7 Reasons Runners Struggle to Lose Weight

There is this misconception that the more you run, the more fat you burn or weight you lose. But for many women, it’s just not true.  Many runners struggle with an extra 5-10 pounds, or even gain weight while training for distances.

There are exceptions. (First time runners, certain body types, good genes!) But in general, here are 7 reasons that running does not necessarily help with weight loss, particularly around the belly:

7 Reasons Runners struggle to lose weight

  • Running the same distance and paces: Our bodies do best when we mix up our routine, either by slowing down (such as MAF training) or by adding intervals.  Strength training is also crucial for a stronger metabolism, toning, and more balanced running muscles.  (Despite what the cover models of Runner’s World may have you believe, running does not create a toned upper body and strong core!)

  • Your body may interpret the running as stress: Your body can’t tell the difference between running sprints for fun and a bear chasing you! As you add on miles in distance running, your body may begin to feel stressed and increase cortisol (which leads to an increase storage of body fat, especially around the belly.) Some body types are much more sensitive to interpreting exercise as stress than others.

  • A diet high in sugar and processed carbohydrates- I know, I know… the cupcakes and bagels are the prize for all that running, right?! In moderation, they are fine.  But as staples in our diet, the body will have more glycogen stores than it needs and stores the rest as fat.  Overdoing sweets can also lead to insulin resistance, sugar addiction, or sugar/ yeast overgrowth in the gut.

  • Lack of sleep: Missing sleep affects our hormones, especially ghrelin and leptin, which help to balance our appetite.  It also causes us to crave quick energy for a pick me up- yep, sugar and refined carbs.

  • Overfueling for runs– In some cases, we teach our body to rely on sugar and to burn glycogen during training, rather than it’s preferred fuel (fat) by never giving it the chance to burn it’s stores.

  • Undiagnosed food sensitivity– Many times we crave the foods we are sensitive too and this can lead to inflammation and trouble absorbing nutrients, which can cause more food cravings and over eating.

  • Clogged Liver- Our liver manufactures bile, for breaking down fats.  When it’s congested from a poor diet and environmental toxins, it cannot do it’s job efficiently.

I’m all about enjoying bagels and cookies, but I’ve learned I cannot have them every day.  We’re all different and need to learn to listen to our bodies and determine what works best for them.  In the Spring Reset, we have been focusing on cleaning out our liver with spring’s detoxifying foods to help our bodies operate as they are meant to operate.

I’m surprised how many runners I work with in my health coaching practice who have symptoms of sugar overgrowth in their gut or insulin resistance.  Even if that’s not you, I think it’s important to recognize the risk and pay attention to any messages you hear from your body.

How does increased mileage affect you? I am one of the many women who gains five pounds when training for an endurance event.

Have you learned you needed to change one of the above to help your body feel and run it’s best? More weights? Less sugar? A food sensitivity?


91 thoughts on “7 Reasons Runners Struggle to Lose Weight

  1. This is a very important post Laura. I am explaining this to people constantly. You are so right about so many of these. Sleep is especially important, and the overfueling. Unfortunately one of the downsides of running is that it increases your hunger, and people often overeat as they think they have burned it all off. Your tips are great for helping this.

    I find that I lean down the most when I am doing intervals, the intensity bursts torch fat, and you are right, continuous is easy for your body to adapt to. People often assume I can eat “whatever” I want as I run so much, but that it is just not true. I could eat a lot more, and I too have to limit what I consume. It is all about balance…isnt everything? 🙂
    Tina Muir recently posted..Marvelous Monday and Thorlos Socks ReviewMy Profile

  2. My body fluctuates pretty consistently in a five-pound range. When I start training for a big race, I usually drop a bit, especially when my plan includes speed & tempo work. I don’t weigh myself all the time, but when I start to dip below my happy range, I dial back the intensity. My guilty pleasure after a long run is a Fountain Coke. No redeeming value whatsoever, but boy does it hit the spot! I love to crosstrain in the pool to keep my core & upper body strong!
    Nicole @ Work in Sweats Mama recently posted..Reversing My Chronic Case of the MondaysMy Profile

  3. When my mileage increases, the appetite follows. So far, I’ve been lucky in not really gaining any weight during heavy training. It was after marathon training that I gained – I was so used to eating large quantities but not burning it off as much. Strength training and not over fueling definitely helped keep the weight away.
    Angela @ Happy Fit Mama recently posted..26 StrongMy Profile

  4. All of these are such good points that I wish people would realize. Thank you for sharing. I am not saying everyone needs to lose or gain weight but as runners we are aware of this you know?
    Hollie recently posted..No Training Week 3My Profile

  5. When I was training for Boston I gained 5lbs…but I blame it fully on my “I ran 18 miles and now I can eat anything I want” mentality! Since I’ve learned so much (a lot from you) about fueling and performance, I have been able to lose while increasing mileage!
    Fancy Nancy recently posted..Monday MotivationMy Profile

  6. After marathon training, I gained a few pounds from the decreased mileage while my appetite stayed the same. The holidays didn’t help, either! I was used to eating three meals and at least three snacks a day when I was marathon training, but I couldn’t eat like that when I wasn’t training without gaining a few pounds!
    Jojo @ RunFastEatLots recently posted..Training Log 4/27My Profile

    • I agree Pamela!
      I am currently 17 days away from my first marathon following the Hal Higgon’s novice one plan since mid Jan 2014. Although he did not recommend we do strength training while training for our first marathon, I decided to add mine into my running plan because I loved lifting weights before I started training and had a hard time letting it go to do cardio only. On “rest days” I often took body pump or added lifting with short run days. Also, during work I would get up from my desk and do a sequence of 10 squats, 10 sumo squats, 10 lunges, 10 standing bike abs, and 10 jumping jacks just to add some more strength training to the mix! Anyways, I think by adding strength training I did still gained weight, in muscle. I have noticed the outline of my abs to form, my shoulders look more defined, and my legs to be stronger then before. I am not sure how much I have gained during this marathon training because I do not weight myself anymore, but I do not think it is fat gain that is mentioned in this post. I just ran my longest distance of 20 miles last weekend and have to wonder how rough it would have been if I did not add strength training to make my body stronger. I actually felt great during the run and recovered quite nicely! Strength training is a great tool to add during first time marathon running I would say! 🙂 (and it might even help you gain weight in muscle instead of fat)

  7. Great info. I did gain some weight the first time I was training for a half. But I think it helps that I also do a lot of cross training and weight training. I also have been better about varying my mile and intensity levels so it’s not the same miles and same intensity over and over again. I do worry about about inflammation – the perceived stress on the body.
    Heather (Where’s the Beach) recently posted..Fun for Friday – Loving. Not Loving.My Profile

    • Definitely- variety helps a lot. And yes, the inflammation concerns me too… I think everyone’s body interprets it differently and we do adapt to a certain extent to higher demands, but we can also do too much (which I often feel is the case when I’m marathon training- I just want to run 1-2 more to run Boston!!)
      Laura recently posted..7 Reasons Runners Struggle to Lose WeightMy Profile

  8. So true – all of it. I’m glad that Boston is done, and I’m healthy again, and I can get back to speedwork and tempo runs and focusing on strength training again. I really backed off on lifting weights in the final weeks before Boston, and I feel so out of shape. Looking forward to getting more toned and getting back to healthy, cleaner eating – carb loading is fun for a couple days, and then it just makes me feel like crap.
    Michelle recently posted..Boston 2014. Everyone Finishes Today.My Profile

  9. This post couldn’t be more timely as my marathon is this Sunday and I’ve been feeling kind of fat. I’ve definitely been treating myself too much these days. I think the biggest reason for me not feeling my best during training is that I haven’t had time for strength training. I have to devote so much time to running that it’s been hard to find time or energy for anything else. And you’re right, running does not give you tuned arms or abs!

    I’m looking forward to training being over so I can get back into a routine with strength training and tone up again.
    Melissa recently posted..Weekend Happenings // Marathon Week EatsMy Profile

  10. Wow, this post was like you speaking right to me. I cleaned up my diet a ton to train for my half but from when I started to now I have only lost about 13lbs. I thought that I would be down at least 20 by now. I did notice that when I took an extra day off here or there I would see some scale movement which I thought was weird but maybe not. I am always asking other runners what they eat so I can play around with my own diet to get the best fuel for my training but also losing fat in the process. I feel lost sometimes with that aspect.
    Kristina Walters @ Kris On Fitness recently posted..How Rude ! The SpinMy Profile

    • It’s harder than it sounds, isn’t it?! You may find than when you’re done with the half and running shorter distances again your body will have an easier time dropping the weight. Running distances preps your body to hold onto more of your glycogen stores and hold them as fat because it knows any day you might be taking it out on a 1-2 hours run, and wants to be prepared. 🙂
      Laura recently posted..7 Reasons Runners Struggle to Lose WeightMy Profile

  11. I feel like I definitely may have a sugar overgrowth but I’m going to read that 7 signs post and see 😉
    I also have heard of people doing glycogen depleted runs but am kind of nervous about trying that on longer runs? Maybe in my next training cycle…hmmm…
    I’m one of those people who gain weight while marathon training and it sucks. It is so frustrating. I went to the doctor to tell her that I don’t think it’s right I’m GAINING while exercising every day and she didn’t even want to do an extensive blood test on me. She just told me to be happy with mybody. Sigh.
    Patty @ Reach Your Peak recently posted..Motivational Monday!My Profile

    • Sounds like your body interprets distance running as stress and has trouble relaxing enough to let go of weight. Sugar overgrowth could definitely be part of it, too. For many women (myself included) marathons are for the love of running but not so great for getting to (or staying at) your ideal weight!
      Laura recently posted..7 Reasons Runners Struggle to Lose WeightMy Profile

  12. The fact that you’re on top of this is one of the reasons I’m so excited you’re my coach. You GET my goals, and you get this- thank you!

  13. My diet is definitely not the greatest! I have far too many processed carbs… I like cereal a lot…I will have a bagel with pb for lunch often, I snack on crackers…these habits are very hard to break! I also agree that running does not = a strong core. I just started doing planks….I am literally sweating after 1 minute and I can run 6 miles without breaking a sweat! I have seen people who hold a 5 minute plank!!!…I can’t imagine! I almost ALWAYS gain weight when marathon training and I really don’t alter my diet too much…at least not enough to justify gaining weight when I am doing so many miles!!!!
    Jen@milesandblessings recently posted..Let the training begin! Starting with some speed…My Profile

    • I’m the same way- my diet doesn’t change much, but I always gain weight, too. I now expect it and it’s not that big of a deal… but I constantly hear this assumption that running long will help you lose weight- that’s definitely not the reason I train for distance races! 🙂
      Laura recently posted..7 Reasons Runners Struggle to Lose WeightMy Profile

  14. Great topic. I can go both ways but usually I lose weight when I’m marathon training. If I’m not careful I can get too skinny…like Boston 2012. This time I maintained a healthy 120-125…perfect for my body by eating enough but not too much. I didn’t overthink anything. I just ate often and healthy. Now, after marathon training? I need to watch it. Ha!
    Amanda@Runninghood recently posted..Post Marathon Funk (PMF)My Profile

  15. I gain a few pounds every time I train for a long race (half marathon or above). I know it’s because my body adapts to the running, I do less strength training because of time constraints and I probably overdo it on the refueling! 😉 Being really careful about keeping up some kind of strength training routine helps avoid injury and I’ve found it helps a lot after the event, when it’s easier for me to lose that 5 lbs if I’ve been strength training throughout.

    Great post, Laura!!
    Carly @ Fine Fit Day recently posted..Scenes from a weekend #25My Profile

    • I’m a huge believer in keeping up the strength training, too! I ran for years without incorporating much s/t at all but it’s made me much stronger, faster, and less injury prone. (Plus, like you said, easier to get back to my “normal” weight).
      Laura recently posted..7 Reasons Runners Struggle to Lose WeightMy Profile

  16. I gained weight while attempting to train for my first marathon- Biggest reason was “I just ran I deserve this entire pizza, or bagel, or cupcake” and the list goes on. I had to learn that running doesnt justify eating garbage and instead eating healthy would help with my runs.

    Also RUNGER was so much better round two of marathon training. I dont get back from a run and eat the entire fridge any more. I trained again for a marathon this year and i am running my first marathon Sunday- happy to report I have lost weight. 🙂

  17. This is a great post. I have to say that my appetite increases the higher intensity of exercise that I do. If I do a really tough wod or I’m training for a CrossFit competition, I’m definitely hungrier throughout the weeks of training or after I complete the intense workout session. But, I haven’t noticed in weight changes, in fact I have lost 2-3 pounds prior to competitions in the past.

    Currently, the lack of sleep is an issue in why I’m not able to lose these last pounds of baby weight. Even though I’m doing CrossFit 5 days a week and eating healthy, the weight isn’t budging and the only thing I can contribute it to is sleep.
    Melissa @ Fit ‘n’ Well Mommy recently posted..MIMM – Update On Sleep!My Profile

  18. I really love this list! This tip in particular, “Your body may interpret the running as stress.” I had no idea!!

    It’s been a long time since the last time I was really getting in some mileage, but when I was, I absolutely was struggling to lose weight. I got to a point, where I was basically maintaining, which was super frustrating considering I was overweight. I probably wasn’t tracking my food as accurately as I could have been, but honestly, my eating was pretty good at that time.

  19. I definitely notice a difference in my body when I’m running more and incorporating less weight training. I’m never sure if it’s just mental, but I do tend to feel leaner when I have been lifting more. This year, I’m trying to maintain more balanced cross-training, instead of primarily lifting heavy when I’m not running much and then letting everything else slide when I increase the mileage. It’s more about staying healthy than about weight for me though. Yes I would like to lose a little fat, but it’s not the most important thing to me. 🙂
    Rachel recently posted..I’m back! Training 4/21-4/27/14My Profile

  20. This is SUPER interesting. I’ve always heard that runners have a hard time losing weight due to the “routine” factor (running the same distance & paces) but I’ve NEVER considered that your body may confuse running for stress. Thank you for sharing!

  21. Couldn’t have said it better myself! That is why I cut back on running post baby – the stress of it, plus the kids, plus Toby being gone, was not helping me tone up my midsection. I started doing more TRX and less running and I have noticed a big improvement! Super cool how the body works though.
    Melanie @ Nutritious Eats recently posted..Four Month Baby UpdateMy Profile

  22. I find that for the few weeks just before the taper, my body retains water a lot more. Some of it is inflammation of my muscles, I think. Whatever I gain usually drops off by race day though, so I don’t really worry about it.
    Karen recently posted..Peak Weeks and Goal TimesMy Profile

  23. Great stuff Laura! I often find weight loss and running goals to be mutually exclusive for me. I am assuming it is because of the following: stress on my body, fatigue, and pacing (higher HR zones. I lean out more when doing zone 2 or MAF training. I know the stress one is really big for me and it is making me rethink my goals and priorities.
    Tara Newman recently posted..Practical Communication Tips to Build Healthy RelationshipsMy Profile

  24. I’m with everyone else with the timeliness of this post!!! I have been training for my first (and last lol) marathon, coming up on May 25. I have lost 35 pounds over 2 years with light running and mainly strength, but since January (the time I started training) I am up roughly 8 pounds and cannot shake it. The info in the posts and the comments is so great for me right now. I crave the strength training! I love what the marathon training has done for my physically and mentally but I pinch my belly a little and Im like “what is THIS!!” 🙂 SO 1 more month, I’ll meet a big goal, and get back on the strength training train. Thank everyone for the info!!

  25. Great post Laura! I have to do speed intervals and strength train regularly to stay at my happy weight. It doesn’t help that I can’t resist cookies!
    Jen recently posted..29 TMI questionsMy Profile

  26. Oh that make so much sense, I was wondering why I am not losing weight and gaining more. For me I think stress and lack of sleep.

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  28. Great post! I never really thought about the stress element. I have been struggling since 2010 to take off 25 lbs I gained pretty suddenly- over just a few months. My blood work revealed my thyroid slowed significantly during that time period. I took up running after a year of trying w/no success, the scale did finally start slowing moving but to this day I haven’t lost all the weight or seen improvement in the thyroid output. There are so many things going on at once that need TLC sometimes it’s hard to get a good direction going.
    Count calories, track exercise, monitor the fat intake, aches and pains from overuse, menopause…lol makes me a little crazy lol
    Karen recently posted..In Need of a Little BalanceMy Profile

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  31. It’s funny because when I first started running 3 years ago, I lost weight and was at an all time low even though I was eating mostly whatever I wanted. But now I’m running again and I definitely feel like belly fat has developed due to the running…which is not what you’d expect. It makes sense though based on this list. Thanks for sharing!
    Amanda @ Diary of a Semi-Health Nut recently posted..Shape Diva Dash Giveaway + Discount CodeMy Profile

    • I was similar, Amanda! When you’re new, it’s a shock to your body (in a good way) but after years of doing the same exercises, your body becomes very efficient and it starts to change. Glad you found it helpful!
      Laura recently posted..27 weeks pregnant updateMy Profile

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