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The weight debate: A response

Updated: Mar 28, 2022

trisutto ironman nutrition weight diet triathlon Brett Sutton

Craig Walton: Mountain of a man and the best all-round triathlete I’ve ever seen.

I would like to take the time to further explain a very important, if not the most important, item in our sport. This concerns the matter of an athlete’s weight. Last week many people alerted me to a re-release of an an article written by Chris McCormack discussing optimal weights for individual athletes.

I’d like to thank him for his words and intelligent insight into this matter. However, I would also like to clarify some observations about my own thoughts on the weight debate given the very real implications for athletes reading such material.

I came through the Australian system of triathlon under the guidance of legendary coach Brett Sutton. In his opinion, lean was too fat, skinny wasn’t skinny enough and, put simply, the leanest you could get while maintaining the workload was optimal. For many of us who passed through this system in the ’90s, the proof was in the pudding, with the success of the athletes he was churning out.”

Yes, Macca is right here. When I was national coach for Australian triathlon I did adopt the position that being as light as one safely could – would indeed help performance. Specifically run performance.

However, context is key. At that time we were training short-course and Olympic distance athletes who were coming to grips with a very significant change that had just affected our sport – the switch to legal drafting races. This left many of our athletes, predominately the strong swim-bikers, stranded as overnight they saw their triathlon strengths totally diminished.

Now Macca being one of the few triathletes genuinely strong in all three disciplines was able to adapt better than most. He was also a big man compared with the new generation of wet-runners now on the ITU circuit and so a drop in weight was something that did help his short-course performance.

During this time, I have to admit, I found that the leaner I got, the faster I went. It just seemed so simple. I was young, and my natural speed, flexibility and youth fed this lighter body. In a race that is short, dynamic and fast like Olympic-distance racing, it worked.”

However this does not apply across all individuals and it most certainly does not apply to long distance or Ironman racing. Indeed, too much weight loss will negatively affect performance on the swim and bike, which affects racing at all distances.

I think the most instructive athlete regarding this issue is Craig Walton. A mountain of a man and the person I believe is the best ‘real’ triathlete (swimmer, biker, runner) including Mark Allen that I have ever seen.

Given the change in formats Craig spent his career see-sawing in weight. When he first came to train with me after a loss of form we butted heads over his drastic loss of weight. He’d explain that ‘I can run a minute faster at this weight’ to which I’d counter ‘but you ride three minutes slower.’

Each time I trained with Craig we’d get him back to his beloved steak and chips and put 3kg of meat onto his hulking frame. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a better sight in ITU racing than watching the big fella’ in his prime get out of the water 30 seconds up and then putting another 2 minutes into a peloton of 30 ITU boys all screaming at each other to ‘Take a turn! Take a turn! We got to shut him down!’ and being utterly powerless to do so.

At his right weight the giant ‘motorbike’ out front just kept powering ahead for yet another World Cup victory. I think 7 in total with God knows how many non-drafting victories. A truly awesome all-round swim, bike, run performer.

*I will also add Chris (McCormack) did the same thing a few times as another great all-round champion.

The point is Craig at his ‘I run faster’ weight would still get the 30 seconds on the swim and maybe on a great day another 1 minute on the bike, but it would leave him vulnerable to the huge pack with the speedy runners in it. But at his correct heavier weight and on the right course he could just crush all-comers on the bike with power not seen before nor since.

So let’s leave ITU racing and go to Ironman. This is another sport entirely.

Post-Kona I addressed a lot of the issues regarding my thoughts on maintaining a healthy weight and the need for fats (any fats) for the working engine. I also discussed how many of the ‘favourites’ (men and women) hadn’t presented the threat they had in previous years given their impressively ripped, but in my opinion seriously underweight frames.

Whether you are an age-group or a pro athlete Ironman is a strength sport, not a speed sport. If you lose strength for any reason; sickness, over training or diet then an Ironman is quite literally going to swallow you up.

So my advice is if you are into the short-course drafting events and looking to run faster, then yes, as Macca points out, being lighter will make a difference. If in the same races your swim and bike is your advantage, make sure you don’t take that advantage away looking for a small gain on the run by overcompensating with the ‘eating is cheating’ mentality.

If you’re an Ironman and look in the mirror without a shirt and can see every muscle my advice is this: Get in the car so you don’t burn too many calories, take yourself to the nearest supermarket and stock up on chocolate and ice cream. If you can see a chiselled six pack when you’re not exercising then a cheesecake is a must as you are already seriously redlining it.

You will find that you race much better in an Ironman carrying a little too much than a little too less. You can bet on it.

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