Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Racing Weight

scaleSo, I've very specifically avoided talking about weight on my running blog for a few reasons:

  • I know several people who got into running because they were obsessed with losing weight and staying extra-skinny. I'm not talking about folks who were like, "You know, I'd like to be fitter / more active," or "I'm not in great shape & it'd be nice to lose 5-10 pounds," or "I don't get any regular exercise now & kind of like the idea of running to maintain a healthy weight." I'm talking about people who became utterly obsessed with their weight, often fixating on an unrealistic weight, and using running as a way of getting there, often in combination with unhealthy eating habits. My running is not about that, and I don't ever want anyone to get the impression that it is.
  • I usually don't worry too much about my weight. Between genetics, growing up active & enjoying sports, & having (reasonably) healthy eating habits, I've been fortunate enough to be able to stay at a perfectly acceptable weight (which I pretty much define as being happy with the way I look in the clothes I own) without trying too hard.
  • Excepting people who have legitimate health problems or food issues, I think there is WAAAAAY too much focus on weight in this country as it is (especially for women), and there is really no bigger turn-off for me when it comes to running / healthy living blogs than hearing about people's weight loss / gain issues all the time. (Just to be clear, I'm not talking about blogs like Barb's column "Downsizing" on Digital Running Club, which I have enjoyed the hell of and has made me so happy to read over the last few months. I think that if you read her monthly entries for this year, you'll understand how that is a completely different sort of thing.)
  • All though I've never had major body image or food issues, I can admit that there have been times in my own life when I've been a lot more concerned with how much I weigh than I am now (hello, competitive track & gymnastics...), and I really like that my attitude these days is much more about feeling fit, strong, & fast & weighing myself maybe once a month than it is about chasing some magic number on a scale.

On the other hand, I don't want these facts to make me feel like discussing weight on my blog is somehow taboo. (Organizational management fact: If you want to understand where an organization needs to work on its culture, look at the issues people avoid talking about.) I think there are healthy and appropriate ways to talk about weight on a running blog, so I'm going to do that.

Fact #1: As Matt Fitzgerald puts it in his book Racing Weight, by and large, we recreational athletes, though fitter than the general population, are not at our optimal performance weights all (or even most) of the time. If we were to take six months and get ourselves into the shape necessary to run our best race possible, then weigh ourselves, the scale would almost universally show a number lower than the one we currently see.

There are lots of reasons for that. Most of us don't have the time or resources to get into or stay in that kind of shape. Most of us miss a workout every now & then. Most of us really like cheese (or chocolate, or bread pudding, or whatever your particular soul-nourishing indulgence may be). I think I've mentioned before how I'm pretty sure I could get back down to my high school racing weight if I really, really wanted to, but I did the math and realized that the things I'd have to give up would make me too unhappy to be willing to make the tradeoff. I'm not saying that I think I'm fat or out of shape or that my current weight is an unhealthy one; just that, if I weighed a little less, I'd be a little faster.

Fact #2: Yes, there are tradeoffs I'm not willing to make. I'm not going to stop eating deep-dish pizza. Or mission burritos. Or ham & cheese croissants. Or drinking fancy wine / beer / cocktails. I'm just not. But if I'm honest with myself, I know that my eating habits lately have kind of been out of control, and I've been using my ramped-up mileage to justify it. I'm not going to stop eating deep-dish pizza, but truly; one slice is a MORE than adequate dinner. I'm not going to stop eating artisan cheeses, but no one needs a pound of it in one evening. I'm not going to stop drinking wine with dinner, but two glasses should really be adequate. For the most part, it's not what I've been eating; it's how much. The little-kid part of my brain still feels deprived if at any point a specific amount of something is declared "all you can have," even if that amount is quite generous, and when I'm under more stress (as I have been lately), the grown up part of my brain has more trouble beating it down.

But it can. And it needs to. And I just need to work harder at it. When you've been running 40-50 miles a week (in addition to 3.5 hours of martial arts) and still managed to gain six pounds in a month, that's a little bit of a red flag.

Recap of Facts #1 & #2: Although I certainly don't think I'm overweight, I weigh more than I would like to going into an "A" race, and my Clarksburg half marathon goal of breaking 1:40 would be made significantly easier by dropping some number of pounds.

Fact #3: When you're an athlete and already in pretty good shape (by non-athlete standards), it's hard to get support from people around you for eating better / less in order to lose weight. I get that; when someone looks to you like they're in good shape (and can already run faster and farther than they'd ever dream of running), it's hard to understand why they feel any need to weigh less.

Or how they could weigh less. A month ago, I ran a 44:42 10K to win my age group (and finished feeling like I probably could've run harder & shaved ~12 seconds off that time) & weighed around 132. That's what 5'4" & 132 pounds looks like, to the right, there. To give you an idea of where those numbers lie on the spectrum of "underweight" to "overweight," that's a BMI of 22.7 (where less than 18.5 is underweight and more than 25 is overweight -- admittedly, there are some real problems with the whole BMI concept, but I'm average enough in terms of build and body composition that it's probably reasonably functional for these purposes). I mentioned casually to a friend that I would really love to weigh about 10 pounds less going into Clarksburg. His reaction: Raised eyebrows, and "I don't know where you have 10 pounds to lose."

I didn't pursue the conversation. (I mean, what's there to gain, really?) But realistically, I do know where those 10 pounds are. 122 pounds would put me at 20.9, certainly still in a completely normal range; when I was in high school (and eating like a horse), I was pretty much the same height and normally weighed around 115 (19.7 BMI) and no one thought that I was underweight. Realistically, I think it's probably that 10 pounds just isn't as much weight as most people think it is, and if I did lose 10 pounds, my friend might not even notice.

Upshot: I think that in the past few months, I haven't been letting myself own the fact that, gosh darnit, I want to lose some unnecessary weight going into Clarksburg. I certainly have it to lose, and I know it will improve my time. I haven't been owning it because I've been worried about what people will think and say about my turning down extra helpings of amazing food or only having a little bit of tasty dessert (skipping dessert completely is beyond the realm of things I'm willing to do). And because not owning it is easier than getting a handle on my stress & dealing with it in ways that don't involve letting my little-kid self take control of what I eat. I need to get more comfortable saying, "Look, this is my goal, I want it enough to make this decision, and it's not about food issues or anything unhealthy, so please just drop it."

I'm hoping that putting it in writing will help me own it a little more. I'm purposefully not attaching a number (eg, "I will lose xx pounds by Nov. 13.") because I honestly don't know what a reasonable number would even be. My goal is more, "Eat like a reasonable person, plan your meals ahead of time, eat less, drink less, and go back to eating your fruits & veggies first," because honestly, I know what that means, and if I do it, there's no way I won't lose at least a few pounds.

So, yeah. I hope my discussing weight loss in relation to running isn't a turn-off for anyone, and that all of that makes some sense.

Is weight something you think about with respect to running? Or just in general? Do you avoid discussing it with non-athletic friends? I'm curious about how other recreational runners deal with this issue.

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