While most endurance athletes are conscious about their weight, triathletes and runners are particularly obsessed with their body and weight and, therefore, with nutrition in general. To such an extent that their focus on performance often becomes replaced with a focus on nutrition. They start to equate the dropping of weight with a commensurate increase in performance. When I talk to Masters athletes about training, racing and nutrition, I tend to get a lot of questions around nutrition most specifically. Less about how to fuel during training and racing, and more around “cutting weight down/keeping the weight off.”
Many athletes come to triathlon because of weight issues in the first place. Eating disorders are not an uncommon problem even in the professional ranks and among top age groupers. Many athletes only train more to be able to eat more afterwards. They try to balance their binge eating with binge training. One female athlete I knew “back in the day” strove for a zero fat diet. It was quite ridiculous the measures to which she went to achieve this, and it showed. Sure, she was lean, but her skin looked ragged and despite being muscular she appeared unhealthy. And, she fell into a pattern of consistently being injured.
To be clear, there is nothing adverse around eating and training in order to look good. What is critical is to make sure that while you’re trying to look good, you also FEEL good! Who really cares if you look like you’re chiseled out of marble if your energy is down the crapper and you’re walking around in a caloric-deficit haze every day?
Be honest and clear with yourself about what you want to achieve. Eating for appearance is an entirely different thing than eating for performance. If you have performance goals, don’t confuse performance with appearance. They are not the same and should not be confused one for the other.
The easiest way to determine whether or not you’re becoming too lean or too light is to track your power output on the bike at certain heart rates and do the same for running paces. If your watts-per-kilo remain the same or go up, for example, then you’re experiencing a positive impact from the weight loss. However, once your watts-per-kilo start to drop, then you’re starting to get weaker. Not good. Likewise with running. If your heart rate is not shooting up in order to keep the same pace, you’re probably OK. Swimming is a bit tougher since you cannot measure power and checking your HR can only be done between reps when you have enough time sitting at the wall. But, with swimming it’s also easy to tell when you feel strong or weak. If you’re feeling weak or fatigued in the water more often than usual, then you’re probably in a more catabolic than anabolic state and need to adjust your nutrition to get more fuel pumping through the body. It’s really binary – is your current weight allowing you to train and race faster, or not? Frankly, who cares how “good” you look if your performance is taking a nosedive.
By eating to try and look fast, many athletes forget to fuel properly to actually be fast. As a coach one of my main tasks is to readjust the athletes’ focus whenever they get carried away – in training or regarding nutrition. The sports we pursue are not beauty contests. The goal is to perform to the best of your abilities and strive to do your best. If you’re instead focused on how you look, your performance will suffer. And, in the end, you won’t be healthy.
Keep your eye on performing well instead of on the mirror, and you will probably find you will both train and perform more consistently and at a higher level.