It’s no secret that I started running once upon a time to lose weight. And it worked! I managed to shave off like 25-30 pounds over the course of the summer before I went into high school, and I’ve been hooked ever since.
But now, when I say that I’m a runner, I always get comments like wow, you must lose a lot of weight and holy cow, you burn so many calories!
Not so fast.
It does make sense to assume that while you are working out, you are burning calories at a higher rate and thus, losing weight. Calories burned running doesn’t necessarily work that way for a few reasons.
The more you run // the more efficient your body becomes
This first clicked for me when reading Meb’s “Meb for Mortals” a few years ago. He mentioned that now that he was getting older, he had to cut calories. You know, only eat half a bagel and skip the ice cream. At first, I thought this was crazy, but it definitely makes sense to me.
Your metabolism slows as you get older… plus, as Meb points out, the more you run —> the more efficient your body becomes. That’s why, over time, people naturally get a little bit faster. Your body learns how to adapt to running a little bit more, which is why you hit that runner’s high more often as you get better. It’s not as hard; and it’s not as hard because your body adapts to what running requires.
While this is great (yay for not feeling like death during every run), it also means that you aren’t burning as many calories as you first did, which is why interval training tends to burn the most calories because you are constantly varying your pace — requiring your body to pull more resources for energy than just oxygen (this article from Women’s Running has good info).
You have to take into account your resting metabolic rate
Your resting metabolic rate indicates how many calories you burn when you are at rest — literally doing absolutely nothing. My current RMR, based on my age and weight from this site is about 1,500 calories. So that means I burn about 62 calories an hour doing nothing.
Why is this important? Well, while it’s true that you can say you burn about 100 calories per mile that you run (varies a bit based on weight and speed), this doesn’t hold true as your body gets more efficient. Let’s say you run 5 miles every single day. At first, that five miles will be a struggle for you… but your body will adapt and it’ll start to become a normal part of your day. So, if you are constantly training, it will likely become “normal” for you body (PS, does this mean that training for multiple marathons a year makes me less crazy because it’s become normal?).
Granted, you are boosting your metabolism. So yes, you are burning more calories at a faster rate because your body is an efficient machine. But, that doesn’t mean that you can go and eat #allthecalories because you “ran.”
Calories burned running: The truth
I wish I could tell you that since you’re a runner, you can eat and eat and eat and it’ll be fine. It’s not true. A lot of runners find that they gain weight during marathon training because of this. It’s important to look at quality calories (aka not carbo loading like there’s no tomorrow) and focus on nutrient-dense foods that your body can use to help you recover faster and perform better at your workouts.
That being said, moderation is key. Knowing this doesn’t mean that I don’t still indulge (I mean, sometimes you just NEED to add a cookie to your lunch order. I get it). But, I am more on Meb’s side where I’m just a little bit more aware about it… there are trade offs — if I go for the carrot cake for dinner, it means I don’t eat something else.
I think the most important thing to remember is to eat when you’re hungry, and not to eat because you’re “supposed” to. I fell into that trap for such a long time — I’m “supposed” to eat every four hours because otherwise my body will go into starvation mode; I need to eat three meals a day because that’s what society says. By actually eating when you’re hungry, you are listening to your body and well, it’ll make it that much harder to overeat.
So, what can you do as a runner to make sure that you aren’t overconsuming calories?
- Drink enough water. It’s true that sometimes when we feel hungry, we are actually thirsty. So, always go for water first (which, I mean, water is always good for runners!).
- Eat because you’re hungry, not because you should. Three meals a day sounds like a good plan to strive for, but honestly, there are just some days that I’m just not hungry after a big lunch, so I snack on a few things, drink some water and call it a day.
- Follow your cravings. I generally believe that if you are craving something, it’s because your body wants a nutrient/mineral/vitamin/something. If you are craving chocolate, it doesn’t mean that you have to eat an entire chocolate cake. Follow Jillian’s three bite rule, it’ll do the trick.
- Focus on fuel, not food. Think of your body as a car, a car that needs premium gasoline to operate at it’s best. Yes, you can put in the cheap stuff and it’ll function, but not as well. Your body is like that too. You can fuel it with processed foods, sugar and other junk, but you’ll feel the effects. Go for the good stuff. Your body will thank you.
- Ask yourself why. Why are you eating? Is it because you are hungry? Or are you bored, stressed, sad, happy, mad, insert any other emotion? I am a HUGE emotional eater and once I recognized it, it helped me lose a good chunk of weight.
Do you eat all the calories when you train? How do you stay on track?
What are your strategies for not overeating while training?
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