Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Running for Weight Loss, or Not

So, Weight Loss. 
Recently, I was asking Rachel via her comments about her weight loss/maintenance, wondering how she was maintaining/still losing despite her relatively low key exercise schedule (that doesn’t focus much on cardio) and eating what seems to be very normal foods. I encourage you to go read the exchange over here; it was very thought-provoking and helpful! She emphasized that the big thing was getting her eating under control--learning to listen to her hunger cues and eat slowly and mindfully. She also noted (and has written posts about) that reducing her overall high cardio level helped her not feel so hungry all the time and eat fewer carbs.

Since that conversation, I’ve been thinking a lot about why I’ve been running and my own weight loss goals. I’m a former calorie counter, and that totally worked. Seriously, weight loss at its most basic is just math; calories in vs. calories out. It works. But I was, of course, miserable and had a terrible relationship with food and exercise. None of it was joyful or enjoyable and it kept me in the wrong state of mind.

This time on the wagon (starting in fall of 2011), I focused on running and exercising as opposed to calorie counting in order to lose weight and become healthier. I tried to eat healthfully, but mostly was concerned with improving my running ability and fitness. I had this idea in my mind of “runners are so thin and have their shit together and get things done!” Which obviously isn’t true. But I thought maybe if I ran I’d automatically be like them. And now that I’m running consistently, I’ve realized that it isn’t so much about the actual running of X number of miles that matters for healthiness (duh), but more the commitment to and habit of ANY physical activity. It could be yoga, ellipticalling at the gym, a strength routine...etc. As long as I’m doing something, I’m working on my health. 

And moreover, I’m not really losing weight easily while I’m running. Like Rachel noted, all this cardio makes me hungry. There is a very vague general downward trend for my weight, but we’re talking five pounds over the course of a year--nowhere near the results I could see if I was counting calories.

So I’ve spent some time wondering if running was really right for me right now. Could I do a less intense form of exercise (maybe yoga  few times a week) and focus more on my eating habits? Maybe focus on protein consumption and strength training?

And honestly? Despite not reaping all weight loss benefits I expected to from running (and generally finding it really freaking hard), I am absolutely still 100% committed to running as my main exercise of choice. Why? Three primary reasons:

1) It helps me sleep better.
2) It makes me feel accomplished.
3) I have stuck with it.

Let’s talk about those for a minute.

Sleep. Sleep is amazing. Sleep is one of those things that you have no idea how important it is to a healthy lifestyle until you have it and realize oh my god I feel so much better about everything all the time. When I wasn’t sleeping enough, I was so stressed out about everything and ready to cry at the drop of a hat. Sleep seriously regulates my moods and makes the world seem so much more...manageable. 

It is seriously shocking to me how much running helps me sleep and sleep consistently. I lead an average, mostly sedentary lifestyle--a desk worker, not a ton of physical activity beyond my workouts. So I rely on running to physically wear me out. No other workout does it in the same way--maybe because running is just naturally harder for me? But I feel truly exhausted at night on the days I run, which makes falling asleep a snap.

And, they say this is true for babies, but I think it applies to adults too: sleep begets sleep. When I am sleeping enough consistently, it seems so much easier to fall asleep every night. And those nights I’m having anxiety and trying to fall asleep but can’t and then am getting more stressed out about it and then have more anxiety that keeps me know the cycle. Even on those nights (which are fewer and farther between), I don’t get super stressed about it anymore. When I’m sleeping well consistently, one night of less-than-desired sleep isn’t the be all and end all. But when you're regularly not sleeping enough, it is just like OH GOD IF I DON’T SLEEP NOW I WILL NEVER SLEEP AGAIN. Consistent sleep completely eliminates that sleep panic.

Accomplished. I am such a gold star person. I love checking off boxes; I love meeting clearly articulated goals; and I love external feedback that I’m doing a job well done. And running gives that to you, 100%, in a way that other exercises don’t. Sure you can conquer a new yoga pose or increase your weights. But running provides constant feedback and growth with every run: mileage increases, speed increases, etc. 

And I think the thing I like best about it is: I’m completely in control of my own success. There are really very few things in adult-life that make me feel like I am the sole factor influencing my success. Sure it matters if I try hard at work, but it also matters what my supervisor thinks and clients think. And I poured a lot of energy into my grad school apps, but if a sentence doesn’t sit right with the admissions committee, it won’t matter. Or even something broader--volunteer work or a pet project at work--you might not get to see the final results of your labor. But for the most part with running, when I put the time and energy in, I see the direct results. And I see them fairly quickly!

I stick with it. This is fairly self-explanatory. No matter what the number on the scale says, I feel so much healthier when I am consistently exercising. And I have tried a lot of other exercises in my adult life, and this is the only one that has stuck for longer than six months.

At the end of the day, running is bringing me more joy and satisfaction to my life than faster weight loss would. So I’m going to stop questioning it and just keep enjoying it.

And on eating? I'm going to try hard to stick to my food rules, but beyond that, just try to be mindful--but also mindful of the fact that my body needs fuel to run well. And hey, I'm still generally headed in the right matter how slow.

Today's Workout
4 miles at 10:55 average pace. This was supposed to be a speed workout, but I think I'm going to bag the elaborate speed workouts listed in my training plan until my race. I'm going to focus on making one run per week a speedier "pace" style run (like this one), and then keep doing those mini intervals for my 3 mile treadmill/strength training days. I think those will be effective in building some speed without taxing my body too much while I build mileage.

Today's Eats
Basic dinner: tofu in this marinade, roasted sweet potatoes, and green beans. I bought some garlic herb butter as a Trader Joe's treat a while ago, and I'm loving it on top of the green beans this week.

I use dinner plates, not salad plates. This is a lot of food.
I see a leftover Superbowl brownie in my future. But...mindfully.


  1. Hey! I love this entire post! It's hard not to look at the scale as the only indicator of success, but the accomplishments/achievement I feel from running are pretty hard to put aside. We could talk all about the importance of intervals and strength training, but we have to do what makes us happy. It's hard for me to give up a day of running for strength training b/c I don't feel as "accomplished."

    Anyway, finding balance is super hard - I feel like I am on the right track and can intellectually embrace everything in Rachel's comments, but inches at a time.

    1. Love the way you put that--can intellectually embrace everything in Rachel's comments. That's totally how I feel--I know it would be better for me to live like that, but...I'm just not there yet.

  2. I have experienced the same exact struggle. Dieting definitely produces better weight loss results from me, but for me running changes the way I think about eating and myself overall. Running does make me more hungry, but I try to make better snacking choices by thinking about what helps me feel better when I run. My sleeping patterns are also dramatically different. But most importantly, running, especially training for a race, makes me feel stronger and gives me that sense of accomplishment that you mentioned. I just feel like more of a badass. So yeah, over a 22 week marathon training plan, I decided that I will be happy if I lose about 10-12 pounds. That's not a lot, but the added strength and fitness are even more important to me.
    Keep up the great work!

    1. Thanks for commenting Rachel! Great to hear that others have a similar experience with running. I suppose that this is how we know we are "real" runners right--that we love it and stay committed to it despite not reaping all of our hoped-for benefits?

      Looking forward to checking out your blog!