Last season I had a rough time. Almost everything that could go wrong went wrong; bad crash, broken bike, etc… I ended the year in a negative space and wanted to get away from the stress of racing for a bit. Part of ‘getting away’ was to relax my diet. I believe all athletes should take some time after big races to relax their eating habits a bit. It is an important part of the recovery cycle; both mentally and physically. Also, race weight isn’t supposed to be maintained all the time. There is a big difference between maintaining a healthy lifestyle weight which is a weight that you feel healthy at, but isn’t an absolute chore or stress for you to stay at, and obtaining a race weight, which is a weight you race super well at but isn’t necessarily healthful or nourishing to stay at all the time. This is an extremely important distinction so I’m going to say it again. Lifestyle weight is what you weigh all the time. That weight is manipulated throughout the season for short term benefit of improving power to weight ratio & performance. Ideally you want your lifestyle weight to be within 5-6% of your race weight so the body isn’t dealing with dramatic swings in weight. As much we hate putting a lot of stress on weight, there is no denying that it makes a performance difference in weight bearing sports. Losing 5-10% of body weight can improve 5k times by 3-5% and most research points at a 2 second faster mile per pound lost. When it comes to cycling, losing weight and maintaining (or improving) power output improves your power to weight ratio. This means the lighter you are, the less power you need to put out to ride the same duration compared to someone heavier (or a heavier you).
Back to me. I let my weight drift up by a few (ahem 5-7…) pounds last summer. I didn’t care at first because I needed the break and with an offseason that included getting engaged and all the big holidays, well there was plenty to celebrate without worrying about weight. But as I began training again, the weight wasn’t budging. Between the demands of traveling, training, and enjoying moments at home, my diet was unfocused. My lifestyle weight was fine, but the extra weight was definitely noticeable on the bike. I was climbing slower, felt generally sluggish, and my kit was tighter than I’d prefer (see my climbing post to see how weight effects this). After Redlands and JMSR, I knew it was time to buckle down and make a change. In order to go into Gila, a goal race of mine, feeling as fit and fast as possible for the climb heavy, uber challenging 5 days of racing, I needed to focus on obtaining my race weight.
Let’s step away from my journey for a moment to briefly discuss race weight. As much as many people hate to admit, at the elite and professional level of racing, weight matters. It’s just science; your body is more efficient when it is lighter. For power to weight sports, being lighter while maintain strength is key for optimal performance. Race weight is a weight you obtain for your goal race or races. For many professional athletes, this racing weight is borderline unhealthy or underweight. Losing these extra pounds typically includes being a little hungry, a little tired, but also feeling lighter and faster. Because of this, it should be obtained as a form of race preparation. Getting to this weight quickly (not quick enough to be just water weight) ensures that the body won’t be in a depleted state for longer than necessary. Staying at this weight for too long increases the risk of injuries, nutritional deficiencies, chronic fatigue, poor sleep, and suffering performance. Yes that’s right, this weight can make you a winner, but if you abuse it… your athletic career will decline if not end.
My turn again! There I was, training so hard but stuck at 130 pounds. Again, nothing wrong with that weight. It’s healthy, its fine…. But I don’t feel good racing at that weight. 3 weeks out from Gila, I began my weight loss mission.
Here’s a quick look at what I implemented to get to this goal:
Logged everything on MyFitnessPal.
Stopped snacking on my nightly chocolate (no more ‘I earned it!’ mentality).
Cut back on carbs later in the day.
Said ‘no thank you’ a lot to foods that wouldn’t help me meet my goal.
Drank lots of electrolyte enhanced water.
Ate dinner before 7pm every day.
Ramped up fruit & vegetable consumption
Ate smaller portions and waited until I felt hungry to eat again.
Cut out processed proteins, relying on grass fed beef, tuna, eggs & salmon.
Ordered Daily Harvest Cups to have a fast, nourishing option when in a hurry.
Ate popcorn most nights before bed to feel satisfied.
It was hard work, but the end goal is very worth it to me. What I did not do was sacrifice my training energy. I can be tired at 8pm and go to bed early. I cannot be tired during a hard ride and go home early. This is why carbs were reduced at lunch and dinner, leaving my before, during and recovery fuel intact. Cutting calories on the bike is not a strategy that leads to success. Remember the point of race weight is to improve performance, not sacrifice it. While my intake later in the day (I train 90% in the morning) decreased, I am very good about consuming roughly 250 calories an hour while riding along with a carb based pre-ride meal and recovery shake or bar. My strategy quickly paid off and I saw my weight decrease almost immediately. I went from 130 to 125 in a week. At the end of week two, which is current moment as I write this, I am down to 123. This is also a very healthy weight for my height. I would have to get to 115 to be battling underweight and while that is closer to weight I once tried to maintain, it was detrimental to my health, performance, and led to poor body image and disordered eating. I do not feel strong at that low of a weight and it is not a goal of mine to race that low. I consider 125 the high end of my race weight range, so I would like to continue this loss as Gila approaches. Racing at 122-123 is my goal, but if I start at 125, I’m okay with that. Currently, I feel strong, fast, and energized while riding.
Here is a day of my food journal that included a 4 hour ride.
The second most frequent question I get about race weight (the first being ‘HOW DO YOU LOSE!?’) is how to know what your race weight is. Race weight is different for everyone. Just picking a low number or generally losing weight does not mean you are going to race better. Race weight also isn’t a concrete number. Your performance will not be ruined if you get to the start line weighing 141 instead of 140. However, weighing 147 instead of 140 might not give you your best result, or at least make it harder to achieve. At first, this is largely a personal experiment. First, make sure you’re at an already healthful and at least semi competitive weight. Then aim to lose 5% of your current body weight in the weeks leading up to your race. Do you feel strong? Did you race better? Is your mood and energy generally stable? Are you sleeping well? Are your performance metrics improving? Great. This might be your race weight. If not, losing weight might not be what you need to improve performance due to already being at too low of a weight or because you’re leaning too heavily on weight loss to make you a good athlete and neglecting other aspects of training. Again, race weight is a form of race preparation, meaning you need to be ready to race and weight is just a piece of that prep. So before you worry about obtaining a low weight, make sure you’re otherwise physically on top of your game. Additionally, just as race weight is highly individual, how you get there is just as personal. Athletes who are chronically deprived of energy are likely to stimulate weight loss through increased calories. Athletes who were slacking off on their diets (ahem, me), will benefit from creating a calorie deficit.
While losing weight isn’t the most fun activity (ugh food logging and being hungry), it does feel good (really good) and I am confident that this will provide a competitive edge come race week. After the race finishes, I do plan on allowing my weight to bounce back a little and then repeat the process going into the next ‘A’ race. I am not willing to sacrifice my health or long term performance to stay at a low weight.
I would like to clarify that body image is a mental concept, while weight loss is a physical practice. You can be at your lowest healthy weight and be unhappy with how you look. Remember that your reflection in a mirror and looking good in a bikini is not what wins races. Solid training, mental strength, good recovery, proper nutrition and a strong body provide a winning combination. If you find yourself battling constant low weight, poor body image, thoughts that losing will make all your performance dreams come true, long term food habits that are overly restrictive, and frequent & recurring injuries & illness… You are doing it wrong and need to contact a professional to help get your weight and mentality to a place of optimal health and performance. Also, if you’re at a healthy lifestyle weight but are struggling to obtain a weight that feels fit and fast, start working with a professional to help get you dialed in for success.