Let’s have an honest discussion today about racing weight.
One of my running goals for the California International Marathon is to optimize my nutrition for peak performance. This goal includes reaching the starting line of the marathon lean, fast, and strong.
Oftentimes, the goal of being lean, fast, and strong at the start line of a race is called “racing weight.”
I’m honestly not sure what my racing weight is, but I know how it feels: lean, fast, and strong. If I were to estimate, it likely is a difference of only 3-5 pounds and still well within a healthy weight range. My clothes may fit a bit differently, usually looser in the waist and tighter on the thighs, because of the shift in my body composition.
Racing weight is a bit of a loaded term, so I want to spend today’s post delving into myths and facts about racing weight.
This is a sensitive subject for many runners, but (without sounding insensitive) weight is simply a number. It’s not a measure of self-worth. It’s a performance-related metric, much like pace, distance, and sweat rate.
At the end of the day, racing weight is perhaps the least important of determinants of athletic performance. Genetics, quality of training, nutrition, and mental strength all impact your race times. Two runners can weigh the same, but the one with better training and more grit will likely run a faster race.
Weight is simply one factor in the equation of running, but it certainly receives a significant amount of attention in the running community. Just as you can receive sound advice and very, very poor advice on how many miles to run a week or what workouts to do, you can also receive both beneficial and detrimental advice on the topic of racing weight.
(Disordered eating does occur in the running community, often because runners believe that lighter always equals faster. Disordered eating and restrictive dietary habits only threaten to, increase your risk of injury, decrease your athletic performance, and damage your overall health and well-being. If you are struggling with disordered eating, I strongly encourage you to seek medical help.)
4 Myths about Racing Weight
MYTH #1: Racing weight is underweight.
FACT: Too thin and your running suffers.
If your weight is so low that your performance suffers – that is not racing weight. If you’re so thin that you are starved, exhausted, and unable to achieve peak performance despite weeks of hard training – you are below your racing weight.
It seems like a lot of people automatically assume that thinner always equals faster with racing weight. However, you can weigh below your racing weight. This often occurs when you deliberately restrict intake or unintentionally undereat during training.
Racing weight varies from runner to runner. Some runners may achieve it at 15% body fat, others at 20% body fat. For every runner, however, racing weight is within the range of a healthy body weight. It is often at the lower end of that range, but you do not dip into the range of unhealthy weight. You should not lose your period, experience stress fractures or other injuries, or be ravenous all the time when you’re reaching racing weight.
MYTH #2: Muscle just adds bulk.
FACT: Muscle increases your power to weight ratio.
Weight does make a difference in running; it’s simple physics. However, your power-to-weight ratio also matters. I can and have weighed 10 pounds less on my 5’9 frame, but I’m much faster when I put on a bit of muscle.
Of course, you don’t want to swing to the opposite side of the spectrum and put on as much muscle as an Olympic power lifter. Chances are, though, for a runner who is running 4+ days per week, lifting 2-3 times per week, and eating a runner’s diet (versus eating for muscle gain), you won’t develop that much muscle mass.
The energy demands of long distance running make it difficult to put on a substantial amount of muscle mass. For female runners, lower testosterone levels further reduce the likelihood of gaining a substantial amount of muscle.
Your power to weight ratio can be increased through plyometrics, strength training (especially heavier weights), and hill running.
MYTH #3: Racing weight is a year-round weight.
FACT: Racing weight is sustained for only a few weeks.
Racing weight is not maintained year-round – otherwise, it would just be called weight! Even if you’re racing year-round, you really should only achieve racing weight in the week of your goal race. Depending on your goal distance, that’s only about 1-3 times per year, especially if you are racing the marathon or half marathon.
After your goal race, you want to (yes, want to) relax your training and eating to gain that weight back on. Racing weight is not meant to be sustained, just as peak running fitness is not meant to be sustained.
Besides, after saying no to extra treats and yes to extra vegetables over several weeks of training, you should give yourself a chance to indulge! If a burger and a beer are a good enough post-race food for Shalane Flanagan and Desi Linden, then you shouldn’t feel the least bit guilty about enjoying some of your favorite indulgent foods after a goal race.
MYTH #4: Racing weight is achieved by strict dieting.
FACT: Racing weight is where your body settles at the time of peak performance.
Racing weight should not be achieved through restriction and dieting. Caloric restriction can have severe ramifications for both long-term performance and health. A 2021 review in Sports Medicine posited that low energy availability is a contributing factor to overtraining (a syndrome that involves a decline in performance and health). Dieting and low energy availability go hand-in-hand for the athlete, as dieting involves caloric restriction. Caloric restriction leads to low energy availability, unless carefully supervised by a registered dietitian.
The ramifications of caloric restriction are wide-ranging. It is a well-established fact in dietetics that too much caloric restriction actually suppresses metabolic rate – which means your body burns fewer calories. Lower metabolic rates can lead to weight gain over longer periods of time. Low energy availability is
Rather, racing weight is a natural result of training hard (both quality workouts and volume of training) combined with good nutrition. It’s of the utmost importance to note here that good nutrition extends beyond eating nutritious foods and avoiding highly processed foods and lots of sweets. Good nutrition includes eating enough (which in marathon training, may feel like eating a lot) of those nutritious foods.
Your body can’t produce a peak performance when it’s running on empty. Nor can you fuel hard training runs when you’re tired from not eating enough. Maybe you can fake it at a low weight for a while, but inevitably it will catch up with you.
Ultimately, what matters is not the weight you achieve on race day. What matters for athletic performance is the quality of your running and nutrition throughout the weeks and months leading up to your goal race. A high volume of race specific training and a focus on nourishing, high-quality nutrition will likely lead to a slight drop in weight right around your goal race.
Racing weight, if anything, is more intuitive and organic (almost like how your goal marathon pace should be!). Unless you know from previous goal races what weight you reach on race day, you shouldn’t set a goal weight for your racing weight. Even though you may see racing weight calculators, these are never individualized and will not take into account your bone structure, hormones, and any other individual variances.
Instead, treat your body well, fuel your running with the high-quality foods (and enough of them), and train appropriately hard for your race and your goals. On race day, then, you’ll more likely than not find yourself at your racing weight – whatever that may be.
What are your thoughts on racing weight?
Do you adjust your eating habits when training for a goal race?