Race Weight

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With indoor track season underway, I’m reminded of one of my favorite peeves with running culture: race weight.

This is a term used to describe the weight loss that sometimes accompanies a runner’s peak season. It’s not that the concept is inaccurate, training cycles tend to result in a leaning out effect in runners during race season. It’s the term itself. It implies a static number, one ideal running weight that sticks with you throughout life (or your life as an elite runner), not a shifting, adapting body. And by placing the emphasis on weight, it can make weight the goal, the marker of race readiness, as opposed to a side effect of athletic development. 

At least, that’s what it did for me. It’s that shift in perspective, making the weight the goal and indicator of fitness to which I object most. Because it seduced me and sidetracked my development for years. 

 


The trouble started my first week as an aspiring pro athlete. I drove the U-Haul to New Jersey in January 2012. I was joining the New Jersey New York Track Club, going after a big dream – professional running, and the coming summer Olympic cycle. 

This wasn’t common path for my classmates out of college. I was without a sponsor or significant means of income. And while I was a good collegiate runner, my would-be competitors had been excelling at the collegiate and pro levels for years. I wanted to prove that I wasn’t crazy, that I could make something of this. I needed to go from good to great, fast, and with no room for error.

The first thing I did after moving into my apartment was put a calendar on the wall. Six months, each framed, counting down the days until the Olympic Trials. The next thing was to take a picture. I’m wearing a sports bra standing in front of the calendar, it’s the only decoration in my room. This was going to be my personal before and after challenge. I imagined a weekly catalog, charting my physical transformation. I was starting a boot camp and by June I’d be ripped and look the part of an Olympian. It was this focus on aesthetic over substance that almost kept me from being an Olympian, from being a factor, from being my best.

The second thing I did was google. Bios of the best American runners. What do they look like? How much do they weigh? I realize now that those numbers come from USATF forms we fill out when we make a US team, it’s self-reported, and usually from one year over what could be a 10+ year pro career. But I didn’t know that at the time. All I saw were numbers smaller than mine. And I literally typed “How do I lose weight?” I didn’t think too hard about all the false and potentially dangerous information I could find. For my first major training cycle as a “serious” runner, I based my nutrition on online weight loss forums.

I started this process of independent-learning in other areas of training: aerobic development, strength work, physical therapy and injury mitigation. And I started training, hard. I like to think that I’ve kept my passion for self improvement and education, but become better at checking my sources. Still, those initial missteps in nutrition caused me to falter. I set about a six month bender of restricted eating. High vegetable volume (now that I can laugh about this, we can call it the era of cabbage), low-carb, low-fat, gluten-free, all the fads. I kept track of everything I ate, and if I went over my self-imposed daily limit, I’d dock that amount from the next day.

I started seeing the positive results of my new training, I set big PRs in both the 800 and 1500, and qualified for the 2012 Trials. But the results of these new eating habits swiftly followed, hitting me like a freight train. I stumbled into the 2012 Olympic Trials, underfed, with no energy, and miserable. I placed last in my events, and I limped home to my mom’s house for the remainder of the summer.

In a way, I was lucky. The results of my nutrition experiment were so disastrous, it was obvious that I had to change course if I were to reach my goals.

The scarier part was the emotional effects, which lasted beyond that summer. I started associating stress with food. And there is no lack of stress in the post-college years… job, money, relationships, family. When anxious, I would feel nauseous and lose my appetite. I would eat secretly at night after overly restricting during the day. A running career has added body-image pressure. Sponsorships involve racing in skimpy uniforms, as well as photoshoots and other sports modeling. While it’s billed as empowering, and it can be, it didn’t feel that way during that period. I more than once burst into tears from the idea of having photos taken, I was so uncomfortable in my skin. 

Describing those instances makes it sound so serious, maybe not relatable. In truth, those episodes during the first two years were jarring enough to make me realize that something was off, to stop me from continuing down a destructive spiral. It was the more subtle forms of body dysmorphia that were harder to define and defend against. Because they aren’t uncommon. Diet culture, fear of certain “bad” foods, fat phobia, self-worth linked to scale number. In a modern western culture those seem to be the norm, not the exception.

Like my belief that my body and image determined my value, my belief in race weight persisted. I would ask coaches and experts about it. When they didn’t give me an answer, I would think they were just avoiding a nuanced topic, and I would go about making my own calculations.  I knew I couldn’t starve myself to get there, that had clearly failed. But I still believed that I could diet my way to being a good runner, if I could get my body to race weight, to look like my idols, then I would be ready.

 


This is where I’m supposed to say, “if I could look forward in time, I would see how wrong I was.” But that’s not true. If I had been given a looking glass, and the ability to jump three to four years in the future, I would have seen me during the 2016 Olympic summer. I would have seen a runner at the top of the US, competing with the best in the world. And everything would have been exact proof of my theory. This is a strong and lean athlete, in her prime, and at her racing weight. 

What I looked like in 2016 trials, and the following summer seasons, is what caused 23 year old me to restrict and binge and worry. But photos lie. Or at least they do not tell all.

I compete in an event according to artificially constructed rules. My life is singularly focused on being my fastest. I spend a great deal of time working out and thinking about my physical development, to a level that would probably be maladaptive if I weren’t a professional athlete. Even in this specific and competitive world, I’ve only hindered myself when I focus too much on how my body looks, as opposed to what it can do.

If 23 year me only knew that 27 (or 29) year old me wasn’t thinking about how she looked. She was thinking about how good she felt. About all the work she had done for that moment. If 23 year old me know that I eat full fats and carbs, I don’t binge secretly because of a deficit during the day. If 23 year old me knew that it was that kind of behavior that made it take so long.

I had to relearn athletic nutrition (HT Clyde Wilson! Plus other nutritionists I’ve worked with throughout the years). I had to do the work of regaining a trusting relationship with food. I had to do the work of divorcing my self esteem from my aesthetic. And I had to reframe race weight. 

 


So where does that leave me? How do I now understand this concept? How do I use it in my training? 

My body did change over the years, as the training accumulated and I ate well and allowed for enough recovery. But it did not happen in six months. There is no shortcutting, there is no dieting. Maybe that experiment got me to look the part, but it just hurt me in my goals of reaching my potential, and took years of undoing.

Yes, I do go through a race weight cycle during the year. But this is more a function of adaptations to training. I drop a few pounds as I professionally workout over months, and I gain some when I take a break in the fall. I’ve learned that macro and micro cycles of stress/rest are necessary, more for the rebuilding than the shedding. This allows a sustained career.

And while I used to think that there was one weight, the perfect runner body, that would be my goal in the final races, that hasn’t proven true. While I do have a lower weight during the race season of my training cycle, the exact number has varied.

I’ve been running at an elite level (DI or pro) for 12 years. The race season weights at 18, 24, 28 have all been a bit different.  I suspect this is a factor of age, types of workouts and lifting regimens, and accumulated years of training. I’ve raced well throughout those years, and throughout each training cycle. I’ve learned that my body composition does not determine my performance. I’ve learned that women go through hormonal changes through their late teens and early twenties, which contribute to changing body composition (a higher body fat percentage in early vs late twenties, all else being equal). At least anecdotally this seems true for me and other American runners. But I didn’t know this when I innocently googled photos of my running idols. I didn’t think to check their ages, how far along they were in their careers, their injury history.

 


I hope that if I had started my career now, I would have been better informed. It seems that there are more well-known athletes talking about their nourishing, sane eating habits. Runners I follow seem to spread good nutrition practices and positive body images. But that could have also been the case a few years ago. I didn’t think it applied to me. I thought I had to make more drastic changes, because I was starting from scratch, already behind.

More social media also means more wordless pictures, of fit humans running around fast tracks. Pictures that now sometimes include me. Which is why I wanted to write something. I’m only in these photos because I overcame my obsession with race weight. When weight is the goal, or even seen as a primary indicator of the goal, you sidetrack performance. Make performance the indicator, and performance goal.

Photo by Justin Britton

Results came back

My leg isn’t broken, but my ferritin is low. Ferritin?!!? I feel like such a dunce. That is distance running 101: keep your ferritin up.

In a sport where the gains are made by increasing oxygen-carrying capacity, increasing blood volume is one way to do that. We go to altitude camp at 8000 feet to get a natural boost, and we have to insure that our bodies are properly equipped to do their blood-building thing. Hemoglobin is the oxygen-transport protein in your red blood cells, and hemoglobin picks up oxygen molecules by having them stick to an iron ion. The process doesn’t work without iron, it’s a limiting factor in increasing blood volume.

Ferritin is another protein that carries iron. If your blood ferritin is low, it means low iron stores. We test ferritin every 3-6 months to keep ahead of any issues. They (exercise scientists) say it’s not even worth it to go to altitude if you’re under 35 ferritin. I’m 29. 🙄🙄

Have I defeated the purpose of those grueling six weeks in Mammoth? Jerry essentially says so. Or at least that I wasn’t optimizing my training. This is the 6th year since I’ve started this journey, since I verbalized my goal to go to the Olympics (at that time, I said I wanted to bring home a medal for my coach, Frank Gagliano), and dedicated my life to that pursuit. I’m a veteran, dammit. How could I fall in such a rookie trap. THIS IS YOUR ONE JOB.

I tell my parents and we have one of those conversations where I feel like I’m 12 again and they’re chastising me for procrastinating on the school assignment. Sheesh, people, can it be enough for me to be hard on myself? Mostly, I’m embarrassed, and I don’t like getting called out on that. I’m also confused. I’ve been supplementing with an iron pill every morning and night while in Mammoth. I follow protocol, I drink it with vitamin C, away from other food (as much as possible) and especially dairy products.

Anyway, let’s keep this in perspective. While it’s embarrassing, it’s probably the best possible thing to find wrong. Low iron is fixable, almost immediately. And it gives me a reason for some of the fatigue these past few months. As long as I have an explanation, I can convince myself it’s not just me, I’m not inadequate.

I do quickly identify a few things that could have gone wrong. A few months ago, on recommendation from a nutritionist, I stopped using the slow-release iron that has worked for me in the past and switched to a new supplement brand. I was taking it with Emergen-C packets for vitamin C (that helps with absorption), but those also contain calcium (which blocks absorption, hence the no dairy with iron rule). In trying to aid absorption, I may have been inadvertently blocking the supplement from doing its thing.

I switch to a Nature Made vitamin C, and back to the slow-release iron pill. Also, I do a deep dive on iron-rich food sources. Here is the list of food products and the amount of iron they contain. Some sources may not be as easily absorbed, I’m not sure how to distinguish those. (It would be nice if someone came up with a ranking for the amount of bioavailable iron per serving. That could be a one-day research project). Above all, I try to stay thankful. Last weekend, I was scared I may have a season-ending injury. Now, I’m already more optimistic about the US Champs and summer season. What a change a week makes.

Recovery champion

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After Prefontaine we did make an alteration. Jerry had me plan to return to sea level two weeks before US Champs. Altitude response is unique to individuals, and some athletes feel sluggish in the first few days down from a camp. Common knowledge is that it’s best to either race immediately, or two weeks after returning to sea level. For me, we are going with option #2, I’m staying in Portland from now until we head to Des Moines.

The plan was to run an 800m at Portland Track Festival. But my leg has been achy over the past few days, and we decide to pull out of the race and get some diagnostic tests. I’m freaked out that I’ve hurt myself, and I am exhausted. I fly home Friday, and stay in bed for the whole weekend. I read, and binge watch a new find on Netflix, Sneaky Pete. We are ten days from my prelim race at USAs.

Everything is so much better after the rest. I get an MRI to check the leg, and a blood test for low iron. A day or two after the low point, I’m scrolling Instagram and see an inspirational post about the importance of “process”. I have to give a cynical laugh as to how far off my process I am right now. A long weekend spent in bed watching Netflix, no running, and less than two weeks before the US Championships. I feel like a slob.

But I don’t actually think that’s a bad thing. Running has a “no days off” culture and I want to fit in. And process is important, heck, process is all I talk or think about 99% of the time. But the motivational quotes about process leave out a key point: results matter. In sport especially, all the pretty talk can’t hid that in the end there’s a race and there’s a winner. And sometimes talk of process goes awry when we obscure that point. Or worse, we hid our race anxiety by getting too fanatic about training. As if training were the goal. As if we turned in our training logs and they handed out the medals.

This year I’ve tried to average 70 miles a week. I try to the point of pulling silly stunts like going for a 10 minute evening run to hit an even number for the week. But there is no podium for perfect 70s. There is a podium next week. And in the end, I’ll do whatever is necessary to line up as ready as possible. My mileage is shot right now, and while I make self-deprecating jokes, I believe that between the injury scare and the exhaustion, this is exactly what I need to be doing. And I believe I’m about to beat all the people who would ignore their signs and do otherwise.

Photo by Talbot Cox

Workout matchmaking

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This Tuesday my strength session overlaps with Gwen. This is our first workout with just the two of us. She is a champion triathlete, currently training for the marathon. That doesn’t lend itself to much overlap with a mid-distance runner. But we are both planning to compete on the track at the USA Championships in a few weeks. I’m entered in the 1500, she’s in the 10k.

The workout is sets of tempo 800s with short rest. I’m going to do 9 reps, and she’ll continue with 3 more. It seems like it should be pretty manageable. We are getting closer to USAs. It’s not yet a taper, but Jerry does seem to have pulled back from the impossible sessions. This helps with recovery from accumulated fatigue, and it’s nice for confidence.

It’s a treat to workout with someone new. Usually we are segregated by distance. On event specific days, I’ll run with the other 1500 specialists. A new pairing is a bonding moment. You laugh and banter to get out the pre-workout jitters, and learn to rely on each other as you switch leads. And at the end, you share the accomplishment.

Still, I’m a bit nervous. It’s Gwen!! I really respect her, her athlete accomplishments (Olympic gold medalist in triathlon, for one) and the career she’s built, and I want to be a good workout partner. In this situation, we are given the pace, and we take turns leading one rep at a time. Being a “good” partner means that I hit the prescribed pace on the reps I lead, and do so evenly (if the goal is 2:34 for two laps, an ideal leader would run 77 and 77). It also means pulling my weight throughout the workout. I don’t want to blow up and leave a workout buddy hanging at the end, right when it gets hard. It feels like more responsibility with just two people, but it’s not as if any of this is new to me. If anything, I’m more experienced on the track than Gwen is. Still, the thought crosses my mind, “don’t mess up.”

Tempos are a unique kind of pain. They hurt, but not enough that you have to stop immediately. And it’s a slow build, so you start feeling the pain long before the end is near, long enough that your brain can get in the way. Today, I find myself forecasting. It’s maybe the 4th or 5th rep, only halfway through, and I start to worry about how much is left. I’m suddenly very aware of everyone at the track, especially those taking pictures. I let it start to agitate me. Stop with the camera, turn away! What if I can’t finish?!

I don’t usually get thoughts like that in the middle of a rep. The goal is to stay too present for the negative predictions. But tempos are just easy enough that my mind can wander. And I’m probably predisposed to a bit more performance anxiety right now. I ignore the mental interruption, or don’t add emotional importance, and focus on each piece individually. By the last set, I’m thinking I could have done one more.

Back to altitude

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Returning to Mammoth means I have to relive the post-race lull for a few days. People ask about my takeaways, I give some lightened version of the last post. There is no escaping the result, and the result is a buzzkill. I want to hide from their questions. I don’t know how to say this except to say it, at this moment I feel like the worst of the group. And when my confidence is strong, I see that as an incredible opportunity; I will never grow more than when pushed by these people. But my confidence is shot right now. A cheap boost would be nice.

I have Tribe of Mentors on my Kindle. It’s a collection of quotes and advice from the guests on the Tim Ferriss podcast. One question I highlighted is: “where do you go when the ego is low?” I believe it’s from a trainer talking about how the best performers will seek to be challenged even when they are down. He says it’s a mark of the good ones that they don’t back away in difficult times, when the first instinct is to run for comfort and reassurance. I’m clinging to that thought now; I can stand this discomfort. I try to not overthink results and just keep moving.

The mountains help. Up here we’re isolated physically, it’s easy to disconnect from news or social feeds and enjoy the camp atmosphere and the training. We are connecting with other runners in town, the Mammoth Track Club hosted us for a group dinner. I’m thankful for the camaraderie and distraction.