Running and weight loss, it seems so simple. Run more, lose more weight.
Runners run. Runners are skinny.
Running is the second most effective calorie burn per hour behind jump rope but… Raise your hand if you’ve ever jump roped for a 1/2 hour?
Earlier in life it seemed so simple. I ran a lot, weight came off. Simple.
A guy I used to work with tested everyone’s body fat one day at work. At the ripe old age of 20 I was 5%. That means I basically had enough body fat to protect my organs and that’s it. This is borderline unhealthy thin, but I was running 8 to 10 miles every morning and then working full days on my feet at a running store.
I must have a had a strict diet plan to get so lean, right? Not quite.
At home I would eat and eat and eat. I would graze on snacks. Hershey bars, cookies, (entire) pizzas. There’s a quote from ‘Once a Runner’: ‘if the furnace is hot enough then big macs will stoke the flame.’
I preferred quarter pounders. With fries. Washed down with a coke.
And yet… 5% body fat
Just a simple commitment of 70+ miles a week and lots of time on my feet.
I was thin as could be and I could eat whatever I wanted.
I have the metabolism of a champion, and yet even I, the Running Man, once nicknamed the Iron tank (after I ate a package of twinkies for ‘breakfast’ prior to polishing off 7 miles starting at 5:30 and finishing with a 4:40), once accused of having a hollow leg by my wife (where she thinks I dump all the crap I eat) have had issues with weight. Some were brought on by me, some were unlucky (injuries), some were even liberating.
In this day and age we all struggle with weight and nutrition. Even with an iron tank and a hollow leg.
Once upon a time at a small New England College…
I almost never weighed myself in college. But one fall I noticed there was a scale in the weight room. I hopped on a couple times after practice. 155.
Without fail. Without deviation. I was 155 that fall. Soaking wet. This was around the time I had my body fat tested. 5% meant 155.
I was 6′ 1″. Let’s have a look at what that looks like:
That’s me on the right. I ran great that fall. Best I had ever run in my life. I took more than a minute off of my 5 mile PR that season.
Winter track started up, I shifted to run the mile and things were going pretty well. Early in the season I qualified provisionally for the national meet in the 1500 (mile). After the race I saw a scale in the corner of the gym and, not thinking much about it, hopped on.
I was no student of physics but even I knew that weighing 3% heavier made a difference. A runner hits the ground with a force 3 x’s their body weight. So I was hitting with 15 lbs more force per stride. If my average stride was a meter in length and there are 1500 meters in the race then I am forced to handle 7,500 lbs of additional force.
That might slow you down a bit.
Unbeknownst to me at the time (thankfully) is the fact that weighing just 5 lbs more can significantly increase the amount of effort needed to run a mile (by 8%. I read it in ‘Racing Weight’ (good book)).
I still needed to run faster to reach my goals. 2 or 3 seconds. Doesn’t sound like much, but if you’re running close to 6.5 meters per second, a few seconds adds up. I was excited by my weight. If I ran so well at 160, just imagine how easy it would be at 155.
The next few weeks I worked feverishly to lose a few lbs. I put a stop on late snacks, I skipped more than a few breakfasts. I weighed myself every day.
And… I stayed around 160.
Why had I gained the weight? I was still running like crazy but my mileage had dipped about 10 miles a week in the winter. I was now training to run one mile, not 5 like in the fall. And I was not running as many training miles because it was winter and unfortunately I chose to go to school in Maine (aka the weather sucked and the number of routes I could safely run on dwindled. Bowdoin College, you have a special place in my heart, but given the choice to do it over I’d go to San Diego state 11 times out of 10.)
It crossed my mind that the added 5 lbs may have been insulation against the cold.
I agonized over the weight gain. I wanted so badly to run fast and I was convinced this was what was holding me back. If I could just get back to 155 I’d have my 2 or 3 seconds.
My body stubbornly plateaued at 160. This brings up an important point: sometimes the body responds to caloric restriction, but sometimes it does not. Hindsight… I was restricting calories and expending enormous amounts of energy in training. My body was hanging on to everything out of fear that I would starve. The dreaded starvation reflex. My stupid body was so preoccupied with keeping me alive it wouldn’t let me get fast. Sheesh.
I was doing the same thing that countless people do when they begin a diet. They restrict calories and increase activity. Suddenly their body is in a tug of war, needing calories for more work, but getting fewer. The first thing to go isn’t fat but muscle, because it is a luxury your body can no longer afford. So dieting can make you fatter.
If I had eaten more, higher quality, less processed food that winter I would have been nourished and my body, no longer fearing starvation, would have leaned out, had more energy and run better. But I was 21 and simple. So for a few weeks I restricted calories and pushed my miles.
What a miserable few weeks. Thank God I ran a couple of really great races at 160. It convinced me to give up my quest to lose 5 lbs. I realized that I couldn’t focus on running 70+ miles a week, competing every weekend, going to class and (lastly?) studying while skipping meals.
I dodged a really big bullet right there. Thankfully I didn’t go down a harmful path that I’ve personally seen hurt lots of people. The temptation was there to really restrict my eating. What can I say? I was extremely lucky that something inside me put a stop to it.
This story, I think, illustrates how one can gain weight while training for a marathon. You start expending this enormous amount of energy but don’t get enough timely nourishment, so your body, thinking you’re in the midst of a weekly death march, hangs onto weight and eschews muscle. It is counterintuitive, but I’ve seen it again and again. We ask more of our bodies, we undernourish them, and our body responds by doing the exact opposite of what we think it should. It holds on to fat and burns through muscle.
Another reason we gain weight while marathon training… not knowing about your metabolic window of opportunity or recovery window. After a hard workout, and I stress hard (60 minutes plus), your body is very responsive to nutrition. This is a great time to get nourishment that will aid in an efficient recovery. If you eat good food right at the finish then every calorie will be put to maximal use. An hour later 1 out of every 2 or 3 calories will be put to good effect. Two hours later… less.
Marathoners, who run for several hours every weekend, and don’t take advantage of their recovery window will get hungry. Crazy hungry. Insatiably hungry.
Dangerous- because we tell ourselves ‘I’m running sooooo much I can eat whatever I want.’
I remembered long runs and monster work outs after which I was hungry all afternoon and night. I would go to the fridge and eat a ton of crap thinking ‘Ain’t no way this is sticking to me with all the running I’ve been doing’ , and then come back an hour later to eat more. There wasn’t enough food to fill the iron tank or the hollow leg. I could never get sated.
I was discussing this with a friend of mine who ran professionally. He mentioned the recovery window, and how if I didn’t get enough calories right at the finish of my workouts then I’d get the munchies and they wouldn’t quit. He recommended I take Ultrafuel immediately after hard workouts. Ultrafuel was basically pure sugar and carbs (It was cutting edge at the time. We’re talking late ’90’s nutrition here) but as soon as I started to take it, right after I finished long runs and HARD workouts, the munchies disappeared. I was converted.
Nutrition has come a long way in 20 years. I looked up Ultrafuel and found they still sell it on Amazon but there are zero reviews of it (red flag). So I asked some friends whose advice I trust and they steered me to Endurox R4. I have not tried it yet, I’m presently on the road of recovery from an injury, but everything I’ve read indicates it is safe, reliable, and a hell of a lot more sophisticated than Ultrafuel, which worked, but which was just pure sugar and carbs. I’m buying some as soon as this pesky injury subsides.
Another reason we may gain weight while marathon training has to do with recovery. When you exercise you break your body down, literally. You rip your muscles to shreds. Your body abides by something called the SAID principle (Specific Adaptation to Imposed Demands). When you tear it down asking it to lift heavy objects it recovers and adapts, improving it’s ability to lift heavy. When you tear it down running 15 miles, it Adapts to run 15 miles. This recovery is very important, but we all think we need to be going 100% all the time, like the training montages in any sports movie. So we don’t schedule in recovery, because Stallone didn’t need recovery, Schwarzenegger didn’t need recovery, and Chuck Norris doesn’t even need sleep.
You can work out like a movie montage once or twice a week, but schedule in light days, and guard your sleep like it is the most important thing in the world. It’s up there. I saw a 60 minutes piece where a sleep study took a college student from healthy to pre diabetic in weeks, merely by interrupting his deep sleep.
The most eye opening quote from that piece: ‘Whatever the functions of sleep are, they seem to be so important that evolution is willing to put us in that place of potential danger by losing consciousness. It would be the biggest evolutionary mistake if sleep doesn’t serve some critical function.’
Definitely watch the linked clip above for more on the importance of sleep and recovery.
Everything is backwards. The things we think should make us faster and thinner are doing the opposite. So what do we do?
Nourish your body with a variety of minimally processed whole foods.
Take full advantage of your recovery window. After tough workouts replenish with a supplement like Endurox.
Schedule recovery days and easy workouts.
Get enough sleep.
It ain’t sexy. Some of us will try it for a week, get impatient and then go right back into doing the things that weren’t working. Why? Because we’re influenced by TV (the Biggest Loser), movies (Rocky et al) and a consumerist culture that tells us ‘MORE IS MORE’ relentlessly.
Less is more.
Nourish your body and your mind.
And then watch as your weight drops, your marathon improves, and your focus sharpens.
People will notice. They’ll ask, ‘What are you doing?’
Tell them you have a hollow leg.