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        Strength to Weight Ratio

By Jennifer Hutchison for Ironman.com
Published on Thursday, Jan 17, 2008 at 10:37 AM


With the beginning of the New Year comes new possibilities; aspirations to reach higher levels of fitness or new multisport goals and, for some, possibly earning a ticket to Kona or Clearwater this year. In their quest for faster race times, many athletes think nothing of spending thousands of dollars to shave a few pounds or even ounces from their bikes, or may even invest big money in the latest gadgets or gear to help them gain a race advantage to achieve faster race times.

For most athletes, though, one of the most simple and cost effective ways to get faster is to explore ways to increase their strength to weight ratio.

Why is an athlete’s strength to weight ratio important?

Success in long distance triathlon (as defined by faster racing times) goes to the athletes who have ability to generate the greatest force and aerobic power, in the most economical manner, to overcome the drag or resistance of water, wind and terrain. Simply defined, strength to weight ratio is the measure of a person’s strength divided by their body weight. When comparing two individuals who can generate similar amounts of strength, like reaching the top of a bike climb together, the person who has a lower body weight will have a higher strength to weight ratio. If the heavier rider, carrying more body weight (body fat) up the hill, exerts 100per cent effort in the climb, then his leaner counterpart should complete the climb with less effort. The leaner athlete, with the higher strength to weight ratio, will be over the hill and gone in no time when he or she increases their effort to 100 per cent.

Theoretically, athletes with a higher strength to weight ratio will be able to ride and run faster and will be able to climb hills better than a person with a lower ratio. In running, some sources estimate a gain of one per cent in running speed for every one per cent reduction in body fat (Running Times, 1994). In a 2007 Runner’s World article, Amby Burfoot presented a table describing how much time runners could save by dropping 2-20 lbs. For just a 2 lb. weight loss there is an estimated one minute improvement for the ½ marathon and 1:45 improvement over 26.2 miles. For every pound of (body fat) weight loss an athlete could gain a two-second per mile speed advantage. While this may not sound like much, for those of you that have more than a few pounds to lose, these numbers can add up quickly.

Body weight reduction can have either a positive or negative impact on your power to weight ratio. Focusing on weight loss alone can have a negative impact on performance. Aggressive diet and training strategies directed towards simply losing pounds commonly have the deleterious effect of unspecified weight loss. All-too-often the weight that is lost is comprised of both fat and force-producing muscle tissue. The goal of body composition change is to lose the excess fat without losing any lean mass. Clearly, your training program needs to be constructed so that you are able to apply the necessary stresses to your muscles to make then stronger. This in turn will boost your strength to weight ratio.

Steps to help boost your strength to weight ratio: Step 1: Get your body composition checked. Improving your strength to weight ratio is not just about losing weight. It’s about losing the right kind of weight. The traditional bathroom scale is the standard tool used to measure weight change, but the numbers you see on the scale are often misleading because “scale weight” does not distinguish between “fat mass” and “lean body mass.” Nonessential fat mass reduction is the target for improving your strength to weight ratio.

There are many ways to have your body composition measured (see nutrition archives for January 2006 article) and some yield much better estimates than others. The key with monitoring your body composition is to have it check periodically (every 8-12 weeks) by the same method (ex: skin fold) and by the same person. [ed. note: The Tanita Ironman Body Composition Monitors can also provide detailed body composition information.) There is always a per cent error with any body composition measurement so recognize that these numbers are not fixed but rather an estimated number that is within a range. Monitoring body composition over time will allow you to see the overall trends regarding changes in your fat free and lean mass.

If your body fat percent is at the upper limit of the ranges, or significantly above the ranges listed below, you may benefit from changing your dietary practices in order to reduce body fat. If you are already at the lower end of the body fat range and are healthy and performing well, then trying to further decrease your body mass to improve your strength to weight ratio may undermine your efforts to get faster.

Essential body fat needed for general health
Men: 3 - 5%
Women:8 - 12%
Average body fat for adults
Men: 8 – 15%
Women: 18 – 26%
Body fat ranges for Triathletes
Men: 4 – 12%

Please note that the body fat ranges listed above represent minimal body fat ranges, ranges associated with healthy adults and ranges for triathletes. These ranges should not be viewed as ideal body fat levels for performance.

Step 2: Set realistic goals. Just as improvements in fitness take time, so do changes in body composition. If you’re unsure of just how much you should lose while maintaining energy levels to train well, consider seeking the guidance of a qualified sport dietitian. A professional can provide you with insight on how much weight you can realistically lose (if any) and can assist you with planning the pathway to reach your goals.

If you feel confident in going it alone, be patient. Decreasing your body fat while maintaining lean mass, and the energy to carry out workouts, will take some planning. Using the values presented in the next step and decreasing your calories by 200-300 per day is a conservative but smart approach to fat reduction.

Step 3: Meal composition. Since most body composition adjustments are best accomplished during the base or preparatory period of an athletes training program, the following macronutrient guidelines should be used to ensure the proper distribution of nutrients to preserve lean mass.

Per pound Per kilogram Carbohydrate 2.5 - 4.5 grams 5.5 – 10 grams Protein 0.5 – 0.6 grams 1.1 – 1.3 grams Fat 0.4- 0.5 grams 0.9 – 1.0 grams Low end of range is for those training 1-2 hours per day. Upper end of range is for 3-4 hours per day.

Remember that the quality of food counts. The human body becomes a product of what we put into it. For a lean, fit body, athletes must commit to meeting daily carbohydrate needs with a variety of nutrient-rich whole grain breads and cereals, pasta, rice, potatoes, vegetables and fruits. Protein should come from low saturated fat meats or, better yet, plant sources such as soy beans or other legumes. Healthful fats from olive oil, flaxseed, nuts and avocados should also be included. Avoid high sugar calorie dense liquids (fruit juice blends, sodas, sports drinks) at and between meals. Stick with low-calorie beverages to meet your hydration needs. Save the sports drinks and bars for use during training.

Step 4: Meal Timing.

Regularly scheduled meals will ensure a steady stream of energy; crucial for those desiring body fat reduction. This is a topic that will be covered more extensively in a future article. Meals spaced every two to four hours help to maintain a more consistent energy levels and help prevent over-consumption by managing hunger. Attempt to time your meals/snacks with your workouts. Fuel your body with a light carbohydrate-rich meal or snack one to two hours before your workout. Plan your next meal or snack, to include both a carbohydrate source and protein source, within 30 minutes of finishing your workout. Try to use real foods instead of sports bars or recovery drinks to meet your needs.

Step 5: Train for greater power Maintaining or adding functional lean muscle mass is critical for boosting your strength to weight ratio. Some form of strength training should be a part of your overall program year round.

Improving your strength to weight ratio is truly a combined effort between diet (energy balance) and training. Athletes who are already quite lean should NOT attempt to decrease their body weight further as being light and lean is not a guarantee you will get faster. Even elite triathletes come in all shapes and sizes. Athletes who have obvious body fat to lose will benefit the greatest from a structure nutritional and training program to improve their strength to weight ratio. So for those of you who have some dead weight to drop, hold off shopping for the lighter race wheels or hubs and invest your time in making the needed diet and training changes to help you power on to faster races times this year.

 
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