Is weight a bad measure of fitness?

Using weight as a measure for performance is at best lazy and misguided, at worst destructive to long-term health, argues Tim Heming

Credit: Daniel Seex

Six years ago I stepped into a Bod-Pod, an egg-shaped capsule reminiscent of the late, great Robin Williams’ spacecraft from the opening credits of Mork & Mindy. It was in the GlaxoSmithKline high performance test lab in west London and its objective was to measure my body composition. 

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On first impressions, it was an impressive piece of hi-tech kit, spitting out all manner of data concerning body fat percentages, and had the gravitational pull of a set of bathroom scales!

Times change and I now recoil at this harmless one-off test because I’ve become militant in seeing weight management for performance as a destructive measure. Its role as a crude proxy might appear to have merit, but it’s reasoning that’s heavily flawed, horribly short-term, and any temporary validation is more than outweighed by the risks.

It’s exemplified by the emotive case of Mary Cain, the teenage prodigy whose health suffered at the hands of the Nike Oregon Project under its head coach Alberto Salazar. After five stress fractures during a torrid period in Portland, Cain began self-harming and became a hostage to suicidal thoughts.

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The neglect of pastoral care seems beyond refute and Nike’s rebuttal outlining how Cain reapplied to join the group belies a lack of comprehension of the vice-like manipulation of the coach-to-vulnerable athlete relationship. Even at her lowest ebb, Cain felt she was the one in the wrong.

Testimony from athletes who felt subjected to a ‘fat shaming’ culture has followed, with tales of coaches buying small-sized clothing to pressure athletes to lose weight, or the absence of periods celebrated as being in race shape. Triathlon cannot be immune. Hollie Avil, a 2008 Olympian, has been candid over the negative effects of comments about her weight that played a part in her retirement, aged just 22, and others have more privately confessed to enduring toxic coaching relationships.

There’s an argument, posited by sportswriter Matt Fitzgerald, author of Racing Weight, that turning discussions over weight into a taboo subject forces the issue underground or underestimates the intelligence of athletes to understand the risks. Fitzgerald is not alone in claiming that there’s nothing intrinsically wrong with actively managing
body composition in the pursuit of better performance.

But while acknowledging that entrenched views rarely lead to progress, I’ve yet to hear a cogent argument for focussing on weight, especially when there are a myriad of other measurement tools for endurance sport, from bike power to foot speed, heart-rate to race results, or even just diarising contentment.

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Moreover, I don’t believe in weight measurement because it plants seeds of obsession, and fixated upon can become overwhelmingly part of the mental make-up and inordinately difficult to shift. After all, the most important factor for high-end performance is not weight loss, but consistency, and to deliver this, all-round health and wellbeing
needs to be priority.

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