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