When people talk about “racing weight,” they are referring to a number on the scale that they believe will turn them into the fastest, best runner they can be. That weight is usually a smaller number than they’d normally see when stepping on the scale, which they believe is more efficient for racing.
A weight that guarantees I’ll be the fastest runner I can be? Sounds great, right? Nope! Look closer and you will see that “racing weight” is neither accurate nor helpful for runners.
Why? First, weight is arbitrary. The number on the scale is simply a measure of gravity pulling on a body. That number depends on whether you’ve pooped, how much glycogen you have stored, how much water you’ve had. Furthermore, it doesn’t measure important things, such as your muscle tone or athletic ability.
Second, many circumstances combine to influence the shape a body takes. These factors include genetics, environment, diseases, medication, lifestyle, socioeconomics, and more. Your body does have a set point—a composition it naturally gravitates toward—but even that shifts with time.
Third, some runners try to get to their “racing weight” by cutting back on calories. But restricting calories is neither fun nor productive. It can result in no weight loss or even weight gain. Why? Because the formula “calories in – calories out = weight loss/gain” is wrong. The math just doesn’t add up. Metabolism—and oversimplification of a “calorie”—has a lot to do with this.
Basically, your body wants to keep you alive, and when it senses restriction, it holds on to lifesaving energy, such as fat. If an athlete has a history of dieting or weight changes, her metabolism may have already slowed. If an athlete has not restricted before, she might see some weight loss, but initially that loss is water and stored glycogen. (No fun if you’re about to race and are dehydrated and weak, an experience Melody had at the 2000 Olympic Marathon Trials.) Regardless of a runner’s past dieting history, restricting puts every athlete at risk for the complications of a syndrome called Relative Energy Deficiency in Sport (RED-S), which include bone injuries, hormone disturbances, GI distress, mood effects, and other bummers.
Fourth, losing weight can mean losing strength—a disadvantage on the course, track, road, and trail. Research suggests that achieving an idealized weight or body composition through severe and persistent energy restriction will negatively affect your performance and health. Who wants that?
Finally, how you perform on race day is the product of countless details. Think of it like making pancakes, a simple dish yet one that turns out differently depending on the recipe, ingredients, heat, cooking oil, pan, and how good a flipper you are. In training, your body and mind are altered by the process and ingredients too. Running, recovery, and strength training alter your body and mind—as do nutrition, hydration, and hormones. On race day, many external factors can affect results, such as weather, strategy, mental prep, confidence, fatigue, and stress. “Racing weight,” then, is neither the cause nor guarantee of success.
You might look around at a race or on your Insta feed and see a bunch of lean runners. Remember: Appearance doesn’t determine success, and weight is merely one of infinite details that may influence performance. Trying to look a certain way (like a teammate or celebrity or track pro you admire) is a harmful trap. If you are training appropriately for your goal, fueling, sleeping, and taking care of yourself, and are otherwise healthy, then your body will take the shape and weight that is right for you. That’s the vessel in which you will run at your best. It flows naturally from working with your body, not against it.
Adapted from Girls Running: All You Need to Strive, Thrive, and Run Your Best by Melody Fairchild and Elizabeth Carey with permission of VeloPress.