The lightweight diet: Competing in weight-sensitive sports

Lucy Tantum

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To compete as a lightweight rower, an athlete needs to be strong, well-conditioned, and focused. And they also need to be, well, lightweight—female rowers in this division cannot weigh over 130 pounds, male rowers 150.

Lightweight rowing gives smaller athletes, who may not be as strong as their larger counterparts, a chance to compete, so rowers who weigh close to the cutoff will try to qualify for this division. This means that the lightweight athletes are mostly comparable in size—and it means that those who are close to the weight limit are very attuned to how their diet and exercise regimens affect their weight.

Many rowers who weigh close to the cutoff for the lightweight division will try to drop a few pounds so they can be the best in their division and have a better chance at getting recruited for college.

According to senior and Marin Rowing lightweight rower Kendall Bearly-Malinowski, the dietary changes required to maintain the correct weight aren’t too difficult—cutting out sugar, drinking more water, minimizing salt intake. Still, weighing in under 130 pounds is of utmost importance.

“The stakes are high—if you don’t weigh in at the correct weight for a race, your whole boat can’t race, which is pretty bad,” Bearly-Malinowski said. “Eight people are depending on you to weigh in.”

Rowers need to monitor their weight in the weeks leading up to a race, to ensure that their boat won’t be disqualified, according to Bearly-Malinowski.

“Your body fluctuates between 3 and 5 pounds every day. So depending on when you have to weigh in, you can not eat salt before, or not eat bread for a week,” senior and fellow Marin Rowing lightweight Sophia Bagshaw said. “You just change ratios—you eat more vegetables, you eat less carbs.”

Bagshaw said that she has become very good at noticing how her weight fluctuates.

“You pay attention—if I run for half an hour, how much weight do I lose? When I sleep, how much do I lose?” Bagshaw said.  “If I weighed 132 the night before I weighed in, I wouldn’t care, because I would wake up at 128.”

Bearly-Malinowski said that monitoring her weight has become second nature.

“If you’ve been doing it for as long as we have, then it’s kind of subconscious.  You know when to be really worried, which is not often,” Bearly-Malinowski said.

Coaches often advise rowers as to whether or not they should become a lightweight, according to Bagshaw, and they know enough about nutrition to advise athletes on what dietary changes are

Both Bagshaw and Bearly-Malinowski said that the health effects from their diets were largely positive. However, Bearly-Malinowski noted that she had to drop a few pounds when she first started rowing, because at her height of 5’9”, she was not naturally under 130 pounds.

“I’m sure there are people out there who do it unhealthily, and are hungry all the time or feel terrible,” Bagshaw said. “For me, I feel better because I’m eating healthier.”

Rowing is just one of many weight-sensitive sports, sports where athletes attempt to control their weight in order to make a certain weight class or gain an advantage over an opponent.

It may seem counterintuitive—would losing weight and eating less really make an athlete perform better?

It’s fine for high school students to alter their diets as long as they don’t start skipping meals or cutting out necessary nutrients, according to athletic trainer Americ Alvarado.

“At this level, your body is changing so much that you need to be eating, because your metabolism is so high that you need the energy,” Alvarado said. “I tell athletes to never cut out a meal, just alter the type of food they eat.”

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Although controlling one’s weight for a sport can have positive effects on performance if the athlete is careful, unresearched or overly-ambitious attempts at weight control can be detrimental to health.

Adolescent athletes who play weight-sensitive sports may be at an increased risk of developing an eating disorder, according to a 2013 study by the British Journal of Sports Medicine.  The study also demonstrated that a diet taken too far could cause damage to bone mass if an athlete isn’t getting enough nutrients.  Female athletes in weight-sensitive sports face an especially heightened risk of bone and muscle damage.

In wrestling, attaining the correct weight is essential for optimal performance. Wrestlers are placed into weight classes, which increase at roughly 10-pound intervals. Since a wrestler at the very top of his or her weight class has an advantage, diet control plays an important role in preparing for a competition.

Though many wrestlers drop or gain only a few pounds to reach their desired weight class, sophomore Drey Brostoff took a more dramatic approach during his freshman wrestling season. At the beginning of the season, Brostoff weighed in at around 120 pounds—however, he managed to quickly drop to 105 pounds.

“I only ate egg whites and ran four miles every day after practice,” Brostoff said.  “I wanted to be in a lower weight class so I would be better because I’d be against smaller kids.”

At the beginning of each wrestling season, each wrestler takes a test to determine their body composition and body fat percentage.  The results of the test determine how much weight a wrestler can safely gain or lose, and they provided the guidelines for Brostoff’s weight loss—he knew that he could feasibly drop his weight to as low as 102 pounds.

Brostoff said that this drastic weight loss wasn’t a problem for him, partly because he’d been “pretty chubby” at the beginning of the season at 120 pounds.  However, he acknowledged that his weight-loss plan, though effective, might have been unhealthy.

“What I did wasn’t exactly healthy—definitely not.  I didn’t eat much,” Brostoff said.  He said that he talked to his doctor and she warned against losing the weight since she thought he would just bounce back to his original weight.

“I definitely wasn’t having the best time of my life, but it was definitely worth it,” Brostoff said.  “I was in better shape after that.”

Brostoff said that he often felt irritable or fatigued during his diet, but his wrestling performance quickly improved and he felt healthier.

But come this winter’s wrestling season, Brostoff will face the challenge of changing his weight yet again—he’s hoping to bulk up and move back to the 120-pound weight class.