Ideal Body Fat Percentage for Female Distance Runners

Friday, April 3, 2009 | By Dr. Rick Kattouf
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What is the IDEAL Body Fat percentage for a female distance runner? I know doctors say 25% BF is "Normal" for a female, but If I was 25% body fat, I would be exhausted and about 25 lbs heavier for my frame. However I don't want to be too lean to the point where it hinders performance. Any suggestions?
5'3" - 109lbs


Dear Kristen,

Thank you for your question. I am so glad you asked about an ideal BF% as opposed to an ideal weight. Focusing on BF% is the key to optimum health and athletic performance. I like to break the body fat down into a few segments. First, each individual (whether a competitive athlete or general health and wellness) should goal-set to be in a ‘heart healthy’ body fat range. I feel some of the published numbers are on the high side for what is deemed ‘healthy.’ I like to see women under 30% and men under 25%; this would be the high end for heart health.

Now, when it comes to performance, these numbers are quite different as you can imagine. As a general rule, elite female athletes (runners and triathletes) that are lean, muscular (these females show good muscle definition in their arms, legs, and abdominal development is quite visible) are approximately 14-16% body fat. This is a very healthy BF range for elite female athletes.

Now, the modality of measurement is important in measuring body fat. The use of body fat calipers is popular but the reality is that calipers will measure an athlete 4-8% low. The numbers I am referring to are obtained from a modality called BIA (Bioelectrical Impedance Analysis). This is obtained by using a body fat scale, as this will give a much more accurate measurement as compared to calipers. Also, be sure to measure your body fat on this scale just before bedtime. You will be well hydrated at this time which will give you an accurate reading.

Kristen, you bring up a great point about becoming too lean and I am glad you are cognizant of this. As athletes, what we want to avoid is losing too much body fat which will cause us to waste muscle. Lean muscle is precious and we want to preserve it as much as we can. The key to proper body fat loss is to lose body fat/weight while simultaneously increasing our body water percentage. We have to remember that lean muscle holds more water than fat does. So, the leaner we are, the higher our water%. The aforementioned body fat scales will also measure body water%.

Kristen, I wish you much success in your 2009 racing season!


Dr. Rick Kattouf II

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