review: racing weight

It took me a long time to finally pick up this book. I’d always sort of scoff at it in my mind, my excuses ranging from disciplinary to self-deprecating: From “I’m already too obsessed with that stuff” to “how pro do I think I am?”

For the triathlete, Racing Weight may as well scream “Get Rich in 5 Easy Steps!” or “Be Your Best Ever, Now!” It promises speed, science, and sexiness in the same breath—what triathlete could resist? (Even with her latest issue of Saveur standing by?)

Yes, these were both on my coffee table this week.

Yes, these were both on my coffee table this week.

In short, this book inspired me to pursue my best, not just in my training but in what I eat—something I need regular reminders of. While I wouldn’t say I’ve ever had a full-fledged eating disorder, my relationship with weight and food hasn’t been ideal. In fact, part of my quick addiction to triathlon was the way it rewarded the hours of training with lower numbers, both on the scale and in the change room. What? Size 4? Has this 5’11” girl ever been a 4?? I loved the sport’s effect on my body. And I loved the license to eat.

2006 Cycle-tour: Definitely: a hippie. Definitely not: a triathlete.

Over the past year though, I’ve noticed a shift in motivation. Sure, I like the way 135 pounds feels on my frame a lot more than 160, but I’m over it now. Speed and strength now trump scales and sizes. And if that means getting friendly with the 140’s, so be it. (In Fitzgerald’s words, “Weighing 145 pounds is not better than weighing 155 pounds unless you perform better at the lighter weight.”)

The only way to determine your optimal racing weight is to discover it through experience, and the only way to attain your optimal racing weight is to focus on performance … In the meantime, be patient and enjoy the mental challenge of trying to figure it all out.


In the first chapter, Fitzgerald backs up the connection between performance and leanness with numerous studies. But he establishes right away that his book is not a weight loss program, and that leanness is not necessarily lightness. It’s not about achieving a certain number, it’s about achieving your unique optimal performance weight. Chapter two helps you estimate this number, to be taken only as a starting point. This isn’t your regular old Jenny Craig program. (In the chapter on self-monitoring, Fitzgerald hammers home the point that this takes months, and even years, of comparing your body weight and composition with your best performances and learning from the data.)

Summer 2008: First triathlon. Definitely: fitter. Definitely not: lean … or aero.

So just for fun, let’s look at my numbers. (Note: This was a one-time measurement taken on a random Tuesday morning. For more accurate numbers, I’d suggest weighing yourself/measuring your body fat a few times throughout the week and averaging the numbers.)

After stepping on my Tanita scale to determine my current body fat percentage (17), I plugged my numbers into the age-group percentile chart Fitzgerald provides to define a reasonable goal for me. Seventeen percent body fat puts me in the 85th percentile. When you’re at this end of the spectrum, Fitzgerald suggests moving up slowly—so for me, into the 90th percentile. The next step was figuring out my lean body mass (yay math!): If I’m 17 percent body fat, then I’m 83 percent lean. Then, I multiplied my current total body weight (144) by my current lean body mass percentage (83%) to find my actual lean body mass (the pounds that aren’t fat): 144 x .83 = 119.5 lbs. At my goal body fat percentage (15.5, represented by the 90th percentile), my lean body mass would account for 84.5, not 83, percent of my total body weight. Finally, to figure out my optimal performance weight: X = (lean body mass) ÷ (optimal lean mass percentage). For me: 119.5 ÷ .845 = an optimal performance weight of 141.5.

If going from 144 to 141.5 seems like splitting hairs, Fitzgerald says that even those who are already very lean, “can still expect to make big performance gains in losing a little body fat.” Sign me up.

Fall 2008: First marathon. Definitely: leaner. Definitely not: fast.

The Six Step Program

Fitzgerald’s six-step approach is attractively simple: 1) Improve your diet quality, 2) manage your appetite, 3) balance your carbs, fat, and protein, 4) monitor yourself, 5) time your nutrition, and 6) train right. Six easy steps and that little 141.5 and I will be nice and cozy come March 17. (Well, maybe not THAT soon, but it sounded good.) You’ll have to read the book for all the juicy specifics (including numerous studies to tout at your next happy hour), but it’s really that simple.

Summer 2009: First longer-distance tri. Definitely not: dry.

Here are some of my personal highlights from each section:

In the Diet Quality Score chapter, Fitzgerald presents a novel alternative for tedious calorie counting: scoring your daily food intake. A serving of fruit, veggies, dairy, whole grains, and lean meats get 1 or 2 points, depending on how many you’ve had that day, and high fat/processed foods get a -1 or -2. Your goal is to tally up as high a daily DQS as you can, with 32 being the max (achieved by eating four servings of fruits and vegetables, three servings each of lean meats and fish, whole grains, nuts and seeds, and dairy, and by not eating any low-quality foods at all). But my favorite part of the whole section (and maybe of the whole book), are the quotes following this next pic…

Summer 2010: First race in SD. Lean(ish). Definitely not: on the East Coast anymore.

“There is no difference between the long-term effects of whole-milk dairy and low-fat dairy on body weight. All forms of dairy tend to limit long-term weight gain […] because whole-milk dairy is less processed than low-fat dairy, it is arguably a higher quality food.”

“Dark chocolate does not count as a sweet if it’s at least 80 percent cacao and eaten in small amounts.”

And my second favorite:

“In moderation, alcohol has a positive effect on cardiovascular health and no long-term effect on body weight. Do not score your first alcoholic drink of the day if you’re female, or you first two if you’re male.”

And my favorite:

“…the normal rules of food quality are suspended during exercise.”

Spring 2011: First 70.3. Definitely: Lean, strong(ish). Definitely not: smiling.

From the chapter on appetite management, I was inspired to focus not on total calories, but on what my body needs. (Plus, as I learned earlier this week, listed calories are often grossly inaccurate). I can be a mindless eater from time to time, and training for Ironman doesn’t give me a free pass. This chapter reminded me that there’s a difference between real hunger and head hunger, to eat with intention, and to avoid eating when I’m distracted. These are not easy things to do, especially for this popcorn and Breaking Bad addict.

Summer 2011: First mtb race. Definitely: leaner, stronger. Definitely not: doing a triathlon.

Other lessons:

– Don’t eat like a bird at the office (“when you habitually consume too little at certain times of the day, your metabolism will slow so that more of the calories you consumer at other times are stored as body fat, and your body will break down muscle tissue to make up for the deficit of food energy”).

– Eat more carbs (560-630 grams a day during Ironman training)

– Focus on carb intake early in the day and protein later

– Eat before/during/after workouts

– Strength train

– Track my performance at different weights

Summer 2012: First Ironman. Definitely: (too?) lean. Strong, on the bike. Definitely not: A strong runner.

In closing, the book contains daily food logs of some top professional endurance athletes.

I highly recommend this book. It’s a quick, inspiring read, and loaded with research, practical tips, and of course, healthy recipes. (I’ll report back on how those fared.)