Weight-sensitive Athletes: Food for Thought

author : Nancy Clark
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Fuel sensibly and avoid undermining your fitness for weight loss

While many athletes yearn to be leaner and lighter, some athletes have to be leaner and lighter. As a runner and cyclist, your sport does not have weight classes (as does wrestling, light-weight rowing), but the sports are sensitive to weight. Hence, you may put pressure on yourself to achieve a weight that might defy your genetic physique. Some runners, cyclists and triathletes can achieve the desired lightness healthfully; others struggle with poor energy, lethargy, and depressed mood.

It’s no secret that disordered eating practices are common among weight-conscious athletes. An estimated 30% to 60% of active women and up to 19% of active men struggle with finding the right balance of food and body-fatness (1). Their quest to be light easily leads to restrictive food intake, over-exercising, and too little fuel to support normal body functions. In women, strict diets trigger amenorrhea —loss of regular menstrual periods. While some women seem content to get rid of that monthly hassle, they lack knowledge that amenorrhea leads to weaker bones, higher risk of stress fractures (today) and early osteoporosis (in the future). It’s hard to be a life-long runner when your skeleton won’t support your goals.

While the combination of amenorrhea, disordered eating, and stress fractures has been dubbed The Female Athlete Triad, today’s sports medicine professionals acknowledge that weight-conscious men also experience medical issues. For example, a study of competitive male cyclists suggests as many as 25% had osteopenia (the early stags of osteoporosis) and 9% had full-blown osteoporosis (low bone density). The exact cause of the poor bone health is yet to be determined (2).

Up to 94% of elite athletes who participate in weight-sensitive sports report dieting and using extreme weight control measures to achieve their desired weight (1). They commonly experience dizzy spells, needless fatigue, headaches, constipation, and poor sleep. Symptoms of long-term under-eating include hair loss, dangerously low heart rate (

Long-term food restriction easily leads to medical complications that involve not just bones but also the whole body: intestines, heart, hormones, reproductive system, kidneys and brain. It creates psychological stress and depression. Hence, runners and cyclist who need to make weight should take the job seriously—not simply resort to starvation diets when the weight creeps up. 

So what’s a weight-conscious triathlete to do?

The best time to lose weight is during the off-season. But runners and cyclists, being human, often procrastinate until the last minute before a race to complete this task. Here are tips to help you make weight healthfully:

  • Avoid losing more than 2% of your body weight via pre-event dehydration. That’s a loss of three pounds of sweat for a 150-pound runner.
  • Find a health professional who can monitor your body fat. If you are a man, do not drop below 5% body fat. Women shouldn’t drop below 12% fat.
  • Do not eat less than your resting metabolic rate (RMR), the energy needed for your heart, organs and brain to function. You can roughly estimate your RMR by multiplying your body weight times 10 calories per pound. For example, if you weigh 150 pounds, you need about 1,500 calories to simply breathe and be alive. That’s the equivalent of three 500-calorie meals.
  • Add at least 50% more calories than that for daily activities and training. To take the guess-work out of calculating your personal calorie budget and creating an effective food plan, you want to partner with a sports nutritionist who is a registered dietitian (RD). To find your local sports RD, use the referral network at SCANdpg.org.
  • More simply (but less personalized), knock off 300 to 600 calories from your typical (non-dieting) day’s intake. Deleting two beers (300 calories) and four Oreos (200 calories) could be an easy start to weight loss.
  • To minimize loss of muscle, try to consume 20 to 30 grams of protein every 3 to 4 hours during the active part of your day. That means, 3 eggs for breakfast, 2 (6-oz) tubs of Greek yogurt mid-morning, a can of tuna for lunch, 1 cup cottage cheese mid-afternoon, and a chicken breast for dinner. The portion actually depends on your body size. The target is about 0.7 to 1 g protein per pound of body weight (1.5 to 2.0 g Pro/kg) when you are cutting calories and are in energy deficit.
  • Include carbohydrate to fuel your muscles. Target at least 1.5 g carb per pound of body weight (3 g carb/kg). For a 150-pound runner, that means at least 225 grams of carbs (900 calories), preferably more. Divided into meals and snacks, that’s 60 g carb/meal and 30 g each for a morning and mid-afternoon snack. Translated into food, this means enjoy oatmeal with the eggs, banana with the cottage cheese, and rice with the chicken, etc.
  • Include a little fat in each meal to add satiety and keep you feeling fed. You also need fat to absorb vitamins A, D, E and K. Choose nutrient-dense fats, such as avocado, peanut butter, almonds, and salmon.
  • Surround your workout with fuel. That is, eat part or all of your breakfast before you train, so that you have the energy to exercise meaningfully. Include both carbs (to fuel the workout) and protein (to minimize muscle breakdown). This could be yogurt and a granola bar before you workout, and eggs with toast afterwards.
  • Plan to eat recovery foods soon after you run. To avoid extra calories, simply back your training into a meal. That is, if you run from 4:00 to 5:00 in the afternoon, eat dinner right way at 5:30 (as opposed to having recovery food and then dinner at 7:00).

Dieting gone awry…

Despite the demands of your sport, try to keep your life in balance. Your whole identity should not be based on being a runner, but rather on being a person who runs and has other interests. After all, if you identify yourself as a marathoner, who will you be if you get badly injured and cannot run?
     If you wonder if you have crossed the line and have an eating disorder, take this SCOFF quiz:
--Do you make yourself Sick because you feel uncomfortably full?
--Do you worry you have lost Control over how much you eat?
--Have you recently lost more than 14 pounds in a 3-month period?
--Do you believe yourself to be Fat when others say you are too thin?
--Would you say that Food dominates your life?

If you answer yes to two of the five questions, seek help from a sports dietitian.

The bottom line: You will not be able to be a great runner unless you take care of your body and fuel it appropriately. Here’s to healthful weight management!
1. Sundgot-Borgen J, Meyer N, Lohman T, Ackland T, Maughan R, Stewart A, Muller W. How to minimize the health risks to athletes who compete in weight-sensitive sports. Review and position statement on behalf of the Ad hoc Research Working Group on Body Composition Health and Performance, under the auspices of the IOC Medical Commission. Br. J Sports Med 2013; 47:1012-1032
2. Smathers A, Bemben M, Bemben D. Bone density comparisons in male competitive road cyclists and untrained controls. Med Sci Sports Exerc 2009; 41:290-6

Sports nutritionist Nancy Clark MS RD CSSD has a private practice in the Boston-area (Newton; 617-795-1875), where she helps both fitness exercisers and competitive athletes create winning food plans. Her best-selling Nancy Clark’s Sports Nutrition Guidebook, and food guides for marathoners, cyclists and soccer players, as well as teaching materials, are available at nancyclarkrd.com. For workshops, visit www.NutritionSportsExerciseCEUs.com.


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date: December 16, 2015

Nancy Clark

Nancy Clark, MS, RD, an internationally known sports nutritionist and nutrition author, is a registered dietitian (RD) who specializes in nutrition for exercise, health and the nutritional management of eating disorders.

avatarNancy Clark

Nancy Clark, MS, RD, an internationally known sports nutritionist and nutrition author, is a registered dietitian (RD) who specializes in nutrition for exercise, health and the nutritional management of eating disorders.

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