Body Composition: The Question we Forget to Ask

Written by Michael Reavis, MS, RD, LDN

Body composition, by definition in the athletic world, is considered to be the percentage of fat, muscle and bone that composes your body. Many clients and athletes’ goal is to change their body composition, almost always in favor of increasing their muscle mass and decreasing body fat. 

In this goal it is believed that nutrition is a vital part of this and what we eat reflects how we look. And for the most part this is true. Simply put more energy with proper training and amino acids equals more muscle. And additional energy without the ability for the body to put that energy to use is stored as fat for later time. This is an oversimplification but gets the point across.

Yet the line that most athletes miss is proper training.

Now what do I mean by that? 

Many athletes have a goal body type, a professional athlete they aspire to be, or an aesthetic that they think will benefit them in their performance. However, many do not ask the question, does that body composition I aspire to be actually benefit my sport or athletics mechanically?

What goes into the body composition of an athlete. Does being an athlete mean you always have abs, big muscles, and high muscle tone. No it doesn’t, look at many different types of athletes. And you may be saying, well this is obvious. The training we undergo plays a huge role in the physique we create as athletes. Yet regardless of how the majority of professional athletes in your respective sport present, it can be difficult to stay the course and trust your training.

But the question most athletes are not asking is why?

First it is important to note there are two types of muscle fibers, slow and fast twitch. It is important to note that fast twitch or those of power athletes are larger and more susceptible to fatigue. Slow twitch or those of endurance athletes are smaller and slow to fatigue meaning it can produce work for longer. 

When looking at what an athlete is trying to achieve we can answer this question. Power based athletes have a larger muscle mass. They need to create high volumes of power, speed, agility, strength in a moment with large amounts of rest following. Power sports have less care for the mass they may carry as long as it can accomplish the speed as needed. 

In comparison distance and endurance athletes often do not have large muscle mass or at least less than their power counterparts. Why? Muscle tissue and mass cost energy to move, especially over long distances. Endurance athletes given what they are trying to accomplish in their sport would struggle to do so with larger, more high intensity muscles. 

A great example of this is a comparison between Caeleb Dressel, 50m freestyle Olympic gold medalist and Mykhailo Romanchuk 800m freestyle Olympic gold medalist. Both stand at 6’3 yet Caeleb Dressel, the power athlete of the two weighs at 200lbs while Mykhailo the endurance athlete only weighs 174lbs. If you would compare the two side by side you could see the 26lb difference and too many athletes Caeleb Dressel would be the better physique. Yet, if we put into perspective what the individual is trying to achieve and how their muscles manifest in their performance they are both the “ideal” just with different goals.

So what have we learned? We need to set goals that allow us to grow into the athlete we want to be with the performance and body composition in mind that benefits us most in that sport, not just in what we as a society have deemed the preferred composition!

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