Some people take up running so they can lose weight. I’ve met runners who have lost 50 or even 100 pounds. In some cases, I saw the transformation. In other cases, I met them after they lost weight, and I was blown away when I saw their “before” pictures.
I started running while I was in college. I was as lean then as I’ve ever been. After I graduated, I started a full-time office job. I also briefly stopped running. I was eating a typical American diet. My lunch was usually a bacon cheeseburger, a plate of fries, and a large glass of Dr. Pepper. I still had the metabolism of a 23-year old, but it was only a matter of time before I started putting on the pounds.
Eventually, one of my coworkers diplomatically mentioned that I wasn’t as “svelte” as I used to be. I wasn’t in the habit of weighing myself, so I started. I weighed in at 136 pounds. That might not sound heavy, but I’m only 5’4”. My nice lean college weight was 118. I was only 18 pounds over my ideal weight, but I didn’t like the trajectory I was on.
I started weighing myself regularly, a habit I’ve continued ever since. I don’t weigh myself every day, but I weigh in at least once a week. My weight fluctuates most around weekends, so I chose Wednesdays as my “weigh days.” I started a spreadsheet so I could track my progress.
I’ve always been motivated by measurable progress. That’s why I enjoyed running. I could see my progress by timing myself on the same route. Armed with a spreadsheet, I was going to lose weight the same way.
I started running again. This time, it was more difficult. I was starting from scratch, and I was carrying an extra 18 pounds. That’s enough weight that you can feel the difference. I’m really impressed with people who start running when they’re carrying an extra 100 pounds. I can’t imagine how difficult that must be.
I was only running 10-15 miles per week. Mostly, I relied on dieting. I still had the metabolism of a 24-year old, so by limiting my calories and exercising a moderate amount, I could lose a pound a week. As I started losing weight, I was sufficiently motivated by my progress that I stuck with my diet until the pounds came off.
It was too easy. After losing the weight, I got complacent. Eating what seemed like a normal amount of food, I eventually gained all the weight back. I could also gain a pound a week. Losing it a second time wasn’t as easy. Expecting it to be easy was a curse. It took more exercise and more resolve, but I lost the weight a second time. Then I was more determined to keep it off.
This is a graph of my weight over the past 29 years. To smooth out the “noise,” I use a five week moving average. I had big ups and downs in my mid 20s. By my late 20s, I was keeping my weight in the low 120s, occasionally getting it down to 118. When I was 31, a few months after my fastest marathon, I let myself go again. For the next 12 years, my weight was up and down like a yo-yo, sometimes getting into the 140s.
I kept lamenting that I wanted to lose weight, but my metabolism was slowing down. The same diet and exercise program that worked in my 20s wasn’t enough. Finally, a friend said, “David, you’re so disciplined at everything else. Why can’t you apply that same discipline to losing weight?” Not wanted to make excuses, I accepted the challenge.
I started running or cycling seven days a week. I recorded everything I ate and counted every calorie. In the first week, I lost a pound. I needed to see that to maintain my motivation. Over the next 14 weeks, I lost 14 more pounds. That was the summer of 2005. I’ve circled that part of the graph in red.
A difference of 15 pounds can have a big impact on your marathon times. Before that summer, I had run 45 marathons (excluding ultras), but I only qualified for Boston in five of them. After that summer, I qualified in almost every race. That was the motivation I needed to keep the weight off. I wasn’t going to get complacent any more.
Since then, I’ve kept my weight in a much tighter range, but it’s still crept up slowly. The green line on the graph underscores that trend. I currently weight 123. I still consider 118 to be my optimal weight for running. That’s consistently been the weight at which I’ve felt best and run fastest. 123 is still a healthy weight, but those five extra pounds aren’t making it any easier to run fast.
For me, five pounds represents a four percent increase in weight. All other things being equal, I need to expend four percent more energy to run at the same pace. To put it another way, with the same effort, I’m going to be four percent slower. For me, that’s about eight minutes. Every time I labor to finish a marathon in 3:28, I could be running it in 3:20. All I need to do is lose those five pounds. Unfortunately, it’s getting more difficult.
The problem is, I run too many marathons. You might be saying, “How does running more marathons make it harder to lose weight?” It’s simple. When I’m not racing, I train seven days a week. I don’t run every day, but on the days I’m not running, I do cross-training. I also diet year-round. I keep track of everything I eat, and I count calories. The only exceptions are special occasions and the days I’m traveling. Then I go “off the books.”
When I run a marathon, I usually travel to get there. Sometimes, I do local races, but if you’re going to do a race every weekend, you’re going to travel to most of them. When I travel, I’m not only going “off the books,” but all of my meals are in restaurants. I usually eat much more than I would at home. I also don’t get as much exercise. Sure, I’m running 26.2 miles, but I rest for a day or two before the race, and I rest (or do light cross-training) for a day or two afterwards. On average, I get less exercise per day that I would if I was training every day.
When I do a race, I usually gain about a pound. When I had several weeks between races, I had plenty of time to lose that weight. When I’m only home for three or four days before the next trip, there isn’t always enough time to lose that pound. Despite my best efforts, my weight has slowly crept up.
The reason for this post is to make myself accountable. I’m going on record saying, “I’m going to lose that weight.” I’m tired of sacrificing eight minutes. I’m training way too hard to handicap myself like that.
I just got back from a five day international trip. This weekend, I’m doing a race that’s closer to home. The following weekend, I’m doing a home town race. I have a good opportunity to start making progress on my weight before my next long trip. I need to turn the corner before winter and the holidays.