In Stride

Does Distance Running Have a Weight Problem?

To be the fastest runner you can be is to be as light as possible without being too light. And finding that threshold can be a tricky business.

Does Distance Running Have a Weight Problem?

Lighter=faster is true, but only to an extent. Photo: Tobias MacPhee

A few months back, I wrote about distance running and bodyweight. In the article, I quoted running coach and nutritionist Matt Fitzgerald, who argued that, despite what some stereotypes might claim, successful elite-level runners are not too thin. To be a successful elite-level runner in the first place, says Fitzgerald, requires a level of health and fitness that most of us can only dream of.

 “My conviction is that the physiological substrates of general health overlap almost perfectly with the physiological substrates of endurance fitness,” Fitzgerald told me at the time. “You cannot win the Boston Marathon if you’re unhealthy, in any regard.” 

In professional distance running, being light is not an advantage, it’s a necessity. And it's a precarious truth that to be the fastest runner you can be is to be as light as possible without being too light. Finding that threshold can be tricky business. Recall that during last summer’s doping allegations surrounding Alberto Salazar, part of Kara Goucher’s beef with her former coach was that he allegedly was dogging her to lose more weight a few months after the birth of her son, to the extent that he asked her to take thyroid medication to help accelerate the process. 

“If there’s an optimal healthy weight range, these athletes are at the very bottom of it. If they got much leaner at all, they would start to go backwards,” Fitzgerald told me, regarding elite-level runners. “They are within the healthy range, but they are close to the limit. So it’s a bit of a tightrope walk.”

Not everyone is equally successful in walking that line. 

Last week, Letsrun.com praised Crystal Nelson, a multiple All-American cross-country runner at Iowa State, for publicly discussing her struggle with eating disorders. “The running community needs to be way more willing to discuss this issue,” the article noted. “When a prominent athlete such as Nelson steps forward publicly and says, ‘I have an eating disorder,’ it raises awareness of the issue and prompts a public discussion.” 

For the public discussion to be fruitful, we can’t ignore the fact that distance running, perhaps more than any other sport, incentivizes some of its best athletes to lose weight to increase performance, which can have disastrous consequences when these athletes don’t go about it the right way. To be clear, that does not mean that competitive running causes eating disorders. Instead, eating disorders are more of an occupational hazard. 

“At the end of my sophomore year of college, I headed into summer deciding that restricting food would help me lose weight and run faster,” writes Dani Stack, another former All-American at Iowa State, in a personal essay about her struggle with anorexia. “Aside from decreasing food intake, I increased my mileage,” she writes. “Counter intuitive when you think about it, but sadly, it worked.” 

For a brief period after losing weight, Dani saw her race performances soar, “I had the best year of track ever,” she notes.  But it wasn’t long before the side effects of malnutrition started taking their toll. A precipitous physical decline saw her finish dead last at 5K Nationals and fall into a cycle of depression and injury from which she is still recovering.

While the example of Dani and countless other athletes, both male and female, serves as a sobering reminder of how a conscious effort to lose weight can spiral out of control for athletes already close to the edge, it likely won’t be enough to dissuade those who cling to the mantra of lighter=faster. Look at Galen Rupp some might say. The American record-holder in the 10,000-meters is almost six foot tall and races at just over 130 pounds. That’s not a heavy guy. 

So what is the “right way” to approach the issue of racing weight?

We should accept that lighter=faster is true, but only to an extent. There is certainly such as thing as too light, when the advantages of shedding pounds are eclipsed by the accompanying loss of strength–this is the point where your strength-to-weight ratio starts to work against, rather than for you. But strength-to-weight ratio will be different from runner to runner. A counterexample to Galen Rupp is Chris Solinsky, the robust former Wisconsin Badger who, at six-foot-one, 160 pounds, is the heaviest man in history to run under 27 minutes for the 10,000. If two pro runners of similar height, but on opposite ends of the weight spectrum can both have success at the highest level, it’s a clear indicator that “ideal weight” is relative.

“Any coach who advises a weight loss diet should not be in the business,” Jeff Hollobaugh, the former editor of Track and Field News, once wrote after Amber Trotter, another young star runner, opened up about her eating disorder. “Encouraging an athlete to eliminate junk food—that's good. Coercing them into eliminating needed calories is reprehensible,” Hollobaugh writes.

“The broad statement that lighter is better is probably accurate. What’s left to be determined is how we achieve that lesser weight,” author, coach, and clinician Richard Diaz told me. However, Diaz, who hosts the Natural Running Network podcast, said that for all the benefits of being super lean, he had also coached runners who performed better after putting on a few pounds, thereby adjusting the strength-to-weight ratio more in their favor. 

While no good coach would ever intentionally advise eliminating “needed” calories, Hollobaugh is right in suggesting that, for competitive runners, weight loss should never be an end in itself. Rather, it should be a consequence of intelligent training.

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