Why are Runners Fat?

By Brian Pitstick - December 6, 2013
Ok, I’ll admit this is a bit of an extreme statement and it was not meant to offend anyone.  However, as a long time long-distance runner myself, I can fully attest that there are a number of runners who are not the most toned of athletes.  Even having been around many runners training for marathons who would run 5-6 times a week and up to 3hrs on a long run (logging 40-50 miles per week), I saw a number of people who were heavier than I would have expected.  Why was this?  It did not seem to make sense and always perplexed me.  Running I thought was best way to stay fit and lose weight.  Overtime though, as I learned, read, and experimented, I figured it out. The key to losing weight or maintaining a tone body requires much more than just a lot of low intensity aerobic training.  In fact, running is one of the least impactful means of achieving weight loss (if that is your goal).  Don’t get me wrong, running is great for the heart and cardiovascular system and is also a fantastic means for removing stress and providing some alone thinking time.  And there is a major high in the competitive nature and mental toughness of the sport especially when racing.  As such, I still do this often and highly recommend it. If your goal though is to tone your body or lose weight, running alone is not going to get you there.  Unfortunately, it’s a much more complex process but one that can be far more effiective if you’re willing to change your routine.  I blogged about this previously in my article “Fitness Wearables: Requires Approaching from Fitness Mindset”.  I recently read an article from Health Habits called “Why I Can’t Lose Weight” (Yes, I know my article title is a bit extreme but was only intended to catch your attention.) and it does a fantastic job of summing this up with much more of an expert scientific opinion than me.  To give you the reader digest version, exercising to lose weight requires adding two main things to your rountine:  1) resistance training and 2) higher intensity.  Running provides none of this and no matter how much you run, you will not lose the weight if this is all you do.  One lesson that helped me learn this was when I started mixing in interval and speed training into my marathon training and I started to see a big impact on my weight.  Food intake and mood are also extremely important in the weight loss equation but my main focus here is exercise routines.  I’ll save those for another discussion/article. Gym Social Butterfly When you head to the gym to add these new routines, you'll need your focus and full energy.  Everyone knows this person – the gym social butterfly.  They go to gym for social purposes and spend their time chatting it up with everyone they see.  A 10 minute debate on last night’s episode of the Bachelorette is followed by a 30 second exercise.  Wash and repeat again with another person.  In all, they likely get 10-15 min of exercise and 45 min of social time.  No offense if this is you, but that’s not me.  I go to gym to work and do everything in my power to not talk with anyone.  I put on my headphones and lower my hat to signal to everyone that I’m busy.  If I want some time to chat with friends, I'll meet them at a bar or coffee shop.  The gym is not fun time for me.  To get the results I want and maximize my efficiency (like everyone I'm always stretched for time), I use mixture of high intensity, interval training, cardio, and of course resistance training.   To do this right, you need focus and energy.  Its pretty hard to chat when you're breathing rapidly and have limited time between set.  Some people say that just showing up is half the battle.   I disagree.   If you want results, you have to put in the effort.  Sorry.   Just showing up will not matter.  Stay home instead. Today’s Fitness Trackers Will Make you Fat If you are using a fitness wearable tracker today, chances are you are going to remain fat.   Nearly all of the trackers today focus on steps taken and give you a recommendation of 10,000 steps per day.  Don’t get me wrong, I’m a big advocate of getting people moving more and think these trackers can help motivate people to do this.  Most of these companies even have data to demonstrate that people are moving more as a result of wearing their band.  However, tracking steps alone (or calories) will not help you achieve weight loss or maintain a tone body.  In fact, they might encourage the wrong behavior and keep you overweight.  If your goal is becoming leaner, trackers need to evolve to track different data that provides better predictors of weight loss.   Companies like Basis, Push, and Athos fully get this and are doing some great stuff in this regard.   They are adding ability to track intensity of work-outs through heart rate monitors, muscle effort, and reps.  As indicated above, high intensity interval training (or HIIT) and muscle/resistance training are much more effective in weight loss by raising your metabolic rate (Basal Metabolic Rate or BMR).  Trackers that focus on these areas will be the most effective for people seeking weight loss. Conclusion & Recommendations If your fitness goals are to lose weight or build a toned body, I'm not recommending you stop running.  However, you need to incoporate more than just running into your exercise routine.  Even mixing in interval training and higher insentity routines into runs would be a good start.  Examples include hill running, speed intervals at a track, or tempo runs.  For added results, consider adding resistance training & additional interval training into your routine and do it with intesity.  Read up on HIIT.  Remember also to add resistance training that covers your legs.  Those are some of your largest muscles and running does not impact leg muscle growth. Fitness wearable manufacturers that want to serve this segment of the market need to add capabilities to track these added variables.  Just focusing on steps or calories provide a partial view of success.  A first good step is adding heart-rate monitoring for intensity tracking.   Adding ability to track resistance training is another.  Most trackers today give no credit for this.  Other suggestions inlcude including ability providing interval timers in their apps (vs. having to use dedicated apps like Tabata Timer).  Finally, they should build in coaching guidance and recommendations both real-time and post workout. If you have an opinion on this article, please drop me a comment or follow me @bpitstick.  
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