A few weeks ago, one of my new health coaching clients asked me if I had advice for losing weight while running long distances. It’s a challenge that I can work with people individually to tackle, but it’s also a challenge that I thought might be relevant to a lot of my readers! I’ve been putting off this post for weeks, though … simply because it’s a hard question and one that can’t be fully answered in a blog post. But, I’m going to try … here goes nothing! Happy Workout Wednesday!
One of the most common reasons people start to train for a marathon is to lose weight. Notice that I said “start.” The marathon is a true feat of determination and willpower, and for most people, it takes another source of motivation to get through training (for example, “I have never considered myself an athlete, but will feel like I have finally reached my health goals when I can call myself a marathoner” or “I need to prove to myself that I can accomplish something so huge and daunting” or “I’m raising money for a charity that’s important to me“). So before we go any further, hear me out: if all you want is to lose weight, there are many far easier ways to do so than running a marathon, so I recommend that you reconsider your goals.
Once you have another motivation, but you also want to drop some weight while training, you may think it’s easy. After all, if you’re running so many miles, you just have to lose weight automatically, right? Plus, Olympic marathon runners all look lean, so it must come with the territory…
Sorry to tell you, but it’s just not that easy to lose weight while distance running. In fact, many studies show that the vast majority of women who train for their first marathon either gain or maintain their weight, despite the increased activity. (Men, on the other hand, tend to lose a little bit of weight or maintain their weight while marathon training). One theory I’ve read about could make sense … women of child-bearing age need to be ready to sustain a pregnancy at any time, and completing your long runs periodically can “scare” the body into hanging on to a bit of extra storage energy for the next time you put it through long bouts of exercise. In practice, though, I think it may be simpler … our hunger cues can simply get messed up by distance running. After coming home from a 20-mile run, we know we are hungry, and we know we need a lot of food to refuel our bodies, but we often fall into the trap of thinking we can eat anything after a long run (that extra-large pizza and entire pan of brownies looks good!)
So … what should you do about it?
If you don’t actually need to lose weight while you are training, I would recommend that you separate your two goals. Ideally, you’d spend time getting to your goal weight, and then dive into marathon training afterwards. This will be easier and more effective. But if you’re determined to lose (or maintain) your weight while training for a marathon, here are a few things I recommend:
- We say that we need to “refuel” our bodies after a long run, because our bodies need actual nutrition to recover from the stress of exercise. So, yes, you will need to eat more food, but I recommend making sure you give your body nutrient-dense options like fruits, vegetables, lean protein, and healthy fats. If your body is craving nutrients to recover, and you only feed it candy … well, it will still be craving nutrients, and you’ll continue to eat more and more without providing what is actually needed. (picture source)
- A balance of macronutrients in the post-workout meal is essential, in my opinion. Consuming healthy fats, lean protein, and glycogen-replenishing carbohydrates after your workout will help level out your hunger and prevent overeating later in the day. (picture source, via this)
- There are two things that are almost always good in my book … water and vegetables. You know by now that we often think we are hungry when we are actually thirsty. And you also know that exercise can be dehydrating. So, chances are that consuming extra water and vegetables while you’re marathon training can improve your overall health, and your weight maintenance efforts. (picture source)
- The idea that you need to eat a bigger-than-your-head bowl full of pasta the night before a race or a long run is a myth. I’m not saying that pasta is evil, or that getting healthy carbs before long bouts of endurance exercise won’t help you out. However, I am saying that we tend to overestimate what we need (restaurant portions of pasta average 3.5 servings!), and that the extra calories we eat because we think we’re helping ourselves can add up. (picture source)
- One more thing to consider: unless you need to lose weight to improve your health, weight may not be the best metric for you during your marathon training. If you feel strong, are running well, and have a few extra pounds of muscle, I say “more power to you!” I personally tend to gain a few extra pounds while marathon training (but not half marathon training, interestingly) – however, it’s worth it to me and is not something I stress over. I feel strong, I’m giving my body the nutrients it needs, I’m still at a healthy weight, and I know I’ll return to “my normal” after I go back to half marathons, so I’m OK with it!
So tell me in the comments … have you ever gained weight while training for a marathon? Have you ever lost weight while training for a marathon? Does this post surprise you?
Good post Tom, and very interesting.
Megan, Speaking from personal experience it is VERY possible to lose weight and ALOT of weight while training for long distance running. I think you have to look at the person. In February of 2012 I weighed in at 283 lbs and was tired of being fat. Nothing else worked for me so I decided to try running and of course eating better. I got to the point where I could actually run/jog for 2 miles straight and I wanted to set a goal for myself. So I signed up for the Park to Park 10K in Cedar Falls, IA where I used to live. As my training progressed and my weight dropped I realized I could run farther. So before even running the Park to Park I signed up for the IMT Des Moines half marathon. I pushed my self and trained hard and ate right. The day of the race I weighed 199 lbs. I lost 84 lbs training for a half marathon. Oh and I finished the race in 2:00:11.
I stopped running and eating right after that and slowly over the last 3 years I have gone back up in weight to 260 lbs. I am very upset with myself for letting it happen and have vowed to do something about it again. I am running the IMT half marathon again this year and have set my goal to be down to 200 lbs again on race day. That is 25 weeks away and I believe that it should be easy to get there.
I have set my goals higher this time and plan to do a marathon in the spring of 2016 and hopefully a 50 mile ultra in the fall of 2016. All the time losing more weight. 175 lbs is the target weight for when I run my ultra, but I will be happy to be and stay under 200 lbs. And hopefully this time I will be able to keep it off.
I gained around 6 or 7 pounds during marathon training. It really did bother me as I was training; I had worked so hard to lose 50 pounds, and I did the worst thing while training – I only ate around 1200 calories despite running all those training miles. Restricting what I ate during that time didn’t help. I didn’t lose the weight and I was incredibly tired all of the time barely making it through my miles, much less having energy to do anything else. My weight has since leveled back out, but I know when I start training this winter for marathon number 2, I can’t make the same mistake. Although I’m not really sure how to fuel properly and I feel so lost when it comes to that!
Kristine, I’m glad you learned your lesson when it comes to under fueling for a marathon! That can be harmful to your long-term health, so please be sure to fuel properly this time around! Good luck!
I soooo needed to hear this, from both sides gain vs lose. I will start training for my first Marathon in June and my worst fear is to lose (I know I know). I’m a whopping 130 and don’t want to lose any of my hard earned pounds. I ran 8 half marathons this year with no weight lost but been told I will probably loose by a non training runner. Well here it goes….. signed, been a string bean all my life and finally sprouted to an asparagus.
Congratulations on your first marathon! Stay closely tuned to your nutrition, and I’m confident you’ll be able to keep the weight on!
I started training for my first marathon last fall, and wound up losing 10 pounds. During the initial 2 months of training, I wasn’t restricting my diet, and was just eating whatever, and I found that I was actually gaining a little weight and not having the right energy levels to sustain the high mileage runs I needed to start doing.
I also do crossfit, and had experimented with the paleo diet earlier that year, and really liked its results – “easy” weight loss, better sleep, more energy, increased performance at crossfit. I was skeptical to try this diet while marathon training since the energy required to run 20 miles is much greater than a 12 min workout-of-the-day (WOD), but since I had such a great experience with it, it I figured I’d try it out.
The first two weeks of strict paleo were rough for running – I was tierd, sluggish, and felt weak on my runs (3-6 miles), and reduced the amount I did crossfit a week (2 times a week). Once my body “switched” and started using fat for fuel, it was amazing. I felt more energized, could run in the AM or PM without feeling a difference, and was able to get to the high mileage I wanted without fatigue. I maintained a strict paleo diet for 6 weeks before race date – this included no alcohol – and wound up losing 10 pounds and two inches in my waist.
To me, pounds shouldn’t be the ultimate measure if you are successful or not – I like to measure by inches lost. I have seen my weight fluctuate +/-5 lbs. in one day before, so I don’t “trust” it. I credit my “success” to maintaining a strict paleo diet and having a balanced workout plan – long runs, sprint runs, and weight lifting with crossfit.
Paleo is tough and not for everyone, and I wouldn’t suggest it to a first time marathoner if you have never tried it before, but it’s base of nutrient-rich, clean, low carb foods it a good outline for any weight-loss, regardless of marathon training.
Thanks for sharing that story, Jenn! I do believe that a Paleo or Paleo-inspired diet can work for many people. I think it has to be tweaked a little bit for marathoners, but it is possible, as you have shown! Congratulations!
I am currently training for a marathon and I’ve been gaining weight. Even trying to watch what I eat. I wanted to try to lose 10-15lbs to help run better and it’s very discouraging and frustrating. Most of my friends have the same problem. People think all the running and you drop weight but definitely not the case.
Sorry you’re struggling, Jodie!! I completely understand the feeling of frustration that you can’t lose weight while marathon training. Let me know if you need any more personalized guidance!
Thank you! Do you have recommendations of a meal plan or something I can follow to help? I get a headache trying to figure it all out!
Sure, Jodie! I only do meal plans for my clients. If you’re interested, head over to my Health Coaching page (https://www.thelyonsshare.org/health-coaching). Otherwise, just load up on the veggies, and good luck!
Oh so true! In fact, I gain weight when marathon training. For that very reason. Body shock. Hence why I stick to halfs or less for now. Just not good for me right now. Ya know?
Totally understand, Lindsay! After my 4th marathon in 2011, I said I was going to stick to halves for “the rest of my life” … not just in order to maintain my weight, but also because halves are generally more enjoyable and FUN for me, and they feel more natural to my body, AND they don’t feel like they’re taking over my life. But then my stubbornness got a hold of me and I realized I can’t settle with my marathon time. Hopefully just one more in March and then I’ll happily return to halves with you :).
Oh yeah, I’m one of this people who maintained or even gained a little. A lot of it was in the middle too because I wasn’t doing quite as many of the normal activities that strengthened my core without trying like beach volleyball. I felt “puffy” a good majority of the time I was training and now that I’m done I already “feel” leaner! I think it would take a lot more discipline than I was willing to give to try and lose a few pounds while 1/2 marathon training.
Your experience makes a lot of sense, Tonya! When you’re spending SO much time training, it’s hard to incorporate some of those other activities that help maintain our strength and tone.
So interesting Megan (as usual). I think it is so important to fuel our bodies. I am now better learning how to do this for lots of different activities.
Agreed! Fueling is so important – and keeping your body healthy is worth a small handful of extra pounds for me, if it keeps me running strong :).
This is such an interesting topic….I have run 3 marathons and I pretty much maintained my weight while training for all of them, although i might have lost a little while training for my first. I tend to pay attention to what I eat and like you pointed out, focusing on healthy foods will refuel your body properly without leaving you feeling deprived. I think for people who go from doing no physical activity at all, to training for a marathon, they will probably lose weight (unless they eat whatever they want). I also think it helps to incorporate strength training while training for a marathon, so that you are building muscle to help you burn calories.
Good for you for being able to focus on refueling with healthy foods despite the marathon training, Lisa! YES – I couldn’t agree more that strength training will help here. I honestly think that’s part of the reason why I can maintain my weight or lose weight with half marathons (because it doesn’t feel so overwhelming that it’s taking over my life, and I still find time for adequate strength training and a well-balanced diet), but tend to gain a few pounds with marathons. Thanks for sharing your experience!
I’ve never trained for a marathon so I don’t know how my body would react but for my half I pretty much stayed the same. I’ve actually been my leanest when I was strictly weight training?! I guess that kind of touches on Lisa’s Guest Post on THM today.
I love posts that clear up myths. I think it’s totally possible to lose weight while training but giant bowls of pasta certainly are not the way to do it!
Yes – Lisa’s post really resonated with me because I do honestly believe that if all I wanted to do was be the leanest I could possibly be, I should just strength train + do a few high-intensity cardio intervals throughout the week. I just love running too much! And like you, my personal weight usually stays the same while training for halves – it’s only full marathons that make me gain a few pounds.
I have gained weight during training seasons. Not a ton but I have gained weight simply because I eat more. I don’t think it is a good thing, but when my body is hungry I am going to feed it especially when running a lot. The best thing I think is to make sure you are feeding your body with what it needs and don’t use it as an excuse to eat junk (I have done that too). You live and you learn 🙂
It’s a tough balance, right, Sara? The most important thing its hat we NEED to fuel our bodies for running, but sometimes it’s hard to strike that precise balance between refueling appropriately and not over fueling. Trust me – I have definitely used all my running as an excuse to eat junk. It’s something we all struggle with!
Hahahahaha… you’ve hit the nail in the head on this one! While I wasn’t trying to lose weight when I started training for my first marathon, I did definitely gained 5 lbs. It’s interesting what you said about women of child-bearing age… I am curious if that has something to do with my weight gain. Or maybe I just need to stop eating for two. That might help! 😉
Interesting that it’s happened to you, too, Jillienne! I think it could be a combination of the child-bearing thing + extra muscle + water retention + lowering our strength training (which I know you’re not slacking on) + not controlling our appetites. I still think you look great, and I’m sure once you rock your marathon you’ll balance back out!
HI Megan, loved your post! I’ve never really thought of running as a way to lose weight, but more like keeping my body trim. I don’t know if it makes sense what I wrote. As you mentioned, when I started running my weight actually went up at the very beginning because the muscle weight went up by a couple of pounds but then it naturally declined. In my opinion, you have to have a balanced diet AND workout in order to lose weight. But then again, our society tends to have a very distorted idea of what a healthy weight is.
Thanks for your comment, Olena! It does make sense – I think that running can give you a great, toned and slender body, even if you may add on a couple of pounds of weight. Yet another reason that the actual number on the scale is not the whole story. Your story is interesting, thanks for sharing!
Not surprised at all. It stands to reason that with all that running you’d lose weight. Never happens!
Thanks, Jill! I think it is possible for sure, but it’s not an automatic like most would assume!
Interesting and timely – I also got an Active.com email on a related topic (http://www.active.com/running/Articles/8-Weight-Loss-Mistakes-Runners-Make.htm). It goes back to the saying “there is no exercise plan that cannot be undone through a poor diet.”
One question I think is key – HOW MUCH weight are you trying to lose? If you are looking to lose 5 lbs that is one thing, but 75 is something entirely different.
I also think that just as you set up a training plan for your running, you need to develop a ‘fueling plan’. Look at what foods to eat, when to eat them and so on. Personally I never ‘forget to eat’ … but I am not hungry when I come back from my run and need to make sure I get some good intake within a half hour for proper recovery.
My first half-marathon was in the midst of my 100lb weight loss in 2012, and I did pretty much everything wrong – including fueling. Going into a half-marathon without proper fueling means that at around mile 11 your body will run out of gas .. at least mine did.
Not sure what happens to me at this point, because I really don’t weigh myself very much. And if I needed further reminders of why, I had 4 doctor appointments within a week for my cardiac workup, and the range of weights was 10 lbs. At 175 lbs now, that is a pretty significant swing.
Great post – and like you said, hard to generalize, but important in general. And the message as always comes back to – hydrate, and eat mostly fruits and veggies, and you’ll be pretty much all good.
I also always have a small bag of pistachios and a couple of apples or pears at my desk. That way if I get hungry outside of normal meals I am set – and with pistachios they are enough work that it limits intake.
Michael, great comments as always. I love your suggestion to consider how much weight the person is trying to lose. I think this is a critical point that I didn’t touch on. Someone who has 75 pounds to lose and begins training for a marathon probably WILL lose weight (assuming that he/she can regulate his/her appetite), but someone who only has 5 pounds to lose will probably have a different experience. Love the snacks you keep at your desk – great solutions!! Very interesting article, too – and timely! I’m not 100% sure I agree with the fact that you “have to” eat if you’re exercising for 30 minutes or more, but I love the points on remembering healthy fats, remembering to refuel (I’m not hungry right after long runs either!), not overloading on gus, alcohol, and wanting immediate gratification!
Oh – I guess I wasn’t clear in my phrasing …
What I was citing was the general opinion from exercise physiologists that when you do a significant amount of exercise, your ‘recovery eating’ should be consumed within about 30 minutes of completing the workout. That was one of the things I’ve learned the last couple of years … I used to just not eat recovery food at all …
You were clear! I think I was the unclear one. I was disagreeing (or at least not 100% agreeing) with the ARTICLE’s opinion that you must eat if your exercise is 30 minutes or more (I think that, for me, I can sufficiently do 60 or maybe even 80 minute runs in a fasted state if needed). But I completely agree with your statement that we need to focus on recovery food!
haha …….. forgot I linked that article! 🙂
I agree – I think that assuming you ALWAYS need recovery food is definitely a fast way to end up over-eating.