A Weighty Issue

Chick's CornerOn arrival in Durban, South Africa for my first running of Comrades I checked into a swanky five-star hotel on the Golden Mile beach front of the seaside town. My accommodation was thanks to Nedbank Running Club, who I was representing for the race. There’s pressure with any race, but the pressure always seems a little more when you’re being funded by people who you’ve never met and who are clearly only covering your costs because they’ve seen your race results and want you to perform wearing their kit. So up I zipped in the elevator to one of the higher floors of the hotel and nervously knocked on the door of the Nedbank crew who were handing out race kit. The door opened and in I walked: two South African men I’d never met before but they had piles of the green Nedbank kit bursting out of boxes so I figured they were legit.

South Africans, as a rule, are a pretty straight-talking nation; Nick, the team manager introduced himself and then promptly looked me up and down. I was clearly getting the once over and felt rather like a little puppy in a pet store hoping that the kid would pick me to take home. “Good. You’ve got some muscle on you. You’ll need that for the hills on this course. That last girl that was in here, she’s too skinny, she won’t do well.” Okay, I guess this was my welcome to the more competitive end of racing where it’s no-holds-barred honesty, and at least this time I’d been paid, a somewhat roundabout, compliment. A good thing I wasn’t sensitive about my weight. (Note: the ‘too skinny girl’ is not a North American or European runner iRunFar readers will be familiar with, but I prefer not to mention her by name.)

Later that same year I ran Western States for the first time where once I again I got thinking about weight. Well, it’s hard not to given you are weighed the day before and, then, numerous times throughout the race course to ensure that you are maintaining your weight within a few percent. That day I hauled all 128 pounds of me from Squaw Valley to Auburn. The same again this year, and in both years I managed to get to Auburn ahead of the rest of the women’s field and I’m prepared to bet that, for my height (164 cm, 5 ft 3.8 in), I’m one of the heavier women in the top 10. I’m not really bothered; it seems to work.

Yet it’s interesting to consider the importance of weight for ultrarunners. I say ultrarunners specifically as it would seem that for shorter distances keeping light weight can be important in relation to performance where light = fast. Of course, too light can be dangerous for shorter distance runners if they go too extreme and lose not just fat, but muscle mass, too, and become more prone to injuries such as stress fractures, but as a general rule if you look at front of the pack marathoners they’re a pretty light bunch. So does the same figure for ultrarunners? There does seem to be some logic that the less weight you are carrying, the faster you will go. But then ultras are not all about being fast, they are also about endurance and surviving both the race course and the training that gets you to the start line. By surviving I mean not getting injured or breaking down, and there I’m not so sure that light, light, light is the best.

Stress fractures tend to be related to high mileage and lighter-weight runners. Sure, not a clear-cut link, but definitely some correlation and it makes sense in the most very basic way that your bones have less padding the lighter you are (Of course too much ‘padding’ also stresses the bones.).

And how about running hills, which are so prevalent in ultras? Hill running is just as much about strength as speed. Don’t we tend to say that runners ‘power up a hill’ rather than ‘speed up a hill?’ Of course a lighter runner might find uphills easier (less weight to haul to the top), but a runner with a few extra pounds in the form of muscle uses those extra pounds to their advantage to propel them up hills, arms pumping and legs driving. On a course like Comrades, which has extensive stretches of downhill tarmac (even on an ‘up’ year), the body takes a real beating; it’s kind of like punching a punch bag over and over and over again. Yes, less weight will mean a softer pounding, but it also means less protection against the pounding. Having a little extra muscle gives your body something to absorb the shock of the unrelenting pounding and the better you can survive the pounding the faster you will be able to carry on running. It’s all well and good being, on paper, a fast runner, but if your quads are shot from repeated downhill pounding then you won’t even have the chance to use that speed. You need to have the strength to survive the hills to then be able to use your speed on faster, flatter sections of a course.

Of course, I’m on no way saying that ultrarunners should be heavy. To perform one’s best, wherever you are in the pack, there’s a fine line between having weight that translates into power and endurance, and having too much weight so you lose speed. It goes without saying that any weight carried as lean muscle is going to help your ultrarunning far more than extra weight in the form of fat. But I, personally, think that it’s definitely worth considering whether you really need to drop those few ‘extra’ pounds or whether you’d be better off hitting the gym and converting those pounds into toned muscle. After all, as runners, we should all generally be more concerned about the number on a finishing line clock rather than the number on a scale.

There are 77 comments

  1. EJ

    Ellie, I always enjoy reading your articles. Would you mind sharing your gym/workout routine with us? Are you lifting weights, doing push-ups and holding planks like the rest of us are? How many pull-ups can you do?

  2. Mike Hinterberg

    Good subject, Ellie.

    I agree that the cost of being "too light," in terms of injury and health, probably outweighs (bad pun) the benefits.

    Stress fractures are also associated with the female athlete triad, so mineral/nutrient deficiencies and hormonal levels that may be compromised, with an increased risk of osteoporosis, are something to look at if a runner is concerned.

    In that regard, both bone density and body composition are important. Methods like a DEXA body scan can provide more quantitative results than the South African pinch-test(!).

    For a rough estimate regarding healthy weight, people should be interested in their body mass index (BMI). There are some limitations to BMI (more notably among larger, more muscular athletes, and some ethnicities), which causes it to skew slightly higher for some, but at a gross level it remains a useful tool for population health.

    Regarding body mass and performance, this is a good reminder that Dr. Hoffman and WS does excellent and useful research as part of the WS mission. In one study in 2010, body composition was noted among tested runners. Notably, the top 3 men and women were all around a healthy BMI of 22. Interestingly, that is also where Ellie's racing weight would seemingly be.

    It does seem that marathon runners are a bit lighter, but national class and OT runners are still in the healthy weight range, with women and men having BMI's around 19 and 20, respectively.

    As it stands, for optimal health and performance, the evidence shows that healthy weight (BMI > 18.5) is better than underweight.

      1. Dave

        You might want to pass on any brownies Ellie sends you. North Vancouver has a certain horticultural reputation, and this may be reflected in the recipe she uses…

  3. Jess Dagg

    great article! I'm not in the competitive division, and I generally run near the back in a race, but I have attempted to see where that line is for me. Being lighter did not make me faster and it also made me feel worse. I shall stick with whatever my body decides because it always gets me to the finish line ;-)

    1. Ellie

      Jess, your run this year at Kneekancker 30km just mere months post-baby was so impressive, you definitely have the strength to tackle our gnarly trails with their constant ups and downs after all your training with Sierra on your back – that makes for a strong lady!

  4. Sarah

    Great article Ellie! I always find it interesting that when I'm at an ultra expo or pre race meeting I know even before you see any sort of sign telling me what event I'm there for. All the people walking around are lean, fit, and tan. Although, as I watch people cross the finish line the next day, or the day after that, I'm usually surprised to see all different body types represented. As a larger female I get super psyched when I beat those "skinny" girls that actually look like runners. I feel like the typical runner's body doesn't play too much of a role in ultras. I do believe that human beings in general were built to run, and to run long distances. I think some are genetically predisposed to be naturally better at it, but I think we can all get there with training because as a species we're hardwired to do it.

  5. Geoff

    Great article Ellie, I'm always kind of baffled when I hear ultrarunners talking about being overweight (except people that are very new to it and might still be losing extra weight that they had before they started). Obviously there is some limit, but extra weight is typically going to be a beneficial thing, either in the form of extra muscle mass or extra fuel in the form of stored fat, and if you're training the amount that you need to be in shape to run ultras you just aren't going to store up too much fat.

    The off season is of course another story, and I will say that my nearly 5 month "forced offseason" that i'm in right now has definitely allowed me to store up more fat than ever before.

  6. Danni

    This is undeniably a totally vapid comment, but I would have guessed 110 pounds for you at most given your appearance. You are enviably lean. The same weight/height on me looks a lot different because I basically guzzle beer for a living. More proof that the scale doesn't mean that much.

    1. olga

      Danni, totally agree! My same frame and 135 have all the rolls Bryon Powell describes to have for warmth, and I live in X, so can't even use it as an excuse. Ellie, you can't possibly be the "bigger" girl on a WS100 podium (though one year somehow I surely was), but I know you're comparing yourself to elite marathoner's bodies and those are surely different more often than not. We're also women and will forever call ourselves "fat" regardless what population around says. In general, yes, we might find a bit of layer useful in long distances, but we also need to teach our bodies to use that very thing. And that's a whole different article I hope someone will write!

      1. Ellie

        Olga – I am only guessing that I might be heavier than the average woman in top ten at WSER from talk I've heard of others weights (plus my crew found it funny to report to me after the race how I was maybe not as light as some of the others!), def not scientific but some annecdotal evidence for my claim.

        1. olga

          Your crew was pulling your leg! That performance was so out of the ordinary, they weren't sure what else to focus on:) JK. You're awesome. All your however many pounds (or kilograms).

          1. Pam

            In 2010, my crew actually dubbed me "The fattest girl in the top 10 at WS!" It was in jest and in response to my own insecurities about weight, but I do think this is a major cause of stress for runners, most especially women. In 2008, the year of my first ultra, I weighed 112. I actually weigh a lot more now (usually race 116-118) but I am a lot faster and a much better athlete than when I first started. I came to grips with it not being about how my body looks but how it performs, as that is really what I am after. But I admit when lining up with skinny girls in tiny bunhuggers, I still get a little insecure about my "Mom ass". But not insecure enough to give up dessert! Thanks for the article, Ellie. I love your series taking on more women's running topics.

  7. Alex

    Concerning performance in endurance sports, weight is not so important as body fat percentage. Muscle is useful weight, whereas fat is not. This isn't to say that every runner should be obsessed with getting ripped, just that it's an important factor to consider, if you want to make the most of whatever talent you've got.

      1. Alex

        Just because you don't need to be ripped doesn't mean you can't be. Hell, I'll be honest, a devote gym time three days a week to strength work – and the aesthetic benefits have a lot to do with it. Still can't rock the arm sleeves though.

  8. boisean

    I would agree, Alex, that muscle is 'useful' weight, however, only up to a point. That is why you don't see those with 'bodybuilder' type physiques high up on the results sheets at running races, cycling, XC skiing, etc.

    1. Alex

      Sure. The training necessary to excel at those sports prevents significant hypertrophy. But while you don't see 225 lb endurance champions, neither do you see many above 8% BF (for men).

  9. Flandria

    This is a really interesting write-up. I am a novice runner with no experience in running at all and I am training for my fist ultra in spring of 2013. I have experience training for bike races and have raced in the amateur level for about 7 years. Training for something is pretty much my lifestyle so I have an insight on my experience training for an ultra marathon as a novice.

    I just completed my 22 miles trail run race and was my personal best time finishing 2nd in my age group. I cut 1.5 minutes off my best pace. I didn't go all out because it was a training race or C race and finished the whole 22 miles not losing form. Mighty proud of that.

    So, my humble opinion is…

    Being light weight in my opinion is not critical in an ultra marathon. VO2Max is however important so power to weight can make a difference in trail running on hilly terrain and high elevation gains which is pretty much most ultras are as I have observed. The hillier, the better and more challenging. BUT, what is more important as a novice is building up a damn good base to go long and to also build up on DURABILITY. Durability is basically having the body to be able to withstand the long running in many conditions. Running on trail in different terrains is rough on the body specially for those starting out. BUT, I believe the body adapts so the slower you build your body to be strong like strong ligaments, tendons, muscles or skeletally the more successful you can be in training for an ultra goal.

    Speed comes later. It will happen once your base is big enough and your skeletal/muscular body is able to handle higher efforts or intensity as needed in a specific race. Running on low intensity for long will automatically shed some fat and will lean up the body so not to worry about it as long as you have good whole foods meals.

    I am not a coach/nutritionist/trainer but training is a big part of my life and is very interesting (geeky) to me. I live and breathe it everyday.

    Oh, also big fan of ulra runners! Very inspiring and motivates me everyday!

  10. Merrie

    I'm taking this winter off from running and I have lost 5 pounds in two months (from 145 to 140 — I'm 5'8).

    Bittersweet, because it's all my hard-earned leg muscle, melting back down to normal feminine proportions after 9 months of hill training and long trail runs.

    The mirror is not always a good judge of body composition. I look better in jeans now but have lost all my endurance.

  11. Heather

    Great article Ellie ! As a figure skater for years, I always had to watch my weight. Half a pound made a difference in a jump! Getting into ultrarunning has been very therapeutic as "STRONG is the NEW skinny ". And with all that glycogen (and water) storage, weight can really swing. So no more worries about little changes which is quite liberating. I have always admired your accomplishments, and value your down to earth opinion on this topic. Thank you !

  12. Patrick McKenna

    I've worked an aid station at a major 100 miler the past three years and listen to runners weights being called out as they step on the scale. In general, the numbers would creep higher as the day went on. I don't think you want to carry around excess fat in a race of any length.

  13. Chad

    I'm a heavier ultrarunner, topping out at 6'0, low 190s. I weighed 188 pounds in high school, when I was capable of running a 2 minute half mile each spring after playing football each fall, so it's more a product of my build and muscle mass than anything.

    I think the amount of weight I have to haul long distances is a disadvantage compared to my 160 or less pound peers, but I do find that I'm able to endure the grind of a training cycle without injury, and I can often attack uphills more aggressively than most. It does take me longer to recover from races than a lot of others, though, which may be due to amount of muscle mass I have to heal, and I frequently wish I had less of a load to carry. My performances over ultra distances are relatively stronger than those over shorter distances, but there are a lot of factors beyond weight that could play a role in that.

    1. peter w

      I'd like to add my thanks.

      I very much enjoyed this thought provoking article from such a great runner.

      I feel privileged that so many elites share their thoughts to inspire the rest of us.

  14. Mike

    Slightly off-topic, but why do commentators think it is appropriate to tell Ellie she's "beautiful" or they would "love her at any weight" in response to a thoughtful, well-written piece? That is demeaning as hell. If you are going to respond, at least comment on the content of the article and afford her the respect she deserves instead of superficial, tired "compliments".

    1. Bryon Powell

      Mike, the “love her at any weight” came from Ellie's VERY good friend Dr. David Horton. He crewed her at her course record run at JFK and is currently recovering from heart bypass surgery a week or so ago. Think of at least that comment as sincere, fatherly love. As someone who knows the background, this comment brought a huge smile to my face and is one of my favorite comments of the year. Just wanted to explain the whole story. :-)

  15. Ellie

    I've never tried a pull up in my life! I try to go to the gym 1 x week and hot yoga 1 x per week. Gym is mostly upper body weights and some core work (planks etc), hot yoga involves quite a bit of core and low/ high push ups etc.

  16. Eric Colorado

    When I lift weights in the gym I rehearse all the health and running benefits to myself. Then I go home and there is that darned graph in the Lore of Running that says for my height I would be much much faster if I were 20 lbs lighter.

    Thanks for the article.

    1. peter w

      that graph is 30 years old since publication and even older in the research on a general population.

      The (still magnificent) book does explore many other aspects that make you faster and your gym work is certainly among the best stuff.

      Keep up the good work – you may enjoy the power that you get up the hills from your squats after only a few well directed sessions.

  17. audrey

    what do you do for lower body strength? hills are such a challenge for me, and i do hill work once a week and make sure my long runs include hills…but mostly in a race i find that i can powerwalk up hill faster than i can run. but would like to get faster on the up. suggestions would be most appreciated

    cheers

    1. peter w

      short reps (3×5) squats holding the biggest weight you can, 3x a week (progressively increasing the weight) is one of the quickest ways to tone your quads / glut max and TFL muscles.

      (takes about tenish minutes a session) and you'll be noticeably faster uphill in about two to three weeks

  18. Ruby

    Thanks for writing on a topic that has always fascinated me. I've been wining races here in NZ, and just had to take a 19 months off with an injury, I came back a fair few kilograms heavier and it can't have all been muscle. The surprising thing is that after only two months training I'm actually faster then I was before. I'm more then a little incredulous and am trying to resist the urge to shed a few pounds as this seems more healthy. Top ultra runners all seem to have a higher BMI than their marathon running counter parts. I would love to see a scientific study on how & even whether it helps us over these longer distances or whether its simply the result of this sport still being a little less competitive, with less monetary incentives, so the high end runners don't monitor their weights to such extremes.

  19. Damian Stoy

    Ellie,

    Great post, thanks for sharing! I would also throw in the importance of running technique when reducing impact and injuries and increasing efficiency. Every other sport does, why wouldn't running?

  20. AMS

    Thanks for this article, makes me have to think about things. As of currently I am about 18 lbs underweight and not even capable of doing a long run. I am constantly torn between wanting to stay light weight and wanting to be able to run ultras again. It's a constant war in my head that I struggle with every day. I so want to be running ultras again but I am fixated on staying at a low weight. This article gives me a different perspective then the one constantly running through my head. Thanks!

    1. Alex

      I've struggled with this sort of thing before, and running has been very good for me. You can't train without feeding yourself adequately – as you're finding out. Focus on what your body can do rather than merely what it looks like. After all, many great athletes and runners have different body types – and all of them consume a lot more calories than you probably expect.

      http://trainingonempty.blogspot.com/

      Check this out. It's a blog written by a former elite runner, documenting her struggles with anorexia. It happens to – literally – the most talented of runners, every gender, and every type of person. Reach out to those who care about you, eat well, and train well. Mostly, treat your body well: You only get one.

    2. Ellie

      AMS – I don't feel qualified to comment too much but glad i could provide something for you to think about. Hope you have the support to get back to running ultras at a healthy weight, it sounds like you've run at least one before so you'll know what a sense of achievement it is to complete one and hopefully you can work towards that and move towards that positive achievement, buzz and sense of community being more important that a number on the scale (though I know this is far easier said than done). Good luck and keep healthy and strong, I'm sure you'll run an ultra again :)

      1. AMS

        Thanks I have ran one 45 miler and one 50 miler (wasn't healthy and it was an awful experience.. had an amazing pacer pull me through). I have ran a few 50k. I love the 50k distance and want to improve on my time of 3:46.(these were all over 3 years ago) My goal that year was the next year to try to break 3:45 but that is when things got out of control. I fear I will never get back there again because as you said that number on the scale means so much to me. I am afraid to eat normally, well I don't even know what is normal. My father is morbidly obese and my mom used to be so that is what drives my ED. I loved running ultras, well 50k, not so much the 50 miler(stupid decision at the time). I want that passion back in my running that I am missing but I just can't seem to get things together. But good luck to you in the upcoming racing year.

  21. Stephen Wassather

    Thanks for the great read, Ellie. Coming from a background of eating disorders, this definitely bolsters my confidence going into the 2013 season. Have a good one and keep crushing it! =]

  22. Ben Nephew

    I would take it a step further than suggesting that weight should not be major training focus. Using bodyweight as a measure of fitness is backwards. Training priorities should be:

    1. Consistency

    2. Quality

    3. Performance

    If you are training consistently with an adequate amount of quality workouts specificly targeted at a goal race, you are likely to do well. The weight at which you do well is a by-product, not a goal. Your training should be focused on getting faster, not trying to hit a certain weight, as Ellie mentions. Even coming back from time off, trying to focus on weight as your measure of progress is more likely to lead to poor training or injury than help. Training should be directed by results from workouts and races.

    For those of us who have been running for a while, many of us have seen far too many struggle for far too long with eating disorders. While some can handle focusing on their weight without adverse consequences, any slight benefit is not worth the risk of developing an eating disorder, or even an isolated injury.

    Having positive role models like Ellie will certainly help reduce the prevalence of eating disorders in runners, but I think we also need more people to talk about their struggles.

  23. Andrea

    Very interesting discussion…thanks for giving us some food for thought (pun not intentional). Thanks, irunfar for publishing an article on a sensitive topic that weighs (I really don't mean these puns) on the minds of many runners even though it is not a common topic on training runs :-)

  24. Shelby

    Oh Ellie, you are so full of awesomeness. Thanks for encouraging us muscular runners (with BMI's higher than norm) feel ok about not looking like a typical runner and actually embracing the advantages that come with it, like powering up a hill. I've run virtually injury-free for 20+ years and I think that added muscle has something to do with it.

  25. Ryan

    This is a good discussion, one that I really struggle with.

    I have struggled with my weight since I've started running. I tow the line of being a normal weight and underweight. (BMI is 18.9 currently). I really would like to put on about 10 pounds, but currently I have no problems as far as injuries go. I just need to make sure I'm taking in enough calories based upon my training. I think as long as I feel good, and have the endurance to get through longer races/training I don't see an issue with being under a certain weight. Although, I've wondered how my racing would turn out if I had 10 more pounds on me.

  26. Joey W

    I had to pause for a moment and put down my extra-fat latte to respond…but none the less, thanks for the thought provoking article!

  27. Melanie

    While it wasn't the focus of this story, one piece that made me laugh and groan was the South African man who outwardly commented on Ellie's body. We runners have opinions! And whether it's gear, shoes, training regimen, or body type, we like to talk about it.

    Some time ago I was spectating at a big North American 50K where the woman's winner crushed the course record. The chatter at the finish line was "Wow, she's so fast, and she's a big girl!" Not sure if this woman would have appreciated being called a "big girl," or maybe she would be proud to hear that. And that's my point; we don't know.

    Although the majority of comments we make about runner's bodies are not meant to be unkind (I think they are more made in fascination/observation) it doesn't hurt, when speaking about someone who isn't a close friend, maybe keep our observations to ourselves!

    Cheers, thanks for the article, Ellie, and to others for the discussion.

  28. ScottyRunner

    Thanks for posting. I have been working so hard on weight weight weight. Up and down up and down. . I never realised that losing too much would increase our risk of stress fractures. I'll keep this information in mind during my training and weight check ins. Thanks a lot.

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