Decision Theory and Racing Weight

Regular readers of this blog are probably sick and tired of hearing me yammer on and on about the differences between professional and recreational endurance athletes. But that’s my shtick. I’m all about helping recreational athletes improve by doing things more like the pros.

Not all of the differences between elites and age-groupers are methodological. Some of the most striking and consequential differences are psychological. When I was in Flagstaff last summer training with NAZ Elite, I had regular appointments with a sports psychologist affiliated with Northern Arizona University, Shannon Thompson. During one of these appointments Shannon observed that in her experience, nearly all elite runners tend to make very good decisions both big and small, from choosing whether to follow a competitor’s surge in a race to choosing a coach. I told Shannon I had noticed the same thing among the elite runners I was training with every day.

I remember talking to Scott Fauble after a hard interval run on Lake Mary Road, Flagstaff’s famous proving grounds for runners. He explained to me that he had abandoned the workout two reps shy of completing it because he was battling a head cold and didn’t want to risk exacerbating the illness. I was struck not only by Scott’s ability to ditch a workout he was not even performing badly in but also by how comfortable he was with his decision. For most runners, bailing out of a workout would strike a blow to their confidence, but Scott kept things in perspective, telling me that his training was going well overall and his illness was minor, so he fully expected the truncated session to be nothing more than a hiccup, and that’s exactly how it turned out.

I saw examples like this time and time again in Flagstaff. The elite runners around me there were consistently and strikingly rational when they needed to be. Recreational runners, by contrast, very often make decisions based in fear and insecurity. It’s not that they don’t have the ability to be rational, but when the pressure is on they allow panic to seize the wheel from reason.

Recently I received a visit from Georgie Fear, who coauthored my Racing Weight Cookbook, and her husband Roland Fisher, with whom Georgie operates a successful online nutrition coaching business. During the visit, Roland talked a lot about his current fascination with decision theory, which is the formal study of how human decisions are made and which decision-making processes are most likely to yield desired outcomes. His intent is to use this material to tweak his and Georgie’s coaching model to achieve better outcomes for their clients. Naturally, I shared with Roland my observation that elite endurance athletes tend to be very good decision makers.

“Of course they are,” he said. “That’s how you become elite at anything, not just endurance sports. Mastery is the result of a lot of good decisions.”

One area where I see recreational athletes struggle particularly to make good decisions is performance weight management, or the pursuit of racing weight. I see people making bad decisions in goal-setting (fixating on a certain weight or body fat percentage they want to reach instead of letting form follow function), method selection (trying extreme diets instead of emulating the proven eating habits of the most successful athletes), and execution (breaking their own rules and giving in to temptations more often than they can get away with without sabotaging their progress). When I left California for Flagstaff last summer I weighed 150 pounds, which has been my racing weight forever. But I was open to the possibility of getting a little leaner before the Chicago Marathon, and as it turned out I raced Chicago at 141 pounds—the lightest I’d been since high school, lighter than I thought I would ever be again, and a weight that certainly made a positive contribution to my performance. I was very intentional about the decisions I made in pursuit of getting leaner. Here are the key decisions that went into the positive outcome.

  1. I didn’t set a weight-loss goal. My focus was entirely on the process. The approach I took was to train and eat smart and see where it got me weight-wise.
  2. I relied on my stepped-up training load to do half the job for me. In the dieting world, it is often said that weight loss is 90 percent about diet and 10 percent about training. But that’s not the case for competitive runners. Because it’s critically important that you eat enough as a runner to adequately fuel your training, you can’t rely much on calorie-cutting to shed fat.
  3. I made a few small tweaks to my diet to rid it of wasteful calories. My diet was already quite healthy before I relocated to Flagstaff, but like everyone else I get some calories from energy-dense sources that I can easily do without. In my case, I cut back on beer, cheese, and chocolate. These tweaks were easy to make and did not leave me feeling deprived.
  4. During the two-week training taper that immediately preceded the Chicago Marathon, when I was running progressively less, I carefully reduced the amount of food I ate. I continued to make sure I got enough to fuel my training adequately, but I put up with just a bit more hunger throughout the day. This final measure alone resulted in four pounds of weight loss.

And that’s an example of good decision-making in the pursuit of better running performance—and proof that even non-elites can do it!