by Quintana Roo Triathlon August 14, 2019

How to approach body composition as a triathlete

This article was written by Katie Elliott, MS, RD, Sports Dietitian and USAT Coach with Elliott Performance & Nutrition. 

Weight, in particular racing weight, carries a loaded meaning for many triathletes. It’s not surprising given our country’s pervasive diet culture and the endurance community’s quantification of metrics like power-to-weight ratio. Given the frequency and power of messaging around body size, a number on the scale can feel like the linchpin to performance. While lean mass vs. fat mass does play a role in athletic outcomes, athletes often give weight too much credence. The reality is weight is just one of forty determinants of athletic performance:Genetics, training, practice, coaching, physical health, balance, body composition, coordination, courage, endurance, nutrition, quickness, reaction time, rest/sleep, speed, strength, VO2 max, weight, mental health, mental preparation, mental toughness, anticipation, coachability, competitiveness, commitment, concentration, confidence, desire, “heart,” intelligence, motivation, perfectionism, “playing with pain,” poise, pursuit of excellence, mood, resilience, relationship between athlete and coach, relationship between/among teammates, respect, sacrifice, teamwork and hard work.[1]

While weight is one piece in the performance puzzle, it doesn’t need to push aside the other important variables. Here are some tips on how to approach body composition so that it doesn’t overshadow other equally significant contributors to your athletic success.

1. Maintain a healthy relationship with food

Placing too much emphasis on weight loss will negatively affect your training from both a physical and mental standpoint. First off, a calorie deficit absolutely limits your performance gains (we’ll talk about losing weight at the right time in the next tip, but this is a fact you should understand). Second, will power is a muscle. If you over-exert your willpower with extreme weight loss practices, you tax that muscle a lot. There are other things that impact your performance: motivation, commitment, confidence, mental toughness and the ability to dig deep to meet new pace goals (to name a few). Don’t sacrifice these other key determinants of performance with an overly narrow focus on race weight.

2. Any necessary body composition changes should happen at the right time, slowly and through healthy practices

Pick the right time to lose weight

If you need to change body composition (and this is something you should approach thoughtfully), you will want to do this at the right time in your training cycle. Weight loss should occur during the off-season or early base training period for endurance athletes. While this is often difficult with the onset of the holidays, it is important because you don’t reap the full benefits of training when you are in a caloric deficit (which is the case with weight loss). Thus, trying to lose weight during a build or competition phase (when you have harder training sessions designed to increase speed and strength) will compromise fitness gains. If you do need to lose weight during a build-phase, do this carefully and under the advisement of a sport-specific Registered Dietitian.

Take it slow

You also want to lose weight slowly (no more than .5 to 1 pound per week). Slow losses will minimize adverse effects on training. Very gradual losses will also prevent your body from going into starvation mode. When you attempt to lose large amounts of weight in small amounts of time, you actually put your body in a state of shock. In this state, your metabolism will slow down, which will make it harder to ensure sustainable weight loss.

Employ Healthy Practices

It is a good idea to make changes to your diet that are positive for the foreseeable future, easily sustainable and support body composition goals. Here are a few healthy practices I recommend:

  • Emphasize nutrient-dense foods such as whole grains, nuts, seeds, legumes, fruit, vegetables and lean protein. These foods are packed with the micro- and macronutrients that you need to function at a high level, recover and stay healthy.
  • Limit alcohol

If you are trying to lose body fat, you will likely need to create a small caloric deficit. Alcohol is a good item to cut as it doesn’t offer a lot in the way of nutrient density and can also impact your sleep and recovery.

  • Set yourself up for success.

Meal prepping, grocery shopping and/or looking online for restaurants with healthy options make it easy to improve your overall diet. Once these preparation patterns become a part of your routine, healthy eating becomes a habit. These days, many restaurants offer nutrition information on their websites. Looking at these sites and menus before you go out ensures that you are frequenting establishments where the food lines up with your goals. 

  • Pay attention to hydration.

Dehydration impacts performance and can also lead to overeating or cravings for low-quality foods. Get a water bottle, sticker it up (this is my favorite part) and take it everywhere you go. If you hate stickers, opt for a reusable water bottle with a cool design. If you are training multiple times per day, look into calorie-free effervescent tabs that have additional electrolytes to support losses without added calories.

  • Practice mindful eating

Mindful eating means being present while you eat and enjoy food. Here are a few quick tips to get you started:

    • Don’t eat anything out of a box, bag or jar. Instead place a serving of food in a dish so that you have a visible stopping point and can ask yourself whether you are truly hungry for another serving.
    • Sit down to eat, preferably with no screens in sight.
    • A few times throughout the meal, check in with yourself. How full are you? 80% full is a good place to stop.
    • Take a deep breath prior to eating. Focus on enjoying and savoring the food.
  • Don’t skimp on training fuel

I cannot tell you how many times I talk to athletes who skimp on necessary training nutrition to save calories for later treats (“I don’t like to have sports drink on a three-hour ride because I want to drink a few glasses of wine at the restaurant tonight”). Fuel your body when it needs it the most- during and around exercise. Check out my article Sports Nutrition Basics for Triathletes to get guidelines on when and how to fuel exercise.

  • Allow for purposeful indulgences
The best triathletes I know, have indulgences that they look forward to while training. For instance, QR athletes Meghan and Kelly Fillnow, pictured here, cite Oreo ice cream with cool whip and cookie cake as favorite treats that they enjoy. Pick something you love. Have it every once in awhile. And DEFINITELY enjoy every bite. Nutrition is not supposed to be a perfect scenario. Getting a B+ in nutrition rather than an A will leave you room for enjoyment, partaking in social events that involve food and trying out the flavors of different cultures when you travel to that next international Ironman. I believe this is additive to performance, because this eliminates the feeling of deprivation than can over-stress your will power muscle. 
    • Trend with bodycomposition data, not simply weight

    Muscle weighs more than fat and athletes are often building muscle mass through training activities. Thus, you should be looking at both percentage of fat mass and percentage of lean mass. If you are losing fat mass and gaining muscle mass your weight might actually go up. If you don’t use a tool that gives you all of the relevant information, you are likely to decide that the uptick in weight is a problem. It might just be a muscle mass increase, which is distinctly different and better! I recommend doing BIA analysis with a local dietitian or medical practice, doing Bodpod or doing a DEXA scan (which is the gold standard for obtaining body composition data).

    3. Be reasonable, we all have different genes

    Every triathlete has a different genetic makeup. Some of us have the ability to easily build muscle, some of us were born with naturally high VO2 maxes and some of us were born with the ability to truly suffer. We are each unique and have our set of characteristics that make us the exact athlete we are. While we can improve our strengths and minimize our weaknesses, we can’t ask a genie for a completely different genetic make-up. In terms of body type, understand that, while you can optimize your physique for performance, you can’t reinvent the body type you were born with. Be reasonable. Just because some triathletes compete well with 15% body fat doesn’t mean you will. Think about more than a number when it comes to body composition. Where are you happiest (that matters big time)? At what size do you perform best while also being able to function in your personal and professional life? At what size are you healthiest mentally and physically? At what size can you best manage the appropriate training stress given your goals?

    In Conclusion

    There are so many things to consider when it comes to getting the best out of yourself in sport. Triathletes have even more to consider because there are literally three disciplines packed into one event. Furthermore, triathletes tend to be some of the most driven, busy, motivated people I have come across. It really isn’t an anomaly to meet an Ironman triathlete, who is also a CEO and has three kids. The sport draws type-A, high-functioning types for sure. When it comes to food and body composition goals, it is important to take the ambition down a notch, develop a balanced approach and keep things in perspective. In the same way you wouldn’t spend 80% of your time running, leaving only 20% of your remaining time for swimming and biking, don’t over focus on weight. Remember that weight only represents a fraction of what will help you to succeed. Keep your approach to body composition smart, balanced, simple, healthy and happy.


    Other Information
    Katie Elliott, MS, RD, Sports Dietitian and USA Triathlon Coach
    Website link:
    Instagram Handle: @elliottnutrition

    [1]Nickols, R. (2015). “Athletes and Eating Disorders: What Treatment Teams Need to Know.” McCallum Place, The Victory Program (Boston, MA).


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