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National Eating Disorder Awareness Week: Lightweight Rowing

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Today’s NEDA post is going to be about lightweight rowing. This is not to say that eating disorders and the like can’t and don’t happen with heavyweight or open weight rowers because they can and do, but the potential of disordered eating amongst lightweights, particularly lightweight women, is drastically higher. Even knowing this though, it’s still not something that is often openly talked about or discussed amongst coaches and rowers. If you’re a heavyweight rower and you’re suffering from an eating disorder or think you might be engaging in some of the behaviors (voluntarily or involuntarily), this post is in no way meant to minimize those issues because they are just as serious.

What is lightweight rowing?
Lightweight rowing is a specific category of rowing that sets a maximum weight limit for each individual member of a crew. It was created as an offshoot of open weight and heavyweight rowing in order to give “average sized” athletes a chance at being competitive against similarly built rowers. Heavyweight rowers are typically taller and have more build on them, so they often had a physical advantage over the smaller competition. FISA’s politically correct rationale for creating an international lightweight racing program is “to encourage more universality in the sport especially among nations with less statuesque people”. In layman’s terms, it levels the playing field.

In high school and college, the weight limits are 160lbs for men and 130lbs for women, with no changes to the minimums for the coxswain of a lightweight crew. In international competition, things are slightly different. Instead of looking at the weight of each individual member of a crew, officials look at those plus the average weight of the entire crew. Individual weights for men should be no more than 159.8lbs and 154.3 for the crew. Women should average no more than 125.6lbs for the crew and 130lbs for each individual.

Averaging is becoming a more and more hotly contested topic and most recently came up at FISA’s annual Congress meeting a week or two ago. Here is what was said about it with regards to potential rule changes in the press release:

Lightweight Averaging – The Congress rejected the proposal of the Council to eliminate lightweight averaging in order to establish a system in which each athlete is responsible for his own weight, and not have to undergo sudden weight loss due to a teammate just before the race. Many delegates expressed the opinion that the current system of averaging allows a wider spectrum of participation in this category which might be lost if there is only one weight limit. The vote was 62 in favour of the change and 72 against.”

While I am all for having and allowing as many athletes to compete as possible, I draw the line when it involves those athletes putting themselves or others at risk due to unsafe weight management practices. I’ve always been fairly supportive of FISA (despite not ever competing at the international level) but this is something I really disagree with. It comes off as a very “quantity over quality” move, in my opinion. There’s also the issue of more athletes = more exposure = more money, etc. but that’s an entirely different topic of discussion.

In collegiate rowing, the entire lightweight program across the country is small when looking at the number of schools competing vs. those who compete in the open weight or heavyweight categories. Part of this is due to funding, part of it is the school, athletic department, and/or coaches don’t think it would give their program a competitive advantage, and part of it is due to the stigma surrounding the propensity for disordered eating and the subsequent issues that arise with that when combining competitive athletes (particularly women) with weight restrictions. It’s understandable and I don’t fault anyone who doesn’t have a lightweight program for those reasons, but I think that if schools, ADs, and coaches were willing to lay out ground rules and standards, have closely monitored training programs, the necessary resources available, etc., lightweight rowing could become a more popularized thing in college sports.

One thing that’s always bothered me, both at the high school and collegiate levels, is how lightweight rowing is deemed “lesser” than heavyweight rowing because it’s not the “main event”. It’s like how the WV8+ races aren’t as big of a highlight as the MV8+s because of all the usual reasons. (Allow me to briefly digress and direct your attention to the 2-time consecutive Olympic gold medal winning women’s eight. Annnd I’m done. That fills my “go women!” quota for at least the next 25 years.) Truthfully, if you hop down off your high horse for a moment and compare the two programs, it’s like comparing apples and oranges. Lightweights have the added pressure of weight restrictions, which means that in order for them to be at their most competitive, they have to finely tune their body composition so that it’s at the ideal muscle:fat (or vice versa, whatever) ratio. This category of rowing focuses less on brute strength and far more on one’s technique and physiological makeup. That isn’t to say that heavyweights don’t focus on those things too and that they’re just a bunch of gorillas, but come on…do I really need to explain this?

Lightweight rowing, eating disorders, weight management issues, etc.
It’s often said that due to the limits on weights, lightweight rowers have a higher chance of developing eating disorders. I’ve probably said it over the past week too. It seems like an obvious, “duh” kind of thing to me, but when looking at the research (which I’ve done before and did again for this post) a lot of studies found no measurable correlation between the two. What some studies did find, however, is that lightweight rowers were more highly associated with increased caloric restraints, diuretic misuse, and disordered eating patterns. If you’re scratching your head and saying “…wait a second” don’t worry, so was I. What I interpreted that as (and I could be wrong) is that even though there was no measurable correlation, lightweights (at least the ones participating in those studies) are on the fast track to potentially developing eating disorders since they’re already doing many of the things that are clearly spelled out as warning signs and/or symptoms of them. Thoughts? Other studies showed that while women were more prone to eating disorders and indulging in drastic weight control methods, men suffered from more frequent and greater overall weight fluctuations, which are dangerous in their own right (see “yo yo dieting”).

It’s important that whatever training and dieting regime you conclude works best for you is monitored by your coaches and/or training staff. Ideally the plan you come up with would be a collaborative effort. Athletes who are closely monitored (in a good way, not in a Big Brother I’m standing over your shoulder and making sure you eat every last bite of your dinner kind of way) tend to be more successful in managing their weight because of the resources and support available to them. It is when those things aren’t there that things tend to go poorly. In 2000, a rower from Germany who was trying to make a lightweight boat died because he/she wasn’t being closely monitored. If someone offers you help, guidance, assistance, etc. during your lightweight career, don’t be stubborn and brush it off. You might not need them now (although you probably do) but down the road, you will, for any one of a number of reasons.

One study that’s cited a lot when talking about weight loss and lightweight rowing is this one. Some of you guys have asked me about this too – can a smaller heavyweight rower lose weight and be competitive as a lightweight? This study found that it is possible, but what I think is worth noting is that the “heavier” heavyweight athletes lost more muscle than fat mass over the course of the 16 weeks this study was conducted. 16 weeks…that’s roughly four months. Winter training through mid-spring season is about four months, so think about that if you are considering making the transition. Preparation must start well before the time you plan to fully compete as a lightweight. The rowers who suffered the greatest loss in muscle mass weren’t able to be competitive as lightweights because of the drastic reduction in power output, energy, etc.

Regardless of whether or not you’re a heavyweight trying to become a lightweight or if you’re already a lightweight, your weight loss needs to be a season long priority, not something you try and achieve four hours before weigh in. I say priority because that’s what it is, plain and simple. The recommended amount of weight loss per week for anyone, athlete or not, is 1-2lbs. Is it a lot? No. Does progress take time? Yes. Compare that to rowing though…were you a great rower when you started? I’m guessing no. Did your skills develop and get better over time? Yes. What would have happened if we’d thrown you in a race the second day of practice on the water? It probably would have been disastrous. It’s the same with weight loss. Losing weight rapidly is dangerous. This is the one time in rowing where slow and steady wins the race. Plus, the benefits of losing weight slowly and responsibly ensure that you aren’t compromising your muscle mass.

If you’re weighing yourself, don’t do it every day. You’re not going to see any changes except fluctuations in water. Weigh yourself once to start (in the morning when you first wake up) and then again one to two weeks later (again, in the morning when you wake up). Just because the scale only shows a one or two pound difference doesn’t mean you’re doing something wrong and you should resort to other techniques to speed up the process. Weighing yourself too much (every day, multiple times a day, etc.) does nothing for you except fuck with your head. Raise your hand if you know what I’m talking about. You should be consistently weighing yourself – that’s just part of being a responsible lightweight – but be smart about it.

One of the things I briefly talked about yesterday with coxswains is dehydrating oneself as a way to get closer to the minimum or in the case of lightweights, to make weight. Other than what I hope are painfully obvious reasons as to why you shouldn’t do this, here’s some more evidence as to why it’s harmful. (I hope to do a more thorough post on this soon.) Let’s assume this is for a 132lb woman trying to make weight for her boat.

  • 2% reduction (roughly 2.5lbs in this case) in water volume leads to a decreased ability for the body to cool itself, but for the most part, her ability to perform will remain unchanged. She may experience some fatigue or dizziness and will probably appear very flushed.
  • 3% reduction (roughly 4lbs) results in a decrease in muscle endurance, which will lead to a faster onset of fatigue. Her heart rate will be elevated because the blood is thicker, so it has to work harder to pump it through the body. Confusion, fatigue, dizziness, etc. will start to become apparent as oxygen is more slowly transported to the brain. She may also be experiencing muscle cramps, thanks in part to the increased amount of lactate that is accumulating in her body due to the increased amount of energy she’s expending (which is due to the body’s decreasing ability to pump blood and slower delivery of oxygen to the tissues).
  • 4% reduction (roughly 5lbs) or more leads to a severe decrease in endurance, loss of the body’s ability to cool itself (which means she won’t be sweating at all), very low blood pressure, a rapid heart rate (due to the increased thickness of the blood and the increased amount of energy the heart has to expend to pump it), dizziness, and/or fainting.

If you’re a lightweight, raise your hand if you’ve ever put on several layers of thick clothing and gone running around a regatta site a few hours before weigh-ins to make weight. Keep your hand up if you’ve ever put a trash bag on over all those layers. Now keep your hand up if you’ve done that and felt any of the symptoms I just listed. I’m guessing nearly all of you still have your hands up. I’m just going to leave this here and let you ponder that.

In addition to everything I’ve listed to this point, women can also suffer from what is known as the Female Athlete Triad. If you’ve taken a college nutrition, psychology, physiology, kinesiology, sports medicine, athletic training, etc. class, you’ve probably talked or at least heard about this. (Let’s ignore the fact that the abbreviation of this condition is FAT. Well done, whoever thought that one up.) The Female Athlete Triad is comprised of three serious conditions – disordered eating, amenorrhea or irregular periods, and decreased bone density. Something like this is easy to hide because losing your period can just be attributed to training hard (yes, that actually is a thing) and people with eating disorders know how to hide them. This is another topic I hope to go more in depth with in a separate post, but I just wanted to point out it’s existence.

In conclusion…
One thing I first noticed when I was coxing lightweights and since I’ve started to research the issue more this week is that USRowing, the United States governing body for rowing, has nothing published with regards to safe weight management practices, rules for ensuring weight loss is done in a healthy manner, etc. Maybe I’m just not looking hard enough on their website but I see that as a problem. For an organization of it’s caliber and who is in charge of several lightweight national teams (from U-23 up to the elite level), I’m a little surprised that they haven’t put something together. I’ve not yet attended one of the annual conferences, so I don’t know if this is something discussed there or whatever, but I’m going to go out on a limb and say it’s probably not. With the medical professionals they have on staff, this is something I feel needs to happen sooner rather than later, if only to show younger athletes who are just entering the sport the importance of taking care of one’s self (mentally, physically, etc.) if competing at the lightweight level is something they plan on doing.

Also, I highly recommend that everyone check out this article from Rowing News in 2003. If that link doesn’t take you directly to the start of the article, it starts on page 30 and is titled “Drained and Confused”. It’s very informative and talks about a lot of issues regarding lightweight rowing, in a lot more depth than I’m qualified to do. It’s five pages long but I encourage you to take some time after you finish reading this and go check it out. Share it with your coaches and teammates as well, including your coxswains and heavyweight counterparts.

And, just to finish this off with my request from the last few days…I’d love to hear your stories if this is something you’re dealing with or have dealt with in the past. I’m going to be posting everything I receive TOMORROW, so you’ve got ONE day left to email me. Everything will be kept anonymous, I promise. The goal is to let other rowers and coxswains know that they aren’t the only ones dealing with these issues and that they’re something that effects all of us. Please consider sharing your experiences and being a resources to your fellow athletes.

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10 thoughts on “National Eating Disorder Awareness Week: Lightweight Rowing

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  6. Forget weight limits completely, base category of smaller stature athletes on basis of height- hard to “mess with” that metric, no? I’ve just visited a top-ranking ED treatment centre and noted that over half of the young women are college athletes in sports that favour weight class. No kidding.

  7. Lightweight rowers may still engage in dangerous activity to make weight regardless of taking away the average. It just means taller people will try to row lightweight and sweat to make 59kg instead of sweating to make 57kg. I think FISA knows this.

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