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Running for Weight Loss

Originally Published in the San Francisco Marathon Jog Blog
April 15, 2010

Running for Weight Loss
Warning: Patience Required.
Daniel Howell, Dietitian

Thinking about becoming a pavement pusher to become fit and lose weight?

Yes, when it comes to weight loss, running encompasses all that is right in this world. The word is out…because the sport of running has exploded. According to Running USA, in their annual state of the sport series, from 1988 to 2008 the amount of runners registered for road races had skyrocketed by nearly 5.6 million. Not only has the overall number of runners increased, but the gap of male to female runners has virtually closed. As of today, women account for nearly half of all road race entries. Running USA’s Marathon Report showed an astronomical rise in numbers, stating “Overall, there were 42,000 more U.S. marathon finishers for 2009 than the previous year or a 9.9% increase (425,000 vs. 467,000) or in other words, 2009 had a larger percentage increase than the previous four years combined.”

So why do you run? Is it the serenity that floods the body while that magnificent ball of fire peeks over the horizon at precisely 6:02 am, or is it the adrenaline that courses through your veins as you gasp for air while you struggle to push one more inch of pavement. If you have not experienced either of these moments, you will! Running can bring you peace, empowerment, strength, freedom, and yes, weight loss. Running holds the ability to shed pounds like no other sport. Unfortunately, making “rookie” mistakes can bring weight loss to a screeching halt or even lead to weight gain (not uncommon for a novice runner.) With a little patience and the right education and coaching, you will be well on your way to ultimate weight loss. Allow me to explain.

False Perceptions

Running for weight loss truly takes one step at a time. So many people jump into the sport and expect over-night results. What’s new, right? They respond with, “ I run four days per week, my feet hurt, my knees hurt, I’m hungry, I find it getting harder and harder to get out of bed, and to top it all off, I’m gaining weight!” They are frustrated! Sound familiar?

If you have a good coach, you will be placed on a plan that slowly increases your mileage over weeks and months. This way you build strength and endurance while developing proper running gate, and should keep you injury free. However, if you are looking to drop weight, patience is a 100% requirement. Let’s look at the numbers so you’ll know exactly why. If a 150-pound man runs for one hour at a 10 minute per mile pace, he has the potential to burn 680 calories. Sounds great. But if he is hitting the pavement for the first time, he will not be running for one full hour until over a month into the program. In actuality, the coach may have the man stop after one mile for his first run bringing his total calorie burn to a little over 110 calories.

Now, let’s look at the nutrition side of this equation. The same guy feels exhausted after his first run. His stomach is telling him that he is ravishingly hungry. Not knowing that he only burned 110 calories, he slams a granola bar and a sports drink because he was told he has to replenish his carbohydrates. Unfortunately, the granola bar and sports drink totaled 300 calories. If he did not change his nutrition throughout the rest of the day and continued his old bad habits, our runner would be on his way to actually gaining weight while training for his marathon. This is where the concept of nutrition periodization now becomes essential for runners looking to lose weight and compete. I’ll propose the idea of periodization in a little while.

Weight Matters

If you had to bet who would burn more calories during a 5-mile run, would you choose a woman who weights 185-pounds who runs a 13-minute mile or a woman who weights 130-pounds but runs a 9-minute mile? Survey shows . . . the 185-pound woman is the winner. Why? Because this woman not only has to physically move 55 more pounds per mile but is also doing so for 20 minutes longer. An untrained athlete’s body is completely inefficient when it comes to burning fuel. As those same athletes lose weight and continue to train, their bodies become an efficient fuel-burning machine. This change sounds phenomenal, right? Who wouldn’t want to be an efficient, fuel-burning machine? The problem lies with the efficiency aspect. If your body is efficient, it uses the least energy possible to complete a task. I see “ah ha” moments. The less energy used the less calories burned. This means you now have to run longer and harder to achieve the same calorie burn. Do you want to know what else this means? You once again have to tweak your nutrition. The concept of nutrition periodization once again becomes relevant.

Nutrition Periodization

Periodization is the altering of training stresses throughout training cycles in an athletes program. The art of periodization was not performed until 1940 when the Soviets followed by the Romanians and East Germans brought this concept to life. If we continually demand greater strength, speed, and endurance from our bodies, shouldn’t we also provide it with nourishment that coincides with these changes? Nutrition paralleling the changes in a training schedule is the essence of nutrition periodization. Let’s break it down specifically to a runner’s schedule.

Runners spend the majority of their time building their “base miles.” If you are running your first marathon, this is where you will spend most if not all of your time. Base miles are followed by speed training days followed by tapering prior to race day. Runners looking for weight loss must look no further than the beginning stages of base mile training for intentional weight loss. Why is this the perfect time to drop weight? This is when the least demand upon the body is actually occurring throughout your program. You are asking your body to “simply” finish the miles assigned to you. When you are in weight loss mode, you are withholding energy (calories) from your body that could be used to boost your performance on your runs. Depriving your body of immediate fuel during early training stages is no big deal. Your body will mostly likely switch its fuel-burning mechanisms and tap into your fat stores if fueled properly. However, depriving your body of immediate fuel during hill or speed training days takes away from the speed and power in which you are purposely trying to build. In other words, you are inhibiting your body’s ability to boost its overall performance with those specific training tools. On the other hand, over fueling during the first part of base mile training will not allow your body to tap into its endogenous fuel stores. As you can see, nutrition periodization is crucial to running for weight loss and ultimate performance.

Whether you are in it to win, or to simply lose weight, you want to enjoy your time and perform at the best of your abilities. Time is too precious not to kick butt and take names. With false perceptions and weight changes requiring you to alter your nutrition constantly, it is no wonder novice marathoners are notorious for gaining weight. There is no reason to worry though. A combination of patience and the right nutrition will have you fit and living with a sense of freedom like you have never felt before.

Keep the passion that drives you and hold on tight. It is going to be one hell of a run.


Fri. Apr 16, 1:21am

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I LOVE Runner's World. I have a subscription to it.

-- current read: Performance Nutrition for runners by Matt Fitzgerald. HIGHLY RECOMMEND
-- also own: Run Less, Run Fast... it has a complete 16 week training plan (3 runs, 2 cross training) to qualify for Boston, based upon your age, sex, and pace.

Friday, April 16, 2010, 6:53 PM

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