“I always thought that running earned me the right to eat.”
There are various reason runners gain weight. Runners just getting started are often disappointed to learn that even runners can put on weight if they are not careful. If you watch the movie, “Fat To The Finish Line,” you might get the message that running is the secret ingredient in all weight loss plans. It is true that running gives you a serious bang for your effort in terms of calorie burn. However, even runners can pile on the pounds.
The Primary Reasons Runners Gain Weight
1. Low running mileage after intensive periods of effort: For runners that pound the pavement year round, weight gain appears to occur during recovery months. This is of course true for people who only train for a given event. For instance, the typical marathon training plan lasts 16 weeks, or four months out of the year. During the typical training season, runners burn a massive amount of calories, and typically increase consumption to replace glycogen stores efficiently.
Our metabolism quickly adapts to intensive output. Once we stop running, or decrease mileage to minimal levels, our system jumps into storage mode. If you are used to burning between 3000 to 6000 calories a week, once you stop running, your body expects the same output. When it doesn’t get that level of effort, it stores those calories in preparation for the next intense training effort.
2. Felling entitled to food as reward: It is easy to understand weight gain after decreased effort. However, many runners experience weight gain during an active training season. If you are burning between 3000 and 6000 calories, above and beyond your basal metabolic rate during the week, it is difficult to image that you could consume such excessive calories to the point of weight gain.
For example, on a long run training day (20+km), burning 2000 calories or more is expected. Add that to your basal metabolic rate, say 1500 calories, and you have earned yourself and easy 3500 calories of food. Now, this assumes you literally do nothing after your run. So, to be realistic, lets say you burn another 1000 calories moving around (cleaning house, shopping, etc.). Now we are at 4500 calories.
Runners understand their metabolic data. However, even the most hawkish athlete eventually falls into the trap of “caloric entitlement.” It is easy to pile on more than 4500 calories on a long run day, simply by adding a few extra high calorie snacks, snacks that are perceived as “deserved.”
I hesitate to tell new runners about athletic weight gain traps; I want new runners, especially those looking to drop some pounds, to know that they truly are engaging in most efficient calorie burn activity they could choose. The challenge is that our physiology works against us.
We can put those pounds on quickly, either by decreasing high activity levels dramatically, or through calorie entitlement. The take away message is for athletes to be mindful about the calories they consume and the adaptation that takes place when you engage in increased activity.
One final solution, other than being mindful of over eating, is to engage in alternative activity during the low intensity months. It is your opportunity to get into the gym, schedule long mountain hikes, or sea kayaking. We must keep moving. The enemy is the couch.
If you want a more comprehensive look at the biopsychosocial aspects of lifestyle change, check out our podcast episodes regarding the CHANGES Model. The Svelte Yeti Podcast is a great place to get inspired and gain tools as you design your new life. Check it out!