Ask-A-Salty: Losing Weight While Training

Got questions? Just ask!

Salty Reader Diane asks:

Dear Spice Rack: 

Do you know where I can find what caloric intake I need while training for my half, that will allow me to lose some pounds in the process. I don’t want to eat too little and be starving, yet would like to shed some excess weight. Thank you!!!

Diane’s question is actually one we hear all the time, and technically since weight loss is a calories-in vs. calories-out equation, you could just calculate your caloric expenditure and subtract some and think you’re doing great. (If you’re new to the world of counting calories I recommend taking a look at my post on caloric intake, where I go into the math of your BMR, or Basal Metabolic Rate.)  While that might work okay for some people, one of the big takeaways I have from a wide variety of resources is that limiting your calorie intake while you’re training hard for a race is a TERRIBLE idea, and can prevent you from losing fat!

More details after the jump:

*Quick disclaimer: Cinnamon is not a doctor, scientist or a nutritionist. She’s just a runner who lost a lot of weight.

It’s funny this popped into our inbox today; I just read Racing Weight by Matt Fitzgerald. I definitely would recommend it, but keep in mind that Fitzgerald is using numbers that pertain to elite athletes, so unless you’re training at Shalane Flanagan‘s level…you know…translate the numbers for yourself.  Nonetheless, I found the theory lessons contained in the book to be pretty good.

Like I said above, limiting your calorie intake while you’re race training is no bueno. While it’s true that your body can deplete resources from fat cells to feed your muscles, it won’t do that if you start going to bed hungry. You must intake enough calories on a daily basis to support your lifestyle and also fuel your race training, or your body will enter a deprived state. Our bodies are smart, but not smart enough to know the difference between a diet and a famine. And just like a bear in the early stages of hibernation, if your body thinks there’s a famine, it will focus its energy on keeping fat, not losing it.  That may sound like bad news, but it’s really just an indication that there’s a better tactic to take.

[pullquote]A side note, If you read Racing Weight or do a little research elsewhere, you’ll find the general idea is that endurance athletics is a numbers game; the less fat you carry the faster you’ll race.  Of course, no matter what your percentage is, we tend to think runners are sexy at every size.  Mint wrote a great post about it last summer; the post and comments are pertinent to Diane’s question and worth a read, for sure![/pullquote]

Instead of focusing on your overall weight, try weighing yourself with a scale that measures body fat.  They’re readily available and aren’t necessarily expensive – I got mine for thirty bucks.  If you’re a numbers nerd like me you’ll love how your new scale gives you a totally different number to focus on – your body fat percentage. I’m proud to say I have something like 42 pounds of fat on my body (that’s about forty percent of what it used to be!), which is about 28% of my 153 lb. total body weight.  Instead of focusing on losing x amount from 153, I can start focusing on adjusting that percentage to 27, then to 26, and then ultimately I’ll reach my goal of 25%. That can be done either by losing fat or by gaining muscle.  Neat!

This is where the good news comes in:  The whole point of training, all the speed work and tempos and extra mileage, is to build body mass, not lose it. By training, you’re showing your body where to create more cells.  By taking in enough calories, you’ll give it the fuel it needs to make mitochondria and build your muscle tone.

So the trick then, becomes not to limit your overall calorie intake, but to shrink that fat percentage while taking in enough calories to maintain your training energy and thereby build your muscle tone.  This becomes not a question of how much you should eat, but what you should eat.  Fresh vegetables, lean meat (if you’re into that), whole grains, less salt, less sugar…we all know the drill by now.  A clean diet is the key to building muscle mass, and if you’re eating enough calories to sustain your total body mass while training, you’ll naturally lose some fat. One of my favorite soundbytes of all time is from this ultrarunnerpodcast interview with Mike “The Fruitarian” Arnstein. In it, Arnstein says “The fat that goes in you is the fat that goes on you.” While Arnstein’s diet is a little extreme for…well…almost anyone, and some fats are actually good for us, I love this mantra and say it to myself every time a box of pizza shows up after a hash run.

So calculate your calories to check in with your diet, but don’t cut out so much that you feel hungry at the end of the day.  Instead, figure out how many calories you need to feel sated and then focus on using them to intake your recommended daily allotment of vitamins and minerals–that’s a fun game to play!  Audit your diet. Cut out the bad stuff and add in good stuff like fruit, vegetables or nuts. Plus, if you’re really training hard for this half, you’ll probably shed a few pounds anyway toward the end of the training cycle, when you’re expending so much energy your caloric intake can’t keep up.  If you work at it for this training cycle and maintain it until your next training cycle, you’ll more than likely find your body fat percentage naturally on a downward trend.

Hope that rather long-winded answer helps, Diane!  Salty Readers, do you have anything to add?

If you have a question you’d like to ask the spice rack, send it to us here!


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Cinnamon made Salty Running, takes lots of pictures and drinks lots of coffee. She has 8 more minutes to knock off her marathon for a 3:40 BQ, and will get there or die trying. Her writing is an eclectic mix of finding wholeness as an average runner, news reporting, curious reactions, satirical humor and more.

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  1. I’ve also lost a lot of weight (120), and did the bulk of it before I started running. I usually gain weight when I’m training for a marathon, which is not so good from a running economy standpoint.

    I’m finding that if I focus on the qualiy of the ingredients I’m putting in my body (i.e. all-natural, whole foods), my weight does what it needs to do. It’s when I’mn counting calories (and even trying to limit them) and training hard that I gain weight or feel how being undernourished negatively affects my training.

  2. I was watching Dr. Oz while I was on the treadmill just now and his guest said something like this:

    the more white bread, the sooner you’re dead.
    When your diet is greener, you will be leaner.

    So, cut out the white stuff. Add green stuff. :)

    1. I love these kinds of mantras. Back when I was in college I was on Weight Watchers, which was a really intense, life changing experience that can be summed up in one statement, which is very popular in the WW community: “If you fail to plan, you plan to fail.” I apply that all over my life, not just to nutrition, and I find it’s particularly well suited to running!

  3. Cinnamon, thank you SO much for the time you spent answering my question!! One thing I really appreciate you and Salty expressing is to strive for optimal performance and the weight will take care of itself for the most part. I was very aware of the fact that sometimes people way undereat and wonder why no weight is coming off and I didn’t want to do this to my body. I have found it frustrating over the last couple years that the number on the scale keeps climbing and climbing, yet I have failed to stepped back and appreciate that my times has gotten faster and faster. I also appreciate Cinnamon pointing out if I am going to focus on any number, let it be the fat % instead of the weight. I downloaded My Fitness Pal and have found that very easy to use, and I love it gives a concrete representation of what I am putting in my body. And, if it prevents me from eating something because I feel too lazy to look it up, even better yet! ;) Thanks again for all your input!

  4. Really interesting post. I tried for a really long time to lose weight while running and it left me perpetually hungry and exhausted. When I stopped trying to lose weight and focused on fueling my body and quality food, I actually ended up losing weight and not just on the scale but in my clothes which is where I really try to measure my body weight.

  5. This is an interesting post and frankly pretty timely for me. As a marathon runner, my weight definitely fluctuates. Like Salty, once I get to 60 mpw, my body goes on autopilot and I don’t worry about it. By the end of the season, I usually am able to hit my goal race weight without any problem. Inevitably, however, after my race when I have a light month or two, I tend to gain 5-7 pounds. This season, since I am not focusing on the marathon distance, I have settled in right around 50 mpw. I feel very strong with my hard speed workouts, but I am still up those 5-7 pounds I added after Chicago. SO, if I want to get into key shape for my spring half, I need to drop them. The way I do it is to: (1) ensure I am drinking a lot of water; (2) clean up my diet; and (3) track what I am doing. Often I’ll use Calorie Count or a similar web site for a week or so so track it. I don’t like doing it all the time, because I don’t want to be a slave to calories. However, it is always enlightening to see the nutritional value (or lack thereof) of what I am eating. And it helps to get me back on track. Guess I better get on that. :)

    1. Yes! I’m glad you brought that up, Mint! The whole reason I wrote up that post about calorie tracking way back was just what you’re talking about–it’s a great tool to check in with yourself and see if you’re over- or undereating, and to remind yourself that oranges are better for you than cookies, and cheese fries are not a well-balanced dinner. Obviously in some cases people take this to an extreme but for most of us it’s important to make sure you know where you stand.

      I use, which has a cheese all name, but a really nice, free app for smartphones and a fairly extensive database. (My handle is CinnaOne, if anyone wants to friend me there and see what I’ve been eating, although I haven’t quite figured out the appeal of that aspect yet.) I’ve heard great things about Calorie Count too, and there are plenty of other options as well!

  6. Good post, and answer. I recently had this discussion with my coach. I wish to lose some pounds and reach race weight, but I also wish to train more and to train harder. They do not go hand in hand. As you said, the weight will come off by itself. And your body needs fuel to well, fuel more intense and longer training!

  7. This is a really good question and one I think a lot of us have asked at some point and it’s important to understand the distinction between exercising for weight loss and training for performance. As Cinnamon suggests, it’s not optimal to focus on both at the same time (and this site is focused on the latter rather than the former). However, what I have found is that if I focus on performance, getting lean is a nice side effect. (As I’ve said on this site before, I’d happily gain weight if it meant I’d reach my running goals, but alas it won’t.)The postpartum period notwithstanding, I find that once I head over 60 miles per week I can go on auto-pilot and not worry about my weight much if at all. That’s right, I think it takes about 8 hours of running a week for running itself to get me to lean-mean fighting machine status without having to be very diet conscious. what I do find, though, is that as my training ramps up, I eat for optimal training, so I naturally clean up my diet for the most part. I think a lot of people who focus on exercising for weight loss tend to overestimate what running alone will do for weight loss. I agree with my sister: focus on training to run your best; audit your diet and cut out the crud; and see how that works for you!

    Oh, and on another note, with training for performance it’s normal to have some weight fluctuations throughout the year. Runners should not expect to weigh their rock bottom weight all year. In fact, in most cases, that’s probably not healthy. More on that for another post :)