Nov 17, 2017
Losing While Winning
Michelle Rockwell

The official position of the American College of Sports Medicine, which most sports nutritionists agree with, is that athletes should not try to lose weight during their competitive season. That’s because dieting can very easily jeopardize energy and nutrients critical for training and performance. In addition, the mental stress of restricting calories can become all-encompassing and turn into a performance-distracter.

But what happens when an athlete shows up for preseason physicals with frantic weight-loss goals? The off-season, which is when weight loss was supposed to happen, went by too quickly and the athlete ended up relaxing on their nutrition habits instead of making important changes.

Can athletes lose weight during the season without compromising their training? The answer is yes, but it must be done carefully.

Before any talk of dieting or calorie cutting begins, it’s critical to discuss whether a particular athlete who wants to lose weight truly needs to. It’s easy to say, “No dieting now, let’s write a reminder to focus on it during the off-season.” But the reality is that excessive weight or body fat can impair athletic performance in some cases. The challenge is determining whether the risks of making weight changes in-season outweigh the potential performance benefits.

Therefore, to start, take the time to talk to the athlete one-on-one about why he or she wants to lose weight. At least half the time, athletes’ weight-loss goals are inappropriate and unrealistic. Many times athletes want to lose weight for aesthetic reasons, not performance-enhancing reasons. I have worked with professional athletes, both male and female, whose weight goals are based strictly on how they will look in photographs and advertisements. Sometimes athletes have competing interests–a college volleyball player who models on the side is a good example.

Others have a “magic number” in mind that they believe is their ideal competition weight, but it’s not based on anything scientific. Take the example of a high school cross country runner I recently worked with. He was convinced that his optimal race weight was 142 pounds since that is how much he weighed when he scored at the state cross country meet his sophomore and junior seasons. At the start of his senior season, he weighed 156 pounds and was tremendously under-confident. His coach grew concerned when he started skipping meals and doing extra runs at night in an attempt to cut weight.

During our initial conversation, the athlete revealed that he had started lifting weights since last season and had grown 2.5 inches taller–both very good reasons for gaining lean mass! We ultimately created a meal plan that helped him get to 150 pounds, which he was content with, and he raced quite well at the higher weight. But the most important aspect was to get him to understand that 142 was not a magic number.

An intense desire to lose weight may also be a sign that something else is going on with an athlete. How many times have you heard a young female athlete say, “Everything would be fine if I could just lose 10 pounds.” So much emphasis is placed on weight and body image in our society (and in sports) that athletes may feel losing weight is the cure to all their problems. They could have personal issues or stressors they need to deal with, and may need the help of a mental health professional.

Athletes in sports with weight classifications, such as wrestling and lightweight crew, are clearly in a different category as they typically have no choice but to try to achieve a specified weight. However, even with these athletes, it must be determined whether they can achieve the desired weight without decreasing performance, or whether they need to move to a higher weight class or heavyweight crew for the season.

Here are six questions to ask athletes who want to lose weight in-season:

  • What is your weight-loss goal?
  • Is this realistic?
  • When is the last time you weighed this amount?
  • Why do you want to lose weight?
  • How will this make you perform better?
  • Is there any chance that changing your diet will detract from your training or performance, both physically and mentally?

A discussion based on the above questions should allow you to get a clear picture of the athlete’s perspective. Then decide if his or her goals are realistic, appropriate, and can be reached without harm. Many times it’s beneficial to involve a sports dietitian or even a team physician in this process. Don’t hesitate to enlist further professional help if you detect signs of disordered eating.

Michelle Rockwell, MS, RD, CSSD, is a private sports nutrition consultant based in Durham, N.C. She works with athletes and teams throughout the country ranging from recreational to professional.

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