With Marathon Monday almost upon us, running is definitely on the mind. At the moment, I’m gazing out at the gorgeous spring weather bemoaning that I haven’t yet gotten out for a jog.
Those who aren’t runners might assume that running is an easy way to take extra pounds off without worrying about what they eat. But many runners, including the author of a new book, “Run Your Butt Off!,” find it difficult, if not impossible, to lose weight through running alone.
Full disclosure: I put on six pounds while training for the marathon several years ago and, yes, it was mostly fat, not muscle.
Thus, I wanted to know exactly how author Sarah Lorge Butler, a contributing editor to Runner’s World magazine, managed to shed the 10 pounds she’d gained in her 30s. “I had been running about 16 miles a week, but after my kids were born, the pounds started creeping on anyway,” she tells me.
Like many moms, Butler drives a minivan, uses an automatic garage door opener, and works at home with easy access to her kitchen. “I found myself grazing throughout the day.”
She wanted to find a way to shed the weight she’d gained even while being active and decided to enlist registered dietitian Leslie Bonci, director of sports nutrition at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center.
Butler also teamed up with Runner’s World running coach Budd Coates to see if he could get 16 overweight folks to start running in order to reduce their waist size and improve their health over a 12-week period. This is not a “Biggest Loser” reality show type of plan but aims to get you from 30 minutes of walking to 30 minutes of running, three or four days a week.
The emphasis is on losing weight slowly — about 1/2 pounds to 1 1/2 pounds per week. Most of the anecdotes in the book lost between 10 and 20 pounds over a few months.
Even that amount of modest weight loss, however, requires some dietary changes. As Bonci writes in the book, “In the beginning especially, exercise is not the big-ticket item in terms of weight loss. It’s the supporting role. Diet is the main character here.”
Of course, running and another aerobic exercise has a host of spectacular health benefits like strengthening your heart muscle, improving cholesterol levels, and boosting your mood and memory. But for weight loss, it’s tough to rely on just exercise alone.
Consider this: If you weigh about 150 pounds, you burn about 100 calories for every mile you run. If your weight has been trending upward, that means you could be eating an extra 100 to 150 calories a day than your body needs to maintain its weight. Now, let’s say you start running two miles a day, five days a week. You might stop the weight gain, but you won’t lose much weight.
And some folks might actually gain weight if they give themselves a license to indulge after their workouts.
“For weight loss, eating can’t be a mindless activity even if you’re exercising more,” Bonci tells me.
Butler says her extra pounds started melting off once she switched to three square meals a day and set times for small snacks. “No more grabbing handfuls of Oatmeal Squares every time I walk through my kitchen.” Instead, she has a mid-morning, mid-afternoon, and post-dinner snack between meals. “Greek yogurt has become my best friend.”
The book doesn’t have a strict meal plan but does emphasize getting a mix of protein, fat, and carbohydrates with every meal and snack. You determine the size of your meals based on how many calories your body needs to maintain your weight. That’s calculated using an equation based on your age, weight, height, gender, and level of activity.
Using the website bmrcalculator.org, I calculated that I burn about 2000 calories a day when I exercise three to five days a week. That means I need to reduce my food intake to 1700 calories a day if I want to lose a pound — 3500 calories — every one to two weeks.
If you’ve never run before, the book gives you a fairly simple plan to get started. The basic workout for a first-time runner? Walk for four minutes; run for one minute; repeat four times; end with four minutes of walking for a 29-minute workout. The best weight loss shakes you need and several other ways to quickly lose weight.
As you get more comfortable running, start running more and walking less. Within a month or two, you’ll be running for a full 30 minutes. Heck, you might even decide to start training for next year’s Boston marathon.