Ideal Performance Weight: Is leaner, lighter athlete better?

It’s almost always better to be a lean athlete. Extra weight, whether it is muscle or fat, costs energy. Weight-loss to improve performance is thus a common goal for athletes looking to improve performance, especially in endurance events. However, losing weight is not always the right choice. Lighter doesn’t always mean better!
 

Athletes body: How does it look like?

 
Keep in mind there is not one ideal body for an athlete. Athlete bodies differ across sports, genders, and genetics play a role as well.
 
One athlete wins the genetic lottery and looks cut at their ideal competition weight, while another athlete has more fat at their peak form.
 
Comparing yourself to the other athletes and chasing after the six-pack or a number on the scale can lead to sub-optimal fueling and training choices that lead to decreases in performance and frustrations.
 
It is the “ripped” athletes we admire, but their health and performance are often not optimal.
 
On the other hand, if you have extra pounds, losing weight will help you perform better, especially at longer distance events.
 

Sprint to look like a sprinter

We can see different body types dominate in different sports.
Endurance athletes are notoriously thin.
Sprinters can be thin or muscular.
Swimmers have wide shoulders.
 
Probably the most notorious comparison is between marathoners and sprinters body. It is a kind of deception, though.
 
If you start sprinting you will not look like an elite sprinter. If you start running longer distances, you will not look like an elite marathoner.
 
Elite athletes have exceptional genetics that predispose them for certain sport combined with specific training that pushes their body to addapt to the extreme ends.
 
Most athletes do not perform nor look like these extreme examples. If you do, this is not an article for you 🙂
 
Having a balanced training including strength training and cardio workouts supported with right fueling will make you look and feel fit and healthy.
 
Raonic and Djokovic
A physique you see in magazines is often not an athletes body. Even if, keep in mind these photos reflect the physical shape of an athlete in the best lightning, during peak performance when their body fat is the lowest, often dehydrated and with muscles pumped.
 
If you run, you have a runners body.

Is there an ideal body fat level?

Elite athletes reach about 6-10% male / 16-19% female body fat levels in their competition period. But that is not how they look whole year. Quite the opposite. Athlete’s body changes over the course of year.
 
The most important factor for an athlete is to be able to train. If you are getting injured often, lack energy for your training sessions and feel less than good most of the time, your performance will deteriorate. Higher body fat levels, 10-12% for men and 15-20% for female athletes, are typically sustainable without much effort. Keeping slightly higher body fat percentage also allows athletes to prevent injuries, getting ill, and keep training and improving.
 
Since 2019, we have seen several high performing athletes come out and share their stories about how chasing leanness hindered their health and performance. Amelia Boone, 3x winner of the World’s Toughest Mudder (2012, 2014, 2015), Spartan Race World Champion 2013, Spartan Race Points Series Champion (2013 & 2015), 3x Death Race Finisher (Winter 2012, Summer 2012, Summer 2013) is just one example.

Megan Markoff, CrossFit athlete

Megan Markoff, a CrossFit athlete and a head-coach of Black Iron Nutrition, shared her story on IG and allowed me to share her photos with you. She desribed how her body changed over time and when she was her leanest, she was not happy and she was fighting with low energy
 
In 2014, I found CrossFit, and immediately wanted MORE. I wanted to lift more and perform better, but I had absolutely no idea how to fuel my body.
 
In 2017 she and other two girls qualified in an Elite Team to compete at Wodapalooza in 2018.
 
In 2018, she was eating about 2700kcal but that was still not enough to keep her body healthy. She had visible abs but she was struggling with sleep, no sex drive, low energy and extreme anxiety. She was obsessed with staying that lean.
 
After that, she decided to work on her relationship with her body and committed to put her health first, which meant gaining some weight over time. But two years later, she is better off and she is at the level of leanness that is sustainable for her.
 
Remember. Bodies were meant to change. I know mine will change again this year. It’s ok if you body has changed. What always needs to come first is your health. And health means your physical and mental health too.

The Trade-offs

Your ideal racing weight would be the perfect balance between having enough muscle to generate power and having low amounts of excess weight to make you most efficient.
 
If your goal is optimal performance, you need to realize there are trade-offs between power, fat mass, muscle mass and endurance.
 
In hybrid sports such as CrossFit, Hyrox, Spartan Race it is a trade-off an athlete needs to make, which can be challenging for their mind.
 
If you are a CrossFitter deadlifting over 500lb, you might need to lose some weight to run faster, more efficiently, and improve your endurance. Lowering your maximal lifts can lead to improvments of your overall performance.
 
If you are a lean runner, you might need to gain muscle, eat more, and therefore gain weight to run injury free, faster, and more efficiently. Your weight might go up, your 5k time decrease, but your overall performance increase.
 
The problem is that athletes don’t want to lose their hard-earned performance. Psychologically, we are more motivated by “avoiding loss” (losing something you have) than by “potential gain” (getting what you don’t have).
 
If you are married to your current weight, training and approach, it will be a mental challenge. Working with a coach in a situation like this is a huge help.
 
It is important to find your ideal racing weight. In the Spartan Race, it can differ between distances Sprint, Super, Beast , UB and Trail.
hunter mcintyre

Hunter McIntyre – example

Hunter McIntyre is a 6-time obstacle course racing (OCR) world champion, 4-time OCR national champion, the reigning Broken Skull Ranch champion (the television show hosted by Stone Cold Steve Austin), the 2017-2018 Tough Mudder X Champion, and holds multiple HYROX world records.
 
When he was training for HYROX world championships, he wanted to maximize his performance. He did not need 500lb, nor run 4 minute mile, because it was not specific for the event. He needed the right combination of strength and speed.
 
Now that he is training for Spartan Race again, he is intentionally losing muscle mass so he can be more efficient runner while keeping enough strength for the obstacles.

How to find your ideal racing weight?

Your ideal racing weight would be the perfect balance between having enough muscle to generate power and having low amounts of excess weight to make you more efficient.
 
If you have some weight to lose, you will find that as your weight decreases to a certain point, your performance will be increasing. From a certain point, once you get lean enough, your performance will begin to decline rapidly.
 
The weight is made up of not only fat, but also muscles, bones, glycogen and water. Fat is necessary for the proper function of the hormonal system and it also serves as a buffer in crashes and keeps you warm.
 
For lighter runners, I often see how gaining weight (especially muscles) improves their overall health and performance.
 
Start noting  your body weight/composition and how it correlates with your performance. You cna track your running pace, weight and strength and over time find your ideal ration.

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