How to Avoid Marathon-Training Weight Gain

I love fielding questions from runners. The questions are as varied and unique as the runners themselves. Many questions surround the topic of fuelling up for a race, while others tackle the topic of weight loss. One question that comes up time and time again is how to lose weight while taking in enough energy to train for a marathon.

Seasoned runners reading this will likely shake their heads in agreement when I say that many, many runners are surprised to find that a marathon-training program involving months and months of high mileage and intense workouts won’t necessarily lead to weight loss. On the contrary, for some runners it actually leads to weight gain. Here’s a glimpse into why weight gain occurs and what you can do to stay fuelled for training without packing on the kilos.

Marathon training demands a lot – physically, emotionally, and even socially. You give up late nights for early morning runs. You fight inner voices telling you that a 32-kilometre solo run is insane. And you grow accustomed to sore muscles, aches and pains. The training also demands a high energy reserve since long runs, speed work, and tempo runs all require carbohydrates to fuel you and protein to protect your muscles from breaking down. It’s natural to think you need to carb-load to prevent hitting the wall during Saturday morning’s long run. And it’s natural to think “I just ran 32 kilometres, I deserve that entire tray of brownies.” And it’s not unusual to overdo it during the week since you are likely doing some form of exercise every day and feeling hungry and entitled to indulge.

Sadly, to prevent gaining weight while training, it’s necessary to tell those inner voices to simmer down. After all, weren’t you working out hardcore before you started marathon training? And wasn’t your body accustomed to the calorie burn in the first place? We runners are fine-tuned machines, but not so fine-tuned that our bodies become hypermetabolic once the “marathon training” switch is activated. In other words, you don’t get to eat loads more just because you are in training and now running consistent mileage.

If you’ve ever tried dieting to lose weight, it’s likely that you know what deprivation feels like. But no one likes to feel hungry and worn out in the hours before a long run. So time your intake so you eat a balanced, adequate meal the night before a long run (longer than 90 minutes) or race, top off the tank with a light carb-rich meal in the hours before the run, and recover right with a 2:1 mix of carbs:protein within one hour of finishing the run.

Follow these guidelines, and you’re likely to get through the run feeling light and energised, and the recovery meal will help you feel less sore and more ready to tackle the next workout. Try to time your run so that your recovery meal is a meal and not just a snack. If you can stomach a decent meal within an hour of finishing, you will eliminate the kilojoules consumed during a snack. It needn’t be enormous – just aim for a balanced mix of carbs and protein. If you don’t want to worry about ratios, an intake of 15-25 grams of protein should ensure better muscle recovery

Remain hydrated! Long runs and hard workouts are sure to leave you parched. Be sure to rehydrate (your urine should run a light straw colour) so that your mind doesn’t mistake your thirst for hunger. When in doubt, drink some water before sitting down to a smorgasbord.

Have a plan in place for when hunger strikes. Sure, you’re likely to be fairly hungry during hell week and in the hours following a long run. But that doesn’t mean you need to fill up on junk and heavy foods. After all, if you weren’t in training for a marathon and instead simply ran for the calorie burn, you wouldn’t undo all your hard work by overcompensating, would you? So be sure your fridge is stocked with fibre-rich and filling fruits and vegetables, satiating lean protein, and heart-healthy fats and whole grains. If you don’t have a pantry packed with goodies and junk, it will be harder to overdo it. And it’s OK to feel hungry every now and then. It’s natural. The trick is to avoid getting so hungry that you eat everything that’s not nailed down. You know where your breaking point is. So listen to your body and eat when hungry, but avoid eating when simply bored, emotional, or feeling like you deserve a treat.

Speaking of treats, while completing an arduous 16-kilometre run is certainly something to be proud of, it’s not license to eat dozens of cookies. After all, you may have burned 4185 kilojoules (potentially less), and cookies aren’t kilojoule-free. So go ahead, have a cookie, but don’t get into the habit of rewarding your hard work with edible goodies. If you need motivation to keep running, find another reward that keeps you moving but has nothing to do with food. New shoes, new gear, even a night out at the movies. But not the evening before an early morning run!


Coach Marathon

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