In addition to being a graduate student I also work as a strength and conditioning coach/ judo coach at the Boulder Judo Training Center. There, I get the pleasure of pursuing one of my great passions which is physical/kinesthetic training. (The other is having people listen to me while I talk... but that sounded a little vain to list in the #1 spot). Anyway, while fulfilling these duties I often get asked questions or just hear opinions from athletes which are at times surprising and at times totally vexing. Or, in the case of younger athletes, I will be asked these questions by their parents, which can be doubly vexing.
But these statements usually go something like this, "I really want to be at my fastest, I think I need to lose 7 lbs by the tournament," or, "I read that so-and-so can squat 450 lbs, so I'm really focused on leg strength right now," also, "I'm going to cut fat out of my diet. Ya' know, get leaner". This gives you a pretty a good idea of the range of statements and questions I get from athletes regarding how to use body composition, strength training, and nutrition to improve their performance. Many of these statements actually sound perfectly reasonable and sensible - I've definitely heard worse. The worse statements mostly start with "Dude," and end with, "I totally blasted my pecs today". And I have definitely asked myself these questions from time to time. In fact, during my college career they were a principle part of my motivation for training ("what is my resting heart rate", "what is my body fat percentage", "why is my vertical so goddam low?").
But if you look at these questions there's a huge flaw. More to the point there's a huge hole... there's something missing. These people aren't in weight loss competitions, they aren't professional models, and in my case I wasn't trying to win championships in the vertical jump. These folks are triathletes, rowers, and judoka whose personal goal is to excel in their chosen sport. The rational goals of winning the swim section, decreasing your 10k time, or mastering throws was getting diluted by appendegous goals of strength, weight, size, or fitness that should be secondary.
Strength training, bioenergetics, and anthropometrics (i.e., body measurements) are all mechanisms which we can use to identify strengths and weakness and establish standards for different sports, but they can also become distracting if we are fixated on something like or weight and start to attribute failures to being too heavy or too light. The ridiculousness of this reasoning becomes apparent if we step back and distance ourselves and ask, "Did Lance Armstrong become a great cyclist because he worked really hard to have tremendous leg strength and a great VO2-max? Or, does Lance Armstrong have tremendous leg strength and a great VO2-max because he worked fantastically hard at becoming a great cyclist?"
Obviously, it would seem to be the second one (but I don't know Lance so I cant say for certain - maybe he spends all that time on the bike because deep down he's just really self conscious about his calves).
I'm not saying its not important to have standardization. Especially in something like medicine. If a doctor is telling me my blood pressure, or HDL level I want that test to be standardized so I know where I am relative to the rest of the population. Is my cholesterol better than his? Or hers?. I don't want the cholesterol test that he invented in his car on his way to the office that morning. But these standardized tests are not the end-all be-all of health. A doctor still needs to interpret my results relative to a wide range of other factors and recognize that each person is unique constellation of physiological attributes and while plenty of results on different test can clearly be unhealthy, there is no single one-size-fits-all criterion for health.
The same is true in athletic development. The average NCAA basketball player might be a certain weight, with a certain vertical, and a certain power clean max. And if you're above these values are you must be an above average basketball player? Obviously, you must be (...sarcasm).
But back to the impetus for this note which was when I was talking to a friend who is a burgeoning triathlete and she asked about her ideal race weight. She laid out her height, body composition, 400m, 3k, and 10k times and asked me what I thought her ideal race weight should be. I think my answer surprised her, because my answer surprised me. I was thinking about how much fat mass she could lose per week while maintaining lean tissue mass and what that might mean for her finishing kick when my mouth got tired of waiting for my brain to come up with an answer and just threw something out there. My mouth said, "I would train as smart as you can for the next six months. Don't weigh yourself don't worry about what you eat, just time yourself in workouts and everyday ask how you feel. At the end of six months look at your times in competition and see if you feel like you're at your best. Then, go and weigh yourself and get your body fat % and you heart rate and all of that. If you felt your competition performance was really good then you're around your ideal race weight. If you felt like it could improve, try it over again for another 3 months or so."
By the time my brain caught up with my mouth it thought, "Hey, that's an intriguing idea," and so I wanted to share it with all of you and see what you thought and propose a little challenge. I've decide to try my own program for the next sixty days and see where my body weight goes and how my training numbers go up or down when I really focus on my sport performance rather than on these secondary indicators of my sport performance. If you're interested please join me in this little pact and we'll meet back here in 60 days (April 30th) to discuss the results!
Train as "smart" as you can for the next sixty days - this means to train as hard as you can for the next sixty days without overtraining, so give yourself at least a few active rest days a week, but otherwise give as much as you can over the next 60 days.
Eat right - Plenty of fruits and veggies! Balance your plates so you consume plenty of complex carbohydrates (about 50% of your calories, more if your a hardcore enduro person); lean sources of proteins (about 25% of your calories), and fats (20-25% of your calories) from good sources like nuts and fish. Limit your intake of refined sugars and alcohol. Drink plenty of water and stay well hydrated. Otherwise, just eat when you're hungry and drink when your thirsty.
Share your achievement - in the end you've got to share what you feel are positives and negatives and (if hopefully multiple people do it) we can learn from each others experiences and adapt these principles of purposeful training to other areas of our lives. Because after all, if I'm working out for fun instead of for exercise and I happen to be 200lbs I'll be a lot happier and I'd wager a lot healthier than if I'm working out trying to be 190 lbs because some other guy is 190 lbs and I think I want to be like him.
In the end it boils down to one of my favorite quotes of all time. The aphorism of the Olympic Games, "Citius, Altius, Fortius" ~ "Swifter, Higher, Stronger". And it doesn't mean swifter, or higher, or stronger than somebody else, it just means swifter, higher, and stronger. Competitions give us a way to compare ourselves to each other, just like maxes in the weight-room, body fat percentages, or heart rate levels do. But if you focus on these individual instances for too long, I think you loose sight of the dynamic and organic nature of sport as process. It is a continuous process that keeps us moving forward and progressing - and not just in sport - throughout our lives.
Let me know your thoughts!