We have all been told that — contrary to conventional wisdom — it is really hard to lose weight while training for a marathon. In fact, a lot of people gain weight when they up their training mileage. Personally, after 21 marathon training cycles, I know these struggles all too well. (There may be people out there who start running and watch the pounds melt off; I am not one of them.) But I also think it is pretty unhelpful to say “It can’t be done,” and as I recently learned while completing a cut on the RP diet and simultaneously training for a BQ-pace marathon, it can be done.
I will preface this post with a disclaimer: I am not a nutritionist or a doctor. These tips are based on my own personal experience over the years, including my recent cut using the Renaissance Periodization program. So here it goes: how to lose weight (or at least eat well) while training for a marathon in 12 easy steps.
- Eat. If you overrestrict your calorie intake, bad things will happen. You will be cranky and sad. You’ll feel weak and won’t have enough energy to train for your race. You might lose muscle instead of losing fat, ultimately getting weaker. Or, as often has happened to me over the years, you might resort to post-run or late-night bingeing. Your blood sugar will drop and you’ll reach for whatever is most convenient in that moment, and often overdo it. You don’t want any of that. Interestingly, although my Renaissance Periodization cut was a challenge at times, it usually wasn’t a challenge in that it left me hungry. Basically, if you do this right, you shouldn’t be starving all the time.
- Make Each Bite Count. Instead of approaching your diet as a restriction of calories, shift the mindset to focus on food as an element of your training program. Just as you carefully consider your training plan, running gear, and recovery protocol, consider how your diet is making you as strong as possible. A bowl of oatmeal or some scrambled eggs are going to do more for your body than a pack of M&Ms or a glass of wine, even if the calories are about the same. And as that donut hovers toward your lips, consider whether it will make you feel stronger and fueled, or just sort of bleh. Think less about the quantity of foods and think more about the quality.
- This Isn’t a Bank: Forget the “Deficit.” For years, I fell into the mentality of “I just ran 20 miles, so now I need to/get to eat close to 2000 extra calories!” This was a really counterproductive way of thinking and probably the biggest mistake folks make when they start running or increase their running. Although intuitively it feels like tracking calories makes sense and should work, I was more successful when I stopped tallying the calories and calories out (step away from the MyFitness Pal…). This is because I was using my calorie deficit as an excuse (1) to eat or continue to eat when I wasn’t hungry and (2) to eat high-calorie foods that weren’t giving me the quality my body wanted. So, not helpful. One interesting part of my Renaissance Periodization plan was that I wasn’t allotted extra food on light or moderate running days. This really helped me break out of the cycle of “topping off” my calorie levels for every little workout I did. I did not find that my performance suffered or that I was significantly more hungry on days when I did shorter runs vs. no runs at all.
- Fuel Your Runs. When you’re on a diet, the last thing your rational brain wants is to use up calories on gross “foods” like sports gels. You might think, I’ll skip the gel during my run and have a glass of wine instead later! Bad idea. I found my long runs to be more enjoyable and effective when I had appropriately fueled myself before and during, plus I was less likely to binge later. That doesn’t mean I had a giant meal before heading out, but maybe a banana or some oatmeal before and then gels, chews, or some pretzels during as needed. Sure, I was taking in extra calories, but I found that I was better able to keep my hunger under control later, instead of bonking before the end of the run and urgently needing a giant meal of whatever food I could find. Plus, if you don’t properly fuel your body for your runs, your body might end up burning muscle as fuel. No bueno.
- Prepare for Post-Run Rungries. We all know the feeling of finishing a long run. Your hair is matted under your hat. You kick off your shoes and finally let your feet breathe freely. You’re starting to get cold as the A/C hits your sweaty body. You’re starving but you definitely do not feel like chopping vegetables or waiting for something to cook. All you want is to shower and then have some food waiting for you when you get out. To prepare for this moment, and to re-fuel my body with protein and carbs ASAP after a run, I usually do one of two things. First option is to have a pre-made protein shake ready to go. Nothing is quite as refreshing after a hot run. Second option is to have a pre-determined plan for real food — maybe some easy-to-cook eggs, or a Chipotle salad you picked up on the way home from the run. By having a plan, there is no need to waste time — getting hungrier and hungrier — thinking about what you’ll eat and how you’ll get it, and you’re more likely to make better food decisions.
- Reward Yourself, But Not With Food. Fun is fun. We love to joke about how much wine we drink and wink at those studies saying chocolate will cure disease. We try to out-indulge each other, and we get sucked in to Facebook videos of decadent desserts. We mark special occasions with bags of candy or baskets of candy or slicing of cakes or selling of cookies. This is our culture. But this food-as-celebration mentality can pervade our everyday, especially when we are working hard to train for a marathon. Instead of falling victim to this mentality, try rewarding yourself with non-food treats. Buy yourself flowers or pick up a new book. Take your body to a restorative yoga class or get a relaxing massage. Spend an afternoon at a park or some other place that makes you happy. Catch up with a good friend. You deserve it.
- Listen to Post-Run Salt Cravings. One thing I’ve noticed is that after a long run, I crave Asian food. Really, really strongly. I’m pretty sure this is my body craving salt. So instead of ordering up some tempura and lo mein, I reach for other yummy salty bites that are better choices for my body. One option is olives or pickles. These are easy to keep on hand and pop in my mouth when I get home from a run. Then, of course, I still eat whatever protein and carbs I had planned for — these salty snacks don’t replace real, substantive food. Another option is rice, eggs, avocado, or tofu (or a combination thereof) dressed with soy sauce. I’ve found that this satisfies my Asian-food cravings without all that extra oil. So listen to your body’s cravings and then really think about what they are saying.
- You Can’t Outrun the Calories. Repeat after me. You can’t outrun the calories. Of course, technically, it is possible to burn more calories through running than you take in. But that’s not how it works for most people. So I strongly advise against eating something now with the thought that you will run it off later. This goes back to the tallying issue in point 3 above. Just don’t do it. Running and food shouldn’t be traded like currency.
- Each Meal is a New Meal; Each Day is a New Day. This one is pretty self-explanatory. Don’t try to “fix” what you did yesterday by skipping meals or cutting out nutrients today. If you “messed up,” OK. Move forward.
- Focus on Protein. As runners, we hear SO MUCH about carbs. Sure, carbs are important. See point 4 above. But generally most of us are probably getting sufficient carbs in our diets to support our training, and it is really easy to over-do the carbs. During my Renaissance Periodization cut, I really had to focus on reining in my carbs (except during my workouts) and my fats. Instead, the emphasis was on taking in protein at every meal and before bed to help my muscles recover and not wither away. I found that eating this way dramatically reduced my carb-heavy snacking and left me more satisfied between meals.
- Move. Sure, you may run for one, or two, or even three or four hours, but what are you doing for the rest of your day? Hunkered down at your work desk? Sitting around in a recliner watching Netflix? Making your husband wait on you? Ignoring the dog that wants to be walked? (These examples may or may not be pulled from my real life.) Continuing to move helps with recovery and also helps burn more calories. Try easy walks, standing at work, playing on a playground (my favorite), getting on the floor for some stretches or resting poses. The options are endless.
- Sleep. It’s important for so many reasons.
I hope these tips are helpful. Have you struggled with weight gain during marathon training? What are your tips for keeping things in check?
These were so useful! Coming from an eating disorder background I think I fall into many of these traps- especially just running so I could eat. But I have to say focusing on high-quality, nutrient dense food has really helped (think avocado, hummus, peanut butter) whereas before I’d have been tempted to eat rice cakes and popcorn because they were “good” ie. low calorie. Thanks for these tips!
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Pippa, thanks for commenting and I’m so glad these resonated with you! The move away from focusing on calories has been huge for me, and I think it has benefited me both physically and mentally. And I’m with you on the avocados — one of my favorite snacks plain with salt or soy sauce! They make me feel super nourished.
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Avocado just makes me feel yummy! On toast as well… that’s my dream 😀