Racing Weight - How to Get Lean for Peak Performance

Body weight management is critical to performance in endurance sports. Being in peak shape means both optimal body weight and optimal body composition.

A low body-fat percentage is the only anthropometric characteristic common to elite athletes in all endurance sports. As body-fat levels go down, performance increases from:

  1. Improved aerobic capacity — fat tissue competes with muscle tissue for oxygen and fuel
  2. Overheating reduces — thermoregulatory strain has decreased

Training for peak performance

Form follows function.

Endurance athletes can train better for performance by increasing the volume of moderate-intensity workouts, adding additional high-intensity workouts and utilizing strength training.

Getting started

Learn to enjoy training. All forms of exercise are more or less equally effective if you keep doing them. Setting a goal to complete a first race increases the importance of everyday exercise and encourages investment in every session. Exercise enjoyment increases with fitness — as long as you enjoy the sport and continue doing it, you will enjoy it so much more by the time of achieving the initial goal.

Parents can encourage their children into sports by leading by example, and help home life by making games of chores.

Endurance training

Training increases maximal carbohydrate-burning capacity, which occurs at 100 % VO2max, to a much greater degree than it increases fat-burning capacity, which remains at 60 % of VO2max even in the fittest athletes. Normal endurance training, with its emphasis on long, moderate-intensity workouts, naturally maximizes fat-burning adaptations. The immune system compound IL-6 is released in glycogen-depleting workouts (that you finish cross-eyed and drooling) and stimulates this adaption.

Regularly engage in long endurance workouts and high-intensity workouts. High-intensity workouts enhance and maintain mechanical efficiency, VO2max and muscle power, however avoid excessive effort that will limit overall training volume by the need to recover.

Strength training

All endurance athletes should perform 2–3 short sessions (20 minute) of weightlifting or calisthenics exercises every week. Lifting very heavy loads and performing core exercises is exactly the sort of thing that endurance athletes should do in the gym because it shocks the body in a complementary way to endurance training: half-squats enhance running economy and endurance by enhancing the capacity of the muscles and tendons to capture free impact energy and return it to the ground.

Gains in muscle strength and power are closely linked to increases in muscle size. Anabolic eating is eating for muscle growth. The most important dietary requirement for muscle growth is a caloric surplus. There is zero chance of gaining a burdensome amount of muscle weight through strength and power training and anabolic eating if you are engaging in moderate to high volume endurance training.

Dietary protein is less readily converted into body fat than dietary carbohydrate and fat. Animal proteins are more conducive to muscle growth than plant proteins as contain all the essential amino acids that the body cannot synthesize for itself and are more bioavailable. Aim to consume protein immediately before, during and after exercise to maximise synthesis. Optimal protein consumption after exercise is 20 g and synthesis can be maximised by combining with carbohydrate to stimulate the release of insulin.

Sport specific training

With cycling, increasing your power capacity requires you consistently perform a small amount of training at very high power-output levels, however at least 80 % of the training time should be moderate-intensity riding below the lactate threshold.

With lightweight rowing, a gradual weight-loss program reduced declines in anaerobic threshold power and peak knee flexor torque (2 month versus 4 month). Limit weight loss in the final 48 h before competition to no more than 2 % of your body weight.

Elite marathon runners typically do not run any further than 20 to 22 miles that novice marathon runners run in their longest workouts. However, novices peak at 45 miles per week and the pros routinely exceed 120 miles per week.

Runners, cyclists and cross-country skiers should do at least one workout per week that includes intervals performed at an intensity level exceeding lactate-threshold intensity. Additional HIT is important for power sports like rowing and swimming.

Weight loss

If you burn mostly fat during a workout, you store mostly fat afterward and if you burn mostly carbohydrate during a workout, you will store mostly carbohydrate afterward. Weight loss depends on the total number of calories burnt and the type of exercise. Women lost an average of 10.5 % of their fat mass after 15 weeks on three 20 min HIT workouts (8 s on, 12 s off), considerably more than a control group that performed traditional endurance workouts with 400 % more time pedaling.

Excess post-exercise oxygen consumption (EPOC) has a strong acute phase lasting up to 2 hours and a weaker long-term phase lasting 24 hours or more, together accounting for 6 %–15 % of the total caloric cost of a workout. A 1000 calorie workout will burn an extra 100 calories in the following hours.

Although sustaining lean-as-possible condition throughout the year is no more possible than sustaining peak-level training all year round, aim to limit off-season weight gain to 8 % above optimum. Most yearly weight gain is concentrated between Thanksgiving and Christmas. Training is not all or nothing, maintain at least short easy workouts during the off-season to prevent excessive weight gain.

Body composition

Effect on performance

A body-weight increase of 5 % reduces running performance by 5 % in 12 min tests. Matt Fitzgerald lost 15.5 lb on an Alter-G machine and running 7:00/mile immediately became utterly effortless.

Rowing is the only endurance sport where body mass should be an advantage — more power, no additional gravitational resistance and only a small frictional penalty on the hull — but even in rowing, this advantage is limited. Additional body weight damages technique while muscle characteristics that support aerobic metabolism cancel those that support muscle growth.

Lance Armstrong lost most of his inherited linebacker bulk with cancer, and maintained a new body composition to achieve seven straight Tour de France victories.

Tracking body composition

To judge optimum racing weight, begin a period of progressive training and carefully controlled diet. Record body weight and body composition against performance every four weeks. Body fat is most accurately measured with a DEXA scanner. Tanita bio-impedence scales achieve 96 % agreement with DEXA and can also estimate BMR and other useful health factors day-to-day.

Self-weighing is significantly correlated with weight-loss (additional 1 lb per 11 days) and weight-loss maintenance. Counting calories provides additional awareness that improves dietary choices.

Managing appetite

  1. Practice nutrient timing with a substantial breakfast, eating frequently and eating slowly
  2. Eat mindfully and stop when comfortably satisfied instead of clearing your plate
  3. Eat high-satiety foods
  4. Eat low-density foods
  5. Eat less, only put the amount of food necessary before you

Individual differences

Body fat percentage is 64 % inherited however exercise switches off some fat-promoting genes. The primary stress hormone cortisol promotes fat storage, particularly abdominally, and individuals respond to stress by comfort eating. If you feel guilty after eating, chances are it was emotional eating. Overweight individuals exhibit greater activity in the brain reward area before they tasted the treat and less activity as they tasted it. Naturally lean people burn excess calories in large meals through spontaneous increases in nonexercise activity.

Women who gain excess gestational weight tend to remain overweight and raise overweight children. Women who maintain a healthy diet and exercise regularly throughout pregnancy avoid excess weight and return to their pre-pregnancy weight after giving birth. All individuals are slaves to their appetite, however women are genetically predisposed to have less control over their appetite than men.


Dietary foods

The only truly useful measure of a food’s value is its total concentration and balance of nutrients. This can be better represented with NuVal scores (winners include spinach, green beans, blueberries, carrots, skimmed milk). The Diet Quality Score scores fist-sized servings of foods depending on the amount of servings (see chart in book); sweets are always rated -2, if any type of refined sugar is the second or first ingredient then it’s a sweet, commonsense serving sizes are one label-defined serving of candy.

Fruits contain a lot of fiber and water and relatively few calories. Hunger is determined primarily by volume and only secondarily by calories and that means fruits have a high-satiety index. 100 % fruit juices are more nutritious than most beverages but miss some of the nutrients from the whole food source.

Whole-body protein synthesis achieves its maximum rate at a protein intake level of 1.4 g/kg daily. A single dose of 10 g of essential amino acids is sufficient to maximize acute muscle-protein synthesis (one glass of skimmed milk). There is no evidence to suggest that supplements are required for optimal muscle growth or strength gain. Strength athletes should consume protein consistent with general population guidelines (15 % protein). Protein provides more satiety than carbohydrate or fat. Low-fat dairy foods provide substantial amounts of protein for muscle support, carbohydrate to fuel activity and much less fat than whole-milk dairy.

Glycaemic index is a nearly useless tool for weight management or general health promotion. There is only an association between properties that make certain foods high or low quality such as fiber content.

Eggs tend to support a lean body composition despite their fat content and caloric density.

People who eat a lot of nuts tend to have slightly lower than average body weights.

Omega-3 fatty acids play vital roles in the formation of healthy cell membranes, nerve cell function and the formation of anti-inflammatory compounds in the body. They increase the elasticity of blood vessels, improving circulation and lowering blood pressure (potentially boosting cardiac efficiency).

Diet composition

  • 40 % to 80 % carbohydrate
  • 20 % to 40 % fat
  • 10 % to 25 % protein

Epidemiological studies found no relationship between body weight and the dietary ratio of carbohydrate, fat and protein. Mainstream nutrition experts believe that the nervous and immune systems of the average person cannot function properly on a diet that provides fewer than 150 g/day of carbohydrate. Low levels of carbohydrate intake hinder endurance performance during heavy training.

Training increases carbohydrate requirements to a greater degree than protein and fat requirements: ultrarunner Yiannis Kouros fueled 95.3 % of his 12000 cal/day race diet from carbohydrate (during a 600 mile race). Inserting lighter training days between heavier training days (which endurance athletes must do) enables endurance athletes with a moderate carbohydrate diet to replenish muscle-glycogen stores.

Typical and elite endurance athletes get 30 % of daily calories from fat. The fact that they win championships on this diet indicates it is not detrimental to endurance performance. Fat does not make us fat.

Athletes should not eat a lot of protein unless they have excess fat stores or are not engaged in a high level or training (less carbohydrate needs). Protein is highly satiating and studies show that individuals on such high-protein diets voluntarily eat less and lose excess body fat.

Planning meals

There is a strong inverse relationship between the number and size of energy deficits throughout the day and body-fat percentage. When people eat as much as they want, they voluntarily eat fewer calories with more meals and when calorie intake is concentrated earlier in the day.

If your morning workout will be taxing, you will perform at a higher level by consuming some calories before starting. The ideal time for a pre-exercise meal to maximize workout performance is two to four hours out.

During exercise, always use a sports drink to enhance performance. Protein-enhanced low-carb sports drinks enhance performance and contain fewer calories.

After exercise, recovery proceeds significantly faster if the right nutrients are consumed within two hours than if the same nutrients are consumed after two hours. In the two hour window, it is generally agreed that the sooner you eat or drink, the better. In strength-training, people gain significantly more muscle when they consume carbohydrate and protein immediately after exercise instead of waiting to eat.


Must use

  • Calcium reduces the production of the hormone that promotes fat storage (calcitriol)
  • Creatine enhances strength and power gains from lifting weights doing plyometrics, and can improve body composition with minimal body weight changes
  • Fiber reduces the risk of obesity, type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and constipation (supplementation in obese individuals enhances weight loss)
  • Green tea catechins increase fat oxidation by reducing the activity of free radicals that inhibit fat metabolism

Worth a try

  • Beta-alanine may increase resistance to fatigue at high intensities and boost the results that endurance athletes derive from speed training
  • CLA is a fatty acid found primarily in meat and cheese that is believed to prevent weight gain (for the off-season)