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When being too lean hurts performance

Weight versus strength

Photo by: Getty Images

In many endurance sports there’s a focus on being light, and lean, with the thought that this equates to speed and better performance. And there’s an element of truth to that. Having a strong power to weight ratio is definitely advantageous when it comes to dragging yourself up a hill climb, battling realities of gravity to run over many miles, or overcoming the heat and humidity of some race conditions. But for some of us, the “strong” and “power” elements have been lost in a quest of ultra-leanness and lightness, often at a detrimental cost.

When we strive for a body weight that is significantly below where we might naturally and healthily sit, or simply under-fuel intentionally or unintentionally for our energy demands, we risk serious health and performance implications. Low Energy Availability (LEA) occurs when the body doesn’t have enough energy left over after training to support normal bodily functions. This can include recovery and tissue repair, immune function, growth, hormonal and even optimal cognitive function. This can occur unintentionally (and pretty commonly) amongst endurance athletes with heavy training loads – you get busy, train a lot, maybe find it hard to train on a full stomach or simply don’t have the time, or skills, to shop, cook or pack properly. It can also be intentional – too many athletes wear their leanness obtained through calorie deprivation as a badge of honour and as proof of their dedication to success.

Related: Eating clean – unintended consequences

What’s missing here is the fact that lighter does not always equate to faster. And that under-fuelling also does not necessarily equate to lighter, and almost never equates to better performance. Most athletes are high energy burning machines. Stoking that engine with more fuel doesn’t usually lead to weight gain as feared, but simply leads to greater energy output, which leads to better training sessions, periods returning for female athletes and improved sleep, mood and recovery.

So perhaps it is time to focus on performance improvements through becoming stronger and more powerful, and to optimise training and recovery rather than focusing on reducing body weight. How? By fuelling and by getting in some strength training.

Strength training is an important part of endurance training programs. Photo: Getty Images
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Strength training is often a low priority in many endurance training programs, but it’s still important for most of us. Strength and resistance training builds resilience and stimulates muscles, joints and tendons positively in ways that the same repetitive movements from swim, bike and run training can’t. Other benefits include injury prevention, delayed postural fatigue and being able to hold form for improved performance and greater power. Plus, for any athlete over the age of 30, resistance training helps to slow the inevitable decline in muscle mass, or the ability to readily gain muscle mass.

Perhaps some hesitation to engage in strength training stems from a fear of packing on extra muscle mass, but that is usually harder than it seems and, given the high aerobic load of most endurance athletes, unlikely. In addition, it pays to understand the physiological response to different resistance loads. Generally hypertrophy, muscle size gain, occurs as a result of low resistance, high reps, while muscle strength and power gains come from lower rep, higher loads. Getting some good, experience, qualified advice in programming is really beneficial, and helps meet your endurance goals and training with the benefits of strength training.

To hit your goals for maximising strength, and improvements in performance, fuel up. First make sure you are eating enough – tissue repair, recovery, and building takes energy. I think most endurance athletes would be surprised at the volume of good quality healthy food that can be eaten without gaining body fat, with the energy instead poured into maximising training response and recovery, immune function and other health and performance benefits.

Related: Nutrition tactics for building muscles

Ignore the scale too. Too often we can be afraid of even gaining a little muscle mass, but we disregard the numbers that really matter – performance parameters like training times, watts, etc. – solely in favour of the number on the scale. That defeats the purpose and undermines performance. Protein is also critical – you should include quality protein at each meal. A protein and energy rich snack post workout (if not covered by a your standard meal pattern) can also help. Include plenty of health-boosting fats, along with plenty of colour in the form of fresh fruits and vegetables. These micronutrients are needed for tissue growth and recovery, too. Enjoy your food. Deprivation isn’t a badge of honour, and medals handed out for being the lightest come race day.

Pip Taylor is a nutritionist and pro triathlete based in Australia.This story appears in the November issue of Triathlon Magazine Canada.