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Racing Weight: Advice from History’s Heaviest Ironman Champion

  • By Matt Fitzgerald
  • Published Jun 13, 2011
  • Updated Jun 13, 2011 at 3:22 PM UTC

Chris McCormack knows as much as anyone about managing body weight for maximum performance.

Written by: Matt Fitzgerald

Fifteen different men have won the Hawaii Ironman World Championship. None of them has weighed more than Chris McCormack did when he won his first title in 2007 at 177 pounds. Macca is living proof that you don’t have to be a natural born whippet to excel in long-distance triathlons.

But he’s also living proof that a very careful and committed approach to weight management is needed to excel in longer races, especially if you are naturally bigger. McCormack’s normal weight—the weight he returns to whenever he’s not actively seeking his racing weight—is 185 pounds. And when he claimed his second Ironman victory last October, he tipped the scales at just 175 pounds.

Nobody has more experience-based knowledge of how to manage body weight effectively for maximum triathlon performance than Macca. Here are his top five tips.

Experiment.

McCormack failed to even finish his first Ironman in 2002, discovering the hard way that his size made it very difficult to handle Kona’s oppressive heat. He lost four more Ironmans before finally winning in 2007. “It took me some time to find my perfect Kona race weight,” he says.

McCormack learned that losing too much weight weakened him, causing his performance to suffer despite his greater leanness. Realizing he could only get so far by dropping pounds, McCormack began to look at changing how he raced Ironman to make the most of his strength advantage and to minimize the effects of his weight disadvantage.

“I just had to find a way to get as light as I possibly could without losing my strength and then build a racing plan that suited the conditions and my issues in them,” he says.

In the end McCormack learned that a racing weight of 175-177 pounds gave him the ideal balance of leanness and strength, and that being aggressive on the bike and more cautious on the run was the best Kona racing strategy for a big fella.

Let form follow function.

Getting lighter is not an end in itself. Getting faster is the goal. There are different ways to get leaner, and not all of them will make you faster. McMormack saw that the best way to get faster through weight loss was to go fast in training.

“I added a lot more speed to my Kona training block last year,” he says. “This really thinned out my core and gave me a tighter build over the hips.”

Dial in your race nutrition.

“It is no secret that the bigger you are the more difficult dealing with heat and water loss is,” McCormack says. So if you are a larger athlete, you need to make an extra effort to develop the best race fueling and heat management strategy for you.

Chris’s formula for success, which took years to develop, includes racing primarily on liquids and gels instead of solid foods, using salt tablets, drinking cola during the marathon, and not forcing in nutrition when his stomach seems unable to tolerate it.

Your ideal race nutrition formula might be a little different.

Don’t go overboard.

As Macca found out, lighter is not necessarily better. It is possible to become too light, losing not only extra pounds but also essential pounds that you need to perform your best. It is also possible to reach the “right” weight the wrong way, by under-fueling your body.

“I have definitely gone to the far extreme of being way too light for my body structure,” McCormack says. “My first few years in Kona I was petrified of the heat and was racing at 171 pounds. I would starve myself to get my weight down to the realms I thought were necessary for a bigger guy to deal with the heat.”

Take a lesson from Macca and keep your weight-loss goals in perspective.

Have fun with it.

Many larger athletes are frustrated by their size and the challenge it presents. Not Chris McCormack. “I really enjoy the game of managing weight and speed and monitoring my body’s feel at different weights,” he says.

No matter your size, improving over the long term in triathlon is like solving a puzzle. You need to figure out what’s holding you back and experiment with various possible solutions. If you embrace this challenge, it can be half the fun!

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Check out Matt Fitzgerald’s latest book, Racing Weight Quick Start Guide: A 4-Week Weight-Loss Plan for Endurance Athletes.

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Matt Fitzgerald

Matt Fitzgerald

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