The marathon weight loss mystery

Why marathon training doesn’t always help runners shed pounds.

by Pamela Nisevich Bede

If you've ever trained for a marathon, you probably expected to lose weight. And why not? Long runs that last two, three or four hours burn a serious number of calories. But many runners step on the scales just before race day and discover to their horror that instead of dropping pounds, they've added some. 

Runners sometimes gain weight because they change their diets along with their mileage, or because other factors, such as hormonal fluctuations, come into play. And, occasionally, extra pounds are actually a sign things are going right. Here's why the numbers on the scales can go up during training and how to fuel yourself so you get to the start at an ideal weight.

You're hungrier...

Marathon training almost always requires more mileage, which boosts the number of calories you burn as well as your appetite. "Your body is trying to help fuel your increased activity," says Jenna Bell, a nutrition consultant and co-author of Energy to Burn (John Hiley & Sons, £9.99). "One of the ways it does this is by making you hungry." 

It's worse for women: researchers at the University of Massachusetts discovered this heightened sense of hunger is stronger in women than in men because exercise accelerates the production of appetite-regulating hormones, prompting them to eat more; men, it turns out, aren't as susceptible to these changes.

If you've just finished a three-hour run, you need a recovery meal containing carbs and protein, such as a chicken and vegetable stir-fry with brown rice, to restock energy stores and speed muscle repair. After that, Leah Sabato, a nutrition expert specialising in obesity treatment and prevention, suggests asking if you're still hungry or thirsty, or simply giving in to cravings. 

"When your body truly needs food," says Sabato, "you'll experience fatigue, a rumbling stomach or hunger pangs that will accumulate over time." To keep cravings at bay and avoid unnecessary calories, remove temptations from your sight - if those fatty, salty crisps aren't sitting in plain view on the worktop, chances are they won't call your name. 

You can also try a diversion, such as taking a walk; a study published in 2009 in the journal Appetite found that taking a brisk 15-minute walk reduces chocolate cravings. Or try using your stopwatch as a tool: force yourself to wait 20 minutes before giving in. After that time has lapsed, the urge to eat is usually no longer as strong.

You're overeating...

You go for a 10-mile run, come home starving and inhale a bowl of cereal, a smoothie, eggs, bacon, toast and maybe a few well-earned biscuits. Oops, you've just eaten 1,200 calories - a few hundred more than you burned on the run.

To limit overcompensation - that is, eating above and beyond what you need for recovery and thereby erasing the calorie deficit achieved during a workout - you need to make smarter food choices all day. Bell recommends eating mostly whole, minimally processed foods that are rich in carbohydrates, fibre and protein. The latter two take longer to digest, keeping hunger at bay and helping you avoid eating more than you should. 

Sabato also warns runners against falling into the seductive 'I deserve it' mindset. "Going for a long run doesn't give you licence to eat a whole packet of biscuits," she says. 

When you eat can also help you avoid overcompensating. The goal is to time your meals so that you provide your body with enough energy to fuel runs and your recovery, but without overdoing it. 

If you eat a meal two to three hours before a workout, your body will be fuelled for your run and you won't feel hungry - this eliminates the need for a pre-workout snack, which adds extra calories. After a run, skip the recovery snack and instead sit down to a full meal within 30 minutes.

You're gaining muscle - and retaining fluid

Not all weight gain is bad. In some cases the pounds you may have put on can help you on race day. Months of training can reduce your body fat while adding muscle mass. Muscle is heavier than fat, which explains why the scales may have crept up even though you've probably lost a few inches around your waist and gained strength.

Another reason for weight gain just before a race is fluid retention. Not only do runners typically drink more in the days leading up to a race, but they also eat more carbs. These carbohydrates attract water, leading to possible fluid retention. 

This fluid (and the energy from stored carbs) will help ensure you're hydrated and fuelled on race day. Fluid gains often disappear in the days after a race, when you're no longer loading up on carbs or hydrating as diligently. 

Slim Fast

Seven top tips on how to avoid the pounds and run your best race:

Pay attention: Are you increasing your mileage but devouring a post-run burger because you 'deserve' it? Such behaviour offsets the calories you burned logging miles.

Fuel up...within reason:
 Eat before a long run but you should have enough stored fuel for an easy three-miler, so skip the snack and just run.

Drink fluids:
 Optimal hydration can improve performance and reduce hunger. Hydrate before and after a workout and sip on calorie-free fluids throughout the day.

Fibre up after a run:
 High-fibre foods are often low in calories but filling, so they're great for weight control. But they keep your digestive system moving, so avoid eating too much fibre right before you run.

Choose carbs wisely: Don't fill up on carbs from processed grains and sweets. Instead, carb-load with filling, nutrient-dense whole grains such as brown rice and quinoa.

Cut back: 
A study in Proceedings of the Nutrition Society found that when people decrease activity after hard training, they often don't reduce their food intake, setting them up for weight gain.

Eat better: It’s okay to be mildly hungry before easy runs. Exercise temporarily reduces appetite, so your stomach will stop growling once you start running.

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Discuss this article

Surely the completion of the marathon is a little more important than any weight loss/gain.  I've only run two so far but neither in, nor immediately after either have I thought about calories or weight. 

1200 calories - actually if you're my size you do burn that off (or near enough) in a 10 mile run.  Can we please get over the idea that calories are a sin; they are essential and that is why our bodies (sometimes overly) crave them

Exercise is far more important than weight loss.  There's some sensible stuff on here, but I suppose what's wound me up is the "You're overeating".  "I deserve it" is part of the motivation that keeps some of us going, and I think after a log run, if you're hungry, you should eat, regardless of any calorie calculation.  Is this Runners World or Weight Loss World?

"When your body truly needs food you'll experience fatigue" - are you honestly telling me I shouldn't eat until I reach a state of "exhaustion, lethargy, languidness, languor, lassitude, and listlessness" (lazy wikipedia  quote).  Utter nonsense.  Run.  Eat.  Drink.  Be Merry.

Posted: 10/01/2012 at 01:31

Sounds like you could be over-reacting KL

The article isn't slamming fatties, it's just trying to explain why some people may not shift the lard even though they're doing lots of exercise.

Posted: 10/01/2012 at 06:31

People run for different reasons - some for weight loss, some for fitness, some for stress relief - a whole host of reasons. There have been so many threads on this forum from disappointed people starting "I'm running but I'm still not losing weight..... " so the article is fulfilling a need for some people.
Posted: 10/01/2012 at 08:51

+1 for over-reaction.

As TL says, there have been countless threads from people either in genuine surprise or, if they're interested in weight loss, in disappointment, about the fact that they are gaining rather than losing weight when taking into consideration all the running that they are doing.

All this article is doing is explaining why that may be the case.  And for those who want to lose weight, providing some suggestions as to how they may achieve that goal.  Nowhere does it say that calories are a sin, it simply points out that people may be eating "empty calories" and so by eating more sensibly and healthily, they'll be better off.

A lot of people on here have discussed in the threads how losing pounds also helps them race better and faster, so they have different reasons for wanting to shed a few pounds.

And what's wrong with that?

Exercise is important but so is weight loss.  There have been many posts / threads from people with serious weight problems (ie heavily overweight or obese) asking for advice with combining exercise and weight loss.

Posted: 10/01/2012 at 09:11

As I said, there's some sensible stuff in the article, but I personally believe it's irresponsible to say to someone training for a marathon that they don't need to eat unless they feel fatigue.
Posted: 10/01/2012 at 21:18

I over ate during the first year I did marathon training and actually managed to put on weight, too many rewards for the effort!!! Obviously if you are carrying extra weight it's not good for your joints! Personally I think the artical is good in highlighting the fact that you don't need to eat much extra when doing the long runs! I now keep track of what I eat, I still eat what I like but I make sure I don't eat more calories than I use!!!
Posted: 11/01/2012 at 09:21

I've just read the article and it doesn't say "don't eat unless you feel fatigue" at all. It says that after doing a long run have a sensible recovery meal - after this don't then give into cravings for high fat snacks as well. That's exactly right whether you're marathon training or not and want to shed weight. It's not dieting, it's healthy eating and common sense.
Posted: 11/01/2012 at 13:43

Now I'm beginning to wonder if we've been trolled.

And fallen for it.

Posted: 11/01/2012 at 14:27

Sheesh, you could be right Jeepers

Either way there are some useful nuggets in the original post to help anyone looking to de-blubber during their marathon training.  Smack yourself hard if you find yourself thinking either:

""I deserve it" is part of the motivation that keeps some of us going" 

"I think after a log run, if you're hungry, you should eat, regardless of any calorie calculation."

Posted: 11/01/2012 at 15:23

Well thanks Lamb Chop - I clearly need to give myself a big slap.  I'm not quite sure why.  I hope we'd all agree that there's nothing wrong with a few treats if you're training hard, but if you're bothered about your weight or health you shouldn't overdo it.

And Tigerlily, the article says "when you body truly needs food you'll experience fatigue".  Perhaps I'm alone in finding this a strange and worrying statement, especially in an article aimed at marathon runners.  I can't see how I can be accused of misrepresenting the article by saying it tells runners "that they don't need to eat unless they feel fatigue."

As I've said in both my earlier posts, I believe there's some sensible stuff in the article.  I just strongly disagree with a few points.  Sorry for upsetting so many of you.

Posted: 11/01/2012 at 22:21

"fghtyu456 fghtyu456" - dickhead.
Posted: 17/02/2012 at 07:56

""When your body truly needs food," says Sabato, "you'll experience fatigue, a rumbling stomach or hunger pangs that will accumulate over time." "

As a perennially over weight person, I realise that mine and other over weight persons biggest problem is simply over eating. Something in my brain doesn't tell me to stop eating when i'm satisfied, or even full, but makes me continue until I feel slightly bloated or worse.

The quoted statement above is very useful in reminding/re-educating over weight people that you "probably" are eating too large portions.

The thing you notice if you watch what slim people eat, who say things like "I can eat what ever I want, and don't put on weight" is that they don't "want" to eat very much! I've yet to meet any slim person who, over an extended period of time, and quizzing about their diet, ate very much at all, compared to the calories they were using.

Posted: 17/03/2012 at 09:41

Hey KL, I think 'you deserve it' is a very beguiling message for many runners , but isn't to be trusted.

I think your argument - calories are fuel so eat them when you're exercising hard - seems sensible enough at face value.  But for many people, there's just not a reliable built-in gauge that tells them when to stop.

For those who love their food, it's very, very, easy to eat more than any amount of calories consumed in exercise. 

I'm giving the article a thumbs-up for addressing a problem that I've faced in the past.  I've cracked it now, but it took a long time investigating what was wrong before I could do that. 

And until reading this just a minute ago, I hadn't thought to experiement with waiting until I  could actually feel hunger pangs!  So let's see if I've got the willpower to do that...

Posted: 17/03/2012 at 13:51

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