Personal Record: The Skinny

The simple/complex issue of weight and running.

By Rachel Toor

As featured in the July 2012 issue of Running Times Magazine

Like most people, I have a general idea of what “handicapping” means. But I didn’t fully appreciate it until I read Laura Hillenbrand’s Seabiscuit, a biography of the great racehorse. If you’re a horse, even if you weigh half a ton, carrying an extra pound or two is a handicap. You cannot run as fast, even over a mile. Hillenbrand details the tense negotiations about how much Seabiscuit would carry: 124 pounds versus 127. Big money was at stake.

Now, then. Do the math. If 3 pounds makes a difference on a thousand-pound horse over a mile, what will 2 pounds do to a person, an order of magnitude lighter, over 26.2? What will 10 extra pounds do?

Perhaps the dominant health message in the United States is that we Americans have to lose weight. We need to get more exercise, eat better, and make healthier choices. How many times, and in how many places, do we hear this each day? The tabloids and celebrity magazines chart the weights of the people we watch for entertainment; our entertainment industry has churned out programs where we watch people lose weight.

Much of the obesity epidemic, in my opinion, has to do with class; people who are well-educated with disposable income have the knowledge and luxury to make better and healthier choices. As social critic Barbara Ehrenreich, a runner with a Ph.D. in biology, chronicled in her book, Nickel and Dimed, one of the things that changed when she tried to make a living on minimum wage was her weight. After working at Wal-Mart, she was so exhausted that all she could find time and money for was meals at McDonald’s. So to the people who say that fat people just aren’t trying hard enough, I say it’s not that simple.

But middle-aged, middle-class runners are a different story. We tend to be motivated and disciplined. If you know that losing weight will allow you to cut minutes off your time, why wouldn’t you do it?

Because you’re human.

There’s plenty of sports science on the connections between body weight and speed. According to physiologist Mel Williams, while most elite marathoners are at their optimal weight, below which their performance might suffer, plenty of regular marathoners could do well to lose some pounds. The formula he gives is that for 1 percent of body mass lost, you’ll gain 1 percent in speed. While those pipes and pecs might look great on the beach, they won’t be doing much good over 26.2 miles. I don’t have to point out that beer bellies and overly padded hips are neither decorative nor useful.

Easy, right? If you want to run faster, you need to weigh less.

But we have to be careful when we talk about this.

When, for a season, I took a job as a cross country coach at a public exam-entrance boarding school for math and science geeks, I worried about the wrong things. Not that I had no experience coaching, or that I didn’t know how cross country meets were scored, or that driving a minibus with 16 teenagers making fun of you when you–oops–drive over a curb is humiliating. No. What scared me was the prospect of working with girls who had weight and food issues and that I could be implicated in making them worse.

It turned out the girls were fine; they didn’t much care about competing and liked the companionship of being on the team. My concern was for the boys, who were faster, more competitive, and skinnier.

Their bodies were still growing and developing and they needed fuel. But they also knew–being smart science geeks–that extra weight would hurt their performance.

So what do you do? Do you tell them that no, it doesn’t matter? That it matters, but it shouldn’t matter to them until they’re well into comfortably pudgy middle age? Do we keep the information from them until we believe they’re mature enough to deal with it? Do we, Jack Nicholson-like, scream that they CAN’T HANDLE THE TRUTH?

Coaches in all sorts of sports have to figure out how to deal with young people, and frankly, one season, great as it was, was enough for me. But adults have to be grown-up enough to hear these unpleasant words: If you want to run faster, you have to be at your optimal body mass. One coach said, pithily, “Nutrition is complicated; losing weight is easy.” Regardless of food fads, the equation is simple: Calories in have to be less than calories out. For people who are already running a lot, that means opting for smaller portions, realizing that beer and wine count, and not telling yourself that you “earned” that bowl of ice cream.

I keep thinking about those 3 contested pounds on Seabiscuit. Three pounds carried by a thousand-pound horse makes a difference. I try to remember that when I’m reaching for another cookie.