Optimal Performance Weight

Monday, December 22, 2008 | By Pacific Health Laboratories
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Every adult has some sense of how much he or she should weigh.  If you picked a random man or woman on the street and asked this person to name his or her ideal body weight (don’t ever try this experiment), this person would most likely be able to give you an exact number without hesitation.

Where do such numbers come from?  I’ll tell you where they don’t come from: They don’t from the various healthy body weight tables and formulas created by health experts.  These tables and formulas, which include height-weight charts used by life insurance companies and body mass index guidelines used widely by doctors, are far too general to help individual men and women determine an ideal body weight.  Their main purpose is to quantify the relationships between body size and health throughout the population so that life insurance companies can better judge the risk of insuring their customers and doctors have a statistical basis for advising their overweight patients to slim down.  But the average person who wants more than just to reduce his of heart disease, but to look and feel his best, needs a standard that is more customized.

Criteria for Determining Ideal Body Weight

So, then, how does the average person determine his ideal body weight?  One factor is past experience.  Many men and women who are not satisfied with their current weight can look back to a time when they were more satisfied and yearn to once again weigh what they weighed then.  The mirror is another important factor.  Most men and women have a sense of how they would like to look and can estimate how much weight they would have to lose to look that way.

Nobody knows our bodies better than we ourselves do, so there’s no reason to doubt the general validity of such methods of determining an ideal body weight.  However, they are not perfect.  In our society, all-too-many people, women especially, develop an unhealthy you-can’t-be-too-thin mentality that causes them to chase an unrealistically light body weight.  On the other hand, there is also evidence that as Americans become heavier and heavier, our ideal body weight is also inflating.  In other words, while there are more people today who wish they were lighter than they are, as a population we no longer dream of being as light as we used to dream of being. 

If there is an ideal way to define ideal body weight, it is by how the body functions.  By this standard, an individual’s ideal body weight would be the weight at which his body functioned best.  Tests of heart disease risk factors, insulin sensitivity, kidney function, aerobic capacity, sleep quality and so forth could be used to triangulate this number.

Weight and Performance

It so happens that endurance athletes typically do determine their ideal body weight—which, in their case, is better termed optimal performance weight—functionally.  But instead of defining functionality in terms of general health they do so in terms of exercise performance (which is a very good proxy for general health, actually).  Through experience in training and competition, endurance athletes learn their optimal performance weight, or the body weight at which they perform best.  A recent scientific survey of 3,000 endurance athletes by researchers at St. Cloud State University found that more than 90 percent of respondents were able to identify a precise optimal performance weight.  Fluctuations below and (more often) above this optimal performance weight over the course of the year were found to be normal, but the normal range was small: fewer than 10 pounds in the majority of those surveyed.  

By paying attention to how your body performs at various weights throughout the year you will gain knowledge of when your weight is on track or off-track.  A body weight that is higher than it should be at any given time of year could be an indication that you are eating more than you should be.  The other possibility is that you are training less than normal.  If you’re confident that under-training is not the problem, then experiment with a slight reduction in your eating and watch how it affects your weight.  

Body Composition

Monitoring your body composition, or body fat percentage, is a useful supplement to monitoring your body weight.  As with weighing, by stepping on a body fat scale such as the Tanita Ironman once a week throughout the year you will learn what your body fat percentage should be.  Your optimal body fat percentage is that which is associated with your best training and race performances.  An increase in your body fat percentage could indicate that you need to adjust your food intake to better match your current training demands.

Note, however, that it could indicate the very opposite.  Some research has shown than when endurance athletes (and particularly female athletes) under-eat, their metabolism slows down to conserve energy and as a result they gain body fat and sometimes also lose muscle.  So when you note an abnormal increase in your body fat level you may need to experiment to determine whether you are eating too little or too much.

Find your Optimal Performance Weight

The most precise way to determine your optimal performance weight is to create a graph that plots your body weight against your performance.  The x-axis will define a range of body weights that’s a little broader than any fluctuations you’re likely to experience throughout the year.  The y-axis will define a range of average speeds from a recurring test workout that’s a little broader than your performance fluctuations are likely to be over the course of a year.  Once every four weeks, step on a scale and note your weight.  Also once every four weeks, on the same day you weight yourself, perform a test workout that provides a good indicator of your race-specific fitness.  For example, if you’re runner, go to the track and do a 10K time trial at 95 percent effort.  Now calculate your average speed.  

Create a data point on the graph that represents your speed and weight on each test day.  After a few points have been plotted you will begin to notice a clear pattern.  It is likely that you will achieve your best performance at your lowest body weight.  In any case, the body weight at which you achieve your best performance is your optimal performance weight.

For the best results, you should also plot your performance against your body fat percentage.  This is because you can reach any given body weight at more than one body fat percentage.  You will probably find that the lower your body fat percentage is, the better you perform.  This is important, because if you only look at body weight, and approach body weight management with a “lighter is better” mentality, you might try to slim down in ways that cause you to lose muscle and therefore put you at your optimal body weight at a greater than optimal body fat percentage.  As a result, you will underperform at this body weight.  So tracking your body fat percentage along with your body weight can function as a check against making this mistake.  Yes, you want to be light, but you don’t want to be light at all costs.  You want to be light and lean.

Tracking your body fat percentage is as easy as doing your weigh-ins on a body fat scale such as the Tanita Ironman.  Every four weeks, plot your body fat percentage against your test workout average velocity and superimpose this graph over our body weight-average speed graph to see how they match up.  They should match up closely, but in any case you will want to use both the body weight and the body fat percentage associated with your best performances as targets to pursue going forward.

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