Thomas: Q’s from twitter: Weight management for triathletes

I recently asked my twitter (@DarbyThomas_FI) followers for some ideas on what to write about on this blog and received many suggestions I will try to cover in the coming posts. The first question came from a true inspiration of mine, Mr. Alexander Stubb. He asked to give my thoughts on weight management for triathletes.


I should start off by saying I am by no means a professional in this area and this blog reflects only my own views, which have been formed over the years of being an athlete. My history with weight as an athlete is a complicated one.

Near the end of high school I got into cycling in a big way and I quickly started to watch what was the physique of pro cyclists bodies and realized I needed to lean out. At first this came in the form of avoiding upper body activities and riding a lot. A couple years down the road when I was racing on the US national team and living in Belgium I took the weight loss more seriously and really cut back on my overall food intake to the point where I was boarder-line anorexic. This was the low point in my body composition where I was 187cm (6’ 1”) and 68kg (150lbs) and realistically not very healthy.

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Fast forward to today where I am now a professional triathlete with a lot more understanding of what an endurance athlete’s body needs. Specifically, triathlete’s needs are unique that you need to be able to swim, bike and run, which all have different body type requirements. For example, a swimmers body generally has significantly higher body fat and muscle mass than a runner, while a cyclist needs power but not body fat. So a happy medium has to be found and for each person this is different.

Off-season swing

My own body tends to remain quite stable in terms of weight and body fat without changing much throughout the year. My diet might get a little more focus around major events and I might loose a little bit weight for these occasions but the max change throughout the year is 3kg. I actually have to work extra hard to gain weight in the off-season. My coach actually encourages weight gain during off-season up to 5kg depending on the person’s body type. The goal is now to keep my weight almost uncomfortably high during the off-season and through my initial build cycles during the winter. This has the advantage of 1) building your aerobic system to power a larger body 2) developing more power and 3) allowing for better recovery due to more healthy hormone activity associated with higher body fat. This doesn’t mean to go out and get fat over the winter but it does mean bringing the body fat up 3-4%. As a reference, my racing body fat content generally gets down to 4% when I am in full-fitness.

After this winter weight, spring naturally starts to lean my body out due to warmer conditions, more running kilometers, and overall increased higher-level aerobic training volume. My coach also has me start to pay more attention to my diet through focus on fruits, vegetables, and lean proteins and avoiding excess simple carbs when I am not near training times.

Defining optimal

What is the ultimate body composition for triathletes? Too lean and you have no fat reserve to tap into as energy during long races. Too heavy and you can’t run optimally. While the general rule for weight loss in relation to running is 1kg lost = 5 sec per km faster, less is not always more because triathlon also requires power, which needs a higher degree of muscle mass than a super lean runner. My coach Jesse Kropelnicki recommends an optimal bmi (body mass index) of 21 men (20 for women). I highly recommend reading his own article if you would like to get into the details of what this means.

I also highly recommend reading Chris McCormack’s article on body composition as he has also influenced my thinking of optimal triathlon body type:

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Darby Thomas

Darby Thomas on Suomessa asuva, mutta Yhdysvalloissa syntynyt triathlonin ammattilainen. Thomaksen blogi julkaistaan englanniksi.
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