Fitness Mystery of the Day: The Case of the Marathon Ten

by Charlotte on September 16, 2008 · 30 comments

People often take up running as a weight loss tool. And for many it helps. Until it doesn’t. Aside from the previously discussed myth that exercise alone produces weight loss, there is another interesting facet to this idea: after a certain point that seems to be individual to each body, adding mileage can actually produce weight gain. This well-documented phenomenon, often referred to as “the marathon 10” for the 10 or so pounds people often gain while training for a marathon, has long presented a conundrum for new and seasoned runners.

I remember as a newbie runner hearing glorious tales of being able to eat anything you wanted – White bread! Pasta! Candy! Carbs to your heart’s content! – while in the fabled land of Training. I soon discovered for myself that this wasn’t true when I quickly gained five pounds back from my hard-lost baby weight. For myself, it seems I can run two or three miles a day and even throw in an occasional longer run of 6-9 miles without any adverse affect. But anything over 10 miles seems to kick the cravings up from “merely irritating” to “completely unavoidable.” Take my 3.5 hours of cardio two weekends ago: the scale immediately went up 3 lbs and has stayed there ever since. There goes the water weight theory. Sigh.

Jane, a good friend and seasoned marathoner, agrees. “I never go into training for a marathon thinking I’m going to lose weight. I normally don’t eat a lot of carbs but when I train I can’t run unless I eat a lot of them. My last three marathons I’ve gained 11 pounds every time. And it’s a b*tch to take off too.”

Gym Buddy Megan, who is training for the Twin Cities Marathon October 5th (go Megan!!), has also experienced some weight gain although closer to 5 pounds rather than 10. Unlike J, she was surprised by the weight gain. “Honestly, I think it’s because I’m eating more carbs and eating more on days I’m not running. I think I’m just hungrier.” She adds, “I can really see it in my stomach so I don’t think it is muscle.”

On the other hand though, Reader Gretchen 6-time veteran marathon mama (also running Twin Cities this year!!), says that she typically doesn’t see any weight gain. She doesn’t really lose weight either but says her clothes fit better as she loses fat and gains muscle. “However,” she adds, “I’ve been really careful to count my calories and track my eating. My problem is after I finish the race, I usually gain weight because I’m not running that much anymore but I’m still eating like I am!”

But It’s Not Fair!
As to why this happens, there are several theories:

1. Biological: The body becomes accustomed to high-volume moderate-intensity endurance training and starts banking fat – it’s primary fuel for such long runs – in preparation.

2. Psychological: You think you are torching massive calories but due to your body acclimating and our natural tendency to overestimate calories burned, you overeat. Or, as I like to think, “Come on! I earned this ice cream!!”

3. Physiological: Running that much triggers some kind of mechanism in the body that kicks cravings, especially for simple carbs, into overtime. It hits you hard since you’ve already expended your willpower on getting through that 20-miler.

I’m guessing it is probably a combination of all three factors. Not that that makes anyone who is haunted by the marathon ten feel any better. But at least you know you’re not alone!

I have lots of avid runners (and bikers) as readers. Any of you experience weight gain or weight loss as a consequence of long endurance activity? What do you think caused it? And is completing a marathon worth it?

{ 29 comments… read them below or add one }

Steve Stenzel September 16, 2008 at 2:49 am

I didn’t gain any weight training for my mary or my Ironman. In fact, I couldn’t KEEP the weight on! I was eating 5,000 calories a day, but I was still losing weight and looking a little sickly.

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geekgirl September 16, 2008 at 3:13 am

This will be my first full marathon coming up next month, and my weight is pretty similar to when I began training. I’ve gained some muscle and lost some fat, but my overall loss is only about 3-4 pounds. I’m mostly careful about my nutrition, but I do go for bacon on 13+ mile days. I figure as long as the rest of my diet stays pretty much the same, a couple of post-run treats aren’t enough to go over my caloric deficit from the run.

I hope I can keep an even keel after my training is over! I’ll keep you posted on how my weight fares in the upcoming taper weeks and post-race.

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tokaiangel September 16, 2008 at 6:57 am

Really interested to read about other people’s experiences here!

Running small distances regularly always got me losing weight, but I must admit I mostly maintained my weight when I increased my distance to 10-15k – and I was still watching what I ate pretty carefully!

I’m fairly sure my metabolism slowed down quite dramatically when I started running further – maybe that and the fact that I wasn’t eating massive amounts at any point was the cause. I’d never thought about it before now.

The body is smart!

TA x

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MizFit September 16, 2008 at 9:16 am

reading comments as Ive seen this with friends but have never run a marathon.

reading comments as Ive seen this with my sister and know Ill never ever make it to run a marathon.

reading comments because Im in AWE of people who have run a marathon.

Miz.

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Crabby McSlacker September 16, 2008 at 11:18 am

Wow, who knew?

I love the way you find out this stuff, especially when you give me additional reasons not to pursue ambitious fitness goals.

My knees are too crappy for marathons anyway, but it’s great to have another reason to not train so hard!

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Gena September 16, 2008 at 12:53 pm

Hmmmm, I have heard of this happening, but I’ve never had it happen personally. Haven’t run a full marathon (yet!), but I’m training for a half and running 24 – 30 miles a week, with long runs of 10+. I eat a ton, but my weight is staying steady.

My guess would be that the weight gain some people experience is (in part) a physiological reaction to stress on the body. Long periods of cardio trigger the release of cortisol, the stress hormone. Several studies have indicated that high levels of cortisol are linked to weight gain/overweight/obesity, so I wouldn’t be surprised if increased cortisol production in distance runners results in the weight gain. Additionally, fat storage may increase, as you mentioned, as the body attempts to recuperate and prepare for its next beat down. Different bodies are better able to handle hormone changes, so it’s not surprising that some people gain, and some people don’t.

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Prof. Steven M. Platek September 16, 2008 at 1:22 pm

brilliant! now I have an ‘actual’ excuse to stop running. thanks!
;-)

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Dr. J September 16, 2008 at 1:24 pm

I’ve never run a marathon! The injury rate in people who I know, other than professional runners, seemed too high to me. There is nothing magical about the distance, and running for me is a zazen that I want to maintain. I think 5-10 miles at the most is enough.

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Kamboja September 16, 2008 at 1:34 pm

I'm a 5' 7" 42 year old mom of an 18 month old boy training for the Detroit marathon on October 19, 2008. At this moment I weigh about as much as I did the day I walked into the hospital to deliver my little one (depressing sigh) 177 pounds.

In January 2008, I decided to tackle the weight gain and have tried urban boot camp (Feb – Apr) and now marathon training (started in July). With the bootcamp I lost very little weight but got relatively strong and fast (down from a high of 198# to 189# and running 10 minute miles). I cringed everytime I had to look in the mirror or get dressed to go in public.

Since running I have dropped down to 177# but have plateaued there for about a month ('nother depressing sigh). I can't say I have more energy because my mileage is climbing that dreaded peak with 2 more long runs of 18 & 20 miles ahead (HUGE SIGH). My clothes are becoming loose HOLLA! and I don't cringe when I look in the mirror — I think "getting there."

Thanks for the blog because it makes me realize that I should be happy that I am not gaining, rather than focusing on not losing.

ps. I HATE RUNNING but I do love the feeling of accomplishment after completing each run.

pps. I say it everytime I comment…. Thanks for this blog. It is an inspiration and a welcome laugh — love the photos and videos!

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Darcy Franklin September 16, 2008 at 1:53 pm

Hmmmm, this coming October I am scheduled to run 2 marathons. It will be #7 & #8 for me. I would say that I have always lost a couple of pounds during my training. Not major weight loss, but that was never my goal.

With that said, I am aware of what goes into my mouth. The two days following my longest runs of the week I COULD eat everything in site. I try to eat foods that will keep me full longer and don't have empty calories. I never let myself get to that point where I am so hungry that I grab the first thing I see. I eat more lean protein than I think I need. I avoid carb snacks like crackers or chips. I DO treat myself to small portions of sweets(no giant cookies). I don't count calories as I think that could get way too obsessive but stop eating when I am satisfied.

Cross training during training is huge! This past week was my highest mileage week so far but I also cranked up my biking just to push my body that extra mile. Mixing it up and shocking the body are a must! Whether it is just playing with different intensities or trying something new.

The ultimate goal of doing a marathon should NOT be weight loss. However, it can be a great bonus! Plus if your weight stays the same, there is no doubt you are healthier than you were when you started and that's the goal isn't it????

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determinedtobefit September 16, 2008 at 2:01 pm

I’ve been training for a Nov marathon since July and so far I am losing. There was a time when I was not losing but I was not really watching my diet. I’ve been paying close attention to my caloric intake since Sept 1st and managing to lose about 1lb/week.

I don’t get very hungry on my long run days, but a day or so after that I am ravenous! I do eat more than normal but I just try to keep my calories level every day.

I’m only up to 14 mile long runs at the moment so things might change.

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Sagan September 16, 2008 at 2:03 pm

I think its all 3 as well, and can be added to other exercises than marathoning, too (I don’t have any first hand experience with running- but when I was training for the half marathon I didn’t go through that. But thats probably because I wasn’t doing near as much as these marathoners are).

I started to eat loads when I was doing boot camp/working out on my own at the same time. It occurred to me afterwards that I was overtraining a wee bit because I was constantly hungry.

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GroundedFitness September 16, 2008 at 2:05 pm

hm. ive never heard of this gain before. I always think of hardcore distance runners as almost scarily skinny.

another reason i LOATHE running. Im still going today though. i want to learn to like it.

please make me go running?

http://www.groundedfitness.com

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Lethological Gourmet September 16, 2008 at 2:47 pm

As someone who hates running and sticks with more social sports (kickball, dodgeball, aerobics), I haven’t run into this program. But I did have a brief stint with running (ok, jogging) back in high school, and I was DEFINITELY much more hungry once I started. I never got much past a mile or two, though.

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WeightingGame September 16, 2008 at 3:00 pm

this is so interesting! I’ve never even heard of the Marathon 10. It’s the new Freshman 15! I do have friends who have been surprised they didn’t lose weight while training but you have to eat so much to fuel yourself, plus strat peeps will lift weights to build their strength/endurance so you cold gain muscle weight. My solution: Don’t do marathons.

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Ted C. Williams September 16, 2008 at 3:02 pm

I had never heard of the Marathon 10, but it makes a lot of sense! I’ve ran six marathons, one half, and this weekend will be doing a relay marathon (I’m slowly trying to get back to marathon form), and when I’m not in Turbo classes I’m running, and always wondered why my weight has kind of just stayed the same, even though I feel better. Good to read that I’m not the only one that has these frustraitions!

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Gretchen September 16, 2008 at 3:15 pm

Completeing a marathon? Totally worth it! I would dare to say there is definitely something magical about the distance – but you don’t experience that until you’ve gone the distance! I think each person will experience something different physically – no two bodies are going to react the same to the training.

I don’t use gu’s or gels when I run or drink gatorade (except during races). You could rack up close to 1000 calories on a 20 miler just with gel and gatorade!

I probably wouldn’t suggest a marathon for weightloss – try a half instead! If you want to run a marathon do it for the exhileration of running 26.2!!

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azusmom September 16, 2008 at 3:39 pm

I put on quite a bit of weight when I started cycling intensively. And I kept thinking “Why am I putting on weight? I’m doing all this cardio!”

THANK YOU for this post!!!!! It’s like a nice, big (gentle) forehead slap.

I’ll keep doing the cardio, but not to excess. And I’ll be ramping up the weight when I lift, doing the activities I enjoy (walking, yoga, pilates). (Not that I was ever going to be able to run a marathon, lol!)

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SeaBreeze September 16, 2008 at 6:07 pm

I haven’t gained weight with my running, but I have also stuck to my 1500 calorie/day limit like its a religion. I live and breath my meal plans. I know when I’ve been slacking and I know what kind of mileage I want to do and how many days I’ll have to run to make it all work. It ends up being a lot of basic math.

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gym buddy megan September 16, 2008 at 6:27 pm

I didn’t go into the marathon training to lose weight, I actually enjoy running and I took it on as a personal challenge. I definitely still watch what I eat. But, like Charlotte said, I am hungrier! I try (and mostly succeed) to feed that hunger with healthy food. But, I admit that on the days of the long runs, I may allow myself a little extra dessert. (c’mon, I just ran 20 miles, I deserve it! right?)
I did a half marathon in April, and did not experience any weight gain. And, I probably ate worse then than I am now. Go figure.

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Scarlett_Marie September 16, 2008 at 6:33 pm

A few years ago I trained for a marathon and did expect to get skinny. I started off with a normal BMI (about 23.5), but I had hoped to drop to about a 22. I didn’t lose a pound. I didn’t gain more than a pound or two, but I have come to the conclusion that heavy exercise doesn’t work for weight loss. The only thing that has ever worked for me is a low cal diet. If I go over 1300 cals a day, I just don’t lose weight regardless of how much exercise I do. It’s very frustrating. This article was interesting.. I thought I was the only one out there with this issue.

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CDlover September 16, 2008 at 6:58 pm

Wow…interesting! I have completed 3 marathons, and I will say I maintained my weight or lost about 5-10 lbs. throughout all of my training. I only really ate “more” on my long run days…on the other days I tried to eat healthy, but I only had, say, one bowl of ice cream instead of two. :-)

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Alissa September 16, 2008 at 8:29 pm

I’ve run two marathon in the last two years. I am currently training for my third. I do no run to lose weight and I don’t want to (my BMI usually sits around 19.9). I have found that during the last month of marathon training when I am doing 16-21 milers, I lose about 6 pounds (BMI 18.9). I usually eat a lot more during that month because the long runs do make me crave more carbs. However I have not seen it translate into weight gain. I assume my body is craving those carbs because it needs them! Of course the weight loss doesn’t last much longer than the race, but that’s okay. I’m comfortable with my non marathoning set point.

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Kjirsten September 17, 2008 at 2:24 am

I haven’t run a marathon, BUT I run 50-60 miles a week, at least as much if not more than people who just want to finish a marathon. I run cross country and distance events in track (5 and 10k) so my long runs aren’t more than 14 miles. I have found it unfair that I can run a good bit but still have to watch what I eat. One would think I could eat anything, but trying to stay skinny, even with the training, seem hard at times. I’ve certainly had times when I’ve put on weight eating a “normal” diet.
I want to know where my plates of pasta and bread basket are! instead I eat dry salads and baked skinless chicken :(

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Kristy September 17, 2008 at 2:35 am

What about just general inflammation? If you are sore, your body is inflamed. When you work out hard for an extended period, your body tends to stay in a state of inflammation, which, among other things, causes you to retain more water. It might not be 10 pounds worth of inflammation, but it’s a thought.

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katieo September 17, 2008 at 3:28 am

ok, this is FASCINATING. What I find interesting is even up 10 pounds, most marathoners are in fantastic shape and all look pretty fit. For someone who had -say- 30+ pounds to lose, I’m wondering if that would make a difference. If trends to gain weight would still be the same (?)

(I’m thinking me now versus me post-baby)

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Quix September 17, 2008 at 3:12 pm

I only run about 10 miles a week, but I noticed that running tends to make me look way, way better, but make the actual weight come off soooo slowly compared to lower intensity exercise. I’m ok with that (and just have to keep repeating that to myself so I don’t go nuts). I think I’ll stick with my 5k distances now, with what I’m seeing with just short(er) runs, I think marathon training might make me gain 100. :P

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Kara September 17, 2008 at 5:17 pm

Oh Steve, hush, men don’t count in this experiment!

I do think the intensity/length of endurance necessary to get to where your body is holding onto its weight varies with folks. With shorter, faster stuff up to marathons I do tend to lose a little or keep it steady. But I discovered with my Ironman training that I DID gain weight. Not a huge amount and I was too busy training or too tired to care. I ate an awful lot, but like Darcy mentions I was super conscious about putting quality food in my mouth (because the delight of dessert is not worth bonking in a long ride or run). I did chalk it up to my body holding on to a little more fat because it was keen on what I was trying to do. I appreciated that. After having my lactic threshold and VO2 max tested this summer I learned that I am built for the long endurance stuff, so it all makes sense. Aren’t our bodies amazing??

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deprogram September 22, 2008 at 5:11 pm

Strange. So, I’ve been doing the right thing without even realizing it. I’ve been cycling (I refuse to run, ever again – my knees are far too valuable, and bikes are far too much fun) the same routine almost every day. It’s a fairly short distance, around 8 miles, but it’s off-road, on trails which include some moderate to quite hard climbing.

It’s short enough that I can go flat out without worrying about a bonk, or bother with additional energy supplements. Takes me 45 minutes if I’m moving quickly, which shows how slow some of the sections are.

I’ve added a lot of leg muscle, and lost at least 15 pounds over the course of three months.

Anecdotally, there are plenty of riders out there who put on more miles in a week than I do in a month, and a good number of them still complain about their weight. Hmm.

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