Frank Horwill



  • These articles were first published many year's ago and whilst some are as relevant today as they were when new, many are now mostly of historical interest as modern research and coaching methods have superseded them.

If You Want to Win Some More Races, Lose Some Weight

By Frank Horwill

The late Dr George Sheehan, a prolific and highly regarded writer on distance running, considered that weight relative to height was the key factor in distance running success. He was also on record as saying: 'I've long since learned never to discuss a man's politics, religion or diet with him'.

The subject of adjusting weight to improve performance is a touchy one. When an article on this appeared in a sports journal it brought an indignant reply from a nutritionist: 'It is dangerous to be significantly underweight for one's height'. It is also extremely dangerous to be overweight for one's height, a point that seemed irrelevant to her.

No man six feet tall and weighing 176lbs (79.8kg) will ever win the London Marathon, and it is unlikely that a woman five feet six inches in height and weighing 130lbs (58.9kg) will ever do so either. Why? To answer this we must consult Dr Stillman's height/weight ratio table. He fixes the non-active man's average weight for height with a simple formula. He allocates 110lbs (56.2kg) for the first five feet (1.524m) in height and 5 1/2lbs (2.296kg) for every inch (0.025m) thereafter. He is harsher with women, giving them 100lbs (45.3kg) for the first five feet and 5lbs (2.268kg) for every inch above this.

Having established the average, he then speculates on the ideal weight for athletic performance, as follows:

Sprinters (100-400m): 2½ per cent lighter than average (6ft/176lbs - 2½% = 4lbs)

Hurdlers (100-400m): 6 per cent lighter (or 9lbs) Middle-distance runners (800m - 10K): 12 per cent lighter (or 19lbs)

Long-distance runners (10 miles onwards): 15 per cent lighter (or 25½lbs)

Matching the figures to reality

How do these figures compare to past record holders? Here is a list of some of them:

Emile Zatopek - 5'81/2' (1.740m)/154lbs (69.8kg): same as the average man

Herb Elliott - 5'101/2' (1.791m)/147lbs (66.6kg): 11 per cent below average

Kip Keino - 5'9' (1.753m)/146lbs (66.2kg): 9 per cent below average

Seb Coe - 5'10' (1.778m)/120lbs (54.4kg): over 20 per cent below average

Steve Cram - 6'11/2' (1.867m)/153lbs (69kg): 15 per cent below average

Linford Christie - 6'21/2' (1.89m)/170lbs (77kg): 10 per cent below average

Wendy Sly - 5'51/2' (1.66m)/113lbs (51kg): 11 per cent below average

Yvonne Murray - 5'7' (1.70m)/111lbs (50kg): 18 per cent below average

Sally Gunnell - 5'6' (1.67m)/124lbs (56kg): 5 per cent below average

Ingrid Kristiansen - 5'61/2' (1.68m)/128lbs (58kg): 4 per cent below average

Tatyana Kazankina - 5'31/2' (1.61m)/110lbs (49kg): 6 per cent below average

Greta Waitz - 5'61/2' (1.689m)/110lbs (49kg): 17 per cent below average

There are one or two anomalies in these figures. For instance, Zatopek, who gained three gold medals in the 1952 Olympics (5km, 10km and marathon) weighs the same as the average man of his height. And Ingrid Kristiansen, who ran a marathon in 2:21.6, is just below the average weight for her height. However, note the staggering percentage below the normal for Seb Coe, who broke 12 world records in four years. If we take the average of these 12 world-class athletes, they weigh 10 per cent less than the average person of their height. So we must conclude from this that Drs Sheehan and Stillman had a point to make of considerable importance.

Many years ago I had an athlete aged 20 who was running about 40 miles a week for the mile event. However his weight/height ratio was that of a non-active person, and his miling progress was limited. He went on a cycling holiday in Europe with the ambitious plan of cycling 100 miles a day for a month. On his return I hardly recognised him. He had lost two stone in weight. Now, Cooper has postulated that 4-5 miles of steady cycling is physiologically equal to one mile of steady running, so this athlete had been doing the equivalent of 20-25 miles of running a day. More to the point, his mile time took a quantum leap of 16 seconds for the better. This convinced me that an athlete's weight is something that neither coach nor athlete can ignore.

Aim first for a 10 per cent drop

The first man we know of who considered weight-watching to be a relevant factor was Jack Lovelock (NZ) who won the 1936 Olympic 1,500m in a world-record time. He was a medical student, and weighed himself immediately after every race (880 yds, mile, two miles). He soon discovered that his best racing weight was 9st 61/2lbs (59kg); if he was more than this, he wasn't fit enough, if he was significantly under, he was stressed.

Every athlete has a best racing weight which should be elucidated by trial and error. But the starting point for this is to aim for 10 per cent below the average weight for height. It is a long-established fallacy that because one runs every day one cannot be overweight for competition. We require about 2,500 calories a day to exist, and if we run 10 miles a day at a steady pace (able to converse while running) we will burn and require a further 1,000 calories. Thus if we consume 5,000 calories a day, say, we are in the process of putting on weight! What's more, if we are big fat-content eaters we can even develop a paunch.

Dr Van Aaken is noted for his LSD (Long Slow Distance) theory. Many thought his views were outlandish, but he coached two world-record holders with his methods. His view was that distance runners should aim to be 20 per cent below average weight for their height, and to achieve this they should limit their fat intake to 35 grams a day and run a certain mileage daily commensurate with their event in order to burn off calories. He drew up a mileage table as follows: 400m runner, 4 miles; 800m runner, 6 miles; 1,500m runner, 10 miles; 5km runner, 15 miles; 10km runner, 18 miles; marathoner, 26 miles. Now this may look like a recipe for one-pace running.

But he added a significant corollary: three times a week after these outings, run a section of your event at race pace, eg, 1 x 350m for the 400m athlete, 1 x 400m for the 800m runner, 1 x 800m for the 1,500m runner, 1 x mile for the 5km specialist, 1 x 2 miles for the 10km runner and 1 x 10km for the marathoner.

How to take it off

So weigh yourself without clothes and discover how you shape up to the Stillman table. If you weigh the same as the average person for your height, you can improve your performance dramatically by losing weight. There will be many who will make excuses for not doing so. One favourite is: 'I'm bigger-boned for my size than the average'. The truth, according to Van Aaken's anatomical studies, is that if you were to take two men both of six feet in height but one broader than the other, when their bones alone are weighed the difference is not more than six pounds.

If you are in the overweight category, this is the procedure to follow:

1. Don't go without food. Every four hours eat meals that include the Basic Four - skimmed milk, lean meat, fruit, vegetables, whole-grain cereal and bread.

2. Avoid the following high-fat-content foods: cooking fat, lard, etc (253 calories per ounce); margarine (218), butter (211), bacon (128), chocolate (148), pork (116), cheese (117), sugar (108), mutton (94), cream (325 calories per cup), excessive alcohol (spirits, 115 calories per oz, wines, 85 per 31/2oz, beer, 150 per 121/2oz).

3. Eat plenty of fruit, vegetables, fish, veal liver and fat-free beef.

4. Do the type of running that burns fat. That is below 80 per cent of your maximum capacity, which is about 85 per cent of your maximal heart rate for less than an hour run and around 75 per cent MHR over this period.

5. Add five minutes a day per week to your workload. If you are doing 35 minutes a day now, within six weeks you will be doing 65 minutes.

6. Avoid mid-meal snacks. If you're desperate, eat fruit.

7. If you are a teenager, ignore all the above advice! You are growing and need all the good food you can get, but that rules out crisps, sweets and takeaways. Learn to cook vegetables and meats.

8. If you drive daily, or use the bus or train, consider running or walking to your destination at least once a week.