First, I must say you are an amazing athlete, and your accomplishments are mind-blowing. My question is concerning the ideal weight for distance running. I have heard height in inches times two is the best; however, some of us are built like middle linebackers. Can you shed any light for me or recommendations? I understand the concept—the lighter the better, especially for the joints and such. Thank you for your time, and I look forward to more of your articles.
—Kind Regards, David
Height in inches times two is too simplistic a weight formula for most distance runners. I agree with you that ultrarunners come in various sizes and builds. According to the formula, a six-foot runner would need to weigh 144 pounds. Even elite runners can be heavier than that formula would suggest. For example, the USATF bio for Max King shows him as 5’6” tall and 135 pounds. According to the formula, he’s a few pounds over his ideal weight. I think it’s likely his “extra” poundage is lean muscle mass that contributes to his speed, strength and endurance.
Runners often ask me about how much they should weigh. Invariably, they tell me how overweight they are and proudly tell me of their latest crash diet.
I learned that being underweight is worse than being overweight
I know from experience that thinner is not always better. I have a confession to make. One I have never shared before. I hope if I tell the story of my mistake about weight it will help my fellow runners understand why endurance athletes should think about body composition rather than weight. When I was an aspiring runner in high school, I believed the whispers in the locker room: “Lighter is faster.” I was drawn into the seductive spiral of losing weight, proud of every pound lost. Every look in the mirror became another reminder of more pounds to lose. I thought I looked better and better as the pounds melted away. As I lost weight, I got faster. But soon my running was inconsistent, which only made me try harder to lose more weight. But then everything came crashing down: I was getting slower not faster. I had lost 30 pounds. I weighed 85 pounds. It took me a long time to recover my strength and weight. I learned that being underweight is worse than being overweight.
By the time I became a competitive ultrarunner I no longer focused on my weight. When I was racing at my peak, some folks called me a pixie, a gazelle. They thought I must be eating some starvation diet to stay thin. They were wrong. My best ultra weight was the weight my body naturally attained when I was endurance fit and eating a well-balanced diet. I ate to my appetite but was careful what I put into my body—I tried to eat whole, natural and nutritious foods. I took my diet as seriously as I took the other aspects of my training.
So, I suggest you first determine a realistic weight for your body type, goals and lifestyle. Think in terms of body composition, not just how much you weigh on a scale. Remember that muscle weighs more than fat, so as your fitness improves you may not see the number on the scale going down even though you are making progress. Two books I highly recommend for getting started are Racing Weight and The New Rules of Half Marathon and Marathon Training by Matt Fitzgerald. They are wonderful sources of information.
Also, remember that there is no one ideal diet. Some runners find they can achieve and maintain an optimum weight and perform better on a high carbohydrate diet, others on a higher fat diet, vegetarian or vegan diet. I always recommend that runners discuss their dietary and running goals with a professional who is familiar with sports nutrition.
So, let me share with you Ann’s BEST way to get to your ideal running weight:
B Body Composition—Work with a sports nutritionist to determine your current and goal body composition. Not everyone needs to lose weight, but if you do they will help you lose fat without losing lean body mass. Get periodic body fat measurements to gauge your progress. Remember that skin fold measurements, hydrostatic weighing, bioelectric impedance analysis and DEXA scans each give different estimates of body fat, so use the same method each time. Most important, be patient. Changing your body composition is not going to happen overnight.
E Eat a good, well-balanced diet—Keep a nutrition log to go with your training log. Remember, diet is about quality, not just quantity. You wouldn’t put poor quality gasoline in your car. Why would you put poor quality fuel into your body? I always like to eat lots of fresh vegetables, legumes, nuts, seeds and whole grains. If you include oils or eat higher-fat meats in your diet, remember they are very nutritious but also are calorie-dense.
S Slow and steady—It works in losing weight just as it works in running ultras.
T Train with plenty of base miles, but also add short intervals, hill repeats and weight training to burn calories and help improve lean body mass.
So, David, don’t worry about weight, waistline, watching (others) or the web (browsing for the latest miracle diet). Focus on being the right weight, not just lightweight.
Do you have a question for Ann? Ask her at firstname.lastname@example.org