In 2017, Allie Kieffer ran the New York City Marathon and finished in an impressive 5th place and was the second American woman. This is the moment that Allie became one of the best runners in the world.
Believe it or not, in an article Allie wrote for Self, she reports that people in the running community commenting about her size and weight. “People often said they were surprised I could run so well for being ‘bigger.’ Or they'd note that I was ‘strong,’ a notoriously condescending word in running culture.”
Eventually, after hearing it for years and years, she said she started to believe she was “too big” to be a competitive runner. She details how she tracked calories and fat, met with a nutritionist, checked her body fat percentage, and eliminated food groups all in a feverish attempt to lose weight. This obsession turned into an unhealthy relationship with food and inevitably led to injury. Allie developed a stress fracture in her tibia that stopped her from competing in the 2012 Olympic trials.
In her article, Allie says that it took her years to realize that “dropping too much weight for whatever reason will always be an unhealthy shortcut to an end-goal, laden with tremendous physical and emotional consequences; that weight is not a metric of success; that there is a better way to set our goals. That our accomplishments are about so much more than a number on the scale.”
What Happens To The Body When You Try To Reach Your “Racing Weight”
It’s not uncommon for athletes to try and “clean up their diet” when they want to reach their “racing weight.” Unfortunately, sometimes “cleaning up their diet” is really masking some type of restriction.
Believe it or not, when some people restrict, it’s common for the number on the scale to stay the same (or even go up). This is the body protecting itself. Our bodies, especially female bodies, are inherently designed to keep fat on. Many moons ago, there were forced times of starvation and the body needed a healthy fat storage to survive. Your body is smart and it will use it’s metabolism to protect you. Restricting calories or food groups ends up leading to a slowed metabolism. This is bad news for any athlete.
Initially, when you restrict, you’ll likely see a temporary drop in weight. This is simply a combination of stored glycogen and water! (After that initial drop in weight, weight loss will plateau and you’ll probably gain back that weight - plus some.) While your body can shed water and glycogen without batting an eye, it stubbornly wants to hold onto your fat storage for survival in times of restriction. It’s also important to note that your body uses glycogen to perform optimally! That’s why marathoners carb-load the week before a race and use sugary sports products like gels throughout the marathon. Depleting your body of glycogen and water is simply a bad idea if you’re trying to perform at your best.
Reaching your “racing weight” often requires restricting calories which leads to low energy availability. Simply put, energy availability is your dietary intake minus the energy you expend. Exercise significantly increases the amount of energy you expend. This is especially true for endurance athletes! Depending on the intensity and duration of the training session, an athlete’s energy expenditure can double or even triple.
Low energy availability is linked to menstrual dysfunction and low bone mineral density. This trio is best known as the female athlete triad. When the triad is present, athletic performance is hindered and injury is often nearby! The female athlete triad is a vicious cycle. Low energy availability is often a result of disordered eating habits which can lead to amenorrhea (an abnormal absence of menstruation), which can turn into bone loss. As bone density decreases, chances of developing an injury increases. This is because estrogen is needed to build bone, but it’s unavailable due to the amenorrhea. Without estrogen, bone loss occurs and the body stops building new bone. This leaves female athletes at risk for developing fractures - especially stress fractures. Unfortunately, even with the return of normal estrogen levels, the body might not be able to build bone fast enough to replace the bone loss.
Relative Energy Deficiency in Sport (RED-S) was a term created by the International Olympic Committee in 2014 to define the consequences of low energy availability in both male and female athletes. In other words, this is not just a female problem. Men also suffer the consequences of low energy availability. Low energy availability can really take a toll on your metabolic rate, menstrual function, bone health, immune system, cardiovascular health, and your ability to make new protein. It can also lead to muscle loss and bone stress injuries. Understanding your energy needs and making it a point to meet them can make a huge difference when it comes to preventing many of these problems from developing. and meet them daily can help to prevent many of these problems from occurring. If you’re an athlete and you’re developing repetitive stress fractures and unexplained injuries, you might want to take a second look at your fueling strategy.
Reaching your “racing weight” might not be as important as you think! In fact, it can decrease your performance by depleting your glycogen and water stores, decrease your metabolism, and increase your risk of developing an injury. Let’s all learn a lesson from Allie Kieffer and embrace our bodies the way they are and focus on our performance instead of the number on the scale.