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?
Great info! I havent weighed myself in years but I can definitely tell that I weigh a few pounds less towards the end of a marathon training cycle. I agree its important to only get down to race weight a couple times a year, but I think alot of runners tend to aim for that all year round.
Thank you! I do agree that a lot of runners try to hold racing weight year-round – and probably because people are trying to do peak races year round. I can’t imagine trying to maintain racing weight all the time!
This is one of the most well written pieces on this topic! Thank you so much for writing this out and for emphasizing important information like “racing weight is not to be maintained!” and that it is not achieved by strict dieting. Obviously I have a lot of muscle and I can run (bike and swim!) faster because of it. I used to try and shed my “bulky” quads before a big race but that was really the opposite of what I needed to do!
Great stuff here Laura! This needs to go viral!
Oh thank you, Allie! You are so kind! I think seeing athletes like you who are muscular and fast is so inspirational – horray for strong and fast women! That muscle that some may consider bulky is good – much better than being waify but without power.
I always love these posts. I haven’t a clue what I way so I have no idea if I have a racing weight lol. I just know I get super hungry from running and especially when training for a race. so I eat. I like to think it can be that simple. I make sure to eat a lot of sweet potatoes but I wouldn’t survive without good desserts each week. it’s my balance 🙂
Thank you! It’s good to follow the body’s hunger cues when training! I can’t imagine going around hungry all the time being worth achieving a certain weight. I couldn’t race well if I was hungry!
Racing weight is so individual, just like optimal height, cadence, foot fall, etc. WE ARE INDIVIDUALS. “extra” weight is relative–it isn’t extra if the weight is necessary muscle! I think so often people look at the whippet like bodies of the famous endurance runners and think that they must look like them, and that they aren’t strong. In fact, they are incredibly strong, they just have a totally different slow-fast twist muscle ratio, and slow twitch muscles grow/bulk far less than fast twitch muscles! If you have the same concentration of slow twitch muscles as Amy Cragg, you better be running in the Olympics, lol.
So do you, people. Fuel your body properly, do your workouts, and your body will find its happy racing weight.
Yeah, this is a really great post and I agree with Allie that it needs to be shared everywhere. I am not a weight-focused person, mostly because I end up GAINING weight when I train hard and increase my mileage, and so if I started focusing on the numbers then I’d probably get a little crazy (since I run to combat the crazy!!!). I’m not even really that race-focused at all, either. Which, maybe makes me a little different than the rest of the running community, but I’m just being honest and putting it out there. I’ve ran and raced at weights ranging from 115 lb-165 lb (after pregnancy) on my 5’7 frame. And, yeah! So… that’s about it.
Aww, thank you so much, Suzy! I agree that focusing on numbers be a little crazy-driving. Even if you can look at them objectively, it can be so much data that it’s overwhelming. And we run to not be overwhelmed, like you said! And I love your honesty. To each their own on racing – and that’s what makes the running community so awesome.
As always, a great and informative post! Racing weight is such an interesting concept to me… but I agree what your body naturally sets on when eating well and working out hard seems to be the best bet! For me I think the challenge is figuring out that optimal amount to eat… to feel my best, energized, lean and strong.
I LOVE THIS. <3 You are debunking myths right and left, and I know that I had the wrong conception for so long that I had to be skinnier (not muscular) to be fast. The more I tried to 'lose weight' or be skinny the more my body struggled for energy. The way that you put it as an overall goal for good health and fitness is the BEST way to look at it, because it takes the focus off any numbers.
Thank you, Emily! Numbers can vary off of so much, you know? And no calculator can actually determine at what weight an individual will feel and perform their best – it’s so individual!
Great post! I love that you talk about how racing weight doesn’t come from strict dieting. This is my 4th marathon training cycle and I always gain weight and have bigger quads. Unfortunately it sucks focusing on the number so I try to just focus on getting to the start line healthy!
Thank you, Lauren! Bigger quads are because of muscle – muscle that propels the body over 26.2 miles! I think focusing on being healthy is more important than a certain number, especially when it comes to running.
Love your Fact #2 — “Power to Weight Ratio”. I know that for myself, when I am consistently getting in the strength workouts, I do feel powerful…and strong. This is a fantastic post, Laura!!
Strength training is very important for overall health – and for healthy running! Thank you, Aimee! 🙂
Great, great post on this topic. The other thing to consider is that most of us aren’t elite athletes. How much faster are we going to be by dropping a few pounds? I love to eat and I think the motto should be everything in moderation.
That is so true – a point I was thinking as well. Meb and Shalane may carefully watch their intake, but that’s also their livelihood and they’re at the top of their sport. Those of us who run recreationally have a bit more wiggle room. I’m not about to give up my beer for a few pounds 🙂
Speaking candidly, I’ve always thought it is a little silly for non-elite runners to care so much about their “racing weight”. I just can’t imagine a few pounds here or there is going to make a difference in finish time in a distance race. Sorry but until someone is paying me to train and reach my ultimate peak performance in races, then I’m going to stick to just focusing on training right and staying healthy and letting that be enough.
Don’t be sorry for your opinion – it is true that we are not elites. It’s fine if you lean down a bit on race day naturally, but very few of us are going to get to that 10% body fat for women or whatever – nor should we. A good racing weight should be the natural result of training hard and eating healthy – not something that is forced.
I love everything about this post. Thankfully I’ve never worried about racing weight but I know plenty of people that have and I just want to say EAT! Food is fuel!!
Thank you! Yes – food is fuel and we need that fuel to run well! It drives me batty when people training for long distance races don’t eat.
Thanks for this. I’ve been frustrated that all my efforts won’t shake off the last 10lbs to get at a racing weight (plus, I kind of wanted 6 pack abs). Maybe it’s time to accept that a healthy diet and a my marathon training plan has me at my real racing weight, and it’s time to stop worrying about it.
Really good post! I just read the new book the “Endurance Diet” and it’s pretty much in line with what you wrote (the book is based on studying pro endurance athlete’s diets).
Thank you! I’m in the process of reading that book as well – so interesting!
I totally disagree with the statement that race weight is never achieved through dieting. Such rubbish.
I appreciate your thoughts. In retrospect I could have phrased the sentence better grammatically: it should not be achieved through diet. However, repeated research indicates that dieting (calorie restriction) during high volume/high intensity training increases the athlete’s risk of a suppressed immune response, altered endocrine function (amenorrhea in females, low testosterone in males), and higher rate of injury. Additionally, low energy availability is now believed to be a contributing factor to overtraining (please see Stellingwerff et al. (2021) Overtraining Syndrome (OTS) and Relative Energy Deficiency in Sport (RED-S): Shared Pathways, Symptoms and Complexities.) While you are entitled to disagree, dieting has scientifically indicated ramifications for runners.