This piece was first published on my old site on April 11, 2014.
Soon, I will be in you.
Barring catastrophe, my marathon running is about to take a path towards what for me is a perfect triad. First marathon was L.A. in 2012. The goal was to sub 4, and I achieved that. Second was Victoria 2013, getting the B.Q. within a hair’s breadth along with a face plant at the finish line.
Next up is Boston, and the only goal is to have a good time. No clock watching.
And that seems like a good place to end it. For now.
I began running marathons for the wrong reason. As a fitness writer who regularly writes about running, I figured I was supposed to, and not only that, but achieve ambitious times in order to please the readers.
Well, I wanted to do it to prove it to myself as well, but I love chasing a story. Marathons make a good story. I’m not saying it wasn’t fun. It was awesome. Except for the barfing in the med tent after the BQ part. That sucked.
And it’s given me great stories. I don’t regret doing it for a moment because half of my motivation is telling the story. After the tragedy of the 2013 Boston Marathon, I desperately wanted to be there for 2014 to write about how the running community has banded together in a show of harmony and fellowship to honor the fallen, the injured, and their friends and families, and show that we will not be cowed.
I have a feeling that it’s going to be a love-in. Again, post-Boston seems like a good place to hit “pause” on my marathon running.
Because I still like 10Ks better.
And I want to look better.
There, I said it.
I’ve written about how you can still be a muscular marathoner, but I made some caveats in that piece about how all that running does indeed inhibit muscular gain. It’s called Specific Adaption to Imposed Demands – SAID.
When you demand your body to do fast marathons, the body changes in a manner most appropriate to meet those demands. Significant muscular bulk is counter to this. A challenging lifting regimen can allow you to run marathons and still look beefy [insert random note about genetic differences here], if that is your goal, but not as beefy were you to run significantly shorter distances, faster.
But it is deeper than that.
There have been many articles about how “running sucks for fat loss” of late. Then they get into micro details and talk about things like “EPOC” and totally miss the bigger picture. Well, I’m going to set that shit straight.
LEAN BODIES ARE MADE IN THE GODDAMN KITCHEN!
I’ve written that sentence in major publications, minus the caps, bold and goddamn, about forty-eleven times.
I’ve written forty-eleven more than once as well.
Back on point. Food affects body composition way more than anything else. So, let’s sort this out. I should do a quick shameless self-promo here first though. I wrote a book co-authored with Margaret Yufera-Leitch. She has a PhD in the psychology of eating behavior, and is equal parts super genius and good friend.
In years of working with her, I believe I have earned the de facto equivalent of a master’s level understanding of the subject of eating behavior, with a specific focus on how different types of exercise affect it.
How Exercise Affects Eating Behavior – The Basics If you buy my book you’ll see all this stuff referenced up the hoop (including interviews with the top researchers in the world) with a bit of eyeball-bleeding detail thrown in for good measure.
Here are the basics of how exercise can improve eating behavior:
- Enhanced Executive Function. This is a feature of your brain that controls planning, decision-making and impulse control. Think about it. To eat healthy and calorie wise, you need to plan, you need to make good decisions, and you need to control your impulses. And there is a dose-response effect. The harder and more you exercise (within reason), the greater the improvement in executive function. Also allowing for diminishing returns, of course.
- Anorectic Effect. This basically means appetite suppression, and the more intense an exercise is the more pronounced this appears to be. In general, weightlifting is shown not to have much anorectic effect, but the study subjects were not exactly hardcore weightlifters. Hard aerobic exercise, and specifically interval training, are shown to have a significant anorectic effect. Walking, not so much.
- Alternative Reward. There is a reason why drug and alcohol rehab programs use exercise as part of their treatment. Piles of research shows that exercise, especially more intense varieties, work as an alternative reward that pre-sates the reward pathways in the brain so cravings are reduced for things like alcohol, drugs, and even highly palatable food. Again, intense aerobic exercise is best for creating this effect. Balls out weightlifting will do it to a lesser degree, but most people don’t lift that way.
- Gateway Behavior. This one is not affected by the type of exercise chosen, although intensity and volume could play a role. The three previous are all physiological responses, whereas this one is psychological in nature. In short, people who exercise regularly have a tendency to utilize more care in their eating choices. As long as they don’t blow it.
- Caution: Reward Mentality. This is how you blow it, and it’s all too common. Many people believe exercise entitles them to eat what they want, inhaling a 500-calorie piece of cheesecake after burning off 300 calories of running. That’s bad math.
Why Marathons Aren’t Optimal for Fat Loss I won’t exactly say they’re bad. If someone is sedentary and overweight, and they take a slow path towards marathon running because the bug bit them, then it most likely is going to lead to some fat loss. That being written, I would never recommend marathons as a tool for fat loss. Running marathons are a tool for … having a good story tell? Self-fulfillment? Collecting medals? An excuse to travel? Something like that.
Here are a few reasons why marathons aren’t the best for fat loss or for building muscle:
- Like I said before, SAID comes into play. When you train hard for marathons, you have a tendency to build a body optimized for marathons. Note that I don’t consider this to be a big part of the overall equation. What follows is more important.
- Time Commitment. This one is kind of a “Well, duh.” Training for a marathon sucks up a lot of your week. And as a guy who has a wife, kids and a busy career that involves a lot of sitting-on-his-ass time, some of that marathon training came out of my lifting. I used to be up around three-and-a-half to four hours a week. I’ve lost only a little bit of muscle mass as a result, but more importantly, I feel like I’ve lost solidity. What do I mean about “solidity?” Basically, I felt tougher when I was lifting more. I’m not just talking about more strength, but that extra time of lifting – not being in a rush to just do the minimum, but being able to take my time and focus on all aspects of my body – made me rock solid from eyebrows to toenails, like I could get tackled by a battalion of badgers and bounce right back to my feet and say, “That all you got?”
- Energy Drain = Eating. There is likely a genetic component here, but for me and many others, running a marathon is a big friggin’ deal. It takes a lot out of you not just from the race, but from all the training. THIS IS THE BIG ONE! A significant part of making wise eating choices is having the mental energy to do so. Marathon training has a tendency to (at least partially) take over your life, and wipe you out as well. As a result, you’re probably going to sit more, and your willpower around food is sapped as well. (Read this AskMen piece of mine for a research analysis on this subject).
For that last one, it’s not that marathon running dramatically ramps up appetite, it’s just that your willpower around food has a tendency to go to hell because so much of your mental energy goes into doing all that training that there isn’t a lot left over for wise food choices. Willpower is a limited resource. When you dedicate lots of your will towards the demands of marathon training, that leaves less for choosing apples over apple sauce, potatoes over potato chips, tomatoes over ketchup, and cherries over Cherry Coke. Junk food is everywhere, and a tired mind has trouble resisting it.
But This Doesn’t Mean Running Isn’t Good for Improving Body Composition It’s the type of running that’s important.
And for my lifestyle and goals, 10Ks are a good choice. If I didn’t have the constant demands of work, I am confident that I could eventually adapt my body to being able to crank out a sub 4 hour marathon on any given day, plus get in all the weightlifting I wanted, plus not be too drained to constantly want to mainline Häagen-Dazs and snort a line a Doritos dust. It would just take a lot of time and dedication to push my almost 46-year-old body to reach that level of adaption.
I ain’t got no time fo dat.
Here is why I’m switching back to the 10K:
- Less running, faster.
Yeah, that one bullet point mostly covers it.
There will be more and shorter intervals, which are better for the anorectic effect mentioned above in regards to eating behavior, and can have some benefits to muscular development, although in the case of someone who also has a challenging lifting program I question whether there is any noticeable effect on hypertrophy. The effect of interval training compared to intense weightlifting on muscle hypertrophy is like comparing a pellet gun to a .50 cal.
And just FYI, that enhanced caloric “after burn” from intervals is a bunch of bullshit that I busted years ago in the LA Times.
There will be less catabolism of muscle tissue as well, because I won’t be doing those super long and slow runs, although I again question just how significant this is in the grander scheme of the other issues I’ve pointed out: time dedicated towards lifting and dietary behavior.
Less running, faster, permitting more time for lifting. Plus, there will likely be an improvement in eating behavior. That’s why I’m switching back to 10Ks. I’ll burn fewer calories overall each week from the switch, but improvements in eating will more than compensate for that, making me leaner, and having the time for a renewed focus on lifting will improve my muscularity, strength, and “solidity.”
This Doesn’t Mean I’ll Never Do Another Marathon By training hard for 10Ks I’ll still be a good runner, and two months of training could get me ready for a half-decent marathon time, since I’ve already decided there is no way I’m ever going to BQ again. And so, if some place like Las Vegas wants to dip into their ample promotion budget and give me a free trip to run their Rock and Roll marathon so I can write about it, then I’ll do that. Great Wall of China marathon is on the bucket list for … some day.
But What About That Ironman? It’s also on the bucket list, but my head isn’t in the right space now to tackle this. My career is exploding, and I don’t have the time or mental energy. I’ve seen people in their 80s finish an Ironman, so I have time. Give me a few years and I’ll revisit. I can be patient. It will happen one day.
What Will Happen to My Physique? That remains to be seen.
There might be some interesting selfies posted here in a few months, so stay tuned.
James S. Fell, CSCS, is an internationally syndicated fitness columnist for the Chicago Tribune, Los Angeles Times and AskMen.com. He is the author of Lose it Right: A Brutally Honest 3-Stage Program to Help You Get Fit and Lose Weight Without Losing Your Mind, published by Random House Canada.