At the end of 2019, I weighed 210 pounds. For a 6’1″ man, that’s not horrible. But it was the most I’ve ever weighed, and I realized that if I didn’t change things around I’d probably continue to gain weight.
So I switched things up. I started to exercise, I watched what I ate, and I trimmed down to 165 to 170 pounds. I originally got back into running to lose weight – and then I found that I enjoyed it so much that I started running for the sake of it. Now I run for the enjoyment and to race marathons, but it still helps me manage my weight.
I’ve been meaning to post in a check in on this topic for a while. But what motivated me to actually do it was that I saw a post on /r/AdvancedRunning asking if anyone running 60 mpw actually had trouble gaining weight.
On the internet, I tend to see people fall into two camps when it comes to exercise or weight gain:
- Camp One: Weight loss happens in the kitchen, and any energy you burn exercising is going to be offset by additional eating.
- Camp Two: If the engine burns hot enough, anything will burn. Just keep running till the fat burns off.
Neither camp is entirely correct or entirely wrong. But by taking an extreme position, neither one ends up offering good advice for people looking to lose weight.
Weight Loss Happens In the Kitchen, Right?
Let’s start with the camp of people who are focused exclusively on what you eat.
From this perspective, weight loss is a matter of consuming less calories – and you can make a big impact on that side of the ledger by making smarter decisions. If you eliminate “luxury” foods – like soda, desserts, anything with a lot of added sugar – you can reduce your intake a lot.
Here’s a good example from a popular Reddit Post:
What sounds easier to you, running 2 miles or simply not consuming the Hershey Bar? The fact is you simply cannot outrun a bad diet. If you want to lose weight, 95 percent of that battle is fought in the kitchen. Not the treadmill. Not the bike. Not the swimming pool. It’s all about what you eat.YSK: When your goal is to lose weight, all the exercise in the world does approximately jack shit when your daily diet is 3500 calories of garbage. Pay attention to what and how much you’re eating.
Swap out fatty meat (like steak) for lean meat (like chicken breast), and swap out processed grains (like white bread) for whole grains (like oatmeal). There are lots of tricks, and if you make these choices and track what you eat you can reduce your weight significantly over a short period of time.
Here’s the problem, though. This inevitably results in a diet that denies you things that you want. You can do this in the short term, but it’s hard to make that commitment for a lifetime. More often than not, people lose weight – and then they turn around and regain it.
That happened to me. In January 2019, I was a little over 200 pounds. I decided to lose weight. I added a little physical activity, but it was mostly just walking 10,000 steps per day. My focus was on food. I tracked my intake religiously with MyFitnessPal, and for a few months I ate 1,500 to 2,000 calories per day.
It was tough, but by June I was down to about 175. I felt great, and I had hit my target weight. Then, I started a new job. I paid a little less attention to what I ate. I stopped tracking my food. Before I knew it, it was December 31, 2019 and I weighed 210 pounds.
In six months, I had regained all of the weight I lost – and then some.
If the Engine Burns Hot Enough, Anything Will Burn
So what about the other camp? If you frequent the running Reddits, you’ll inevitably hear people talk about how they absolutely can outrun a bad diet.
Sure, if two miles a day sounds like a lot to you, then you probably aren’t going to tackle the weight loss problem through exercise. And when I started losing weight, two miles a day did sound like a lot to me.
But now, I run 60 to 70 miles per week – sometimes more. There are tons of runners around the world who put in that much mileage and more. 70 miles per week is an average of 10 miles per day. That works out to about an extra 1,000 calories burned per day. This kind of runner is easily burning 3,000 to 3,500 calories per day, and sometimes more.
You’ve got to have a pretty bad diet to force down that much food every day.
But it is possible. Those little weight loss hacks (lean meat, complex grains) probably aren’t going to matter much. But if you’re slamming back soda, guzzling alcohol, or gulping down desserts, you can manage to gain weight.
There are certainly times, usually around the holidays, where I noticed my weight sneaking up a little bit. It’s never crazy, I might weigh 165 in peak marathon training and then go up to 170 to 175 after Christmas. All those cookies and drinks add up over time. But if I make even a minimal effort to make better eating choices, it course corrects pretty quickly.
Of course, for the average person, running 60+ miles per week is insane. It took me two years to build up to this volume, and now I’m used to putting in 10 to 12 hours of training each week. But it’s not realistic for someone who’s just starting out, and it’s not sustainable for someone who doesn’t actually enjoy running.
The True Middle Ground – Both Exercise and Diet Matter
Staking out either extreme doesn’t offer any practical advice for real people. So here’s some real advice – both diet and exercise matter. You need to find the appropriate balance for you, but a good weight loss – and weight management – plan is going to involve making better decisions about food and increasing your physical activity.
For normal people, I think a good sweet spot is aiming to run 20 to 25 miles per week. It’s a reasonable amount of exercise that is sustainable, and it also helps you meet the general exercise guidelines for good health. The flip side is you don’t need to be so strict when it comes to eating. You’ll still need to make some smart decisions – but you’re not going to kill all your progress because you want a burger or a few beers.
The more you run, the more you can afford to make bad decisions. Conversely, the less you run, the less you can afford to make those decisions. Also, if you’ve already lost the weight you can loosen things up a bit. It’s easier to maintain than to lose.
Back to My Weight Loss Story
So back to the original purpose of this post – checking in on my weight loss.
In the first six months, I pretty strictly monitored my food intake through MyFitnessPal. I also slowly increased my physical activity, from 30 minutes to walking every day to running 3 to 4 times per week. By the end of June, I was in the 170’s and pretty happy.
I slowly increased my running mileage, and by the end of 2020 I was running around 30 mpw. I also increased my goal for calorie intake significantly, aiming to either maintain things or have a slight deficit. The weight kept coming off slowly, and by the end of 2020 I was between 165 and 170.
In 2021, I kept increasing my mileage. I ran about 40 mpw in the spring and 50 mpw in the fall. I stopped tracking my food intake, and I was starting to focus on eating more. I snacked a lot, and I was hungry a lot. This was my first year training for a marathon, and I felt that I couldn’t ever eat enough. I was in the high 160’s most of the year, and I didn’t really go above 170 until I tapered for the marathon and spent a few weeks recovering at the end of the year.
2022 was pretty similar. I increased my mileage again – into the 60’s in the spring and the 70’s in the fall. Again, despite eating anything and everything my weight dropped to the mid 160’s during marathon training. I was ordering the Hungry Man or the Lumberjack breakfast at diners; slamming down four slices of pizza on pizza night; eating extra garlic bread with a couple servings of pasta.
At this point, I was getting close to the “outrunning a bad diet” camp.
So What’s the Moral of This Weight Loss Story?
Yes, I’m running a lot. Yes, I’m eating a lot. And no, I’m not gaining weight.
But, interestingly, I’m also not losing it either. I’m happy at 165 pounds, but if I were a competitive marathon runner I could definitely weigh less. I would absolutely have to make some better eating decisions if I wanted to get down to 145 or 150. I think getting to 160 would be easy enough, but the next ten pounds would require some effort.
So it’s not entirely true to say that if you just run a lot, the weight will melt off. But in my case at least, running a lot has made it much easier to manage my weight. I weigh myself every day, and if I ever see my weight sneaking above 170 pounds, I just change things up for a few days. The rest of the time, I eat a lot.
At the end of the day, though, two years after setting out to lose a significant amount of weight – it’s still gone. That’s not common, as most people regain their lost weight over time. And running has played an incredible role in that weight loss and weight management.
The real moral of the story here is that you can lose weight by focusing exclusively on what you eat. But if you want to manage it for the long term, you should really find a form of physical activity that you enjoy and that you can commit to. For me, it’s running. For you it might be something else.
But it shouldn’t be couch surfing.