Leaning out, cutting weight, getting down to race weight, whatever you want to call it, it seems that there are many opinions about this sometimes taboo topic. At the highest level of sport, your body composition does matter. Eating and diet are one of the many details that can separate pretty good athletes from elite athletes.
Some athletes choose to ignore numbers and allow their body to naturally get down to the leanness and ‘ race weight, without changing their diet or worrying about it too much. As a endomorph with Italian genes that want me to be curvy, I prefer to take a more active approach to achieving optimal body composition.
This spring, I choose to pay particular attention to what I was fuelling with and how to get the most out of my nutrition with the help of my personal exercise physiologist (and boyfriend), Jamie Whitfield and a former Gryphon teammate and current nutritionist, Courtney Laurie.
The purpose of this post is to help athletes who feel they may want to lean out or try to eat healthier in season, but don’t know where to start. Most athletes are aware that low body weight usually improves performance, and many believe that more weight loss is better. Over and over I’ve seen younger athletes being too mindful of body weight and dangerously restrict calories. They fall into a cycle of body image stress followed by injury caused by a lack of adequate energy intake. Open conversations about nutrition, body composition and disorder eating don’t happen enough in distance running and are usually surrounded by emotions and shame. I wish it wasn’t this way and I believe that educating young athletes on nutrition for long term development is incredibly important.
I’m not a nutritionist, and I have never formally studied nutrition, but I do know from experience what works well for me and what I eat when I run my best. That said, it’s wise to consult a physiologist and nutritionist if you are trying to undertake any weight loss for performance.
The Importance of Periodized Nutrition and Body Composition
Body weight is different than body composition. Body weight is simply your overall mass whereas body composition includes percent body fat, height and limb girths. Body composition is measured beyond just standing on a scale. Jamie tracks my body composition by measuring a series of skin-folds in order to estimate body fat percentage every few weeks during the racing season. This allows me to track my progress, and also gives me a reference point to compare to previous months/years.
Like training, body composition should be periodized over the training year and athletes should aspire to be at “performance weight” and body composition for short periods of time throughout the year. Aspiring to be at competition weight year round introduces risks of injury, illness and can undermine recovery in periods of high training loads. Most experts in sport nutrition recommend a target range of ~4 to 8% increase in total body weight* in training season as compared to peak competition season.
During the fall and winter, I eat mostly balanced, plant based meals. I think it’s important to have healthy eating habits that don’t change significantly throughout the year. But more indulgences can happen out of the racing season and I eat to fully handle the training load of a base season.
I decided to change my eating habits in phases this spring. For about a month before I opened my season at the Stanford Invite, I tried to cut out any “junk”, sugars or excess fat. I wasn’t necessarily eating less, but eating smarter.
After that race, I really doubled down on trying to get lean. I knew that to race my best in the coming months and I needed to start fuelling for performance, cutting body fat and increasing muscle mass.
I don’t follow any special “diet” and I don’t consider any food groups off limits. I personally don’t eat much dairy because I feel better without it. If I didn’t have an issue, I sure as heck wouldn’t be spending 50 cents more on a latte for that soy milk!
The following are my four tips for effectively periodizing nutrition to achieve peak body composition:
Eat more protein at every meal
When an athlete is trying to lose weight, we don’t want to lose muscle as well. Through protein periodization, muscle mass can be completely maintained while athletes still lose total body weight.
For athletes training at an elite level, the daily required protein intake is approximately 1.5 to 1.7 g protein/kg body weight per day. But during periods of negative energy balance, it has been recommended to raise this daily protein intake to 2.3 g/kg body weight per day*. To do this, I emphasize having protein in each meal and having several snacks with a source of protein throughout the day.
Periodize calorie intake
On hard workout days, I don’t think about “losing weight” as much as I do on easy days. On easy days, I try to eat fewer carbohydrates than I do on hard days to do most of my “dieting” on those days. Your body needs less energy to go for a run rather than doing a hard track workout.
This is a great guide on how to this:
Make habitual food choices
As elite distance runners, we have a lot to think about when it comes to training and recovering. Stressing about food doesn’t have to become one of them. To keep mealtimes relatively unemotional I’ve developed a list of foods that are healthy, that I feel good about eating, and won’t upset my stomach. While I’m always game to try new recipes, the food blogs I tend to gravitate towards are plant-based and use many of the ingredients that I already buy.
I also take the time to outline what I’m going to eat throughout the week and on which days. This generally makes my life a lot easier with planning, grocery shopping, budget and fuelling appropriately after hard works. This also ensures that I’m always surrounded by good, healthy food.
It’s so easy with our over connected lives to eat while watching TV or scrolling through Instagram. I’ve made it a priority to not eat in front of a screen because when we are not focused on the fact that we are actually eating, it’s very easy to overeat. Look at your plate of food, slow down, and actually enjoy it.
* these figures and much of the information from this post is from this article by Trent Stellingwerff