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?