A weighty issue

Elite runner Cristin Wurth-Thomas has been on a roll over the past few months. Earlier this month she broke 4:00 in the 1500m in Rome. During the broadcast of that race, one of the commentators noted that her coach had told her that she needed to drop 10 lbs., which she did. While her performance gains over the past few months can’t necessarily all be attributed to her having lost weight, shedding some poundage obviously hasn’t hurt in this case.

Here’s a photo of her looking particularly porky last year (sarcasm!).

When this was mentioned on air, referring to a woman who is sporting a body fat percentage in, maybe, the 18% range (I’m just guessing), it gave me pause. Is it really a good idea to draw attention to the “need to drop 10 lbs.” in a sport already rife with athletes suffering from eating disorders? I had mixed feelings about it. True, it’s helpful to have this kind of insight into why an athlete’s performance may have been boosted. On the other hand, since it’s impossible to know with certainty if weight loss was a factor, it seems…I don’t know…more prudent to just not bother mentioning it.

What do you think? Does the informational value of learning that an athlete (either male or female) has dropped some weight trump the potential harm that such information might cause?

12 Responses

  1. My concern would be for an impressionable teenage female runner hearing such commentary. Observers of the sport would form their own opinion that she’s running better because of being in “better shape”. I don’t think it adds anything to the informational value of the coverage.

    It’s interesting that the article said that her coach telling her to lose 10 lbs was something “she needed to hear”. That’s fine if the athlete and coach have a good and trusting relationship. It’s not something any coach should say to a young athlete.

    • Ewen, yes, that’s what I was implying. An adult with a healthy body image and perspective on all the elements that contribute to good athletic performance could hear such a thing as a neutral comment. But I can imagine a teenager struggling both with body image and a desire to do well competitively hearing it a bit differently.

      I thought the article was striking not only in the “needed to hear” comment but this quote from Wurth-Thomas: “my coach (Lance Harter) threatened to retire me because I was a little heavier than I’ve been in the past.”

      Talk about pressure! “If you don’t drop 10 lbs. I won’t let you compete anymore.”

      I guess if you want to compete at a certain level, that’s one price you pay. But it still strikes me as a potentially dangerous message to send.

      I should add that there’s a personal dimension to this for me: My older sister ran track in high school and she had an awful coach. He would regularly yell at her as she rounded the track, “Susan, that extra 10 pounds is weighing you down like a ball and chain!” Inappropriate and hurtful, obviously. I realize now that her experiences with him kept me from having any inclination pursue track.

  2. There’s not enough room for my “other” response (and my vote doesn’t seem to be registering anyway), so I’ll put it here.

    Had this been worded, “Should an elite runner’s weight loss be a topic of media coverage?” then I could have offered a less equivocal response. But I don’t think the topic of weight itself should be off-limits. For example, I don’t think it hurts to mention that Erin Donohue, the fastest miler in the U.S. in 2007 and an Olympian, weighs 148 pounds at 5′ 8″ and would be considered a “filly” in road races.

    In Christin’s case, I guess it’s possible that she at one point over the winter packed 10 pounds onto the body you pictured during the 2008 racing season, and is now merely back to that baseline. And it sounds like she wasn’t training a whole lot. This is the problematic issue–people who are not already at a typical elite’s body-fat percentage who head off to college and go from 30 to 60 miles a week, or graduate from a college with a lower-grade running program and go from 45 miles a week to 80, are likely to both improve a lot and lose weight at the same time. People are constitutionally inclined to attribute too much of the improvement to the weight loss (which people can see at a glance) rather than to the myriad internal changes at the microscopic level that produce the ability to run faster. Couple that with the confirmation bias and subconscious “no true Scotsman” mentality that plagues women who are convinced lighter *has* to be better (which leads them to disregard ever counterexamples like Erin and Sonja Friend-Uhl while focusing intensely on weight-loss stories like Christin’s) and you have a prescription for disaster when it comes to the media, especially because so many T&F articles are written by people with no clue about the internal workings of the sport.

    • In this case I believe (but can’t confirm without actually digging up the video…which I’ll do later on) the commenter was Lewis Johnson. Someone with enough knowlege of T&F to probably know better.

  3. Her weight loss and that her coach believed it would help her are facts. It’s not the reporter’s job to worry whether people inclined to do so might misuse the information.

  4. I realize it’s such a scary subject when dealing with teenagers and anyone else who has body issues, but I really hate the idea that it can’t be talked about, because when it comes to racing, weight matters! It’d be disingenuous to say it doesn’t. Doesn’t mean that less is always better, but there is definitely a performance hit if you’re carrying 10 extra lbs. you don’t need.

    It really sucks because I lost 10 lbs at the start of the year and it made a huge difference (one of the things that did, anyway), yet I felt very self-conscious talking about it in the women’s BQ thread on RW because a few people there had dealt with food issues in the past. But if you want to talk about being the best runner you can be, you have to be honest and look at what’s lacking or could be improved upon, weight often being one of them.

  5. I once had a coach who told to a room of teenage girls that 10% body fat was the optimum for racing. He then proceeded to give body fat tests…and told those who were over how many pounds they had to lose.

    I was 109-110 at 5’2″, and at the time had 13% body fat. I was told to lose 5-6 pounds. I was 14 or 15 at the time, and started comparing myself to the girls who were lucky enough to have 10% body fat or below…including one at 92 pounds who was my height. Its interesting to see pictures of myself at this size because I’m pretty frail looking…yet still bigger than the other girls, a fact my coach constantly reminded me of. I noticed I’d probably have to cut my legs in half to look like them.

    15 years later, I’m somewhere around 10 pounds heavier due to, well, hips and boobs. Last time I had my body fat tested it was barely under 20%. Reading various things like this makes me wonder what I COULD do to lose a few pounds…but really, I think I’d have to lose a limb.

    Funny how things never change. But by this point in time…I can’t say that I care. I’m not going to be an elite runner, and I’ll never even be what you could consider thin despite being a fairly healthy eater and putting down decent mileage. Yet, its interesting to see how people who haven’t been around as long as I am fixate on numbers and weight loss much as I did when I was 14 or 15. I can’t decide whether or not its a good or bad thing that I got it out of my system as a teenager.

  6. Tough call. This is why my feelings are so mixed. In the end, however, I loathe the idea of anyone censoring information in an attempt to either second guess or “mommy” the public. So I’ll reluctantly agree that weight (and weight loss) is worthy of discussion in an athletic context.

    I draw the line at validating men’s leg shaving to cut down on wind drag, though.

  7. […] a lively debate on issues like VO2max and the like on LetsRun. Julie had a recent post on weight and running and girls and self-image. If you look at the comments, you’ll see one from Kevin Beck […]

  8. With all the stuff the media is guilty of, this seems pretty tame in comparison.

    After all, truly serious athletes ( And I suppose the public at large ) SHOULD be very concerned with being at the PROPER weight.

    Obviously, you may need things like healthy eating and maybe some muscular work to achieve the right balance.

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