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Lightweight rowing and disordered eating

Weight categories in sports are tough. See Audery’s post on kids and weight categories in martial arts. And I’ve written about why the Athena category in running and in multisport events is fairly useless.

Sports introduce weight categories when there are size differences that result in performance differences such that putting differently sized people up against another wouldn’t be fair. Think boxing. Or weight lifting. Larger people have an advantage.

Weight categories have been employed for centuries as a method of equalizing competition in a number of different sports. In sports where the physical strength of the combatants was understood to be crucial to their ultimate success, weight categories recognized the fundamental principle that, all things being equal, in strength sports the larger athlete was likely to be the stronger athlete. Stated in the alternative, where two athletes possess equal technical skill in a strength-oriented sport, the larger athlete is more likely to overpower the smaller athlete. FAQ, World of Sport Science

That’s true too in rowing. It’s better to be big. Rowing just has two categories, light and heavy. See LiveStrong on the difference between lightweight and heavyweight rowing

What are the categories?

“At the international and college level, a male rower is not eligible to compete in lightweight rowing if he weighs over 160 lbs. A woman cannot row in the lightweight division if she is over 130 lbs. While a good lightweight rowing team can sometimes beat a heavyweight team, the sport of rowing favors the tall and strong athlete. Height gives a rower more leverage to propel the boat through the water. Strength gives a rower the explosive power to propel the boat faster.”

(The subject of what happens when a lightweight boat does beat a heavyweight boat is a frequent source of humour on rowing tumblrs.)

Why have weight categories in rowing?

“According to the Federation Internationale des Societies d’ Aviron, or FISA, the international governing body of the sport, lightweight race was introduced “to encourage more universality in the sport, especially among nations with less statuesque people.” Lightweight events were introduced at the World Championships in 1974 for men and 1985 for women, and it joined the roster of events at the Olympic Games in 1996.”

What are the worries about weight categories?

“The practice at some colleges of using heavyweight rowers to drop sufficient pounds to qualify for the lightweight boat is controversial on two grounds. First, drop-down rowers replace “normal” lightweights in the boat, cutting opportunities for smaller rowers to compete. Second, allegations of eating disorders among both women rowers and male drop-downs have been widespread. A female college rower at the Everything 2 website tells of men “living on carrots and multivitamins for weeks while doing full workouts every day,” in a misplaced attempt to demonstrate discipline toward their sport.”

To this, I’d add a third worry. There are people in the middle who don’t fit into either group.There are, for example, women who are larger than lightweight and who can’t weigh down but who aren’t tall enough to be competitive in the open class. I met a woman recently who at 5’7 was throwing up her hands ( and her oars) and switching to cycling. She couldn’t get light enough for lightweight, despite pressure, but at her height she is nowhere near large enough make it in heavyweight competition.
You might think lightweight rowing made it possible for small women compete in rowing but in fact competitive lightweight rowers are usually well above average height for women. They’re not short by any means. They’re thin but not small.  It’s shocking to think that if I’d discovered rowing earlier and if I was any good at it (two big “ifs”) that I would have been pressured to row lightweight. The last time I weighed in the 130s was grade six! And I’m in the middle, clearly not tall enough for heavyweight.Is losing weight to row lightweight a successful strategy? Not always.  The issues are very complicated. To get a sense of the debate see National Eating Disorder Awareness Week: Lightweight Rowing

“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.”


Further reading:

 Prevalence of eating disordered behavior in collegiate lightweight women rowers and distance runners.

This study examined eating behavior in collegiate women lightweight rowers, runners, and controls. It was hypothesized that rowers would show an increased prevalence of restraint in their eating behaviors, but not probable eating disorder cases as compared with runners or controls, because they are required to make their target weight but are discouraged from further weight loss.

3 thoughts on “Lightweight rowing and disordered eating

  1. Fascinating. I was wondering whether professional or even amateur athletes actually starved themselves the way bodybuilders do before competition.
    Bodybuilders are used to losing alot of strength in so doing, which they can attain again afterward. But other athletes can ill afford to lose such strength, yet still hve to make the weight somehow. A difficult balancing act, for sure, with alot of potential complications!

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