Sergeant Tony's Blog

“Sturdy” Marathoners, or Why Aren’t All Marathon Runners Skinny? by Tony Ludlow, USMC Fitness Boot Camp Memphis

Saturday, Jan. 25th 2014 3:51 PM

When I lined up to run my first marathon, 15 marathons ago (32 half marathons ago), I went to my assigned coral to await the starting cannon. Corals are sectioned off areas of the starting line based on either the runner’s projected pace per mile or their anticipated finish time. I was aiming for a 4hr 30min finish time and got in the proper coral area.

With a little time on my hands before the start, I ran in place a little and did some stretching. Mostly it was just pre-race jitters and nervousness. While doing all of that, I started surveying my fellow coral-mates to see what we looked like. I was 5’10” 172 pounds and was in pretty decent shape. I lifted weights three to four times a week, ran three to four times a week, and rode my bike about 20 miles a week. As I looked around the coral, a lot of my fellow marathoners looked kind of like me, both male and female. People who looked like they worked out and whose body weight to height ratio looked like what I’d expect.

In front of me were some ladies and some fellas who did NOT look like they belonged in the same coral with the rest of us. They were, how can I say this nicely, a little chubby. A little chunky. One of my older gentlemen friends calls those ladies “sturdy.” There were sturdy girls and sturdy boys lined up in front of me in my coral.

A part of me wanted to go ask them nicely if they were in the correct coral. But I refrained. Good thing too. Because I chased three of those sturdy girls for the next 26.2 miles! (I got chicked by those chicks in the coral and I STAYED chicked for 26.2 miles!) In fact, when I hit the wall at about mile 18, it was the fact that those three sturdy girls — friends who’d come to the race together — were getting out of my line of sight and would be finished long before ME! So I kept running … just to keep those girls in sight. We finished within a minute of one another. Them finishing before me!

During the race, I just couldn’t figure out how girls who weren’t skinny, who were probably 20+ pounds heavier than they were in high school, were not only running and finishing a 26.2 mile marathon, but were doing so FASTER THAN ME!!! What didn’t make sense to me was why they weren’t more athletic looking. Why didn’t they look like runners?

As I thought more about this, I realized that I myself hadn’t lost any significant weight during my 6 months of marathon training. My weight at the beginning of training was about 175. On race day I was only 3 pounds lighter.

In the many many years since then I’ve gone from recreational runner to running coach. I’ve trained hundreds of people to run half marathons and full marathons. I know why sturdy ladies and chunky fellas can run distance races well and still not lose much, if any, weight in the process.

Here’s why.

Let’s take a 12 mile run, for example. In order to run for two hours straight — about the time it would take to run 12 miles — the runner will have carbo loaded, or at least ate a decent amount of food for fuel in the 48 hours prior to the run. During the run, most people will burn about 100 calories per mile. After 45 minutes to an hour of running, everyone will need to refuel in order not to “bonk,” that is, take in more calories so that you don’t run out of energy.

If you burned 600 calories during the first hour, almost every recreational runner will have to take in calories in the form of sports drinks and food to finish the two hour, 12 mile training run. The runner can easily finish that kind of run even, or with only a small amount of calories in the deficit column.

Post run, most of us reward ourselves with a hearty meal. I myself have been known to go to the donut shop and have 600 calories in donuts and coffee or chocolate milk … or a big stack of yummy pancakes! mmmmmm.

Here’s my point, for losing weight, four weekly runs of five miles each (20 miles total) would be more effective than a 20 mile weekend run. Most runners can run 5 miles without a sports drink or any food. I never have either on a “short” run like that. Consequently, I’m not taking in extra calories during the run, so everything I burn on the run goes into the deficit column. Now, post 5 mile run, if I don’t reward myself with a high calorie meal or “snack” (read “donuts”), I’ll have more success losing weight. And I seldom “reward” myself for a 5 mile run.

Distance running shouldn’t be seen as a means to more weight loss. I’ve actually known of distance runners who’ve gained weight during training! So, temper your weight loss expectations if you’re a distance runner. Run for the health of it! Run for the endorphin rush of it. Run for the joy of it!

Tony Ludlow, USMC Fitness Boot Camp Memphis

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