Many people look to running, or any exercise, for an answer to their weight problem. Years ago I was convinced that if I ran enough, I would lose weight. I mean, you don't see many elite runners who are overweight, so it makes sense to think that if you run hard and run often, you'll be skinny too...
Unfortunately, it's a little more complicated than that.
Losing your excess fat is simple for most people. Burn more calories than you eat...done!
But simple does not mean easy.
And for many of us, learning to control your appetite and eat only what you need can be a real struggle.
I've dealt with weight issues my whole life. Unfortunately, I just don't have the best genetics when it comes getting a six pack!
Luckily, I was an active kid and I enjoyed playing sports which kept my weight in check for most of my life. Practice, conditioning, and games were all part of what helped me burn calories, and the desire to be faster, stronger, and better at my sport helped me keep my appetite in check.
I was always a little pudgy but my weight never got out of control because I had something (sports) and someone (teammates, coaches, parents) to help keep me on track.
But what happens when all of that goes away?
What happens when you don't have a specific fitness goal in mind? Or people to keep you accountable?
What if it's actually really hard to find the time or energy to workout? Or what if you have a family, a job, friends, hobbies, and other things keeping you busy, and stressed, and tired?
Well...if you're anything like me, you might eat more, workout less, and begin your journey to becoming Jabba the Hutt.
After my second kid was born (in 2018) I weighed 225 pounds (102 kg). Remember, I'm 5' 11" (~1.8m), so that's pretty heavy for my frame. That put me firmly in the "Obese" category on the BMI scale.
Not just "Overweight", but "Obese"!!!!
That's when I started to realize that if I didn't change something, I was just going to keep gaining weight.
Now, are you ready for the kicker?
I was running 3-5 times per week while I was gaining weight.
I was actually running AND lifting weights on a regular basis. But it didn't matter. And for me, it still doesn't matter. I can run, lift, hike, bike, swim...none of it will make me lose weight by itself.
And I'm betting you're reading this article because you might be in the same boat.
Alright, let me pause for a minute to get this out of the way...
Weight loss, nutrition, and overall health is insanely complicated and different for everyone. What works for me might not work for you. I am not a health professional, nutritionist, or dietitian, and you should not use this article as medical advice. Use the information in this article at your own risk.
Ok, glad we're all on the same page!
Based on my own personal experience I've found that there are a few reasons why running won't be the only answer to your weight problem.
When you run more, you eat more
If you're focusing on upping your weekly mileage you are probably going to start eating more. This isn't necessarily a bad thing. Your burning more calories when you run and you need to replenish your body so you don't burnout!
But, this can be a problem when you start to overeat or eat junk you shouldn't be eating because you went on a run that day!
For instance, today I went on a 6 mile run and my Garmin estimated I burned about 831 calories. What I should do is try to eat about 300-400 calories less than I burned throughout the day because I'm trying to lose weight.
What I definitely shouldn't do is eat a giant bowl of Lucky Charms to prepare for my run, and a half of a pizza and ice cream to recover from my run.
If you've ever kept track of your calories you know that it's really, really easy to eat more than you think. Have you ever measured out a serving of cereal? Or a serving of trail mix? Or a serving of salad dressing?
When you start to get meticulous about your caloric intake you realize pretty quickly why you aren't losing weight!
For me, it's easy to get caught in the "I went for a run today..." trap. I see something I want to munch on and my logical brain says "Hey dude, you probably shouldn't eat that, it's not the healthiest choice, and you just ate lunch!"
Then the stupid part of my brain says "Yeah, that's true...but I went for a run today!" NOM NOM NOM!
I would end up doing this a few times a day, on top of eating more with my meals to "fuel" my runs, and by the end of the day I had eaten way more than I thought.
For me, the answer to this problem was tracking my calories. I forced myself to track everything I ate, but only for about 4 weeks.
The point is to gain a better understanding of how many calories you're actually eating. Forcing yourself to measure out a serving of peanut butter will show you that in the past you were eating 2-3 servings of it when you thought it was only one.
I made myself log the oil I used in the pan, the butter I put on my toast, and the honey I put in my tea. It all adds up, and you'd be surprised at the grand total.
The other part of this solution is figuring out how you need to eat to run your best.
A lot of people get excited about "fueling" for runs and they go overboard with carbs and running products. The reality is that you really don't need to change your diet very much, especially if you're running less than 5 miles at a time.
I found that I like eating 20-30 grams of carbs a few hours before my run. What do I prefer... A gel, a chew, a Gatorade? Nope. I just eat an apple. A plain, boring apple is the best pre-run "meal" for me. (You could eat a peach, pear, banana, or whatever you prefer!)
The problem is, no one wants to tell you to eat an apple because it's not exciting, it's not "fun", it's not innovative, and running companies aren't making money off of apples...
The running community will bombard you with food
Let's face it, running is an industry all it's own. From shoes, to clothes, to apps, to devices, there is a ton of money to be made by selling stuff to runners.
So, it's no wonder that food companies have hit this market hard.
There are gels, gu's, chews, granola bars, electrolyte drinks, salt tabs, deer antler velvet (WTF!?), and a million other supplements and food products to help you recover faster and perform better. At least, that's what they all claim to do...
So you've got tons of companies throwing food and drink products in your face...
On top of that, you've got 1.7 gazillion social media "influencers" who are pushing their "homemade recovery smoothie", recipes, "health foods" and diet tips which are all actually just ads for those same running companies trying to sell their food products.
Last but not least, you've got the "bro" runners who feel the need to let everyone know they're going to crush some much deserved pizza and beer tonight after their 15 mile run!
For me, the solution was KISS. Keep It Simple Stupid. Don't buy into the hype that everyone is selling. In my opinion, the simpler you can keep your food, the better. You are never going to convince me that processed, man-made food is better than natural, whole food.
Yes, they might make you perform better for a short period of time. I mean, I would prefer to eat a gel over an apple in the middle of a marathon, but you can't treat your daily run like a race.
Again, this is my opinion...but I really believe you don't need to overthink your nutrition plan. Eat lots of healthy, whole food, figure out what works best for you, and don't buy into all the marketing BS.
Gels, gu's, electrolytes, and supplements all have their place in running. I actually use all of those things. But I use them when I really, really need them. Like on early morning runs when I can't stomach a whole meal before my run, or for long runs on hot days, or when I'm pushing for a personal best, or giving a hard effort two days in a row.
I don't think these should be used on a daily basis for snacks, easy runs, or part of your normal meals.
Oh, and as far the social media influencers, remember, they're just salesmen.
Inconsistent diet and exercise can wreak havoc
Often times, as new runners, we are only running a few times a week. That's not a bad thing! If you've ever read any of my other articles about new or overweight runners you know that one of the worst things you can do is run too often, too far, or too fast.
Consistency is king. Slow and steady wins the race... All that good stuff.
The problem is, as a new or overweight runner, it's really, really, hard to be consistent.
Your body is getting used to a new stress which can cause issues with your hormones and emotions. Running with excess weight can cause injuries, general discomfort, or intense muscle soreness. And adding 30-90 minutes of running to your schedule can be a challenge!
So, what tends to happen is that people run sporadically throughout the week. Generally, this is just fine for newer runners. You can take a day or two off if you're not feeling great and go on a run when you're feeling up to it.
The problem arises when you try to drastically change your eating habits on your running days.
From your body's point of view, Change = Stress, and your body doesn't like stress. So if you're eating a lot more on your run days than your off days, your body isn't going to react well.
This yo-yo dieting can lead to GI distress (which is how the running community says "my stomach is on fire and I'm about to poop"), higher risk of getting sick, and general burnout.
For me the solution was realizing I didn't need to eat much before my run and that I just needed to listen to my body post-run.
There were times where I was eating tons of food pre-run because I thought I needed the extra calories to fuel my run. Then after my run I would continue to eat a ton of food because I thought I needed to renew my glycogen stores and generally refuel my body.
I'm telling you...it's just not necessary. Over the past few years I've changed my diet so that I eat pretty much the same way everyday. I have a higher protein breakfast around 7am and then a high carb mid-morning snack (that apple I was telling you about) around 10am, then I go on a run around 12:30pm everyday. After my run I drink a shake with lots of fruit and a scoop or two of a protein supplement. I have another small snack in the late afternoon, and I usually eat a pretty small dinner of whatever my family is eating.
Of course, it's not like this everyday. Some days I'm hungrier than others, some days I can't eat after my run.
The important thing is that my caloric intake doesn't fluctuate a huge amount on a daily basis. If I go on a run less than 6 miles I generally don't eat any more than normal. If I go on a run up to 10 miles I'll try to eat about 300-500 extra calories throughout the day.
I'm not saying this exact diet will be right for you, but try finding a happy middle ground between your run days and your rest day...your body will thank you!
Running is an amazing sport. It can help you keep your heart and lungs healthy, your body strong and fit, and yeah, it can definitely help you lose weight.
But running has to be used along with a healthy, consistent diet plan if you're looking to really shed some pounds and keep them off.
Don't think of running or your new diet plan as a quick fix. You're not going to go on a run and lose 5 pounds...well, you might, but you'll gain it all back when you re-hydrate!
Losing fat takes a long time and requires consistent, hard work. The good news is that you can do it. I know that because I did it...actually I'm doing it.
And if I can do it, so can you!
Thank you sooooo much for reading!
Now is when I ask for a favor...
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Lastly, I'd love to hear what you thought about this article. Leave a comment below and let me know if you've ever struggled with weight loss and how you're approaching it now.