Many people take up running to lose weight and yet some people do gain weight with exercise even though it seems counter intuitive. You are burning calories when exercising, so it seems like the pounds should just fall off, right? Wrong! Here are some reasons why this phenomenon happens.
The most common reason we gain weight when exercising and dieting is that we simply overestimate how many calories we burn during a workout and underestimate how many calories we ingest. This is a bad combination because weight loss requires taking in fewer calories than expended. In other words, we need a negative daily balance, rather than a positive one, when we want to lose weight...unlike our checking account! It is frightening how easy it is to out-eat our running, even when we’re marathon training.
Exercise increases our muscle mass, too. Muscle tissue is much more dense than fat tissue. Therefore, muscle weighs more. So, when we step on the scale, we see the dial go up rather than down. The good news is that muscle tissue burns more calories than fat tissue, so having a higher muscle mass is a good thing. Unfortunately, it just doesn't always look so good on the scale when our goal is weight loss.
Running can also increase our glycogen stores. Increased glycogen storage is necessary for providing energy to working muscles during our runs. However, increased glycogen stores–and the water it retains–can add weight as well. One ounce of glycogen requires three ounces of water in order to access this fuel for energy, which can mean more weight on the scale.
So, what's a runner to do?
1. Be realistic about how many calories you are burning during a run. Many of the formulas typically used for caloric expenditure are based on a male that weighs 150 pounds or more. Not only is a man likely to weigh more than a woman, but men have more muscle mass as well, meaning they burn calories at a higher rate than females. Therefore, many of the standard calorie formulas for exercise are not always applicable for a female.
2. Keep an accurate calorie count of everything you ingest. Avoid underestimating the number of calories you are eating or drinking. Track them on an app or keep a daily journal. Count everything you put in your mouth.
3. Stay well hydrated. Dehydration can mask itself as hunger, so drink plenty of water. Don't mistake thirst for hunger.
4. Plan ahead. Make a postrun recovery meal before your run so it’s ready to go. Eat immediately, or as soon as you can, after a run. Don't wait several hours until you are starving because then you are at risk for making poor choices. Have some fruit and a lean protein on hand for refueling quickly. Or, use a protein shake if you don't have an appetite for food. Ideally, include 15 to 25 grams of protein post run, along with some carbohydrates. This is perfect for appetite control and restoring the body after a run.
5. Stock up on nutritious foods. Keep your house stocked with fresh fruits and vegetables, lean proteins, legumes, whole grains, and some healthy fats, like avocados, which can help keep you satiated. Keep the empty calories like crackers, cookies, cakes, and other high fat/high calorie foods out of the house to avoid temptation.
6. Avoid rewarding your exercise habits with food. Rewards can be a great incentive for adherence to a training plan, but make your rewards something other than food. For example, treat yourself to a massage or a pedicure after a long run or a tough workout. These rewards can help your running and your diet instead of sabotaging your hard efforts.
7. Have a running plan. Don't just log miles because they are not all created equal, especially when you want to lose weight. Avoid falling into the habit of just running the same route and the same distance day after day. Yes, you first need to establish a base of fitness when miles are run at a relatively comfortable pace. But, once your base is established, don't be afraid to add some intensity to your running. Include some speed work once a week, add hills, try some trails, or do some races to rev up your fitness level and your metabolism. Increase your weekly mileage by 10 to 20 per cent each week to minimise your risk of injury. Include a "rest week" every third or fourth week where you reduce your mileage by 30 per cent for some recovery time before building again.
8. Avoid unnecessary calories from sports drinks or supplements. Unless you are doing runs over two hours, replenishing with sports drinks or run nutrition like GUs or gels is usually unnecessary. You should be able to get by with water. If you are running out of steam before finishing a run, then take as small amount as possible of a product to dial in on what you need for energy. Don't assume you need to take an entire packet of supplement.
9. Weigh yourself once a week. Your weight will fluctuate during the week, especially with running, sweating, and fluid intake, so it's usually better to weigh in just one day a week. If your weight goes up one week, don't get discouraged. Recognise that it is all part of the process, and stick to your diet and running plan. Tune in to how you feel and how your clothes fit rather than just the number on the scale, too! Feeling good and/or fitting into clothes better is a great motivational tool rather than relying on just the scale.
10. Mix it up with cross-training! Variety is the spice of life. Our bodies like routine and will adapt quickly to an established schedule. But for weight loss, it's better to keep your body challenged. Along with your running, try weight training, spinning, yoga, Pilates, swimming, and exercise classes. Keep your body and your mind engaged in your training routine.
It can also be very helpful to have a support system in place. Accountability and support help ensure success, so recruit a buddy to join you in your healthy efforts. Try finding a running buddy and/or a dieting buddy, or join a running group, a weight-loss group, or a gym for more support. Creating a network of friends around exercise and nutritious eating help make these healthy habits a lifestyle choice rather than a chore.