Found on RunnersWorld and written by Pamela Nisevich Bede, M.S, R.D.
If you’ve ever trained for a marathon, you probably expected to lose weight. And why not? Long runs that last two, three, and four hours burn a serious number of calories. But many runners step on the scale just before race day and discover 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 scale go up during training, and how to fuel yourself so you get to the start at an ideal weight.
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, Ph.D., R.D., a nutrition consultant and coauthor of Energy to Burn. “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 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 just finished a three-hour-long run, of course you need a recovery meal containing carbs and protein, such as a chicken-vegetable stir-fry with brown rice, to restock energy stores and speed muscle repair. After that, Leah Sabato, M.P.H., R.D., a nutrition expert specializing in obesity treatment and prevention, suggests asking if you’re still hungry, actually thirsty, or simply giving into cravings. “When your body truly needs food,” says Sabato, “you’ll experience fatigue, a rumbling stomach, or hunger pangs that accumulate over time.”
To keep cravings at bay and avoid unnecessary calories, remove temptations from your sight—if nacho cheese Doritos aren’t on the counter, 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 use your stopwatch as a tool: Force yourself to wait 20 minutes before giving in. Usually after 20 minutes have lapsed, the urge is no longer as strong.
You go for a 10-mile run, come home starving, and inhale a stack of whole-grain pancakes, a smoothie, eggs, bacon, toast, and a few well-earned cookies. Oops, you’ve 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 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 rich in carbs, fiber, 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 “I deserve it” mind-set. “Going for a long run does not give you license to eat an entire batch of cookies,” she says.
When you eat can also help you avoid overcompensating. The goal is to time 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 fueled for your run and you won’t feel hungry—this eliminates the need for a preworkout 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 fact, there are reasons you may have put on pounds that will actually help you on race day. Months of training can reduce your body fat while adding muscle mass. Muscle is denser than fat, which explains why the scale may have crept up even though you’ve likely lost a few inches around your waist and gained strength.
Another reason for weight gain just before a race? Fluid retention. Not only do runners typically drink more in the days leading up to a race, but they also eat more carbs. And carbohydrates attract water, leading to possible fluid retention. This fluid (and the energy from stored carbs) will help ensure you’re well hydrated and fueled on race day. Fluid gains often disappear in the days after a race, when you’re no longer loading up on carbs or hydrating quite as diligently.
Tips to help you avoid extra pounds and run your best race
Are you increasing your mileage but taking the elevator? Ordering cheesy fries because you “deserve” it? These behaviors offset calories burned logging miles and can lead to weight gain.
FUEL UP. . .WITHIN REASON
Of course you should eat before a long run, but chances are you probably have enough stored energy to fuel you for an easy three-miler, so skip the snack and just run.
Optimal hydration can improve performance and reduce hunger. Remember to hydrate before and after a workout and sip on calorie-free fluids throughout the day.
FIBER UP POSTRUN
High-fiber foods (vegetables, fruits, grains) are often low in calories but filling, making them great for weight control. But they also keep your digestive system moving, so avoid eating too much fiber right before you run.
CHOOSE YOUR CARBS WISELY
Don’t fill up on carbs from processed grains and sweets. Instead, carb-load with whole grains like brown rice and quinoa, which are more filling and nutrient-dense.
A study in Proceedings of the Nutrition Society found that when people decrease their activity after intense training, they often don’t reduce their food intake, setting them up for weight gain.
44% OF RUNNERSWORLD.COM POLL RESPONDENTS HAVE GAINED WEIGHT WHILE TRAINING FOR A RACE; 28% HAVE LOST POUNDS.