A Weighty Issue

Ellie Greenwood tackles the issue of weight and ultrarunners.

By on December 17, 2012 | Comments

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.

Ellie Greenwood
Ellie Greenwood has IAU World 100k Championship, Western States, and Comrades victories to her credit. A Scot living in Canada, Ellie is supported by Salomon, Clif Bar, Udo's Oil, and Sundog Eyewear. You can read more about Ellie's running on her blog.