. Any time we talk about nutrition, keep in mind that everyone is a walking chemistry set and what works for me may not work for you. Or, your mileage may vary. Literally YMMV.
Since I’ve already covered nutrition, today, I’ll focus more specifically on weight. Before you get out the torches and pitchforks, please understand that this post will focus on getting the best weight for *your* race. As always, YMMV. Speaking from experience, there is a huge difference between maintaining a certain weight for health, for a bodybuilding competition, and for endurance racing.
When you’re maintaining weight for health, the upper and lower boundaries are fairly wide. As long as you are neither severely underweight nor overweight, your day to day weight should be relatively effortless. Going a few calories or pounds over or under doesn’t impact your daily life.
With bodybuilding, many competitors are willing to accept a temporary impact on their overall health to achieve that ripped stage look. However, it requires incredible dedication to a very strict diet and the look is unsustainable. I have had negative impacts during both seasons I competed and it’s part of why I am taking three years off between seasons. I know I will never be a professional and I value my health over winning. At the very lean body fat seen on stage (~14% for me), I have almost no energy and the idea of running a 5k, let alone a 50k, it’s beyond the pale.
Running is a different beast. Your weight should be dictated by performance, not a look; however, many people enjoy the aesthetic they achieve with their race weight. To me, my race weight should balance a light and lean physique with sufficient body fat to allow an energy reserve during long runs. Or more colloquially: a good thrust to weight ratio.
It’s not polite for a lady to say her age or weight, but I’m going to break the weight rule today. I am 5’8” and today I am sitting at 155lbs and 22% body fat. I am healthy, I look healthy, and I feel good.
That said, losing 7-10lbs of body fat will allow me to race at my best weight. “Best weight” is a very subjective term, but I’ve found this to be the ideal balance of leanness and energy.
In the 145-148lbs range, I have ~20% body fat. I am lean enough that I’m not hauling body fat I don’t need and I’m not adding extra stress to my joints as I carry that weight over many, many miles. On the other side, I’m not bodybuilding stage lean and I have enough energy to carry me through race day. I find that once I start getting below 140lbs (or ~18-19% body fat), I start seeing my energy levels decrease and negatively impact my long runs.
For those doing math at home, yes, at 5’8” I’m at 20% body fat when I hit 145lbs. I carry a lot of muscle for a runner. I’m a runner with a bodybuilding problem and yes, my teammates on my endurance racing team mock me mercilessly. I’m not giving up the weights, though, because they make me a strong, if slightly more dense, runner.
What can you take away from this? First off, I want everyone to understand that you should listen to your body. Learn from the feel or it. When do you feel tired? When do you feel energetic? When do you feel extra strain in your back, knees, and hamstrings? Those will help inform you where your running sweet spot is.
Second, there are some general rules of thumb you can start with for body fat percentage. The American Council on Exercise provides the following table for men’s and women’s body fat percentages.
What category should you aim for? The “essential” category is what you see on a bodybuilding stage. Very lean with visible muscles but no energy. I think of the “athletes” category as your professional athletes. The high end is closer to a sustainable level of body fat, but many people find it difficult to keep their daily diet strict enough to maintain it and will drift up during their offseason. The “fitness” category is what I aim for early in my training season as I lean out during training. It also is a very nice balance of the “fit” look and sustainability. The “average” body fat is very sustainable and provides a good energy reserve from which to draw; however, many people find that at this body fat, they have greater stress on their joints and they don’t feel they reflect a “fit” look.
Finally, the “obese” range. Oof. I won’t lie. I have raced and finished many endurance races in the “obese” category. It is 100% possible to race well in this body fat range. I found that I was more tired, had greater pain in my knees and feet, and just plain didn’t like my look at this level of body fat.
Bottom line: there are many resources available on the internet that will help you find the best race weight, but it will also come down to how you feel, both physically and mentally in that weight.
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