Friday, June 28, 2013

This Marathon Will Cost You Five Pounds

I hate to break it to you, but weight gain while marathon training is not a myth. It's real for some of us. And it seems to defy logic.

Photo Credit: Healthier Happier Bear
I know this happens to a lot of people while training. Just google "marathon weight gain" and you'll see a tremendous amount of information, questions and complaints from frustrated runners. This particular post is just to point out my experience, not to give anyone advice. I just wanted to share an annoying experience with some of you, because you're not alone in it. Let me preface this post with a few things, because weight and nutrition discussions can get heated:

1. I am only referring to my own experience
2. I am aware that I am well within my healthy weight range and I don't have body issues
3. I am not suggesting anyone should come to the same conclusions I have or that anyone should take any advice from me. I am not a professional.

For full disclosure, I have to share my stats with you:

31 years old
117 pounds (post marathon)
112 pounds (pre-marathon)
Pesceterian diet

One year ago, I started training for my first marathon, the Lakefront Marathon in Milwaukee. At the time, I weighed in at a whopping 112-113 pounds. My weight hasn't fluctuated much at all in the last five years, with the exception of one weird gym phase where I dropped down to an unflattering 108 pounds (photo.) Throughout the last decade, my level of physical activity has been consistent as well. I have always been a runner. I taught aerobics classes. I did a lot of bike riding and walking around Milwaukee rather than using a car. I have always had a really clean diet and I don't really stray from it much, because I don't like many unhealthy foods. Luckily.

At my smallest, looking a little veiny and tired. But still happy! :)
So - back to the marathon. I was really dedicated to my marathon training. I followed the training plans diligently and tried to fuel my body as needed. I didn't really make conscious changes to my diet in preparation for the marathon. If I felt hungry, I would have a healthy snack (nuts, smoothies, etc.) On race day in October, I think I weighed 114 pounds and some change. I was happy with that and didn't think much about my weight at all.

I qualified for the Boston Marathon at that race, and I immediately registered. Then - all the planning for Boston started. New gear. Travel arrangements. Training plans. (Insert Jaws music) and dietary plans. I thought that since the Boston Marathon is such a big effing deal, I better take it as seriously as possible. I overhauled a lot of the way that I normally do things - and I made two major dietary changes:

1. I started eating a real breakfast every single day. (OK nutritionists - I can feel you getting uneasy. Calm down. I'm not going to tell people to skip breakfast!)

2. I started adding protein supplements to my recovery smoothies.

Historically, I am not much of a breakfast eater. I'm just not. It makes me feel gross and heavy in the morning when I am already grumpy. On a normal day, I have a gigantic cup of coffee and some fruit or a yogurt. I have a more substantial mid-morning snack about two-three hours later. In an effort to be "properly fueled" for the rigors of training for Boston, I started having breakfast. I incorporated more eggs, more nuts, healthy grains, healthy smoothies. I honestly thought I was making healthier choices and I would be better prepared come race day. I was also adding several HUNDRED calories to my diet every day. Yikes.

Eat to run, not run to eat! Proper fuel is key.  Credit: Runner's World
I am certain that I did experience some benefits from my diet while training, but there was still an imbalance in caloric intake and expenditure along the way. By the time I ran the marathon in April, I was pushing 118 pounds. Imagine my shock when I got onto the scale. It was something like this:

You mean to tell me - I ran 60-ish miles per week through the winter in Wisconsin complete with snow, wind, ice and rain to come out several pounds heavier? OH. HELL. NO. At first, I refused to believe it. I got off the scale and got back on in hopes that the reading was wrong. Nope. I had legitimately gained FIVE FREAKING POUNDS. Ugh. Gross.

I was extremely discouraged and my initial reaction was to beat myself up about it. I felt grumpy. I ate things I shouldn't. I was mean to the people around me. All totally illogical responses. The more I thought about it,  it was pretty clear that the small changes I made to my routine were the culprit. I'm currently training for another marathon in the Fall, and I am also working on getting back to a place where I feel comfortable with my habits and my body.
Live & Learn!

There are many reasons why people experience weight gain while training for a physical event, particularly endurance events. Some of those reasons include:

- increased muscle mass which is heavier than fat
- water retention
- increased food intake, because of over-estimating the number of calories burned
- entitled eating "I can have a brownie because I ran today. Make it two." 

The lesson is to pay attention to your body's needs. We are all different machines with similar but different requirements. Don't feel defeated if and when you are a victim to the creeping scale numbers, but do take a look at the food choices (including liquid choices) you are making - then adjust accordingly. I recommend a food journal to track your activity and your intake. And last but not least - even if you gain a couple pounds in your training - don't let it stop you from achieving your goal. 

**If weight loss IS your goal, be sure to incorporate other physical activities into your routine. Running is not the most efficient means for losing weight - that is another myth. And remember - no amount of working out can fix a yucky diet.** 

What about you? Can you relate to shifts in weight while training? How did you handle it?


  1. Just started marathon training but the only time I'm starving is on long run days. I try to track my calories and keep it in check during the week.

  2. I experienced the exact same thing training for my first half marathon! I switched from a low mileage-high intensity heavy schedule to less HIIT and more mileage in my schedule and gained 8 pounds! I'm not exactly thrilled about it, but I did learn that my body responds to intensity more than steady mileage, so when I start training for my next race I'll be sure to incorporate more HIIT training into the program. Like you said - live and learn!

  3. I can definitely relate to this post! Entitled eating is exactly what I do after long runs - and it's caught up with me. I've also noticed that when I take a break between training cycles, I'm still as hungry as I was during normal training so I tend to gain the most weight during those times. Yuck.

  4. I find I lose weight for a marathon but it also may be when I start training I am already heavier than normal and the mileage contributes to a shedding of pounds that shouldn't have been there in the first place. But an awesome read!

  5. Being a female marathoner is rough! I heard a theory that in order to burn fat, cardio by itself hurts you, one must incorporate strength training! I ended up losing 7.5 lbs since June because I started doing other workouts in addition to running. I'm in fact running 1/3 of my normal running! Marathon training is not a weight loss plan, it's a strength/endurance plan!