Are Running Races Good For Fat Loss?
By James Fell Ask Men
It you want to get (and stay) lean, you need to turn running into a long-term habit.
People often use a race as a fitness motivator ó and thatís a good thing. However, if youíre using racing as a tool for weight loss, it can turn out to be counter-productive if you arenít careful. The outcome depends on where youíre starting from and how far youíre going. And when I say ďhow far youíre going,Ē I mean that literally.
A raceís best quality is that it gives participants motivation to move. If youíre struggling to increase your mileage or speed ó or even just get started ó registering for an upcoming race can give you a much-needed kick in the ass.
As I discussed in my L.A. Times column, registering for a race utilizes the theory of planned behavior. This is a scientific model of behavior change that asserts: If we have a positive attitude about a new behavior and feel like we have the ability to follow through on it, then weíre more likely to actually follow through. Itís basically the power of positive thinking ó in Ph.D.-form.
When you register for a race, youíve done so because you have positive thoughts about your ability to show up on race day and not suck.
But what about using it as a tool for weight loss?
Racing Toward Habit-Formation
It you want to get (and stay) lean, you need to turn running into a long-term habit. Simply saying, ďIím going to run a marathon,Ē training for that marathon for several months, successfully completing it, then never running again (this happens all the time) is less than ideal.
Races need to be seen as a way to make your regular running habit more interesting. Itís OK to have an ebb and flow of intensity, but you canít just work toward a short-term goal and call it quits once said goal is achieved. Racing can kickstart a running regimen, but you need to think beyond the finish line.
One way to do this is to plan a series of races. If youíre a non-runner, you can start with a 5K, then a faster 5K, then a 10K and eventually a half marathon. You get the idea. But itís important to think past your original goal. You donít want to be a former runner, because any weight you lost is going to start coming right back.
Eating Up Your Speed
Hereís an important quote about exercise as it pertains to weight loss:
ďYou cannot out-exercise a bad diet.Ē - Every respectable fitness expert, ever.
I donít like fat shaming. Thatís not what this is. Itís a dose of reality. Once, I met a woman who regularly competed in Ironman triathlons, but if she had told me she was sedentary, I would have believed her judging solely by her physique. Although she trained like a madwoman, it was pretty obvious she ate like one too. Thatís a problem with extreme endurance activities: You can lose control of your appetite.
Barbara Brehm-Curtis, a professor of exercise and sport studies at Smith College in Northampton, Mass., outlines how self-control is a limited resource in her 2004 book, Successful Fitness Motivation Strategies. The stress we experience during the day erodes our willpower. Similarly, tough training can erode your willpower to eat well.
Itís a balancing act. A big part of my shtick as a fitness writer ó addressing those looking to lose weight, anyway ó is that exercise is a tool to transform you into a better eater. Burning calories is the least important thing about exercising. Check out this piece from my Chicago Tribune column about the science behind how exercise helps you lose weight indirectly by changing what (and how much) goes in your piehole.
And yet, you can overdo it. Hereís a piece I did for AskMen where I discuss how overweight and sedentary guys who start with less exercise actually lose more weight in the end, while the ones who go straight for the hardcore exercise program are so wiped out, they canít make wise food choices. Like Dr. Brehm-Curtis says, willpower is a limited resource, so if youíre draining it all with hard training, itís going to affect what you eat later on.
Following through on the promise I made last April, Iím in the final stages of training to qualify for the Boston Marathon ó thatís what motivated me to write this article.
Yet during the peak of training, I gained weight. I was busting my ass and racking up big mileage, but my will was so wiped out, I had a hard time sticking to a healthy diet.
Itís not physiological hunger. Itís not ďworking up an appetite,Ē as the low-carb proselytizer Gary Taubes would have you believe. Itís purely psychological. Most of the time, I need to use my brain to decide to eat something healthy, and not overeat. When I was bagged from all that training, I started to suck at dietary control. Hardcore marathon training wiped out my mental capability to resist.
Most overeating isnít due to hunger. Itís due to an inability to resist tasty treats because they are so yummy ó and theyíre everywhere. My coach, Cory ***an at TCR Sport Lab, says he sees marathon and triathlon clients lose control over eating all the time. Sometimes, he says, itís because there's a misconception of how many calories theyíre burning vs. how many they consume after the workout. Itís the ďI just ran 20 miles, so I can eat whatever I wantĒ mentality.
But thatís OK because, right now, Iím chasing time, not abs. It took me some time to get my eating back under control ó I donít want to be lugging any extra poundage for those 26.2 miles ó but you need to realize that if youíre chasing an aggressive race goal, either in distance or time, your eating could take a hit. Weíre all human ó there's only so much willpower available.
If you already have some good running experience and want to pick a distance that optimizes fat loss, 10K races are a good choice. In my experience, marathons are not a good choice for fat loss. A 10K race requires a fair bit of mileage at a fast pace, so it garners the positive brain changes that make you a better eater, without wiping you out. And, although itís less important, 10K training does come with a pretty significant caloric burn, which does help.
Running is never one-size-fits-all. It might be that 5Ks are better for you in terms of fat loss, or it could be a half-marathon distance. For the average runner, though, my money is on the 10K distance to lose the most weight. Fortunately, this also has the added benefit of being a popular race distance, so there are many opportunities to test your mettle.