Miles and Meals
Why marathon training doesn’t always help runners shed pounds.
By Pamela Nisevich Bede, M.S., R.D. From the October 2011 issue of Runner’s World
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.