Sunday, February 7, 2010

A Weighty Matter

This past week there was a great item in the NYT regarding weight and athletic performance. Some highlights:

So, why not just be as thin as you can be?

The problem is that everyone has a point at which further weight loss actually makes their performance worse, said Dr. Mark Tarnopolsky, a muscle metabolism researcher and physiologist at McMaster University in Ontario. Dr. Tarnopolsky, who is a nationally ranked athlete in winter triathlons, adventure racing and ski orienteering, said that people vary so much that there is no formula to figure out the perfect weight.

Dr. Tarnopolsky said that he got his best VO2 max — 86 milliliters of oxygen per kilogram of body weight — when he weighed 156 pounds. “Like everyone else, I said, ‘Maybe if I drop some body fat, it will go higher,’ ” Dr. Tarnopolsky said. So he got his weight down to 152 pounds. But to his surprise, his VO2 max decreased, to 82.

The likely reason, he said, was that he had reached a point where his body began burning its own muscle protein for fuel. He was weaker, and his performance was worse, even though he weighed less.

“You could see on the VO2 machine what your body knew was right,” Dr. Tarnopolsky said. “You’d feel tired, stale, lethargic when you tried to drive your weight down.”

Often the only way to know your best weight is by trial and error.

My running coach, Tom Fleming, a former elite runner who won the New York City Marathon twice, in 1973 and 1975, said that he always tells his competitive athletes “that the perfect weight is the weight you are the day you P.B. in your event,” referring to the time you achieve your personal best — or fastest — finish.

“Your body will tell you” your perfect weight, he said, and when you are there, “you will feel fast, race fast.”

[Dathan Ritzenhein] has learned, he said, that if he tries to lose weight too fast or if he continues to lose weight up until his race day, he does not have the energy he needs for his best performance. And if he tries to lose weight too fast, his training suffers.

“It’s a hard line” between losing just enough at the right rate and losing too much too fast, he said.

Andre Agassi, the tennis star, and his longtime trainer, Gil Reyes, discovered through experience that Mr. Agassi’s best weight was between 178 and 182 pounds (Mr. Agassi is 5 feet 11 1/2.)

“We came up with a number, but we did not seek a number,” Mr. Reyes explained in a recent telephone interview. “It was all about him feeling strong and fit.”

Before he retired from tennis, Mr. Agassi would sometimes gain weight and then stop eating, trying to shed the pounds fast. Mr. Reyes discouraged this. “I said to him, ‘Why do you feel like you have to stop eating to lose that weight?,’ ” he recalled. “ ‘What if you were to eat 10 to 15 percent more, but train 40 percent more?’

“I knew from experience and results that I had an ideal weight — or what I thought was ideal,” said Andy Hampsten, a former Tour de France rider and the only American ever to win the Giro D’Italia, in 1988. “If I set too low of a weight goal, I would be weak and stressed,” he said. “If I weighed 4 or 5 pounds more than ideal, I could see I was slower than my competitors.”

Mr. Reyes said that he and Mr. Agassi learned not to let the scale rule your life. “We had a little bit of a phrase,” he said. “The weight scale to most human beings can be like a Ouija board. It can start messing with your head.”

The trick is not to let it.

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