Weight and its effects on the female triathletes performance 

When we use the term ‘weight and performance’ in the same sentence, it traditionally conjures up negative thoughts like fat, heavy and slow to name just a few. In elite level triathlon there is a strong movement towards the belief that lighter means faster. 

Is weight really the negative its being made out to be or is weight being viewed too much as a black and white issue when the truth to its role in elite triathlon performance can only be found in the grey areas.  

Also what are the physiological and psychological issues that accompany weight?  As a coach is there a better way to approach body composition for the purpose of improving performance rather than the current “less is more” approach that is so quickly being adopted?  Coaches seem to be without thought to the consequences of the individuals they are dealing with and the effect on their health and well-being in the long term.  

As coaches it is our primary role to provide a safe training environment in which our athletes can develop to their full potential rather than the short term fix that weight loss can represent.  

Before you read on ask yourself is your goal as a coach to create “short term success this season” or is the goal “a successful career”, which is more important? If the answer is the latter then this article may very well change your approach and view of weight and its relation to performance at an elite level.  

The issue of weight is in front of us every day through the news media and we have become ultra sensitive to the perception of weight and how people view us relative to it. It has the ability to create numerous negative psychological issues when handled incorrectly by people in positions of power.  Eating disorders such as bulimia and anorexia are often common.  

This issue however for athletes needs to be viewed differently.  While many coaches still look at weight in the same way the media portrays it, I believe it is important for coaches not to look at athletes in this way but rather in relation to the targeted end product, speed, power and race day results.  

For athletes it is important to view weight not in terms of ‘lighter is better’ but rather in terms of power to weight ratios. The body’s composition effects buoyancy in the swim, functional and peak power on the bike as well as heat dissipation and mechanical efficacy on the run.  

So if we look at an athlete from a power to weight point of view and assume that a higher power to weight ratio is going to give better results on race day then it is important to look at the individual components of this.  You can improve this ratio by decreasing weight but you can also improve this ratio by increasing the power side of the equation. With this in mind it is important to then view these two sides of the equation in terms of the associated negative and positives to the athlete. While increasing power has very few negative issues associated with it decreasing weight is a potential minefield.  

We are all very aware as coaches of how simple weight loss can turn into disordered eating and then into an eating disorder particularly with our female athletes. How we approach weight loss is critically important.  

First, from a psychological point of view you have to be hypersensitive to the approach of weight loss. You simply cannot approach the subject from a personal self image point of view i.e. you shouldn’t say “I think you need to loose weight if you are going to be an elite athlete”. This coupled with the media and social stigma attached to weight will lead to lowering of an athletes self belief and the way they view themselves. If this happens then the goal of improving power to weight profiles becomes secondary to goal of dropping weight.   

A better and more productive way of approaching this issue is from a performance stand point. Ask the athlete what they feel is an ideal race weight for them and over what period of time they believe they should be targeting this weight and body composition. This creates in the mind of the athlete a stopping point for the weight loss and also allows the issue to be viewed in relation to performance rather than self image. 

Regardless of how you approach this topic with athletes there are still risk factors particularly with female athletes. We are all familiar with the Female Athletes Triad outlined in the diagram below. Disordered eating, leads to loss of the menstrual cycle (amenorrhea) and then to bone calcium loss which will eventually lead to stress fractures and a high injury profile in training.  

– – lAll too often we see this scenario play out with our elite female athletes. Amenorrhea is the easiest to spot within this model especially if we have good open lines of communications with our athletes. But we should not be too quick to jump to the assumption that just because an athlete has Amenorrhea the athlete is experiencing the Female Athlete Triad.  In most cases I have been involved with the athlete does not have disorded eating but due to their body size and the energy requirements of training as an elite triathlete they simply cannot get enough food to fuel the requirements of the sport. This situation is referred to as “Low Energy Availability” or “LEA”. From a coaching point of view you may do everything right but still find yourself in a situation where LEA is a factor and the female athlete still ends up with Amenorrhea. In this situation the solution may be to look for ways in which the season can be periodized from a physiological and a nutritional point of view.  

In most cases, the year of an elite Triathlete who is focused on elite World Triathlon racing can be broken down into two major parts, in season and off season. These components can then be separated into draft legal (ITU) and non draft races. It’s important to break down the races in this way as the physiological requirements of each are different and thus body composition is also slightly different for each. For non draft races athletes tend to be slightly heaver than for draft legal World Triathlon race. The reason for this is that during the cycle section of a non drafting race raw power is critical and the body is supported by the bike. The courses are traditionally flat so power to weight is less of a factor than it is for draft legal events.  

So how does this affect both the body weight and composition of an elite female athlete to ensure they stay as healthy as possible both during and after the competitive season? During the off season it’s a wise idea to ensure that athletes are a little heaver than during the racing season. Additional weight will not only assist athletes to stay healthier during the colder months, it will help keep them from getting traditional winter illnesses. It also allows female athletes to escape the trap of year long amenorrhea and allows them to get back to being within a healthier weight range which will in turn help their hormonal balance as well as skeletal health.  

The World Triathlon season runs form May – September each year while the non draft season for most of our elites starts about 2 months before this and finishes 2 months after i.e. March – November.   

If we have our elite athletes begin the season slightly heavier to avoid LEA and maintain a good hormonal balance until at least May then we should set ourselves up well for the season without compromising the athlete’s performance in the early non draft events.  

Once the World Triathlon season begins it is important to try to prevent amenorrhea in our athletes by trying to maintain the quality of their food intake, however should athletes begin to suffer from this then there are steps we can take to minimize the impact on bone density and associated stress fractures. An increase in the amount of supplemented calcium will assist in maintaining bone calcium especially when taken in conjunction with Vitamin D.  

During this time we naturally expect that some of our elite females will suffer from LEA due to the race intensity and requirements of training and travel.  So rather than ignoring it we simply have to look at ways to minimize the effects it has on the body.  Once the World Triathlon season finishes by increasing the weight a little from the World Triathlon levels and then once the season finishes completely in November we need to focus on quickly re-establishing a healthy weight range and balance of normal body systems. 

It would be naive to believe we can prevent amenorrhea in all our female athletes at an elite level for the entire racing year. Some athletes due to size and energy outputs are always going to have hormonal and weight related issues. However if we are smart and focus on remembering when an athlete needs to be lighter and when it is more important to be healthier then it is possible to periodized a training and racing season so that athletes can have successful careers without compromising their long term physiological, psychological or medical well being in the pursuit of world class performance.   

 Article By – EP Coaching Team


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