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Distance Running For Weight Loss and Weight Control

by Karl Gruber
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Recently, a good friend of mine who has deeply invested herself in a new fitness program posted on social media, “Boy! Who thought that getting fit and healthy requires you to eat so much?” My first thought as a long-time distance runner was, “Welcome to learning how to fuel your body properly from an athlete’s perspective.”

As you may well know by now, one of my favorite sources for running knowledge comes from the encyclopedic-style book by Dr. Tim Noakes, Lore of Running. After a friend of his told him he was too fat to be an elite runner, Dr. Noakes writes, “Why is it that I am apparently unable to lose sufficient weight to become as thin as my elite running friends? Human weight control is a very complex problem, far more complex than the conventional idea that being overweight is simply due to an imbalance between daily food intake and energy expenditure.”

Here’s just how complex it can be, and how everyone’s individual food intake and energy needs can be vastly different. Noakes sights multiple scientific research programs on this topic of food intake requirements for active adults.
 
  • From a 1961 study about groups of people who eat a lot and people who eat very little: From each group, they were able to select pairs of individuals who did the same amount of exercise and who were of the same mass but whose daily intake of food differed by a factor of two.
  • From a 1973 study: This study showed that individuals whose daily energy intakes differed by a factor of eight could have the same body weight.
Of course, the reason I am writing about this topic is that weight loss and weight control seem to be an issue for many runners, especially those who are venturing into longer distances as they prepare for their first half or full marathon. 

In conversations I have had with thousands of runners through the years, one of the biggest complaints I have heard is, “I really thought I would lose a bunch of weight during my marathon training, but instead, I have actually gained a couple pounds.” As pointed out above, each of us has our own highly specialized needs for fueling and refueling our bodies, and for maintaining your ideal body weight, especially during periods of high running mileage and intensity for races. 

For those runners who have undertaken distance running training, and found they actually gained a couple pounds… If you take the time to look at yourselves in the mirror, you would see that you have actually shed fat and gained muscle mass. More than likely, even though you may be a couple pounds heavier, you have a thinner waist and a stronger body.

Using myself as an example, my body weight generally fluctuates up or down five pounds, even during the peak of my marathon training. I have found that after a 20-mile training run, I will sometimes literally run to my refrigerator after my post-run shower to refuel with a fairly large amount of calories. And it works – for me that is. 

When I get too far below my ideal body weight, I find I may be running a bit faster because I am lighter, but my energy runs out a lot sooner and I simply don’t feel all that well. When I get too far above my ideal body weight, my running suffers because of the additional impact of weight upon my feet and legs during each foot strike, and I tend to feel more lethargic and lazier. However, the body has the amazing ability to balance things out by naturally adjusting to its ideal body weight – that is unless you refuse to listen to the signs and warnings it gives you when are in the midst of your marathon training.

Again referring to Dr. Noakes’ take on weight maintenance and energy requirements during running, “I think that society in general is excessively concerned about weight, and this concern is particularly evident among endurance athletes like runners who must carry their unsupported weight with them. It is true that up to a point, the less fat we carry, the faster we will run. But I think that each of us has a certain safe body weight that we can reasonably achieve, and even with a superhuman effort, we can only reach a shade lower than this weight. As I see it, the only way to reduce genetically determined optimum body weight is to exercise as much as possible and to diet within reason.”

Dr. Noakes states exactly what you will learn about your body and your weight as your half or full marathon training increases in miles and intensity. Of your own accord, you will throw out any silly notions such as, “I must lose 25 pounds so I can PR in my next marathon!” Instead, you will start to understand intuitively just where your body feels comfortable and natural weight-wise.  Once you come to this point and stop fixating so much on what others believe to be your ideal body weight as a runner, you’ll start to see and feel better not only about your running, but also about yourself.

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