It’s fall and for runners, that means one thing: marathon season. I’m on a training program myself for the Big Sur Half Marathon and two wine country half marathons that I do every year. However, one thing that I’m doing differently is trying to put a brake on the extra calories I want to eat whenever I up my mileage. I almost always gain weight during my marathon training because I eat whenever I’m hungry and feel that I “deserve” the treats after my long runs.
If you’re one of the nearly 500,000 marathoners, don’t let the uber-lean bodies of elite marathoners lead you to believe that training for a 26.2-mile event will put you on the fast track to thin. Elite marathoners tend to be waifs naturally; marathon running did not make them that way. It’s the body type that tends to excel at pounding the pavement for hours each week.
According to research presented at the American College of Sports Medicine this year, you may actually gain weight—especially if you’re a woman—training for a marathon.
In the 3-month study, researchers put 64 individuals on a marathon training program, 78% experienced no change in body weight, 11% lost weight and 11% gained weight. However, among those who gained weight, almost all were women.
While the study does not tell us why some women gained weight during the rigorous endurance program, the researchers noted that three-quarters of women in the study reported eating more food while just 48% of men said they were eating more food as a result of the increased volume of training.
As a sports RD, I hear about this constantly. I have Ironman competitors who are gaining weight, ultra runners who can’t lose weight and it is often baffling. Even when I ran the six-day Gore-Tex Trans Rockies Race last summer, I gained weight. Maybe it was months of drinking mega-sized shakes, In-n-Out burgers, Swedish Fish and boxes of Ritz Peanut Butter crackers that did me in?
How Can Pounding the Pavement = More Pudge?
There are many proposed theories on why women in endurance training regimens often have a hard time losing weight. A few reasons include increased appetite, reward syndrome, increased muscle efficiency so that our bodies burn fewer calories as well as hormonal difference in how women process carbohydrates.
Some experts contend that some weight gain doesn’t necessarily mean that body fat is increasing. Weight gain among athletes can also be linked to changes like increases in blood and water content, increased muscle mass and connective tissue.
So, what you can do to lose weight and train for triathlons, marathons or other endurance events is some of the following tips form other sports dietitians.
Balance Calories In with Calories Out. You can’t eat whatever, whenever just because you’re running a marathon or competing in an Ironman. Eat more on days when you have big training days and eat less on the days when you aren’t training. On your light training days, eat fewer simple carbohydrates and refined grain-based foods (ie, white bread, bagels, crackers) and try to manage your hunger with healthy, low-glycemic carbohydrate choices like fresh fruits, whole grains, veggies and nonfat or low-fat dairy products. The leanest athletes eat according to how much they exercise, while those who are heavier, eat the same diet all the time.
Eat Real Food. Rather than eating a “recovery” meal followed later by another meal, plan your training so that you consume a normally scheduled balanced meal after your long runs. By doing so, you won’t have to eat two meals or a special post-workout meal followed by your “regular” meal. This simple move can save you 400-500 calories.
A well-timed post-workout meal should be eaten within an hour or so of finishing your training. Too many newbie marathoners believe they need a post-workout meal then another “regular” meal a few hours later, and they wind up over-consuming calories, explains James Stevens, MS, RD.
Diet at night. According to Nancy Clark, MS, RD, CSSD, author of Food Guide for Marathoners: Tips for Everyday Champions, “Fuel by day and eat less at night.” This way you’ll have the energy they need to run and refuel and eating more during the day will curb your nighttime appetite. Going to bed with a mild hunger means you likely will be losing weight at night, when you are sleeping; this is preferable to losing weight when you are trying to train.
Stop Wishful Thinking: “Watch out for the ‘mind games’ that go on in your head, like, ‘I just ran 18 miles, so I can eat and drink whatever I want this weekend.’ This gets a lot of marathoners into trouble,” says Kelly Devine, MS, RD, LDN.
Don’t Overdo Gels, Bars, Blocks and Drinks. Many athletes do not realize that their training may not warrant a significant increase in calories every day of the week. Training for a marathon typically includes one long run a week. Making sure that the increase in fuel comes on the appropriate days at the appropriate times is a key factor in eating to support training. You don’t need to have gels, sports drinks bars or blocks every day of the week. Use them when needed and eat real food and drink water at other times, says Heather Mangieri, MS, RD, CSSD.
Define Your Goal. Is your goal to run a marathon or to lose weight? If you really want to accomplish a marathon, great, just don’t expect to lose weight. If you are running to lose lbs, you’re going to need to focus on more than running to win at losing.