I’m always interested in the interplay of weight, diet, and running. It’s a subject that’s quite hot these days: racing weight vs. training weight etc. etc. Outside of the fitness mags though, it’s kind of a taboo topic, so let’s talk about it!
We all know that body fat doesn’t contribute to forward momentum. Muscle mass does. The less dead weight your muscles have to carry, the faster you go. Fat, unlike bone and organs, is a somewhat expendable tissue. However, fat harbors energy. It facilitates nutrient absorption and hormone synthesis. Chronic depletion messes with your thermo-regulation, immune system, metabolic profile, and cardiac function. I.e., get too skinny and you get real sick. No running for you.
So where is the sweet spot, just light enough but not too much? It’s different for everyone. At first, fat loss for a runner can feel really, really good. You run faster at the same perceived effort. The miles fly by, and you can cut minutes off your PR in a matter of weeks. That’s how it happened for me, my freshman year of college.
I lost a good 20 pounds, and it wasn’t until sophomore year that problems started to arise. I had chronic hip pain during the cross-country season that refused to resolve. That year, I was forced into more cross-training than ever before in my life. There was even a memorable jump-rope workout (60 entire f***ing minutes) because I couldn’t run. I did have a standout track season though, despite a severe, hacking miner’s cough that lasted most of the winter. When I was healthy enough to run, I could zip around like nobody’s business! Summer met with ambitious training and high hopes. What I didn’t realize is that I was on the wrong side of an invisible line in the sand.
BTW, if you are doing ridiculous things like jump-roping a threshold workout, that’s a great sign that something is wrong and you probably need help
Persistently yet insidiously, I butted up against anemia and Vitamin D deficiency over the rest of my college career.. I couldn’t log miles like I used to, and my weight crept back up. Eating to recover replenishes the body, but it doesn’t do much for athleticism. My times slowed noticeably. I spent the rest of college trying to get back to the light, lean days that felt like the top of the world. Instead, I ran into injury after injury after injury. Academic stress and nursing clinicals sealed the deal on a pretty disastrous return to poor eating habits and worse training. I was too anemic by the end of my senior cross-country season to compete on our regional or national teams, and graduated with a femoral stress fracture.
Suffice it to say, I’m tenacious. I could have just left it there, as in “I used to be fast, but that was when I had anorexia,” or “I gained weight and now I’m just a recreational runner.” I do not choose either. I changed my eating habits. I’m sneaking back towards the line, this time by lifting weights, running intervals, and eating all the colors. I work out just as much as during the anorexic days, but it’s more effective because I eat more, and sleep as well. I’m starting to feel the effortless foot-speed again.
It’s really exciting, but it also makes me wonder why it’s taken so long to figure out. I think it has something to do with the emotional appeal of pushing yourself, that a lot of runners are addicted to. I don’t run with a GPS anymore because it’s a slippery slope for me to care whether I’ve run 9.8 or 10 miles. I used to be so emotionally attached to the big mileage and the fast splits on every run. I didn’t credit the off-days for their true worth; they made me feel guilty, just like eating too much. For me, the difference has come from learning to ignore my emotions, and listen to my body instead. Sometimes, twinges aren’t meant to be run through. Sometimes hunger and cravings means are meant to be heeded. If a twinge or fatigue nags me for longer than a week, that’s my cue to listen. No emotional guilt or despair (or worse, denial), just love and patience. In the end, it’s been a lot more efficient. No more jump-rope long runs. The only reason I know where the line is, is because I’ve crossed it. Not once, but a million times. The million and first time flipped a switch. The place across the line is no longer an exotic destination of training and dieting extremes that it used to be. Long term success lies on this side, only. Being able to recognize the line, and sidle up without crossing, has become potent training tool for me. It’s like all those years of hard-headed stupidity were actually just part of a learning process, or something. No crime, just a rookie mistake.
*Please forgive the atrocious inconsistency of paragraphic indentation. WordPress doesn’t care that my originals are beautifully formatted, but makes up for it by being free 🙂