2 December 2010

Review: Racing Weight

Racing Weight by Matt Fitzgerald is the first dedicated book for athletes on maintaining an optimal body composition. I first heard about it a few months ago and raced to get hold of a copy. As soon as I read it I bought a stack of them for my shop (right here) as I felt this is a must have book for any climber investing time and effort into manipulating their weight for climbing. I’ve been meaning to write this review for a while to explain why.
First off, climbers will notice that this is a book aimed at endurance athletes like cyclists and runners. Why is that important? Because their training is totally different to ours. Aerobic athletes need to burn larger volumes of calories for more hours than climbers do. But despite this, much of the book is relevant to us and even the bits that aren’t help to inform what us climbers should be doing in our nutritional regime.
Fitzgerald has all the credentials to write this book - a successful athlete (triathlon), nutritionalist, coach and professional writer. Although he references the scientific literature throughout, the text is still easy to read if you aren’t a sports scientist and is both well laid out and clear in its messages.
The discussion early on comparing the sizes, shapes and demands of many different sports was very illuminating. We are totally not alone in our challenging nutritional and physiological needs as climbers. While endurance athletes have one killer advantage in the weight loss game (that their sports use up a ton of calories), they also struggle because any caloric deficit interferes seriously with training intensity. If they don’t eat really well at all times, they get unfit.
Fitzgerald outlines in excellent and convincing detail how many angles we can come at these problems using the content, volume, timing and quality of our diet. I learned a great deal about all of these different components, as well as reinforcing a lot of what I had previously learnt in my own study of this subject.
I’d also read a lot of research in recent years about the tactics of appetite management, perhaps the ultimate nemesis for those permanently adrift of their fighting weight. It was fascinating to see an up to date review of all of this in one place. An excellent chapter and surely useful to just about anyone never mind just athletes.
The only place I’d like to have seen an extended discussion was that of intermittent fasting - an increasingly popular protocol in several non-cardiovascular sports that depend on low body fat percentage. Fitzgerald essentially dismisses it as unsuitable for endurance athletes due to the inability to fuel daily training sessions. This totally makes sense. But given that a lot of the book seems to be written with a wider audience of athletes or the general public in mind, I was surprised that more space wasn’t given to it. I suspect that lack of solid research on it’s effects on sport performance was the main reason. It does however leave an opening for someone else to discuss this aspect (or better still research it!) further with a greater range of sports and applications in mind. 
As a coach myself I observe climbers constantly applying bits and pieces of nutritional tactics from all kinds of sources; pseudo-scientific diet books aimed at the mass market, knowledge adapted haphazardly from other sports, out of date knowledge or simple unconscious habits. In my view, every climber who cares about training or knows their body composition could be better should read this text.
It’s in the shop here.


F@bien said...

Thanks for the review! The book focuses on endurance sports: are there any drawbacks to using endurance sports to lose weight for climbing (apart from the difficulty of finding time for both cardiovascular exercise and actual climbing) ?

no said...

The book is interesting, so thanks for the review. On the more general subject of nutrition for climbing I've noticed in North America that lot of climbers, especially those who primarily boulder, judge that because rock climbing is more or less anaerobic the nutrition to complement the activity is similar to bodybuilding or other resistance training. And as consequence, protein intake becomes their chief concern, and carbohydrate intake and timing is neglected. I know scarcely a single climber who takes care to consume carbohydrate foods during or after a session on the rock.

I find there's also much bad information among strength athletes in general, in part thanks to nutritional supplement manufacturers providing this or that reason why their product (e.g., a protein powder) is essential to a strength athlete, when most likely, the real deficiency lies in the athlete's daily diet.

Dave MacLeod said...

Fabien - Not really. If you do a ton of hill running then muscle mass gains in the lower body could be a problem, but not really possible in a caloric deficit. Careful not to end up under-fuelling the climbing too. It will depend most on exactly how many sessions of climbing you are having a week.

No - It's not a total disaster but it's still misguided. Protein turnover in something like climbing is not going to be impressive. Most of the protein will be excess and get converted to sugar for energy or just worn as flab! For those bouldering many times a week the recovery might well be a little slower without prompt carb refuelling though.

You're right that the supplement industry invents a lot of strength athletes 'needs' for them and excessive protein has made them a lot of money making bodybuilders fat.

iforwms said...

Dave, good review. I'm sure you've come across these sites on your travels, if not, check out http://www.leangains.com/ (especially http://www.leangains.com/2010/10/top-ten-fasting-myths-debunked.html) and http://www.eatstopeat.com/lose-fat.html for more information on intermittent fasting.

Jedidiah Adams said...

I am working my way through racing weight now.

I was on an intermittent fasting (specifically tried the leangains protocol) diet for about a year now with mixed results--I spent a lot of time tweaking my macronutrient ratios and I think I was largely underserved by the experience. I spend 10-15 hours a week in the climbing gym and run about 15 miles in 3-7 mile increments.

In retrospect, eating 2.5 g protein/kg of body mass was probably way overkill and may have contributed to decreased performance/injury.

Initially Leangains/IF helped me drop 10-15 lb of fat pretty quickly. But, as time went on I don't think it helped me improve. I am hoping to find some answers here in racing weight as to options for better performance.

What sort of tweaks would you make to the racing weight strategy? Would you increase the protein? How do you tackle your nutritional strategy>

Dave MacLeod said...

Jedidah, Someone taking it as structured an approach as you really needs to read the second book - Racing Weight Quick Start guide too. They really ought to be one book, but publishers need to make some money I guess! THe QS guide has info on the tweaks that are more relevant for a sport like climbing where the total energy expenditure is much lower.

I've no idea what stage you are at with body fat % but assuming you keep it quite low, it may just be that you're starting to get to the bottom of where your body is happy to be in terms of weight and % body fat. It might be that (like me) you'll have to accept that losing an additional pound or two for a hard project is not going to be permanent. In fact, you'd need to get into the realm of chronic underfuelling to stay at that low weight.

My nutritional strategy is a lot simpler. I rarely measure anything - I just don't have the time. My last weight loss effort was 4 days on the north face of the Eiger. I ate a ton - half a ginger loaf every night after dinner and still lost a good few pounds. Long hard days in the mountains are about as good as it gets for tipping the energy balance.

I note that your running mileage is on the low side. Seems like an obvious way to influence the energy balance for you.