Marathon Training for Weight Loss

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Male runner stretching in shade.

How far would you go to get the body you want? If the answer is 26.2 miles, then this article is for you. Many exercisers use marathon training for weight loss. But running to lose weight doesn’t always work. You have to know how to lose weight during training if you want to cross the finish line with a leaner, fitter body.

Is Marathon Weight Loss a Myth?

You might be surprised to know that many new marathoners don’t lose any weight during training. In fact, many people actually gain weight when they train for a marathon.

A perfect example is Tara Parker-Pope who wrote about her weight loss struggles in “The Fat Trap” for the New York Times. In the article, the science writer discusses the many metabolic and hormonal factors that come into play when an overweight or obese person tries to lose weight. The article suggests that permanent weight loss may be impossible for some people. As evidence, Tara Parker-Pope reveals that she “even completed a marathon” and still wasn’t able to lose weight.

While the marathon anecdote was surprising to many reporters who later interviewed her about the comment, Parker Pope’s marathon training weight loss struggle didn’t come as a surprise to many people in the running community, myself included. Not only did I gain weight during my first three marathons, but most of my training buddies did as well – even though all of us were trying to slim down.

So does that mean that it’s impossible to lose weight during marathon training? Absolutely not. It simply means that you need to be exceptionally savvy in your training plan.

Using Marathon Running to Lose Weight

Losing weight while running a marathon is possible. But it’s hard. Pounding the pavement mile after mile makes you hungry and tired. What do most people do when they are hungry and tired? They lay on the couch and eat — which ultimately causes weight gain. The key to marathon training weight loss is balancing your activity level with your food intake.

To learn more, I spoke to ultramarathoner Dean Karnazes. The endurance athlete and bestselling author was named one of the fittest men on the planet by Men’s Fitness. I asked him to explain how a new runner should train in order to get a lean, fit body for race day.

Do you think that running a marathon can be a reasonable weight loss strategy?

Dean Karnazes: Yes, absolutely. In fact, if done correctly, it is one of the most effective weight loss strategies there is.

If you choose to set a weight loss goal for your marathon training how should your training differ from most standard marathon training programs?

Dean Karnazes: Much of your training should be done in the so-called “fat burning zone” (roughly defined as 60%-80% of your max heart rate). Your body will utilize fat for energy in this range. However, not all of your training should be done in the fat burning range, as some would advocate. You should also incorporate high-intensity training. True, exercising at higher intensity levels utilizes primarily carbohydrate for fuel, but you will get an added metabolic boost from this high-intensity training that lasts throughout the day.

Are there any specific tips or pieces of advice that you would offer for new runners who want to lose weight by completing a marathon?

Dean Karnazes: Many people fall into the trap of believing that because they burned additional calories during marathon training, they can increase their food intake to make up for the difference. Your body can adequately recover without this additional consumption and the whole concept of losing weight is to create a calorie deficit. So, do the training but don’t eat more than you normally would.

What’s the most important thing that new runners need to know about running to lose weight?

Dean Karnazes: Calorie restriction is key to losing the weight. Trying to match calorie intake with the number of calories burned is the underlying reason people fail to lose weight even when training for a marathon.

Training for a marathon is an exceptional accomplishment. Completing each day’s mileage in spite of typical daily distractions takes mental endurance, self-discipline, and focus. Losing weight requires an identical effort. If you choose to take on both challenges at the same time, you’ve got to double your investment to see results. But the payoff is extraordinary. Use these tips during your marathon training for weight loss and a strong performance on race day. 

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