Hitting Your Optimal Performance Weight

By Jen Miller

fat caliper

It usually happens late at night. I’ve already had dinner, already taken the dog on her last walk. I can even be in bed with the lights out when the craving hits. Hard. I’ll toss and turn, and, most of the time, get up, get out of bed, and go get what I need.

Potato chips.

I have made far too many late night trips to Wawa – yes, sometimes even in my pajamas – for a small bag of Ruffles. I won’t buy a large bag and keep it in the house because that means I would eat them all the time. If I put a half mile between me and the chips, I won’t eat them. So the theory goes.

It’s even worse when I’m training for a race. Right when I’m running my highest mileage weeks and trying to lean down so I carry less weight to the starting line, all I want to eat is junk.

Endurance athletes walk a fine line when it comes to food. We’re shedding hundreds, even thousands of calories a day. Our appetites rage, but we need to be lean to perform our best. According to Matt Fitzgerald, author of Racing Weight: How to Get Lean for Peak Performance, a runner weighting 160 pounds needs 6.5% more energy to run the same pace as someone who’s 150 pounds.

I don’t want to expend an extra 6.5% of energy. I want to run 6.5% faster.

Here are some things to know about getting lean and mean, how to find your best racing weight, and how to keep yourself out of Wawa in your PJs late at night.

It’s Not All About Weight

Fitzgerald talks a lot about optimal performance weight, even though there isn’t a way to calculate what that number is.

“There’s no formula that exists where you can plug in your height, weight, age, gender and get a number,” he says.

Instead, look at past performances. Where did you feel and race your best? That’s your optimal performance weight.

If you’ve never raced before, Fitzgerald suggests getting your body fat percentage, which you can have your doctor or even your gym calculate for you. “You can use that to find where you reasonably expect to be and as a way to set an initial goal to pursue,” he says.

matt fitzgeraldHe lists optimal body fat for different sports in the book, but those should be guidelines only. Remember, most of us are amateurs whose full time jobs do not involve running, cycling or swimming.

Example: The average body fat for a professional female runner is 12.4%. I’m lucky if I get down to 20%. For someone like me, a five foot, six inch tall woman who runs two big races a year and typically finishes in the top 20-25% of the pack, 20% – which comes in at around 130 pounds – works for me. That’s my optimal performance weight.

Diets Need Not Apply

You will not get to your optimal performance weight by just cutting calories. You might lose weight by doing so, or by dabbling in some fad diet like Atkins or South Beach, but that won’t help you race faster.

“Simply eating less is not going to make you any fitter,” says Fitzgerald. “You will sabotage your performance because it will leave your muscles unrefueled for a workout.”

When I interviewed Fitzgerald, I had just gone through a breakup, which sucked away my appetite disappear. I dropped 10 pounds in two weeks. I was tempted to call Us Weekly and share my jaw dropping weight loss story in hopes of a cover article. Then I went on a five-mile run and nearly passed out. Same thing happened the next day when I tried to do my weight lifting routine at the gym.

We need calories to live, and to race. We need carbs and protein and fat to fuel our bodies through strenuous workouts, and we need the same to recover. That’s why dieting will not work, not if you want to perform at your best level.

Improve Your Food

But that doesn’t mean you can eat whatever you want. In Racing Weight, Fitzgerald created a chart that lets you track what you eat and rate your daily diet on a point scale. You might be surprised how poorly you do once you start tracking your food.

“People tend to eat more than they think they do. They eat more junk than they think they do – the same stuff that couch potatoes eat,” he says. “People are eating too many empty calories.”

 It’s not easy to change the way you eat, either.

“Any sort of habit is hard to break when you’re used to doing things a certain way,” he says. “Our genes are to blame in that we have a hard wired preference for high caloric density foods, the types of foods that didn’t exist 50,000 years ago. The whole reason foods like fast food cheeseburgers and pizza exist are because they’re delicious.”

The best way to start changing your diet is one small step at a time. Maybe it’s cooking dinner one night a week instead of going out, switching from white bread to whole grain, or trying out Fitzgerald’s chart.

Now’s a great time to change what you eat, too. Fresh and local fruits and vegetables are rolling off Pennsylvania and New Jersey farms. Picking up a basket of New Jersey peaches and swapping them out for post-lunch candy is an easy fix (and I’d say the peaches taste so much better).

You can also follow the advice of Michael Pollan, author of Omnivore’s Dilemma and the so-called high priest of healthy eating: Don’t eat anything your grandmother wouldn’t recognize as food. Drop from your diet anything that’s processed, genetically engineered, or comes out of a tube (do you know what’s in Cheese Whiz?). If it’s got high fructose corn syrup, ditch it.

What diet you’ll need to hit your optimal performance weight depends on you – your body, your genes, your sport. In the back of Racing Weight, Fitzgerald lists the daily menus of professional athletes from all sectors of endurance sports. That helped me make a few tweaks in my diet leading up to my last race.

One point where I disagree with Fitzgerald is on milk products. He says go low fat. I drink whole milk when I’m training. But I’m allergic to eggs and can’t get that hit of fat in the morning from an omelet or a sunny side up. I need that milk fat to fuel me and get down to 20% body fat, so it works for me.

Hungry? Eat More

I asked Fitzgerald about my potato chip obsession. He said it points to a problem in what I eat.

“Part of it is a salt craving because you’re sweating a lot,” he says. “It’ pretty well documented that when people are in heavy training they start to crave more sodium. The rest is just calories. Or you just happen to like potato chips.”

I do – they were my favorite childhood food. Yours might be ice cream, gummy bears, or pizza. An easy way to curb any craving is to eat more of what’s good for you. My fix is to add more protein and carbs to my dinner plate, which washed the potato chip craving away.

Well, almost. If there’s a bag open at my mom’s house, I dive in. But that’s another thing about being in optimal performance weight – and an amateur athlete. Optimal doesn’t mean perfect. It’s a goal to hit when you’re racing. It’s not even a goal to have year round. So when I’m down the shore for a week this summer and eating hot dogs and hamburgers and drinking too many cold beers, I won’t be thinking of Fitzgerald or his advice. But when I start training in the fall again? I hope to keep the potato chip and late night trips to Wawa at bay.