Friday, December 21, 2012

Tipping the Performance Scales

(2012 Big Bear Lake 12 Hour. Photo by Jason Griffith)

Some really good articles have come out about body weight, composition, and running. In fact, elite female ultrarunner Ellie Greenwood has a very good write up on Irunfar regarding this very topic of body weight. Ellie claims, somewhat seriously and somewhat jokingly, that she is one of the heavier women to finish at the top of the Western States 100 field, and in races in general. Ellie is a lean 128 lbs, and by comparison I don't consider her "heavy" by any stretch of the imagination, even at 5'5". I've also heard terms like "strong is the new skinny", which I believe is true, until you hear it from someone like Devon Yanko who is very fast, but still rail thin. If you look historically at elite marathoners, or runners of any distance, you will see smaller people with very little fat, and who are very skinny. Just think of any Kenyan you've ever seen run a marathon. Even when you glance at elite ultrarunners you see guys like Karl Meltzer, Tony Krupicka, Michael Wardian, Killian Jornet, Matt Carpenter, Mike Morton, Rob Krar and countless more that are all between 118 and 142 lbs. In fact, while some of the guys listed are shorter, Meltzer, Krupicka, and Wardian are all close to six feet tall, or taller. Odd as it sounds, I'm only 172cm tall, and yet I outweigh every guy I just mentioned by over 10 lbs, and I am by no means fat. Seems like the logic of skinny equals fast is true?

 (Haile Gebrselassie, perhaps the greatest marathoner ever. 5'5", 118 lbs)

Not always. The ultramarathon, and speaking more generally in terms of races of 50 miles to over 100, might be the one place your body weight will matter least. Granted, this does not mean you can be 50 lbs overweight and think you will do well, but it does mean that someone with 10% or higher body fat won't be at a significant disadvantage. There is proven truth that less body fat, to a safe degree, means the body is carrying around less unnecessary weight. The question is, is muscle a necessary weight? The value of having glycogen, a little extra fat, and muscle can actually help you in longer races where the body needs to rely on it's own resources for fuel. I am glad that more "average", as in not skeletal looking, runners that are now doing well in the sport. Hal Koerner, David James, Frank Gonzalez, Timothy Olson, are just a few of the growing numbers of regularly built, but very fit, athletes rising to the tops of the ultramarathon world. Let's hope the trend continues.

But, why is this even important to the 99.99% of us who are not elite athletes? It's important because while we are not as fast, many of us still strive to perform at our best. Sometimes having long distance running as a hobby is a wonderful win, win situation because I get to do something I enjoy and it keeps me healthy. However, it wasn't more than a few years ago I wondered if being a skinnier runner would be the thing that would help me run faster. After all, I wasn't blessed with the genetic gifts of having a moderately good VO2 max, no less one in the 70s to 90's like most top level athletes. In fact, my lung capacity is less than many recreational runners that I know. That being said, I figured that since running more didn't make me faster and following strict workout plans didn't making me faster, maybe losing weight was the ticket. Boy was I wrong! And that's a good thing.

I weighed 155 lbs my senior year of high school in 1999. I was not a runner, nor did I lift weights. I was merely young, active, and had the usual metabolism of a 17 year old. In college I ate like garbage, but lifted weights, so my weight increased to 173 lbs by 2001. This was back when I could bench press 260 lbs, and every now and could put up 285 lbs on the decline bench. I honestly can't believe how strong I was back then and yet I probably couldn't have even run a single mile without walking. By my senior year, thanks to my dietetics studying sister, I learned a little about nutrition and started jogging a couple miles per week, which brought me back down to about 162 lbs by the time of my graduation. I was 160 lbs when I ran my first ultra in 2004, and it wasn't until I felt like my training plateaued in early 2006 that I tried to slim down. It wasn't long before my weight hit 150, then 145 lbs, and eventually creeping below 140. At that point every it seemed like every workout sucked, I literally nitpicked every calorie I ate, and my enjoyment for running completely went out the window. I made sure everything I ate was healthy, and if it wasn't, then I would go for a run to "balance things out". On top of that my energy levels were constantly low, my mood was cranky, and my legs always felt slow and heavy. Years later, after swallowing my blinded male go, I would finally concede that I definitely had an eating disorder.

I wondered how could that be? I'm 20 lbs lighter, but now slower than ever before? That's when it hit me that not all bodies are built the same, and that my broad shoulders and thick calves were meant to support a body heavier and stronger than the sub 140 lb frame I had developed over the past several months. Bit by bit, I worked my way back into a stronger heavier body, but one that to my pleasant surprise was also much faster. I also introduced some different speed workouts into my weekly routine, so the muscle mass I was gaining back was more functional to running. By 2008, I returned to the ultramarathon scene and had a new found appreciation for the way my particular body was designed. I learned a valuable lesson in that while some people can run fast by being just skin and bones, the rest of us just don't have that in our genetics. For a lot of us, training methods aside, our optimal performance may be at a heavier weight where the strength of our muscles makes us faster than the lack of weight would.

The photo above in from this past summer. I look lean and strong. These days I am somewhere around 155 lbs year round, and along with my running, I am still doing 3-4 days of strength training per week. I will add that my strength training is now based more on lower weight and higher repetitions for endurance, I stretch more, and no longer attempt one rep maxes. Doing things like bench press doesn't really matter much as far as running goes, but I like staying well rounded for the other sports I enjoy. I may be 20 lbs heavier than I was in 2006, but the 2012 version of me could kick the crap out of the 2006 version. Strong isn't just the new skinny, strong is the new fast.

....and remember, you aren't fat. You are famine resistant :-)