Now that you aspiring long distance runners know there’s a chance you could gain some weight during training, I definitely don’t want that to be a discouraging factor in your decision to run a marathon or ultra. First of all, it shouldn’t really matter if you gain a few pounds. Your body is doing what it needs to do to prepare to run for four-plus hours straight. That’s a pretty big energy demand on your body. Yes you get hungrier than normal, and yes you crave carbs, because they are the preferred energy source for your body. That said, if you want to run a marathon — or maybe lots of marathons in the future — and really want to maintain or improve your physique, there are a few things you can do to prevent weight gain during training.
Before I give you some tips, I need to get all science-y about nutrition for a moment.
The great carb debate
Research has shown that eating a higher protein diet “generally help[s] people lose less muscle and more fat at the same calorie intake.” This could be because protein helps preserve lean muscle mass and is generally more satiating than carbohydrates, causing you to eat less. This does not mean eat “low-carb”. Low-carb is defined as anything less than 50 grams of carbohydrates a day. According to the National Strength and Conditioning Association (NSCA), you need roughly 45-100 grams of carbohydrates per day just to fuel your brain and prevent ketosis, a state where there are high levels of keytones in the bloostream. (It’s worth it to note that although your brain can use keytones for fuel when glucose is not available, complications such as heart arrhythmias, cardiac contractile function impairment, sudden death, osteoporosis, kidney damage, increased cancer risk, impairment of physical activity and lipid abnormalities can all be linked to long-term restriction of carbohydrates in the diet. More long-term studies of the neural and physiological effects of ketogenic [aka low-carb] diets for weight loss are needed.)
Although several short-term studies of the effects of low-carb diets on endurance athletic performance show that athletes performed better, or the same, on a low-carb diet as on a high-carb diet, more research needs to be done. According to researcher Jeff Volek as quoted on the Runner’s World website, “there is a lot of variation among athletes, and so many questions to be answered since there has been so little low-carb research relative to the thousands of studies done on high-carb diets.” Since “numerous studies have documented an ergogenic effect of carbohydrate intake and elevated muscle glycogen concentration on aerobic endurance performance, work output, and high-intensity intermittent activity” (Essentials of Strength Training and Conditioning, 208), I tend to lean more towards a moderate-carb diet for endurance training.
The NSCA currently follows the Institute of Medicine’s guidelines for carbohydrate intake, which recommends 45% to 65% of total daily calories come from carbohydrates. For aerobic endurance athletes who train for 90 minutes or more, the NSCA recommends 8 to 10 grams of carbs per kilogram of bodyweight. Since this recommendation is for advanced or elite-level athletes during in-season training, I wouldn’t suggest consuming that much, especially if you’re a beginner or intermediate long distance runner. If you’re looking to stay lean while training, I would recommend a macronutrient ratio of 40-50% carbs, 20-30% protein and 20-30% fat, and not to eat less than 150-200 grams of carbs per day. To keep an eye on your macronutrient ratios and calorie intake (which needs to be at maintenance to prevent weight gain — if you eat more calories than you burn, no matter how few carbs you consume, you will gain weight), there are a few handy apps you can use on your smartphone. I like MyFitnessPal and Macros by Fitocracy for calorie and macronutrient tracking.
So… now with that all out of the way…
Here are six tips to help keep you lean while running long:
- Increase your protein intake. While you do need carbs in your diet (for all the reasons mentioned above), boosting your protein intake will help preserve lean muscle mass and help keep you more satiated, which will quell those marathon-training hangries. Aim for a protein ratio of about 20-30% of your daily total caloric intake, and choose lean meats and plant-based protein when possible. Consuming some protein and fats along with those glycogen-replenishing carbs after a workout will help repair tissue and enhance recovery.
- Carb load smartly. If you find a higher protein diet does not work for you, be sure have low glycemic index (GI) carbohydrates (such as brown rice, quinoa, yams, buckwheat and other whole grains), as opposed to high GI carbohydrates (such as white bread and white rice), make up the majority of that macronutrient ratio in your diet. The fibre in low GI foods is more filling and doesn’t spike your insulin levels as much as high GI foods. Instead of eating that big bowl of white pasta the night before your long run, the NSCA recommends increasing your carbohydrate intake slightly over the three days before your long run or race to build up your glycogen stores. Choose low GI carbs as mentioned above paired with a protein and fat to help keep you satiated.
- Train your body to burn fat as fuel. If you do your training runs early in the morning, try running before you eat breakfast. Although studies have shown that “fasted exercise results in a greater percentage of calories being derived from fatty acids rather than carbohydrates”, the jury is out on whether “fasted training, independent of caloric intake, may confer any additional fat burning or weight loss effects over a period of time.” So why would I suggest this tip? You might end up consuming fewer calories over the day due to exercise-induced appetite suppression and by forgoing the mid-run sugary gels and drinks. While I don’t recommend this technique for beginners (or those who get light-headed without food in the morning, like myself) it might be something worth trying if staying lean is important to you.
- Remember that running long once a week does not give you a free pass on food the rest of the time. Although you will be burning between 800-1500 calories extra on those long-run days, you will probably only be burning around 200-500 extra on your other training days during the rest of the week. It’s totally fine to have that beer, burger and cake once a week, but not every day. If you eat moderately and healthy during the rest of the week, a once-weekly indulgence won’t make a difference to your waistline.
- Hit the weights. Besides helping to increase power and speed and reducing the risk of injury, strength training can also help preserve lean muscle mass by, well, building muscle. Because running is a catabolic activity (meaning it breaks things down), strength training in combination with sufficient protein intake and endurance training can help preserve (or increase, if you’re just starting a resistance training program) lean body mass. If you want to know how to incorporate a strength training program into your marathon training plan, read this post or check out my programs (sorry, shameless plug) at korufitness.ca.
- Cut the crap. Okay, cut out about 80% of the crappy, non-nutritious and processed foods from your diet. If you fill your plate with healthy, minimally processed whole foods, you will eat less due to their sufficient fibre and nutrient content. Processed foods are high in sugar and sodium, making them hard to resist. Not only that, but they aren’t very filling, and leave you reaching for more. I’m not saying everything you eat has to have minimal ingredients that you can easily pronounce (you just ran 30 km, for Pete’s sake, go ahead and eat that piece of cake), but just be mindful of the quantity and only eat it if you really want it.
Thoughts on the “great carb debate”? Do you have any tips to share? I would love to hear it!