If you are trying to lose weight through running, it’s easy to slip up. Here’s how you can avoid common weight loss pitfalls.
Dropping a few pounds should be easy when you’re running. In fact, running is one of the most efficient ways to stimulate your metabolism and shed excess energy. However, it’s not always as easy as you might expect. Whether you took up running to help you lose weight, or you’re a runner who has decided you need to shift some pounds, you’ll probably come up against a few stumbling blocks on your shape-up journey. Some of these issues relevant for those who don’t run, but are trying to drop weight, as well as for us pavement pounders. It doesn’t matter how much you want to lose and where you are on your running journey, you’ll come up against these problems. Here’s how to face them and start to see real results.
1 BELIEVING THAT ”LESS IS LESS”
Calories in, calories out. Everyone must have heard this slimmer’s mantra. Of course, it’s broadly true that if you want to lose fat, you have to burn more energy than you eat. However, after a certain point – especially when you are running more than ever before – you’ll find that your weight loss reaches a plateau with this strategy. You may find this very disappointing when you’re working so hard to keep running and ignore your rumbling stomach. The real danger here isn’t just that your progress grinds to a halt physically, but that you may take several steps back mentally. As it goes for most of us, if our effort isn’t rewarded, we soon lose motivation to carry on trying.
Don’t let this happen to you, there’s a solution – and probably one you won’t mind applying. What you need to do is eating a little bit more. In simple terms, you reach a weight-loss plateau when your body thinks you are starving. Your metabolism slows down and your body will try to conserve fat stores, thinking that because you’re not eating much (for what you’re doing), there must be lack of food. Of course, the solution is not to go back to eating whatever you want, but just to make sure you’re eating regularly and enough to meet your running needs. This might only mean consuming a 100-calorie snack an hour before your exercise, or a smoothie as soon as you finish. Building in strength work to your routine also helps, because increased muscle mass will help keep your metabolism ticking over.
2 MISSING OUT FOOD GROUPS
Every now and then a plan to lose weight comes along that’s so seductively simple, you just need to try. Whether it’s avoiding carbs after 5pm or not consuming dairy products at all, the shortest of all shortcuts is to cut out a major food group altogether. If you usually eat a lot of it, the results can be really impressive in the beginning. But keep in mind that once you start running more and are as addicted to hitting your training targets as you are to reaching your pound-dropping goals, it’s risky to limit your nutritional intake in such a way.
Carbs are a common enemy for dieters – but you’re not a dieter, you’re a runner, and you have to consume complex carbohydrates to provide the quickest form of energy for your working muscles. Reducing the intake of carbs can also result in losing out on fiber and much needed minerals and vitamins, particularly if you’re ditching wholegrain products. Similarly, avoiding dairy means you’re missing out on vitamin D, calcium, and healthy fats. A better way to approach your eating is to keep a food diary for several weeks and make sure you’re getting a bit of everything, with no banned foods. Cutting down on obviously ‘bad’ foods such as sweets, crisps and booze, portion control, and sticking to your training are far better ways to lose weight.
3 FALLING INTO A TREAT MENTALITY
Shedding pounds is a combination of at least as much an exercise of the mind as it is a change in physical habits. The most important factor behind many people’s failed weight-loss attempts – runners’ or not – is connecting food to rewards and punishment, denial and treating yourself. This may be rooted in your mindset from childhood, when many of us are rewarded for being good with sugary treats or fizzy drinks; eating pudding was the prize for consuming all your vegetables. When you’re a runner this mindset can be exaggerated further.
How many times have you find yourself thinking, “Well, I can have that piece of cake, I deserve it after the run I did this morning!” There’s nothing wrong with a little bit of what you like. The problem is that it’s easy to lose track of all these treats and, before you know it, they’re ruining all the hard work you’ve put in from running. Take that piece of cake. A standard coffee-shop cake might give you between 350 and 550 calories – while a half-hour run could burn 250 to 350. At best you’re breaking even – at worst, your prize is counteracting your run. We’re not going to suggest you give up cake, but it’s a better approach to look for ways of treating yourself that have nothing to do with food. Rewarding yourself with a new pair of shoes or a fresh bit of running kit is a healthier way forward. You can use the same method if you’re a comfort eater – try treating yourself to 10 minutes outside and a rush of endorphins instead of a self-abusing snack.
4 DOING NOTHING ELSE BESIDE RUNNING
Now that you’re a runner, there’s a high chance that you’re less active than you’ve ever been. Bear with us on this. Think about the days you run – what do you do for the rest of the day? Have a quick shower and do some chores? Take your dog for a walk? Or give yourself a pat on the back and spend your lunch break sitting at your desk or your evening in front of the TV? Being more active in general is usually better for your health than regular, structured exercise. There’s evidence that on days when people do an intense workout, throughout the rest of the day they are less active – and as a consequence burn fewer calories in overall – than on days when they haven’t worked out “properly.” Try using a pedometer or activity tracker for several days to see if this is true for you too, and aim for a step count or active time regardless of whether or not you’ve run that day. This could mean incorporating small changes to your routine like using stairs instead of lifts, having a quick walk while dinner is cooking or simply doing the vacuuming more often. This may not sound exactly thrilling – but hey, you’ll be whittling down your to-do list while you’re whittling down your waistline!
5 OVERDOING THE SPORT NUTRITION PRODUCTS
It hardly counts as ‘treat’ eating – some believe it’s the opposite – but getting stuck into sports nutrition products is a common and easy trap to fall into for runners. The process goes something like this: you start running to lose weight; your running performance improves; you decide you want to run faster; you discover that there’s a wide variety of products available to help you achieve that. The problem is that those products aren’t calorie free. In fact their sole purpose is to deliver energy to your hard-working muscles as you run, allowing you to keep going for longer. As with all food and drink if you’re on a weight-loss mission you have to be aware of how much you’re eating. A single energy gel would normally contain about 80 to 100 calories; a bar can be anything from 150 to 300kcal. If you want to lose weight, stick to slow-release real food.
6 LOSING TRACK OF FOOD
When you’re hurrying around trying to fit in a run in an already stressful schedule, it’s no surprise that you’re going to lose track of some things. Make sure that what you consume isn’t one of them. Studies have shown that keeping a food diary is one of the most essential elements to losing weight; in one US study, dieters who wrote down what they ate six days a week lost twice as much as those who only wrote down one day’s intake. If you’re serious about losing pounds, you should measure and record what you’re eating. You can make this easier by using a food-tracking app.
7 EATING JUST AS MUCH (OR EVEN MORE) ON RECOVERY DAYS
As you run more, one of the great things you’ll notice is that you can eat more, too. Eventually you might even be able to forget about counting calories as you naturally form healthier eating habits, speed up your metabolism, lose body fat, and gain muscle. But there’s one surefire way to find yourself expelled from foodie paradise and back at the foot of a weight loss mountain, and that’s overcompensating for your running on days when you haven’t actually run. The temptation to do this is always going to be strong. When you think about it, the day we can sit down, relax and enjoy a leisurely meal is most likely to be the day we don’t spend an hour running. There’s something emotionally very satisfying about forgetting everything for at least one day every week, forgetting about running and forgetting about tracking what we eat. The problem is that it’s much, much easier to consume a thousand extra calories than it is to burn them. Repeat this for a few days like and you’re not only undermining your weight loss mission – you may even be gaining weight. Cue the feelings of “This is not fair, I’m trying so hard,” feeling deprived, comfort eating … and on you go. You don’t have to deny yourself on rest days, but you can adopt a few strategies to avoid this trap. Firstly, very slightly under eat on every other day; in this way you’re “saving up” calories to spend on a big family meal or snacks at the cinema. Secondly, change your idea of what constitutes a treat. You don’t need to eat three scoops of ice cream, maybe a mini chocolate bar will do the trick.
8 FOCUSING ON THE WRONG NUMBER
People often talk about weight as a measure of health, but that’s somehow misleading. It’s true that weight, or body mass index, can be a good indicator for good health, but you might find it more beneficial to concentrate on body fat – or even waist to hip ratio. When you start doing any exercise regularly, you’ll build muscle, which means your weight might not drop particularly quickly – and you might well be completely healthy at what’s deemed to be a high weight or BMI. If you find it dispiriting to concentrate on weight, instead focus on dropping your body fat (you can have it measured at the gym or purchase a set of body-fat monitoring bathroom scales). A body fat percentage of 21-33% is considered to be healthy for women aged 20 to 39 years; 23-34% for 40-59-year-old women; and up to 36o% for women aged 59 or older.
9 BECOMING OBSESSED
This last one won’t stop you from losing weight – quite the opposite. When you’ve experienced the joy of meeting your goals, whether in weight-loss terms or in terms of running performance, the feeling can be so good that it becomes addictive. Beware that it doesn’t spill over into an unhealthy obsession with your weight. Remember, you have to eat enough to fuel your body. Under-eating lowers your immunity, causes mood swings, fatigue, and irregular periods. Do this for too long and your long-term health could be affected. If you find yourself worrying about eating, skipping meals or feeling overly anxious about missing exercise, talk to your doctor about your feelings before you develop a full-blown eating disorder.