BY NANCY CLARK | PHOTO BY ADAM REIST
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“I want to lose weight to help make the boat lighter.” “I have to shed a few pounds to be able to row as a lightweight.” “Losing weight would really improve my power-to-weight ratio.”
Lugging around excess body fat can hinder athletic performance for sure. Notice how much harder you work when carrying a heavy bag of groceries up a flight of stairs. That said, if you’re an already lean rower who is contemplating weight loss to improve your athletic performance and help lighten the load in your boat, should you think again?
Many rowers are fixated on having a better power-to-weight ratio (the power you generate during exercise divided by your body weight). They overlook the fact that the cost of losing weight (poorly fueled muscles, higher risk of injury) can limit the benefits of being lighter and supposedly better. Here’s some food for thought:
• When pondering the power-to-weight ratio, most athletes focus on fat loss instead of power gain. Losing fat is hard (how many rowers do you know who have been trying to lose the same five pounds for the past 10 years?). Losing fat is even harder if you’re already lean, especially if you’re leaner than others in your family.
• Being lighter and leaner works to a certain extent. Countless athletes have told me they performed their best after having lost weight. Makes sense because their bodies had been training at a heavier weight. The trouble begins when weight-reduced rowers enforce a restrictive diet for months, if not years, to maintain their desired lean physique. Injuries begin to happen—repeatedly. As one athlete who had been too thin said, “I was like a race car—until the wheels started falling off. And then the engine dropped out.”
• Wrestlers who repeatedly lost the most weight over seven seasons sustained more injuries than those who lost less weight. Cutting weight increased the risk of getting injured.
• Athletes in many sports restrict their food and nutrient intake to maintain or attain a desired lightness. Even among top female soccer players, 88 percent consumed far fewer than the recommended baseline of about 2,300 calories per day (for a 140-pound player). Their average daily carbohydrate intake was also very low—only about 200 grams. This was far short of the recommended 350 to 500 grams of carb per day (2.5 to 3.5 grams of carb per pound of body weight) needed to support hard training properly.
While these players knew intellectually that carbs are important for athletes, they still restricted their carb intake because they perceived carbs as fattening. False! Muscles burn carbs preferentially for fuel. Bread, potatoes, and starchy foods are important for replenishing the muscle glycogen stores that get depleted with hard training and weightlifting. Refueling with a high-protein, high-fat chicken Caesar salad doesn’t do the job. More sandwiches, please.
• Rowers who follow the advice to consume more starchy food (carbs) than usual should know they’re likely to gain a few pounds of water weight. Each ounce of carb stored as muscle glycogen holds about three ounces of water. This weight gain means you’re better fueled. Pay attention to how much better your next workout feels.
• Female rowers who restrict their food intake often experience amenorrhea. Underfed males experience low testosterone and low libido. Both males and females can experience low thyroid levels, low bone-mineral density, and can run a higher risk for bone injury. Because of injury, dieting athletes lost 10 times more training days than non-dieters, one study reported.
• Among young girls, the gain in body fat that occurs with puberty is often seen as a threat to performance. Some girls go to extremes to cut back on food and curb the developmental changes that are supposed to happen. This is a bad idea. Restricting food and the valuable nutrients it provides puts them at much higher risk, compared to their male peers, of getting stress fractures. About two-thirds of weight-obsessed young female athletes will develop disordered eating habits, if not an outright eating disorder.
• Athletes younger than 18 years should not manipulate their body weight. Parents, coaches, and teammates alike need to learn how to talk comfortably about puberty and body changes that are supposed to happen throughout middle and high school.
• Super-runner Mary Cain’s story sums it up: “I was the fastest girl in America until I joined Nike.” Mary had been shamed about her weight and pressured to get smaller because her breasts and bottom had become too big. She stopped menstruating for three years and broke five bones.
Mary Cain’s terrible experience encouraged many other athletes to become more vocal. An article in The New York Times headlined “Female college athletes say pressure to cut body fat is toxic” highlighted the need for a culture change that is now beginning to happen. Body-comp measurements no longer are taken at many colleges.
• Even the military has changed its focus from leanness (body-fat percentage) to performance. Soldiers need to be strong and powerful. The military now uses the Fat-free Mass Index (fat-free weight divided by height) to track muscle gain, as opposed to requiring soldiers to lose body fat.
The bottom line
As a rower, you want to:
1. Train to improve performance, not to burn calories. Surround your workouts with food, so you’re not exercising on empty and in muscle-breakdown mode.
2. Consume adequate calories so you’re not living in energy deficit during the active part of your day. Being under-fueled leads to lethargy, cold hands, loss of menstrual periods (women) and libido (men), reduced bone health, and less pep—to say nothing of reduced ability to heal and recover from hard workouts.
3. Remember that restricting food means restricting important nutrients like protein, iron, zinc, calcium, etc., that reduce your risk of injury. Drink milk; snack on yogurt. (The current science suggests that a moderate intake of dairy fat is probably not harmful). Enjoy sandwiches made with peanut butter. (Peanut-butter eaters tend to be leaner than folks who avoid this supposedly “fattening” food.)
4. Enjoy the success that comes with being well fueled, healthy, strong, and powerful. You will always win with good nutrition!