Body Weight vs Speed

If you want to go faster you need to go lighter! This is a generalisation but in the vast majority of cases it is true.  Triathlon is a race of three parts, on both the bike and run lowering your weight will make significant improvements to your race times. If you cast your mind back to your science lessons, the greater the mass (weight) the greater the force required to accelerate (move) it.  Sorry if you have just eaten that big bar of chocolate but it’s as simple as that.  This is why you spent a fortune on that lightweight bike frame, or covet those latest carbon bits and pieces. Before you consider reducing your body weight you must ask yourself ‘Can I afford to lose any weight?’  You may already be at your correct weight however for the average athlete its unlikely.  Getting lighter is not a simple task as you must ensure you maintain your health and power to gain the benefits of any weight lost.  The scales may give you a clue to the weight you can lose but beware, a big muscular frame is heavy and powerful but for the same height may weigh the same as a slender body carrying unnecessary fat.  A more reliable indicator is your percentage body fat.  There are various tests available to measure fat percentage, you can use calipers or electronic resistance which will give a fairly reliable indication until you get to the lowest end of the scale.  Most of us can work it out with a long look in the mirror and an honest assessment from a partner, friend or coach. I cannot stress enough in a weight loss programme you must maintain your power and health.  This means the loss must be gradual and not at the expense of proper hydration, nutrition, vitamins and minerals. You will be aware that as you exercise or live your daily life you burn ‘fuel’.  This can come direct from your digestion or be supplied from stores within your body.  You are a clever beast so if you take in more ‘fuel’ than you need you store it in your body for use later when ‘fuel’ is more scarce.  Once your blood, liver and muscles are full of fuel you will store it wherever you can, generally around your internal organs or under your skin around the skeleton, this is what we know as fat.  The fat has its own weight but requires water for storage adding more to your body weight. Generally we want to keep our muscle and our skeleton is pretty useful so it’s the excess fat we can afford to lose.  Reduce the excess fat along with the water it is stored in and your weight will reduce without loss of power or damage to your health.  Less weight, same power so you move faster. So how do we shed this excess fat while maintaining a healthy body?  Quite simply we need to show our body food is a little scarce at the moment to make it draw nourishment from the fat it so carefully stored.  Your body will be quite happy doing this until you reach the lowest fat percentages when your body will take drastic and performance damaging steps to protect itself.  Weight management at these lowest fat percentages is risky and difficult, far beyond the scope of this piece. If you can afford to lose some fat from around your body you have two choices, the first is to increase the energy requirement by exercising more or the alternative maintaining your activity level and reducing the ‘fuel’ you take in.  As triathletes are generally quite active and time constrained the more activity option is difficult without risk of injury, unemployment or divorce.  This leaves the option of reducing the ‘fuel’ intake in such a way you can maintain your health and activity while increasing the fat you burn. Please ignore all the ‘get thin quick’ fad diets and pills, they may work in the short term but much of the weight loss is from dehydration, you feel awful and will be unable to maintain your active lifestyle.  As a result you will soon give it up and as you re-hydrate the weight comes back.  Genuine weight loss is as slow a process as it was to put the weight on originally.  Bear in mind there is enough energy in 200g of fat for an average person to run a marathon. First assess your diet, keep a log of what you eat over seven days.  This alone will make you think about what you eat and just writing it down will reduce your intake.  You won’t want to write down ‘six biscuits in a boring meeting’ or ‘half a pack of Dorritos watching tv’.  You must include all your drinks other than plain water.  Consumption of sweet and alcoholic drinks is often the cause of excess ‘fuel’ being taken in.  It’s easily absorbed by the body and readily converts to fat if not required for energy.  So where do you think that evening pint or half bottle of wine ends up? Once you have your diet log, sit down with your partner, friend or coach and take an honest look at what you really need.  How much of your food is poor quality sweets, fatty food or sweet/alcoholic drinks?  How much has proper food value, proteins, carbohydrates, vitamins and minerals?  Generally the answer is obvious and it’s easy to see what you can cut down on or stop taking in completely.  Often you can cut down so much junk food and drink that you need to add more quality food to supply the energy you need to live a healthy life.  Remember you are looking for a very gradual reduction. So if a little is good why can’t you just cut down dramatically or stop eating all together?  Unfortunately your body is too clever for that, cut down too much and your body will think food is very scarce indeed and assume you may have to survive some time without it.  Your body will reduce your energy levels to prevent you burning what you have too quickly, of course you will have to reduce your training as a result.  As your body works less it will not need to be as strong, it will sacrifice muscle before it uses the fat stores.  This is a good strategy to keep you alive for a long time without food but is very unpleasant and works against what you are trying to achieve.  This way you will lose little fat, feel awful and lose strength.  Any weight loss will be balanced by a loss of power so no increase in performance. The secret is to reduce the intake gradually so you do not trigger your body’s survival mechanism, but by enough to cause it to dip into its fat reserves to fuel your activity.  After a few months you will find your weight is significantly lower, your power will not have been affected and you have the performance advantage we all strive for.  It’s not a quick fix but the effort is worthwhile.