With the TCS NYC Marathon less than a month away (November 6th), I’m in the final weeks of training for my first marathon! That exclamation point doesn’t do justice for my intense feeling of accomplishment. Even though I feel like I’m able to conquer the world, there are some aspect of marathon training that just suck. I’m physically exhausted, my legs are tired and sore, I’m hungry ALL the time and my pants are a bit tighter. Yup, that’s right. Running 30-40 miles each week has caused me to GAIN a few pounds. It almost seems like an oxymoron. Exercising more = weight gain?!? It’s been true for me, and I’ll tell you why.
I love food, but food has not been my friend during my training. My favorite type of meal is full of big, bold spicy flavors with aromatic veggies, like onions and garlic, and fiber filled ingredients, like brussels sprouts, cauliflower and beans. Unfortunately, I can’t eat any of those things right now because they bother my stomach while I’m running. Instead, my diet consists of bread, grains, dairy and the occasional fruit and vegetable. My boring daily diet is cereal for breakfast, an apple and cheese sandwich for lunch, crackers, grapes, cheese sticks for snack and some veggies and rice for dinner. That may sound like a somewhat healthy diet, but my downfall is the days that I run more than the normal 5-6 miles. On those days, I end up feeling ravenous and I eat anything in sight.
I think I’ve figured out what causes me to make these unhealthy choices, but before I get to that, I asked some Dietitian friends who have run marathons if they experienced weight gain too. Here is what they had to say.
“I gained a few pounds during my marathon and half-marathon training. I was never hungry immediately after a long run, so I didn’t have a big recovery meal. But hours later (since I ran in the morning) I would be absolutely famished and would overeat.”–Alissa Rumsey MS, RD, CSCS, Owner of Alissa Rumsey Nutrition and Wellness Consulting
“Yep! I certainly tend to weigh more during marathon training – not much more, but usually 2-3 pounds more than usual. Marathon training tends to ramp up my appetite and if I end up ravenous (usually 3 hours after a long run) I may scarf down more than I should. Plus, I’m not 100% sure (because I never had my body fat percentage checked), but I believe I put on a little bit of muscle mass when marathon training – my legs look more toned and my pants actually fit better when I’m training for a marathon. Not to mention, for my last two marathons and ultra-marathon, I was weight training with a personal trainer twice a week in addition to putting in the miles, so muscle gain is certainly a possibility.”–Tina Gowin Carlucci, RDN of Gowin Nutrition
“When I trained for my first half marathon, I noticed that I was always justifying food like “I earned it” or “can’t wait to indulge” after a long run. Especially because it was SO out of the norm for me as a non-runner who had a hard time even cranking out a full 1-2 miles without walking. When I started running 7+ in one day I thought I was really killing it.”–Katie Proctor, MBA, RDN of Elevate with Katie.
“I totally gained weight while training for my first marathon. It was a combination of being hungry all the time, and that sense of entitlement you get when you run 3 hours and then see some donuts.”–Abby Langer, RD of Abby Langer Nutrition
“I’ve run two marathons; I gained weight during one (mostly muscle mass from weight training) and maintained my weight for the other one. For both marathons my calorie intake increased progressively as the runs got longer.” –Jessica Levings, MS, RDN, Owner, Balanced Pantry.
“I neither gained nor lost weight when training for my marathons (I’ve run six), even though each time I was hoping to lose about 5-10 lbs in the process. I did notice that during training my legs seemed a bit stronger and my jeans fit a little nicer, but the number on the scale didn’t budge at all, even as the mileage was stacking up.” –Elana Natker, MS, RD of Enlighten Nutrition
As you can see, gaining a few pounds during marathon training is actually pretty normal for most people. It’s even difficult for Dietitians to regulate how much they eat when they are feeling ravenous. With all of that being said, here are 5 tips to avoid the dreaded marathon training weight gain.
- Eat for recovery:
What you eat after a run is just as important as what you eat before. Without proper recovery, it’s very likely that you will feel super hungry later in the day or even the next day. “To overcome this, I would have a smoothie immediately after a long run. That way I could get in calories, carbs, and protein, but without feeling that I had to eat a huge recovery meal. This helped to keep my hunger hormones in check later in the day,” says Rumsey. My favorite post-run recovery meal is a chocolate and banana smoothie, made with milk, yogurt, banana and cocoa powder and two blueberry pancakes. Then, I tend to eat another meal about 3 hours later.
2. Stay hydrated & fuel during the run.
It’s so important to stay hydrated while running, if not just for performance, but also for fueling and weight maintenance. “Dehydration can mask as hunger when really all you need is some water,” says Rumsey. “If I didn’t drink enough during or after my run, I ended up being really hungry later in the day,” she adds.
During a long run, it’s necessary to replace lost carbohydrate stores. Our body stores up carbs for fuel, but that store only lasts about one hour. After that, you need to replace lost carbohydrates by drinking sports drinks or using sports products, like gus or gels. “I think the reason for the weight maintenance was that I would take in several hundred calories during running (3-4, 100-calorie GU pouches),” says Natker. Because of this, she probably didn’t end up as hungry at the end of her runs or stop at mile 15 to order Seamless!
3. Eat balanced meals (not just carbs)
While carbs are extremely important for fueling, it’s necessary to also eat protein and fat to keep you feeling full. My diet is probably missing out on protein, which causes me to feel really hungry during my runs and stop at mile 15 and order this for dinner:
Or think this is an appropriate recovery beverage:
While I do believe it’s necessary to indulge after a long run, it’s important to think about where those calories come from. “Although I don’t usually advocate calorie counting for the first time marathoner, I think it helps keep them stay accountable. I have my athletes aim for 40-45% carbs, 30% protein and 25% fat (of course that may vary and an individual basis). Overall this just helps them get more protein in without going to low on carbs and fat,” says Kelli Shalal, MPH, RD of Hungry Hobby.
“I aim to keep my meals balanced and increase portion sizes by just a couple of spoonfuls at each meal. And when I want a treat, I eat one (not two or three or four). I enjoy every bite by eating it slowly and thoughtfully,” says Carlucci.
4. Consider the amount of calories you burn
It’s pretty awesome to see that you burn 1,800 calories after an 18 mile run, but that’s just one day. Yes, feel free to eat the fries on that day because you deserve them, but don’t eat them again the next day. And, “don’t forget to consider overall activity during the day. Yes, you’re putting in more mileage when training for a marathon, but are you also taking a 3 hour nap and binge-watching Big Bang Theory the rest of the day?” says Carlucci. Great point!
5. Choose nutrient dense foods
I find this tip to be the most difficult. After an 18 mile run, I don’t want to eat yogurt or bananas. I want french fries and pizza, and I feel entitled to eat that after a REALLY long run. The problem and what causes weight gain is eating those foods the next day because you still feel like you are “recovering”. Trust me, your body doesn’t need an extra 1,000 calories on a rest day.
“For my clients, I always stress that the extra calories consumed during marathon training should come from healthful sources such as whole grains, fruit/vegetables, and dairy (even full-fat). Extra calories shouldn’t mean empty calories!” says Jessica Levings, MS, RDN of Balanced Pantry.
The bottom line: Weight gain isn’t synonymous with marathon training. There are definitely ways to avoid it, but also keep in mind that gaining an extra 2-3 pounds is somewhat normal. Don’t feel discouraged if your jeans are a little tighter because you are accomplishing a humongous feat!