Ok, so I’m exaggerating, but I got your attention, right? I know I’m not fat and I actually hate that word. Despise it. Here’s what I wanted to say but couldn’t fit in a headline… even though running marathons has virtually nothing to do with “burning calories” (it is SO much bigger than that), I sort of thought a nice little side perk would be that after running one I’d be leaner than ever before. I quietly hoped I might lose a pound or two. Secretly, I wondered if after running so much I might resemble one of those people on the cover of Runner’s World or an Athleta model. Instead, I ended 2015 (the year I ran my first THREE marathons, all within six months of each other) ten pounds HEAVIER than I started it.
While I am not THAT body focused that I think this is a huge problem in the world, I’d be lying if I said it didn’t bother me to not fit into my favorite jeans after the year I ran my ass off (or not, as it were). I know that muscle weighs more than fat, and I know how to take off ten pounds. But, I have since heard others say that they have experienced this same thing while training for big races. So what gives?
For me marathon running is about achieving a goal that seemed impossible and using what you learned about yourself (your mental and physical strength) to apply it to the rest of life’s challenges. That said, I can’t help but feel I need to spread the word and debunk the myth that running marathons will put you in the best shape of your life.
First, let me pause to say that you probably know from previous posts that I preach BALANCE, that I’ve been known to tell people to throw away their bathroom scale and that I encourage people to focus on being STRONG NOT SKINNY. I think there is a fine line between being dedicated and focused and being obsessive and narcissistic. That said, I also don’t want to KEEP gaining weight and have to donate all my clothes and buy new ones.
And contrary to what you might be thinking I was NOT eating bagels every day for breakfast, entire pizzas for lunch, a pound of pasta for dinner or a whole pint of ice cream by myself the way I hear some runners talk about their post run meals.
To tell this story better, let’s back up a little. After I had our third child in 2012 I had more than 40 pounds to lose. I took it all off within four months and within six months I weighed less than I had since high school. I accomplished it by eating a clean, balanced diet, keeping a food diary through My Fitness Pal and exercising about 5 days a week for about 30 minutes, usually on my elliptical machine or a Jillian Michael’s DVD. Thirty minutes was about all I could sneak in between taking care of a new baby and two young girls not yet in elementary school.
The next fall and spring, when I began running to mix things up I discovered that I needed to consume more calories in order to have the energy to run as far and fast as I wanted to. I put on a couple of extra pounds, but, honestly, it was a healthier weight for me.
When I trained for my first half marathon a year later in the fall of 2013 I discovered that all that running was making me HUNGRY… ALL THE TIME! While I continued to eat clean, healthy meals (which included meat at the time), the scale moved up a couple pounds once again. But, that was fine because I wasn’t focused on being thin. I was focused on meeting athletic goals.
I kept running, faster and further. Seven half marathons later I decided it was time for a full marathon. So, last winter I began training for the Big Sur Marathon in California and then went on to complete the Cleveland Marathon three weeks later and the Chicago Marathon this past October.
During this time I had stopped weighing myself because I was not at all focused on my weight. I considered myself an “athlete” and I thought of food only as fuel. I was eating three meals and two snacks every day; healthy meals with clean ingredients that I ate when I was at my thinnest. Meals and snacks I still eat today. I was tracking my nutrition to ensure I was getting the proper carb, protein, fat balance and I was burning through 1,000 to 2,000+ on double-digit training runs. Ok, so I ate desserts when they were offered to me and I didn’t really think about it if I ate a ton one day, because I knew I’d burn it off the next.
Since my scale had gone in the garbage I don’t know what I weighed then. I didn’t care really because I felt healthier and stronger than ever before. Which is what I strive to focus on.
After I finished all three marathons last fall I decided I was ready for a little break from long distance running to heal my injured ankles and spend more time focused on family and my new job. Since then I have still stayed quite active running once or twice a week, HIIT training on my bike and my elliptical and weight training at home most days.
What I wasn’t monitoring from October through December was my diet. I continued to eat the way I had been eating when I was training. And I was no longer burning thousands of calories running. After my pants were tight at the end of the holiday season I got on the scale to see where I was. And… bingo there it was.
After you run a marathon you can’t eat the way you did when you were training for the marathon or you will gain weight. Not rocket science I know, but something you forget to remind yourself after you’ve been in your athlete mindset for awhile.
So, by now you’re either thinking, “So what you gained 10 pounds. Big deal.” Or you’re like “Yeah, dummy. You ate too much, you were moving less. Shocker, you gained weight!” Or you’re like, “So what is the moral of the story?”… Cause you know I ALWAYS have one. My point is this (aside from, “Don’t make the same mistake I did if you don’t want to gain weight”)…
When I wasn’t weighing myself and I was focused on a goal much bigger than exercising to look good in my bikini, I had the best body image I have ever had. I wasn’t thinking about every single thing I put in my mouth and overanalyzing whether I should have a cookie based on how many calories I had left for the day. I had finally found the healthy balance I have lacked through certain periods of my life.
But from a more practical stand point, I also learned that getting lean, means not only doing LOTS of cardio exercise. If you want to get in the “best shape of your life” and look muscular, you have to combine strength training in too. Doing a little bit of a combination of things each day might just be better than doing A LOT of all of the same thing all the time. I have always mixed in work with weights, but while training for my marathons, I did considerably less of that. When you have to run that many miles a week that takes up ALL the time you have as a busy mother of three. And I was afraid to do a strength workout that would make me too sore to get in the run I had scheduled. On my rest days I was too sore to even consider another kind of workout.
After a few months of lack of focus and some “post race let down” I have finally found some clarity in recent days. Will I continue to run? YES!!! Will I run far? Uh huh! How about marathons?… Not sure yet. Someday? While I have not ruled out doing another at some point in time, I feel like I’ve conquered that goal and I’m ready to move on to the next thing. Eventually I may try to take six minutes off my time to meet by sub four hour goal.
But, I am REALLY enjoying challenging my body and my mind in other ways these days. I am able to lift weights when I want, I can ride the bike on the trainer when I feel like it or I can sign up for a fun new challenge with girlfriends, like the “21 Day Fix” Challenge I’m about to begin. And I can still go out and run 3 to 6 carefree miles when I feel like it. But, now that I’m working during every spare minute of the three hours that all my kids are all at school, I honestly don’t have time in my brain to focus on a full marathon right now. I’m focused on family, work and balanced exercise and eating. I also happen to be eating better because I’m not starving all the time from those huge calorie burns from long runs.
I’ll finish by saying this.
If you’re thinking of training for a marathon, don’t do it to get your body stronger than ever. Because it’s really all about training your MIND.