National Eating Disorders Awareness Week: Lightweights

Previously: Introduction || Eating disorders defined + explained || Signs + symptoms || Coxswains

Today’s post is going to be about lightweight rowing. That’s not to say that eating disorders don’t happen to heavyweights 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.”

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 open the doors for a lot of athletes (particularly women).

Lightweight rowing, eating disorders, weight management issues, etc.
It’s often said that due to the limits on weight, lightweight rowers have a higher chance of developing eating disorders. It seems like an obvious, “duh” kind of thing but when looking at the research 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 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. 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 is dangerous in its 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 tend to be more successful in managing their weight because of the resources and support available to them. It’s when that support system isn’t there that things tend to go poorly. In 2000, a rower from Germany who was trying to make a lightweight boat died because they weren’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 but down the road you probably will for any variety 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. 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 because any changes you see will likely be normal fluctuations that occur throughout the day or as a result of “water weight”. Weigh yourself once to start (in the morning when you first wake up) and then again a few days 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. 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. 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. Yeaaa…

In conclusion…
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 pretty informative and talks about a lot of issues regarding lightweight rowing.

12 thoughts on “National Eating Disorders Awareness Week: Lightweights

  1. L Deschamps says:

    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.

  2. sam says:

    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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