Talking about running with other women can inevitably lead to the ‘I run so I can eat cake’ discussion. This is followed by proud descriptions of punishing training schedules, detailing running to or from work, hours on the treadmill after work, and a weekend run of monstrous proportions. Great stuff, but the inevitable next topic, the Great Weight Debate, often diverts along less positive lines.
Why, when you lost weight so effectively when you started running, do you find, as you up the mileage, that the weight loss has plateaued? Worse still, why is the flab that you thought running would blitz still jiggling as you jog? If running is good for you, running more miles makes you look like Nell McAndrew, right?
Sadly, wrong. Especially if those miles are all on the jogging end of the speed scale, and that weekly long slow run takes up half your weekend. So what are those extra miles doing to you, if they’re not creating the honed abdomen and razor sharp cheekbones you dream of? Shockingly, they’re likely to be creating stress, fatigue, increased appetite and, yes, fat.
The reason for this could well be cortisol. Running stresses your body, and this can have an effect on the hormones that control your ability to lose fat. Cortisol, an adrenal hormone that is not all bad when released in day-to-day life, is released in a sustained way on a long distance run. This effect was cited in a study conducted by researchers from the Technical University of Dresden in 2011. The effect of raised levels of cortisol in elite endurance athletes – who cross-train, rest and eat as professional runners do – and the rest of us, who just can’t, is not the same. We less-than-elite women, pounding out the miles for an hour or more a day, nodding off in the office, then treating ourselves to a big pizza supper on the basis of a ‘calories in, calories out reward system’ are often on a hiding to nothing.
CHOOSE HARD SESSIONS OVER SOFT MILES
Karen Weir (www.runwithkaren. com), running coach, ultra runner and triathlete, who has helped Jenni Falconer and Sophie Raworth achieve impressive marathon times, is all too familiar with the ‘miles maketh fat’ conundrum, and explains how it can happen.
‘There’s more and more science to show that we’re being led a merry dance about carbo-loading. If you’re running to lose fat you need to limit the carbs so that you can teach your body to burn fat stores.
‘You need to do some hard, fast training to achieve the metabolic burn needed to become leaner and stronger.’
But what about those important ‘miles on your feet’ that would-be marathon runners need to include in their schedules? Are they pointless?
‘If you’re training for a long distance, of course you need to do the occasional long slow run, but
no more than fortnightly. Try to run after breakfast and go for more than 90 minutes, so that your body has to switch to its fat stores to keep going. Don’t keep eating
gels and energy drinks, and make sure you keep the pace slow – less than 60 per cent of your maximum effort.’
Which sessions, then, would Karen include to become leaner and stronger?
‘If I draw up a programme it’s based on varying the types of training session, and would include threshold sessions and High Intensity Interval Training (HIIT), but you don’t need to flog yourself for hours on end, 45 minutes is all you will need per session.’
Released from the tyranny of a punishing, high-mileage schedule, you’ll find time to do other things. After all, it’s not great to be a one-trick pony, says Karen.
‘One client, who I advised to mix up her programme a bit, fell in love with her local Bodypump class all over again.
‘You have to wise up to core strength, adding some weight training, or you’ll just get disillusioned, or worse, injured.’
SWAP STEADY FOR HEAVY
Another trainer who has seen the disillusionment of the long distance runner at first hand is personal trainer Suzie Lubuska (http://wonderwoman- workshops.co.uk), whose workshops do wonders for core strength, overall fitness and muffin-top banishment.
‘In terms of strength, running long is not going to help one little bit. I’ve trained marathon runners who have little or no strength beyond the endurance that’s required for running long distances, and they struggle with really light weights.’ ‘Steady-state cardio is all very well for endurance but if that’s all you do, piling on the miles, the end result is going to be injury, and not an increase in overall fitness.
‘You have to add a load to your workout. You may be doing dynamic stretches, such as lunges and squats, which is just a body weight load,
but you have to be able to lift some weights too.
‘If I have a client who comes to me with a specific goal, say to run a sub four-hour marathon and lose fat and gain muscle tone while she does it, I’ll draw up a programme that addresses the whole package combining running with a couple of sessions of strength work. Yes, runners need to put in the miles for the distance, but not to the detriment of strength.’
Both Karen and Suzie impress on their clients the dangers of running to eat, because it’s easy to err on the side of gluttony when you’ve made yourself ravenous in the long, (very long) run.
‘Runners must not overcompensate for the calories they reckon they might have lost while exercising’, says Suzie. ‘Part of strength training is addressing your nutrition, which for most women means ditching the sugar and refined carbs. It’s also essential to increase the distance only gradually.’
If you fall into the trap of thinking that only ‘exercise’ burns calories, you’ll be tempted to keep grafting and adding the miles to your workouts with that evil little sum playing in your head (one mile equals 100 calories). Sadly, it’s not as simple as that, and if you try all the time to match your miles to your food excess, you’ll end up feeling like a hamster in the wheel (and perhaps looking roughly the same shape).
REST AND REPAIR
Our bodies are burning calories all the time, even while sleeping. If your running becomes an exhausting struggle to ‘torch calories’ you may forego sleep. You get up earlier to fit in the miles, run slower because you’re tired, then get hungrier because you’re sleep deprived. Being strong and lean is as much about rest and repair between sessions as it is about cardio. And there’s a school of thought that flags up ‘afterburn’, the theory being that with higher intensity training and heavy weightlifting, you create minute tears in your muscles, the repairing of which puts demands on the metabolism, so your body’s ‘furnace’ is burning ‘fuel’ while you rest afterwards.
It’s an attractive idea, but the case against unnecessary mileage is a strong one, with or without the afterburn effect. The fact is that endless pavement pounding takes over your life, makes you weary and may not help the middle jiggle, says Karen Weir.
‘You can’t be too obsessed. A woman doesn’t get fit for life by running alone, she’ll only be fit for running. If you train as a plodder, you’ll stay a plodder.’
HOW RUNNING CAN MAKE YOU SLIM AND STRONG
Strength in numbers: If you run alone, you’re more likely to run junk miles, headphones in, safely in the comfort zone. If you train with a buddy, or take part in properly structured sessions with a stopwatch-wielding coach, it’s easier to gauge improvement.
Short circuit: Know the value of HIIT, Karen Weir recommends including some 90 per cent effort levels for 30 seconds, with 30-second recoveries, which can be uncomfortable.
Throw your weight around: ‘When I train runners for strength’, says Suzie Lubuska, ‘I have them swinging Bulgarian bags and kettlebells repeatedly, with short, sharp runs in between. That kind of intense session is the kick up the backside that many distance runners need.’
Hover on the threshold: To gauge the pace of your threshold run, find the pace at which you can just about talk, a few words at a time only.
Take a rest: Bear in mind that recovery, both in sleep terms and active recovery (walks and gentle swims) are as essential as fast training.
Change the record: Vary your workouts, try something new, find out about Tabata, Zumba, or Bodypump. It’s not only running that gets your heart pumping.
Take to the hills: Even if you have no intention ever to run a hilly race, hill training does wonders for your backside, your speed and your physique.