A couple days ago I received the following question in my inbox:
“You mentioned that running made you gain weight. I don’t really understand why so could you explain?”
This is a great question, and it gives me the opportunity to address the issue of running and weight loss, which I’ve been wanting to talk about for awhile. When I say that running made me gain weight, this is what I’m basing it off of:
- I was 5’6 and weighed 118 lbs when I first started running the summer before 8th grade. I worked up to running 5-6 miles 3-5 days/week. By the end of 8th grade, I weighed 135 lbs.
- When I started high school in 9th grade I joined the high school cross country team that fall, followed by indoor track in the winter and outdoor track in the spring, so I was running 30+ miles per week. By January, I weighed almost 150 lbs.
- Over the following year, I continued to run 30+ miles a week. By winter of 10th grade I was up to 160 lbs, which is around where my weight stayed for almost two years.
- During fall of senior year of high school, I stopped running because I was too busy. Almost immediately my weight seemed to drop to around 150 lbs, which is where it stayed for three years. During this period my weight periodically fluctuated up to 160-165 lbs in response to unhealthy drinking/eating habits, but it always dropped back to the low 150s pretty easily–this seemed to be my set point until I lost weight in December 2010 (now around 140 lbs)
So is this conclusive proof that running made me gain weight? Well, no. I wasn’t running a controlled scientific study on myself, and there are a number of other variables that could have accounted for some or all of my weight gain. Puberty is one–obviously I wasn’t meant to weigh 118 lbs past age 13. Muscle gain is another. And obviously nutrition is a big one–although my eating habits didn’t seem to change significantly over that period, I don’t have enough data to say so conclusively.
What I CAN say is that running never made me lose weight, never made me thin, never gave me the body I wanted–not in the way that weight lifting did. I’m willing to bet that most people take for granted that of course they’d lose weight if they started running 30+ miles per week. But it never happened to me.
I don’t think that my experience was the exception. One of the top runners on my high-school cross-country team was a skinny fat girl who couldn’t do a single push-up. Several girls were undeniably overweight. And I honestly can’t think of a single girl who lost a noticeable amount of weight over the season, despite the rigorous training.
In fact, recent studies have shown that steady-state cardio, which includes running, is not only unhelpful for weight loss, but can actually promote weight GAIN by slowing your metabolism, decreasing muscle mass, increasing your appetite, and promoting fat storage. This is especially true for long-distance runners and marathon trainers–in fact frequently people will gain weight while training for a marathon. Especially women. (Check out this article for further information)
But…this doesn’t make sense! After all, we all know that running is great exercise, and we can all see with our own eyes that runners are thinner, fitter, and healthier than the average person–right? Well, this is where correlation versus causation comes into play. Are runners thinner on average because running makes people thinner, or because thinner people are faster, better, and less injury-prone runners, and are therefore more likely to take up and stick with the activity in the first place? I’m betting the latter. So the runners that you see aren’t a random sample of the population, but a self-selected group of people who by and large are either naturally thin, or who have adopted other healthy habits that promote thinness independent of running.
But what about people who you know for a fact took up running and subsequently shed the pounds? Maybe you even fall into this category yourself. Well, yes, it’s true that for SOME people running is beneficial or even instrumental to weight loss. But keep in mind that frequently people take up running concurrently with other behavioral or lifestyle changes, such as going on a diet, and it’s easy to mistakenly overestimate the impact of running relative to these other changes. Moreover, the impact may be indirect rather than inherent–say you used to sit on the couch and eat oreos every day after school, now you go on a run instead and you’ve lost 10 lbs. That’s awesome for you and you should keep it up, but someone without an oreo habit probably isn’t going to see the same results.
Finally, it’s important to remember that while running can no doubt make you fit and healthy, fit and healthy doesn’t automatically equal thin even if we’d like it to. You can be a fit, healthy marathon runner and still be 20 lbs over your desired weight.
So does this mean that running can never help you lose weight, or that you should stop running immediately? Of course not! Again, running IS beneficial to weight loss for some people, even if just for psychological reasons. And many people enjoy running for reasons that have nothing to do with weight loss: recreation, relaxation, transportation, competition, setting goals, the running community, self-confidence, etc. If you genuinely love running than there’s no reason to give it up!
However, you do need to be honest with yourself: are you running because you ENJOY running, or are you running solely to lose weight? And if you’re running to lose weight: are you ACTUALLY losing weight, or are you just doing it because you assume running=>weight loss? Because there’s no point in busting your butt for an exercise that you don’t enjoy and that may be counterproductive to weight loss when you could be using that time for a workout that’s beneficial, or at least enjoyable.
And if you love running but it’s interfering with your weight loss, then it’s time to take a good hard look at your priorities and decide what’s most important in your life right now. That may mean putting running on the back burner for a couple months while you focus on diet or strength training. Maybe you keep the Saturday morning leisure runs but skip the marathon training at 4am in sub-zero weather. Or maybe you value running over weight loss and there’s nothing wrong with that–as long as you can accept that the scale might not move and don’t start starving yourself or unreasonably upping your mileage in an attempt to compensate.
As for me? I run when I want to. Lifting weights has transformed my body, raised my metabolism, and changed my life–so I make it a priority, period. That’s my workout. Running is recreation, and I take the Goldilocks approach: it can’t be too hot or too cold or too humid or too rainy; I can’t be too hungry or too full; and I really have to feel like it. Sometimes I go on walks instead. During the winter I cease running altogether and won’t start again until the weather is nice. Ultimately I hope to get back into running more now that I’m living on the beach and have a beautiful place for morning runs year-round. But it will forever remain something I do for fun–not for weight loss.