By Leslie Reissner and Stephen Cheung
How Low Can You Go?
Cyclists are a weight-obsessed bunch, especially on the bike. Many are willing to plunk down a big wad of cash to lighten their bike with the latest titanium doodads or lightweight (maybe even Lightweight!) wheels. However, the same lightness obsession often doesn’t extend to off-the-bike behaviour. That’s not necessarily surprising, given our society’s general obsession with being skinny yet the continuing trend of increasing obesity. There’s a major disconnect between our ideals and our reality.
Yet if there is one major metric that the popularity of power meters has brought to cycling, it is the overwhelming importance of the power-to-weight ratio, especially when we’re talking about climbing. Due to the need to, as Paul Sherwen likes to say, “haul that carcass up the mountain,” against gravity, the great climbers are generally characterized by a combination of high power output and low weight.
It’s not too hard to convince cyclists that they can improve their performance if they drop their weight to an optimum level. However, that’s generally as useful as a physician telling a client they need to lose weight and then sending them out the office door. There are endless diet or nutrition books out there, but very few specifically catering to the endurance athlete. Practically, most cyclists have many questions that they need answered that may be quite different:
• What IS my optimum weight?
• How much weight fluctuation is reasonable over the course of a season?
• How do I maintain or drop weight given the massive amount of training and added calories needed to fuel these workouts?
• Please tell me I don’t need to weigh my food and count every calorie every day?
The Speed of “Light”
Into this void in the endurance athlete market comes “Racing Weight: How to get lean for peak performance” by Matt Fitzgerald, a lifelong runner, senior editor for Triathlete magazine and senior producer for www.running.competitor.com.
The author begins the book with a kind of awakening, a confirmation of what he suspected, when he tried an Alter-G treadmill which apparently lets you run at as little as the equivalent of 20 percent of your bodyweight. While philosophically this sounds a bit like running on the moon, the practical effect in his case was to instantly lose 15.5 pounds as he ran at 90 percent of his normal weight, and the feeling was not so much a feeling of gross artificial assistance but like normal running at a much, much higher fitness level. He notes that a 160 pound runner has to use 6.5 percent more energy to run the same pace as a runner weighing 150 pounds. While the non-athletic public wants to lose weight to look better and feel good, athletes, who obviously want to look and feel better, are also motivated by the carrot of improved performance.
Racing Weight Dissected
The book is based on two premises: firstly, how much better would your performance be if you dropped some weight? And secondly, many endurance athletes struggle with weight control and although they might follow excellent training programs, their weight management practices are poor. Some athletes, like swimmer Michael Phelps of relentless chocolate chip pancake fame, have such a superior natural ability that they can overcome their weird food choices and perform well but Mr. Fitzgerald argues, reasonably enough, that athletes should combine good nutritional habits as part of their effective training.
There are a huge number of weight-loss books on the market but Mr. Fitzgerald claims that there has not been a single book showing endurance athletes how to get leaner and lighter to improve their performance. “Racing Weight” is divided into three parts
Determining Optimal Weight
The first part, which will send a frisson of excitement through Pez readers, is how to find your racing weight. This first section begins with promise, but will definitely disappoint those readers hoping for quick fixes and easy targets. That’s because, while there are some general stereotypes of the “ideal” athlete in the various endurance sports covered (cycling, XC skiing, rowing, running, swimming, triathlon), human variability is just too great for any simple answers.
The section dealing with typical bodyfat percentages for various endurance athletes is quite interesting. Although I was not surprised to find that swimmers have the highest percentage of fat, perhaps from those pancakes, cross-country skiers have the least. However, cyclists have such a range of body types it is hard to generalize, although the author points out that it is still best not to be too heavy even as a time trialist, where raw, sustainable power is more important than the excellent power-to-weight ratio for climbers. Dave Zabriskie has what the author describes as a typical time trialist body at 6 feet tall and 147 pounds which means I will probably never eat potato chips again.
Now comes the crux where Mr. Fitzgerald tells how to determine our optimal performance weight. This requires a bit of math and a body-fat calculating scale but using the charts should give some indication of what a preferred weight will be. The scales are often not very accurate, particularly on a day-to-day basis, but should give some indication of direction over a longer term. With an approximate weight value in mind, you can then go on to track progress, for example by using software to keep a meal log. The author adds some sport-specific comments (the book is aimed at all endurance athletes), as well as seasonal considerations, plus helpful tips for beginners. There are interesting sidebar comments in each chapter (“Lifestyle controls roughly 36 percent of your body-fat percentage.”).
In the end, it comes down to trial and error and seeing how your own body responds and performs at different weights. For example, is there a weight over the course of the season where, below it, you find it difficult to ride hard, recover, or avoid illness? That’s generally a good ballpark figure of your optimal body weight to hit for your peak events.
The Top-Secret Five Step Plan
Having gotten though the first section of the book (preferably without being depressed at what one’s ideal performance weight should be instead of one’s current un-Zabriskie-like current weight), the next section of the book, actually Chapters 7-11, provides the five steps to body weight optimization. Briefly, these are:
1. Improve your diet quality
2. Balance your energy sources
3. Timing nutrition
4. Manage your appetite
5. Training right.
Again, these all seem pretty reasonable and have appeared in somewhat different form elsewhere. Fitzgerald does a good job at weighing the pros and (mostly) cons of the various dietary theories and fads (e.g. the Zone diet, Atkins, glycemic index, low-fat diets) that have been promoted to both the general population and athletes. For example, his denigration of the glycemic index as a weight control tool is quite convincing and there are plenty of other diet myths that have been unhelpful according to the book.
Rather than focusing on one particular aspect of food quality, Fitzgerald develops and proposes a way of evaluating your diet based on overall food quality, what he calls the “Dietary Quality Score.” According to Fitzgerald, “It works by assigning a score to your total eating for one day that is the sum of point values assigned to the individual items you eat throughout the day. The higher your DQS score, the healthier your diet is. As such, the DQS represents a simple, practical, realistic, and holistic approach to measuring diet quality.”
What does the DQS consist of? You get + points for “healthy” foods and – points for “unhealthy” foods (what qualifies for each category is too detailed for this review but is available in the book). One additional nice quality of the DQS is that you cannot simply rack up + points by eating the same category food over and over, as you can get zero or even negative points beyond a certain number of servings. For example, for your 1st through 6th serving of lean protein, you get 2, 2, 1, 0, 0, and -1 points. The benefit of this system is that it automatically rewards variety in your diet and not obsessing over one food type.
Overall, Fitzgerald’s overriding philosophy of looking at nutrition holistically rather than “zoning” (pun intended) in on one particular nutrient (e.g. carbohydrates = bad) is a refreshing battle call for moderation in all things. There are many useful tips here and, while it is valuable to have them all in one place, there is not much that will be new to regular Pez readers.
Diets of the Fast and Powerful
The third section, a kind of miscellany, includes some typical food journals of elite athletes, two dozen recipes and a chapter on supplements, which will be bound to annoy makers of supplements.
The final chapters of the book are meant as reference but inclusion of recipes and strength training exercises seem perhaps unnecessary, although I am glad that, like me, many elite athletes share a fondness for oatmeal in their diets, a grain which, Dr. Johnson famously noted, “in England is generally given to horses, but in Scotland supports the people.” Clearly views change with time.
We would recommend “Racing Weight” as a good, single-volume, informative publication. Just reading about the five steps to weight control and performance enhancement is obviously not enough but reinforcement of motivation is always welcome. The message is that you can perform better through eating better so now is the time to make those resolutions for weight loss and for speed come true.
• Racing Weight is available at Velopress for US$18.95.
Stephen Cheung is a Canada Research Chair at Brock University, and has published over 50 scientific articles and book chapters dealing with the effects of thermal and hypoxic stress on human physiology and performance. He has just published the book Advanced Environmental Exercise Physiology dealing with environments ranging from heat and cold through to hydration, altitude training, air pollution, and chronobiology. Stephen’s currently writing “Cutting Edge Cycling,” a book on the science of cycling, and can be reached for comments at firstname.lastname@example.org .
When Leslie isn’t busy searching the internet for new cycling books to read, he’s doing his best to deal with the ever warming temperatures of a Canadian spring and the pleasant, happy bike rides the new season promises. Keep up with all of his adventures on his website, Travels With A Tin Donkey