This is Part 7 in a series of posts about training and preparation for the World Masters Cross Country Skiing Championships in Klosters Switzerland in early March 2017. See Parts 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, and 6 for an overview, specific training plans, strength training, an evaluation of the required pace to podium in the M07 and F06 age classes, critical assessment of the efficacy of Block Periodization, and fleet evaluation, respectively.
racing weight – an achievable goal
Dialing-in your racing weight as a cross country skier is an important consideration if you wish to be competitive. The pace degradation penalties associated with excess weight (primarily as fat) can make all of the difference in any competitive race whilst underweight athletes (primarily due to low upper body strength-to-weight index) will struggle to produce sufficient power to keep pace. In addition, training at the right weight will allow for proper technique and strength improvement feedback so that one can tweak training plans to focus on the most important areas currently challenging an athlete. As a masters athlete there is the additional challenge of increasing body fat driven by age-related reductions in HGH and testosterone and therefore puts further emphasis on getting to one’s optimal racing weight for the racing season.
So what is racing weight? It is the combination of body weight and body fat percentage that allows one to perform at their optimal level- some call this “optimal performance weight/composition”. Racing weight is not just about body weight, but, importantly and functionally, about an optimal body fat percentage in concert with one’s total body weight. Being under-weight or with too low a body fat percentage is just as limiting from a performance perspective as being over-weight or with too high a body fat percentage.
Finding one’s specific racing weight is a process, not a calculation. Fitzgerald does a very good job of describing this process as well as many other aspects that play into understanding and getting to racing weight in his book Racing Weight. I reviewed this book and analyzed my diet in a previous post.
Fitzgerald offers a three-step approach to an initial calculation of a target racing weight as follows:
- Weigh yourself and obtain a reasonably accurate value for your current body fat percentage. From these values calculate your current lean body mass (current weight X current lean body mass percentage (= 100 – current body fat percentage)).
- Look up on the table (table 2.1) that he supplies for body fat percentages as a function of percentile of population and age. Choose a target body fat percentage value that you feel is appropriate for where you are in your training/fitness “reality” and calculate. You may look to the 80th, 90th, or even the 99th percentile depending on your goals and ability to commit to the process.
- Calculate your racing weight by dividing your current lean body mass by your target lean body mass percentage (= 100 – target body fat percentage).
Using my values as an example, I currently weight 128 lbs with a measured body fat of 7.9%. This gives a current lean body mass of 117.9 lbs (128 X 0.921)). Looking up on table 2.1 for age 60+ males the 99th percentile is at 7.7% body fat. Given my current body fat percentage and my goals, I will choose the 7.7% value. I can now calculate a target racing weight as my current lean body mass (117.9 lbs) divided by my target lean body mass percentage (92.3%) or 117.9/0.923 = 127.7 lbs. This suggests that to be in the 99% percentile of 60+ year old males I need to loose 0.3 lbs, i.e. I am already at a target racing weight (no surprise).
This calculation process gives a good starting value but it is based on where your current weight and body composition is today. I have been training extensively and rigorously for just about 5 years and it is no surprise that I might be near an optimal body weight/composition percentage but as will be discussed below, I actually think that for cross country skiing I am substantially under-weight. For distance (and ultra-distance) running I am just about right. This highlights an issue with maintaining a “racing weight” if you are a multi-sport athlete like me since your “racing weight” will change with the race seasons. This presents a significant challenge for ensuring that you are at racing weight for the most important competitions.
Attaining and sustaining one’s racing weight is a venerable goal and one that is very much achievable for any cross country skier with sufficient drive and motivation to be competitive in their respective racing category. Many coaches argue that optimal racing weight will follow directly from a comprehensive race-season-focused training plan that has been rigorously executed upon. My experience is similar but I would add that diet is also important, particularly for masters athletes given the additional body fat production challenges presented by our ageing bodies. I will not speak to diet here since the topic is “religious” in nature and seldom leads to constructive input due to considerable (and widely distributed) mis-information coming from nutrition “professionals”, many exercise physiologists, diet supplement companies, anecdotal “stories” from athletes, and popular media. For my approach to diet please see the post referenced above.
the weight of elite cross country skiers
Although the process outlined by Fitzgerald for going about determination of one’s target racing weight is efficacious, it is not centered around any actual examples in one’s sport of choice. It is based on statistical population percentile body fat ranges, not active athletes or better yet, those athletes who are committed to excellence. However, in the case at hand, one can look to the elite cross country skier population to obtain reasonable, data-based support for target body weight and composition values that are tested on the “real world” stage of international competition. Though analysis of this kind of data will yield some target ranges for weight/composition, the process by which one goes about attaining such a target racing weight is still very important so I will again encourage you to read Fitzgerald’s book as it contains a lot of great information and unique perspective.
In the analysis here we will follow the convention of the well known exercise physiologist researcher, Stephen Seiler. This post will present data and analysis on the heights and weights of Olympic (and, therefore, World Cup) cross country skiers as a basis for understanding the topic of racing weight specifically for cross country skiers. Seiler (and others) have studied the training, fueling, and recovery details of Olympic and World Cup champions (in cross country skiing as well as other endurance sports) as a means to establish efficacious training protocols that lead to championship-level performances. Seiler sums up much of his recent work on training intensity distribution very nicely in a lecture given a couple of years ago- something that I will come back to in a future post. The point here is that the operative principle that drives Seiler’s work is:
looking at the very best skiers and how they train, we can learn what training methods and protocols are most effective in achieving full development of one’s potential
Similarly, in the case of height/weight optima for cross country skiing, studying the data from world-level competitive skiers should allow for insight as to what range of racing weight is appropriate to aim for. This is what is detailed in this post.
Presented in Figure 1 is a plot of the weight vs. the height of all 2014 cross country skiing Olympians with the exception, unfortunately, of the Norwegians*. There is data, however, for Norwegian Olympic cross country skiers in 2006 and prior years. Analysis of the 2006 data reveals that the height/weight trends seen in the 2014 Olympic cross country skier data are consistent with the 2006 Norwegian Olympic cross country skier data and it is asserted here that the 2014 dataset is representative of the entire 2014 Olympian cross country skier population, including the Norwegians.
What is seen in these data is an expected result of a direct, nearly linear, positive relationship between weight and height, i.e. the taller you are the more you weigh and that this is an approximately linear function. Also seen are ranges of values for weight at a given height (and, likewise, a range of heights at given weights) as is expected from the variations in anthropomorphic profiles (i.e. body types- ecto, meso, and mega-morph) within the elite skier population. Figure 1 also illustrates the expected difference between male and female skiers, i.e. that the female population is much lighter as a group but this population still falls on the same linear trendline functionality with height.
It is widely reported that elite cross country skiers are, as a group, the leanest of all endurance athletes with an average body fat percentage around 5% for males and 11% for females. Elite distance runners are a bit less lean at an average 7% body fat for males and 12% for females. The primary difference between these two populations is body type, where cross country skiers trend much more toward mesomorphic proportions and distance runners trend much more toward ectomorphic proportions. Clearly, the primary importance of upper body and core strength for cross country skiers is what drives the predominance of mesomorphs. Similarly, for distance runners the energy costs associated with carrying a significant upper body musculature outweigh any advantage the additional upper body strength might otherwise yield. What this means is that cross country skiers are substantially more muscular (particularly with respect to upper body muscle groups) than distance runners, so even though cross country skiers are more lean, at a given height they weigh a lot more*** (data to support this will be presented below).
Presented in Figure 2 are the male 2014 Olympian height vs weight data along with the individual medal performances** for those skiers in the database (the Norwegian medalists (Hattestad- Gold in Sprint, and Sundby- Bronze in 30km Skiathlon) are not presented due to lack of weight data). A few of observations are worth noting:
- there are no skiers that weigh less than about 135lbs, independent of height
- there are no skiers shorter than about 66″, independent of weight
- the “center of mass” of the population distribution is at about 71″ tall and 168 lbs
- there can be as much as a 40 lb range in weight for some heights
- the Olympic medal performances are predominantly near the “center of mass” of the population, i.e. about 71″ and 168 lbs
Based on these observations and given the very lean nature of an elite cross country skier, it is clear that substantial upper body and core muscle mass is required to be competitive. With an average of about 5% body fat, an elite cross country skier athlete that weighs 165 lbs will have 157 lbs of lean muscle mass, fluids, and bones. That is a lot of muscle- as is obvious when looking at such athletes. This reiterates the arguments in a previous post about the primal importance of strength training for cross country skiing regardless of competitive level in the sport. There are no “scrawny” competitive cross country skiers, regardless of VO2max or lactate metabolism enzyme profile. One must put on the muscle mass to be able to perform in this sport at the highest levels. There does appear to be less of a penalty for higher weight than there is for lower weight which indicates, again, that muscle mass is critical to performance. But this will hold only if body fat is at the sub-7% or so level. Being heavier because of high body fat, is very much different (and very much more detrimental) than being heavier because of additional lean muscle mass. Although skiing efficiency will clearly play an important role, an inability to generate sufficient weight-indexed force will ultimately limit the ability of an athlete to generate power levels required for competitive paces. This is what analysis of the height vs. weight data from the Olympians reveals.
Although skiing efficiency will clearly play an important role, an inability to generate sufficient weight-indexed force will ultimately limit the ability of an athlete to generate power levels required for competitive paces.
Similar results obtain for the female elite skier population. Figure 3 presents the female 2014 Olympian height vs weight data along with the individual medal performances** for those skiers in the database. Unfortunately, the Norwegian women took 8 of the 12 individual medals and no weight data is available on these athletes. Analysis of the 2006 female Olympic cross country skier data reveals that the height/weight trends seen in the 2014 female Olympic cross country skier data are consistent with the 2006 Norwegian Olympian data and it is asserted here that the 2014 dataset is representative of the entire 2014 Olympian cross country skier population, including the Norwegians. So, although no direct medal performance data for the Norwegian women can be presented, it is expected that the Norwegian medalists are indicative of (i.e. not outside of) the height weight distribution of the rest of the women Olympic cross country skiers for 2014.
The average elite female cross country skier has a higher body fat percentage than elite male skiers at around 11% so these data indicate that, as expected, the female skier population is less muscular than the men but as will be shown below, much more muscular than elite distance female runners. The available data also show that the medal performances are toward the heavier side of the overall distribution. However, given that 8 of the 12 2014 individual Olympic medal performances are not represented in the dataset, no firm observation can be made. It is noted that among the 6 Norwegian female athletes that won individual medals in 2014, three are clearly “lightweights” estimated to be sub-125 lb weight at heights ranging from 63″-66″.
Comparison of elite cross country skiers to elite distance runners
Given that I am a competitive mountain runner and therefore participate in two competitive seasons, it is pertinent to take a look at the height/weight distributions for elite distance runners to evaluate potential optima for athletes who are multi-sport competitors. In the following the “distance runner” population consists of those athletes that competed in the 2012 Olympics in the 1500m, 5,000m, 10,000m, and marathon. The 1500m athletes were included for three reasons- firstly many elite 1500m athletes eventually compete at the highest levels in the longer events, secondly typical training for the 1500m event is not radically different than that for the 5,000m and 10,000m, and thirdly 1500m running athletes are more closely aligned with cross country skier sprinters so capturing this population will make comparisons more complete.
Figure 4 presents the height vs. weight distribution for the 2012 Olympic male distance running population (as defined above).
Once again, Norway does not report weights for their athletes so no Norwegian data are presented. In addition a few other athletes from other countries did not report weights, and in some cases, heights. 96% of all athletes are represented in the dataset (this also holds for the female dataset presented below).
The data indicate that in comparison to the elite cross country skier population, at a given height the distance runners exhibit significantly lower weight, as noted in the discussion above. Figure 5 presents a graphical comparison of the elite distance running population with the elite cross country skier population along with linear fits to the data for each population. The data yeild remarkably similar linear slopes indicating that the height/weight functionality for elite endurance athletes is similar across disciplines when corrected for needed additional muscle mass in a particular sport.
Evident is an approximately 20 lb difference, on average between the athlete populations. Given that the average body fat percentage is not very different (5% for the cross country skiers and 7% for the distance runners) this means that the cross country skiers have about 17-20 lbs more lean muscle mass than the distance runners. This muscle mass is certainly primarily due to increased upper body and core muscle groups, although there is likely some additional muscle mass in lower body muscle groups in the skiers as well due to the power required to manipulate and push off skis.
There also appears to be evidence that the distance runners are generally taller for a given weight throughout the dataset. This would indicate that, in general, height is a greater advantage in distance running than it is in skiing as might be expected.
The 17-20 lb difference between athlete populations in weight at a given height shown above is huge! And for any athlete it would be difficult to shift form one “type” to the other within a single year of competition. This is an even greater challenge for a masters athlete where putting on muscle is already difficult due to hormone production declines. So striking some optimal compromise between the increased muscle mass needed to be a competitive skier and the advantages of a “chicken wing” (or “strong chicken wing”) upper body more typical of elite runners needs to be struck. This is what I am currently attempting to conquer. I will outline my approach below.
The 17-20 lb difference between athlete populations in weight at a given height shown above is huge!
And again, similar results are seen in the female populations as well. Presented in Figure 6 is a graphical comparison of the elite female distance running population with the elite female cross country skier population along with linear fits to the data for each population.
In the case of the female populations the average weight difference between cross country skiers and distance runners is 10-12 lbs which is reasonably similar to the difference seen in the male populations based on percentage of total body weight. So the female cross country skiers are similarly more muscular relative to distance runners as is the case for the male groups. In addition, the data indicates that, for females, height is no different for the two populations. This shows that, independent of height or weight, upper body and core muscle mass is critical to success in cross country skiing and may be detrimental for distance runners, particularly shorter runners.
Height and weight data for populations of elite cross country skiers and elite distance runners have been analyzed and compared to identify possible optimal weights as a function of height for the sport of cross country skiing and, secondarily, distance running. The following are a few take-aways from simple observations:
- elite cross country skiers are significantly heavier than distance runners even though both groups have similar total body fat percentages
- the higher weight of elite skiers is due to required upper body and core muscle mass needed to generate power and maintain sufficient pace to be competitive at the world level
- at similar heights the average weight difference of about 17-20 pounds between the male elite skiers and the male elite distance runners and the average difference of about 10-12 pounds for females is very large highlighting the critical importance upper body and core strength in force generation in skiing
- there are no “scrawny” elite cross country skiing athletes
- there are no elite male cross country skier athletes below about 135 pounds, independent of height
- elite male cross country skiing athletes are taller than 66″
- it is apparent that, relative to the skiing athletes, in the male distance running population, height provides a slight advantage for performance whereas for the female distance running population this is not the case
- it would be very difficult to attain an optimal skier weight and an optimal distance running weight in the same year due to the difficulties associated with adding muscle mass for a competitive ski season and then eliminating much of this muscle mass for a competitive running season
Going into this analysis I did not expect to see such large differences in total body weight between the elite skiers and the elite distance runners. The 17-20 pound difference for male populations is much larger than the 5-10 pounds that I expected might prevail. This realization has had significant impact on my progression projection and on the details of the associated training plan.
My current weight of 128 lbs is way too low for a competitive 67″ cross country skiing athlete. At a minimum I need to add more than 8 pounds (6% of total current body weight) of lean muscle mass to even appear on the graphs of elite skiers presented above. For me, adding 8 pounds is huge! I have not weighted in excess of 135 pounds since retiring nearly 9 years ago and that higher weight was extant only because I sat for too long in too many useless corporate meetings and “important conference calls” when the extent of my exercise was a 25 mile daily bicycle commute through polluted air. That additional weight was also mostly fat, not muscle mass. Adding lean muscle mass is a very different and much more difficult as any reader of this will attest to.
So the task is to somehow add at least 8 pounds of muscle mass in the next nine weeks to allow for optimal body composition (weight and body fat percentage) at the World Masters Championships in early March. This must be done in parallel with the cardio work and the racing schedule. The ATP had me going into strength maintenance as of 1 November. That did not happen because I hit a max strength plateau that took two extra weeks to break through and another two weeks to finish the progression. The key (for me) in breaking through this plateau was to increase the max strength sessions to three per week from two. This made all the difference and so much so that I decided to not stop the max strength progression on 1 December and have continued with the three strength/max strength sessions per week as of this writing. Based on this analysis I will continue the max strength progression for at least another 6 weeks to see if I can add the needed muscle mass. I am already at over 150% of body weight for the weighted pull-ups (65 lbs in the weight vest) so it looks like I am going to go into a strength level I did not expect to- if I survive! It will be challenging to get the quality cardio work in and continue to build strength and participate in races, but it is worth attempting. Time will tell.
Of course the muscle mass cannot be added if there is not the required collateral consumption of appropriately balanced calories. This has been a problem I have always had and was highlighted in my post on diet where I found that, although I had no issue with getting the macronutrient balance correct, I was physically unable to consume the proscribed amount of carbohydrates based on total training hours. Having never been “a big eater” I find it difficult and unpleasant to stuff myself to achieve a calorie intake goal, but it would appear that this is what I will need to do if I want to put on the kind of muscle mass that the analysis above indicates I should.
As far as running, I will to go into the mountain running season with the additional muscle mass and I plan to continue to progress with the strength program. The strength part of the equation for cross country skiing is so critical that one cannot afford to take a break from the strength work as the muscle mass takes a very long time to add. This is particularly important for masters athletes who will have additional challenges with muscle mass development due to reduced HGH and testosterone production. So this is hypercritical for a 60+ year old like me.
Carrying the upper body muscle mass in mountain trail running competitions may lead to disadvantages but given the time it takes to put muscle back on I will just have to deal with the consequences. And who knows, perhaps I will find that I have been under-weight for mountain running as well and that the upper body and core muscle mass actually leads to better performances for me- at least I can hope so…
* Norway no longer reports the weights of their skiers and they have admitted to significant “weight dysfunctions” on the ski team, particularly on the women’s team and so much so that they no longer accept any athlete that currently has an eating disorder, regardless of performance or potential. This issue with the Norwegian team is obvious in some of their top female athletes.
** As of this writing, the 2014 Olympic cross country skiing results are the subject of numerous alleged doping violations by the Russians (and perhaps others) and a number of these individual medal performances are by those that are reportedly being investigated for doping, specifically Legov (Gold in 50 km) and Vylegzhanin (Silver in 50km). So this puts a bit of a damper on direct interpretation of these medalists height/weight characteristics being exemplary. The Russian Olympic authorities have now admitted to facilitating doping coverups for many 2014 athletes.
*** This difference is glaringly obvious in races that attract both distance runners and cross country skiers, one of the most prominent examples being the Mount Marathon Race in Seward, Alaska. Here many top national (and some international) cross country skiers mix it up with top international distance runners and other mountain athletes to see who can get to the top of a very steep coastal mountain and back down the fastest. Historically, the race has been dominated by cross country skiers (e.g. Bill Spencer, Eric Strabel, and this years winner David Norris who set the “up” record and a new record besting Kilian’s effort last year) but in recent years international distance mountain runners have been at the front, including Rickey Gates and Kilian Jornet. In the following video from the 2015 race, the anthropomorphic difference between a cross country skier like multiple-time winner Eric Strabel (70″ tall, 168 lbs) and distance/mountain runners like Rickey Gates or Kilian Jornet (67″ tall, 128 lbs) is obvious, yet both types move efficiently and quick on this terrain at this distance. But put Rickey or Kilian in a cross country ski race with Strabel or Norris or put Strabel or Norris in a mountainous 50 km running race with Rickey or Kilian and there would be no competition between these athletes (even though Kilian grew up as a cross country skier and is a dominant International Ski Mountaineering competitor).
…and the 2016 race where Norris sets the “up” record and the overall record: