Since 1982 I've written a newsletter, Running Commentary. A new issue appears here each week, and material is archived.

Fri, 21 Dec 2001 08:49:17 -0500

Great Weight Watch


Only one question on the final quiz to my college running class dealt with diet. Most of the students chose the wrong answer.

The question read: "What is your biggest dietary concern as a runner? (a) eating enough in the most recent meal to fuel the run; (b) looking forward to the post-run meal; (c) maintaining ideal weight; (d) all of the above."

Eating too much, too late before running ruins more runs that it helps. And runners can perform just fine as long as a half-day after their last meal.

Running "hungry" isn't a bad sign. You appreciate the next meal more after working up an appetite this way.

The correct answer is "c." Maintain ideal weight, since it directly affects every step of every run.

Americans are great weight-watchers. They mostly watch it climb, especially in the last six weeks of the year.

We're into the season to be gorging. Between our Thanksgiving and New Year's Day, we're said to gain an average of eight pounds.

That's probably not the average for Americans who run. But I'll use that figure to make a point.

One of my favorite teachers is Tom Osler. In his Serious Runner's Handbook he wrote, "Every pound of unneeded weight has a measurable effect on a runner's final time. From my own experience I estimate that I lose two seconds per mile for each excess pound of body fat."

This is only Tom's experience, but he's one of the wisest and most analytical runners I've ever known. I trust his formula. It means that a holiday weight gain of eight pounds would slow a runner's times by 16 seconds per mile -- which becomes nearly a minute in a 5-K or 3-1/2 minutes in a half-marathon.

I don't want to be accused here of promoting anorexic practices. Weighing less isn't always better.

But most adult runners could profit from losing some pounds. I'm one of them.

What's ideal weight? Standard charts are least helpful. Body-mass index (BMI) readings combining weight and height tell you more, and body-fat percentages are better yet.

For longtime runners, though, the simplest test is: What did you weigh when you ran your best? Chances are you had stopped growing by then and haven't gained muscle since, so any increase comes as fat.

Weight can sneak up on you. Just one pound per year multiplies into 20 pounds over two decades. This happened to me while I wasn't paying attention.

I QUIT weighing myself about 20 years ago. I knew I'd gained some pounds but didn't know how many and didn't care enough to do anything about it.

I've never dieted. Oh, I've kept watch on some items in my diet and the timing of meals versus runs, but never tried to control the total amount eaten.

Take care of the running, I thought, and the weight will take care of itself. Problem was, my running amounts also dropped by half since my weight was its best 20 years ago.

Recently I visited my doctor. Only a stubborn illness will usually send me to his office, and at those times my weight will be artificially low.

This time I went in for routine tests. At weigh-in I recorded my highest reading ever. The doctor lectured me about my unattractive BMI, and the weight's effects on blood-pressure readings and cholesterol counts. I thought more about its direct effects on running.

I'm beyond worrying about race results; I've had my times. Current concerns are more physiological than statistical.

Each added pound adds THREE extra pounds of force to the feet and legs. Running "heavy" feels tighter and less fluid.

It's less efficient aerobically, since the VO2-max formula has weight as one of its components. Plus it can be embarrassing when the top button of my pants won't fasten without turning them into a tourniquet.

The solution, of course, is to run more and eat less. Run more? I'm unlikely to run enough extra to make much difference, so attention must go to the other side of the weight-control equation.

Eat less? That's so easy to write, and so hard to do for a runner whose appetite still tells him he's a teenager.

I'm unlikely to lose all 20 pounds gained in the past 20 years. But I'd be glad to cut that gain in half by adopting the runner's second most important exercise. That's the table push-back.

Previous Posts