Running for Weight Loss to Training for PRs

About a year into my weight loss journey, I’d lost 60 pounds.

Yesterday, Ginger pondered why she runs. Lately, I’m asking myself the same quesiton.

One weeknight in January 2006 I got out of bed, put on a pair of running shoes and headed to the gym.

I weighed 235 pounds.

I didn’t run that night.

Heck, I could barely walk.

It took me six months to lose fifteen pounds.  A year to lose sixty. Three years to lose 100.  Not exactly the results you see on Biggest Loser.

And then, finally, I could run.

At first, as I lost weight I got faster.  As I continued to run to lose weight, I also started to care about my performance and get a thrill from the PRs.  The more and faster I ran, the more calories I burned.  By my first half-marathon, I’d lost over 120 pounds.  I’d exceeded my weight loss goals, but I’d only started to touch my running goals.

And that’s the problem.  I have a constant mental struggle between maintaining my weight loss and reaching my running goals.

Each time I train for a marathon, I gain weight.  I’m now the heaviest I’ve been in years. Although I know I’m fit and not fat, I struggle.  I still have the overweight and unhealthy me living in my head.  That person tells me that I shouldn’t take rest days.  That I shouldn’t eat after I run (and NEVER during a run) and that I need to exercise for at least 90 minutes every single day.

That person also tells me to do more cardio and less strength training.  She also calls me fat, just because I gained some holiday pounds.  She’s a great friend of weight loss, but not a great friend to my running goals or to my self-confidence.

Looking back at the injuries that have kept me from running over the past three years, all of them are related to overtraining.  Overtraining that was caused by my insistence on exercising when I was in pain, tired, or just simply needed a day off.  I’ll take on ANY challenging running workout.  Hills?  Check.  Speed intervals?  I’ll do them twice.  Day off?  No freaking way.

As you can imagine, this could do wonders for my *ahem* bottom line, but is not good for my running performance.  Running well and healthy is about training cycles.  In a running year, I should have training periods and maintenance periods and even weeks off, but if the voice inside my head is constantly niggling me about the weight I might be gaining when I take that time off, I’m never going to become a better runner.  Just a more injured and therefore slower runner.

I know what it takes to lose weight.  For me, it takes 90+ minutes of exercise every day.  A strict diet.

I also know what it takes to improve my running speed and endurance.  For me, it entails running a lot on Saturday, quickly on some days, slowly on others.  Lots of rest including rest days.  Adequate fuel during long runs and ALWAYS after the tough workouts. And sometimes a little weight gain.

I know that these two things don’t have to be mutually exclusive.  In fact, they aren’t mutually exclusive seemingly for most everyone else.  Running is a great tool for weight loss and weight maintenance.  In fact, it’s the best tool, because running is so darn fun.

But not for me lately.

I hesitated to write this post because I don’t want to trivialize other people’s battle with weight loss or the real problems that exist in the world.  It’s also hard to admit that while I physically left the old me behind, I’m still dealing with her on the inside.  Losing weight didn’t solve all of my problems.  Before, I physically couldn’t meet my running goals.  I don’t want the mental and emotional old me to hold me back from achieving my running goals now. If I want to qualify for Boston, which I REALLY do, I have to incorporate rest and proper fueling into my training.  If I don’t, I’ll end up overtrained or injured and ruin all chances of qualifying in May.

Right now, I’m struggling to rectify the beginning of my Windermere marathon training cycle with the extra pounds I’d like to lose from the holidays.  For me, now, it’s about taking each day as it comes – and putting healthy before skinny.  And someday, hopefully, I’ll replace the fat me in my head with the fit badass runner I am.

Have you lost a lot of weight because of running? Does your fear of gaining weight impede your running performance or interfere you enjoyment of it?

Ultrarunner, yoga teacher, academic, and feminist. I write about ultrarunning, feminism, and the intersection of running and life.

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16 comments

  1. I lost 70 pounds about 5 years ago and have kept it off, not including time for pregnancy and recovery. I did not start running until I had lost almost all of that weight. In fact, I exercised very little until I lost well over 40 pounds, and I started with aerobics and weights, and then moved to running as I neared my weight-loss goal. I am very much of the opinion that you eat to control weight, exercise to be fit. That being said, when I started training for my first marathon, my weight went up and I completely freaked out. I knew that lots people gained weight when training, but I assumed that wouldn’t happen to me. After all, I had maintained my weight for several years, I went through a pregnancy and lost that weight, so a marathon wasn’t going to cause me any trouble.

    But, obviously, it did. I put on around 7 pounds and they hung around after the marathon was over, largely because I forgot that I didn’t need to eat like I was training for a marathon if I wasn’t, you know, training for a marathon. My weight is back where I like it to be now, and I have learned to ease up on myself. I weigh myself every morning. I have tried to ditch the scale, but I just can’t. Instead, I have a range, and if my weight is within that range, then no worries. If my weight goes up over that, I have to think about what is going on. I haven’t run another marathon, so I can’t blame training. It is usually that I am eating mindlessly and need to get back on the wagon.

    I think all of this is a long-winded way of getting to the point that there are a lot of resources out there, for better or worse, that help people lose weight. There is very little help for people dealing with the mental and emotional fallout of losing weight. I still see myself as kind of fat, so I am often surprised when I catch my reflection in a window and realize that it is me. I thought that if I lost a lot of weight then I would never have to think about my weight again. Not true. I still think about it a lot. Maybe even more now than I used to. Running is a tool in my kit for controlling my weight, but honestly, it isn’t the best tool. If I ramp up training, I get hungry and I put on weight. I have to balance weight, activity, and fuel intake. I have learned to make allowances for marathon training, beer, and the occasional cupcake.

    1. Thank you so much for your comment – I love your perspective and it’s good to know I’m not the only one that feels this way. I definitely need to work on gaining perspective too – it’s about the big picture, not the number on the scale that morning that determines how I run and look all year long.

  2. I struggle with this as well. I go back and forth between wanting to eat to fuel my runs and wanting to continue to lose weight. It’s a constant balancing act with no real answer in my opinion

  3. Cilantro, I really love this post. I know that so many of us struggle with this, at least to some extent.

    What helps me is to understand that ALL runners, elite and just about everyone else included, have some fluctuation in their weight depending on where they are in the training cycle. I accept that during the winter I’ll be up about 5 lbs. over my summer training weight and then at the peak of my training I might be a few pounds lower than that. That lowest low is not sustainable and I don’t expect it to be.

    There’s something else that you allude to that helps too – there’s a difference between a low number on the scale and being super fit. Pepper and I were just talking about this on our run last weekend – she was complaining about feeling heavy because she’s gained some weight since being injured and I observed that she still weighs significantly less than me at my fittest. My fit weight is a lot higher than what a lot of people consider super thin, but I’m pretty small at that weight. If I focused on the #, I’d be pretty disappointed. Instead I try to focus on how I feel and how fit I am – as Clove said, I try to focus on what my body can do rather than what it looks like or what the # is on the scale.

    I really hope you’re able to put the weight loss stuff behind you and move to being a performance focused runner. I can’t wait for you to BQ and beyond!

    THANKS so much for sharing this very personal struggle!!!

    1. Thank you – it was scary to recognize and admit it! I know intuitively that how I feel isn’t 100% rational, but I still have nightmares where I overeat or stop exercising and wake up back at 235 pounds! It’s a crazy mental battle and one that I didn’t even realize I’d struggle with when I started losing weight. I have to think that someday I’ll get over it, but then I’m sure a new anxiety will replace it!

      1. I don’t know if you mean literal nightmares, but I absolutely have dreams where I look down a realize I have gained all that weight back and started smoking again. I think ‘Now I have lose weight AND quit smoking again?!?! Whaaaaaa! It was too hard the first time, I can’t do it again!” And then I am so relieved when I wake up and that hasn’t happened.

  4. Cilantro, we have such similar stories, it’s crazy! Even at my goal weight, I didn’t look like the runner, or person, I had visualized myself looking like when I started losing weight. Since I hit that goal, two and a half years ago, it’s something I struggled with every since. I tear myself apart for it all the time. In the end though, it’s not the number on the scale, or even the race clock, that matters, it’s that you got out there and put in the effort and are grateful for what your body can do that day.

    1. First, congrats on meeting and maintaining your goal weight! I sometimes say that learning how to maintain is way harder than learning how to lose was! I think it’s so important we help each other keep things in perspective too – because I still feel “big”, and that’s worse when my clothes don’t fit because I’m gaining weight! I think for me, the hardest part is listening to my body to eat when I’m hungry, because I lost weight by disconnecting myself from that! Now I need to listen or it affects my run (and my mood)!

  5. Yikes…I am living this right now. My weight loss happened a little faster and I am still hoping to drop another 10 before my first 1/2 but I am scared to death of fallng off the wagon. One morning when I should be running I’m afraid I’ll roll over in bed and not

    1. I have a similar fear – that if I stop exercising for one day, I’ll never be able to motivate myself to start again. I’m learning to take days off, but it’s paralyzingly hard sometimes.

  6. I love this post! I can totally relate….

    I started running to lose weight and manage stress- I had gained weight in college, and was entering the fun world of law school. That was in 1997. Over the course of law school, I managed to maintain a pretty steady workout regime, but didn’t have the best eating habits. I dropped 30 pounds, and not nearly the right way. It was mostly done by restricting what I ate. In retrospect, I lost way too much, and didn’t look healthy. But, I was battling the percieved “fat me,” and was terrified that with one last bite, I would end up where I started.

    So, when I started my first law job out of school, I realized that I couldn’t sustain not eating and working out as a weight loss mechanism.I started reading about healthy eating, and talking to other people who where into health as much as fitness. Then, in 2001, I was recruiting to join a team for the Cleveland Coporate Challenge, and I was hooked. I also started meeting more runners, and started running further and faster than I ever would. For years, I would start my mornings by running through the neighborhoods and downtown areas of Cleveland, Tremont, Ohio City. In many ways, I bonded with my own hometown in a way I had never done before.

    I also learned about overtraining and overuse pretty quickly. But, at 25, it took me another five years to realize that one is better to take a rest day when you feel that icky twinge rather than lose a few weeks entirely.

    My weight also strarted to creep up. That bothered me, but I tried to keep it within a range. Weighing myself every day is key for staying on track. I also started following the “Body for Life” eating method, and I liked the results. So, I loosened up on myself a bit.

    Then, in 2003, I got the bug to do my first marathon.Suddenly, with the long runs and pre and post fueling, my weight started to creep up again. On race day, I was 7 pounds heavier, and pretty bummed about it. But, i finished my first marathon- Akron- and it was an experience of a lifetime. But then I found that shedding that weight, post race, was not that easy. After the race, I was sore for a couple of weeks, and the days kept getting shorter. I was still eating, but not running anywhere as much.

    The next year, I ran Akron again. I didn’t carb load, and I had a roast chicken for dinner the night before. I was keeping a great pace until the 13 mile mark, and then I fell apart. I finished, but it was grisly. I hit the wall, and realized that I still do have asthma after all. Lesson learned.

    I ran four marathons in the following years, and two were at Boston (I BQed in Columbus and Milwaukee). As a former smoker, asthmatic, formerly out of shape person, it was the best life experience ever. But the weight issue was there for each race. Ironically, I remember complaining about my weight going into the 2008 Columbus Marathon. I ended up with a marathon PR.

    I really think that women are genetically predisposed to holding on to weight when training for endurance events. No matter how hard I tried, I could never lose weight while training for a marathon. My male running buddies would drop weight without even trying, or would struggle to keep weight on.

    Anyway, I don’t run as much these days, but I try to feel fit and stay active. I really think that the important thing is that, despite the past us’s, we are all out there, challenging ourselves, and feeling totally alive in the process.

    Happy Running!

    1. Thank you so much for sharing your story – and your perspective is exactly what I need. At the end of the day, I love to run and I love to run marathons. As long as I’m healthy, and a healthy size, I need to let go of the scale

      1. You are so very welcome! I am right there with you. You said it perfectly. And, it sounds like you are doing great. And, thank you for inspiring me to get out there!

        Best of luck to you!