fat · training · Uncategorized

Is It True that Endurance Training Won’t Make You Thin and Lean Anymore Than Playing Basketball Will Make You Tall and Lanky?

Women athletes running the marathon at the Olympics in London UK 2012.
Women marathoners at the Olympic games in London 2012.

We’ve all seen those endurance athletes–the marathoners and triathletes. Thin and wiry, as lean as they come, with hardly any fat on their lithe bodies.  And even those of us who don’t think we’ll ever look like that (or don’t aspire to be have that sinewy thin physique) have long thought that with enough training, we too might “lean out” to some degree.

But apparently, as I’ve learned over the past year or so, that’s actually not guaranteed to be the case. There is in fact all sorts of evidence that endurance training will not produce that distance runner’s body in anyone who is not already genetically predisposed to have it.

But even more frustrating, lots of people are saying that it won’t even help you lose weight.  That seems contrary to what we’ve always thought.  But there it is. The culprit is ‘steady state cardio.’  I’m not promising a comprehensive post about it today. But I am going to tell you what I’ve learned so far.

It used to be that we were recommended to train in the “aerobic zone” if we wanted to “burn fat.” The thinking when I first encountered this in the late-80s/early-90s was that if you worked out in that zone, you’d burn mostly fat. Here’s a version of that view from an article I found on Livestrong:

If you are just beginning a fitness program, or if you are warming up, your heart rate should be 50 to 60 percent of your MHR. Once you achieve a measure of physical fitness, you should increase your pace until your heart rate is in the 60 to 70 percent of MHR range. At these levels of aerobic exercise intensity, about 85 percent of the calories you burn come from fat and you gain significant cardiovascular benefits.

The same article goes on to say that if you are training for a marathon or some other endurance sport, you’ll need to pick up the pace a bit:

you’ll need to move your aerobic exercise up to the 70 to 80 percent of MHR range. In this “training zone” you burn more calories, although only 50 percent come from fat. You build your endurance and level of cardiovascular fitness.

See how the fat burning changes when you do that?  So that’s hint number one that burning more calories doesn’t necessarily make you thinner and leaner.

Exhibit two:  an email conversation with my Precision Nutrition coach. She said that my triathlon training may involve goals that are, in her words, “opposite” to the goals of changing my body composition through getting leaner.  That’s the first time I’ve heard it put in such strong terms. To me, “opposite” means something that goes in the exact other direction.  The opposite of getting leaner would be gaining fat.

While I am not obsessed with body composition, it is not my goal to change my body composition in the direction of a higher fat percentage and lower lean mass percentage.  I wouldn’t have signed up for the Lean Eating program if I wanted to do that. Between menopause and a sweet tooth, that was happening all on its own!

But don’t shoot the messenger, I told myself. The coach is simply saying that if I’m replacing weight training with endurance training, I’m not going to see the same gains in lean mass that the weight training workouts are designed to achieve AND my endurance training is going to in fact use my lean mass as fuel at least some of the time (50% if the Livestrong article is right).

That was enough to convince me not to replace weight training sessions with endurance training too many times. I’m trying to fit them all in and have added intervals to the steady state training.

I’m not sure why it should surprise me that there is no tight link between training and fat loss.  It’s just the flipside of what Sam blogged about in her post about the not-as-simple-as-we-like-to-think link between inactivity and obesity.

In a holier-than-thou article targeted at women (title: Why Women Shouldn’t Run), we’re told why steady-state cardio runs counter to fat loss goals, based on the body’s adaptablity:

Nothing exemplifies this increasing efficiency better than the way the body starts burning fuel. Training consistently at 65 percent or more of your max heart rate adapts your body to save as much body fat as possible. After regular training, fat cells stop releasing fat the way they once did during moderate-intensity activities[32-33]. Energy from body fat stores also decreases by 30 percent[34-35]. To this end, your body sets into motion a series of reactions that make it difficult for muscle to burn fat at all[36-41]. Instead of burning body fat, your body takes extraordinary measures to retain it.

But is running actually bad for you?  A guest poster on Go Kaleo responded to “Why Women Shouldn’t Run” by noting that, last she checked, running was actually good for you. She does a very careful analysis of the article and the citations contained in it. She says that in one of the articles cited, there is important information that challenges the above conclusion:

Paper 42 is a case study on a woman who ran 4500 miles across Canada over the course of 112 days (equivalent to 1.5 marathons a day). She did indeed lose lean body mass (LBM – which includes more than just muscle mass), nearly 7 lbs worth. She also lost just less than 30 lbs of fat. Averaging 8 hours of running a day, for almost three months, on a 1000 calorie/day deficit, this woman is doing everything the author is ranting against. Yet, amazingly she managed to lose a considerable amount of fat even though she must surely be below the T3 threshold established earlier. It’s unfortunate her thyroid levels were not also monitored.

I’ve blogged before about the “famine response” and metabolic health. It sounds a lot like the survival mode the critic of running talks about. In another article, entitled “Does Running Make You Fat–Debunked,” the author points out that you could run into trouble if you don’t eat enough to sustain your training.

Another frequently cited reason for endurance training getting int he way of fat loss is that it apparently makes us eat more.  An article about endurance training and “fat-loss myths” says:

Often, the more you exercise, the hungrier you get and 1) the more you will eat, or 2) the more you believe you “deserve” to eat for having survived the killer workout. Unfortunately, rewarding yourself with a 600-calorie cinnamon roll can quickly erase in a few minutes the 600-calorie deficit you generated during your workout.

But surely that can’t be the whole story either. We need to eat properly if we’re endurance training, and that means eating more than we would if we weren’t endurance training. Again, that will protect our metabolic health.

And what about cortisol, that hormone associated with stress? It comes up a lot in these discussions because, apparently, it triggers the survival response and it’s been found that athletes have higher levels of it in their bodies than other people. According to this article, we can’t conclude from that that endurance training is bad for our health. The researchers say that:

Enough is known about the many positive health effects of endurance training to say without qualification that, on balance, it is extremely beneficial to overall health. And since endurance training has been shown to specifically reduce abdominal fat storage, improve, brain function and (except in cases of overtraining) enhance immune function, we can also say that high cortisol levels in endurance athletes do not have the same health implications that they have in non-athletes.

And not too long ago the Australian Runner’s World website, in a somewhat misleadingly-titled article, “Your Runner’s Body in Just 6 Weeks,” had this to say:

You don’t see many overweight runners, and there’s a good reason for this. The simple act of putting one foot in front of the other is the best way to shift excess kilos. An average 70-kilogram [154 pounds] person running at steady 5:37-per-kilometre pace burns a pizza-absolving 3238 kilojoules [773 calories] in an hour, compared with, say, 2062 kilojoules [493 calories] when cycling.

And, according to a study at Yale University School of Medicine, US, running’s metabolic boost means that if you run for four hours a week, you’ll melt more kilojoules than non-runners, even when you’re not running.


All this is to say that it’s not conclusive that running or other endurance training literally makes us gain fat.  But it’s also not the case that running marathons will give anyone the body of a marathoner.  That would be like playing basketball to get tall and lanky. It just doesn’t work that way. And that’s why the Australian article is misleading.

Of course, your runner’s body could just be the one you run with, much like your beach body is the one you take to the beach.  But the article is suggesting otherwise. The plan it recommends, encouraging high intensity interval training, is very good, but it’s not going to get anyone the “runner’s body” that we associate with elite endurance athletes.

For me, the take-away point is simply that whatever I do, I want to enjoy doing it.  We’ve talked a lot about performance goals and why they’re good motivators. Over the past year, I’ve certainly found this to be true.  I’m loving what I’m doing, which is why it’s frustrating when I hear things like “women shouldn’t run.”I do want to do endurance sports, especially triathlon.

And I’m glad that I have goals beyond fat loss.  And if I’ve learned anything over the past year and a bit since we started the blog, it’s that there is no set training routine that will achieve the same results for everyone who does it.  That’s why it’s more important than ever to choose activities that we enjoy and that make us feel good, whatever body type we happen to have.

10 thoughts on “Is It True that Endurance Training Won’t Make You Thin and Lean Anymore Than Playing Basketball Will Make You Tall and Lanky?

  1. I started a running program in January (C25K) and the food thing has been my issue. Up until I started the program I was steadily losing pounds and inches, then, bam! I stalled. And, then I noticed that I was ridiculously hungry and have spend three weekends in a row trying to plan new calorie intakes (and will do the same again this weekend, though I think I’ve almost got it right) while trying to keep myself from giving into those ridiculous carb and chocolate cravings. I don’t always win against the cravings and I likely won’t ever have a “runner’s body”, but I’m ok with that as I’m really only doing this because my cardio sucks and it seems like a good idea to be able to jog for more than 30 seconds .. if only because I want to survive the zombie apocalypse 😉

    Anyway, thanks for this. I’m going to bookmark this so I can refer to it every time I get grouchy about how I’m not losing a tonne of weight from jogging/runnig.

  2. I was actually surprised this last round of marathon training when I lost weight because that hadn’t happened to me before. I think it was the combination of the shorter long runs and my body’s increased efficiency with fuel, which meant I didn’t feel as inclined to wolf down an entire fridge’s worth of food the day of my long runs. I still needed to eat, but just not as much.

    The conversation about the runner’s body in re: elite distance runners is interesting to me, because I think of it as more of a symbiotic back-and-forth thing and less of one-way cause-and-effect relationship. Like, yes, running a lot (like, 70+ mpw) will most likely cause a person to lean out, but then most people can’t run those kinds of volume because their bodies are not suited for it, so you end up with people with particular body types self-selecting for sports in which that body type is well-suited, like how swimmers will often be tall with broad shoulders, and basketball centers are tall, and gymnasts are usually quite short, and so on and so forth.

    That said, I think this conversation is mostly academic when it comes to those of us who are not elite (or even sub-elite). It’s interesting, but the fact that I’m built more like a basketball forward and less like a runner doesn’t mean I’m going to suddenly trade in my running shoes for a basketball. We get more leeway as amateurs.

    Also, thanks for posting the debunking of that “Women Shouldn’t Run” article. That original article was a big steaming pile of horseshit for, like, a million reasons.

    1. What you say about not needing as much food is interesting. It’s the other side of the body’s adaptability. Everyone always thinks of it as wholly negative, but they don’t figure in that we actually don’t get as hungry when the body gets more fuel efficient. Of course, the way our gadgets track “calories burned” doesn’t really take that into account either, since that sort of equation leads us to think that’s what we need to eat (or what we are ‘allowed’ to eat) on the calories in-calories out model.

      I held back quite a bit in my comments on the “Women Shouldn’t Run” article. I really despise it, probably for most of the same reasons you do.

      1. You know, it’s really interesting how focusing on my body’s performance and abilities has taught me to really consider food in terms of the role it plays as fuel, like in terms of biology as opposed to emotion or culture. I still eat things solely for the sake of pleasure and also for emotional comfort, but now when I do those things, I know that’s why I’m doing it. I have a bit of psychological clarity about it. I honestly don’t think that this shift in thinking would have come about had it not been for my wholehearted embrace of an athletic lifestyle.

      2. I was scared to read the comments on the “Women Shouldn’t Run” article. Heck, I barely made it through the article without throwing anything across the room. The message I took away from it was “women’s appearance is more important than any other health consideration (though we’ll throw a bit of concern trolling over metabolic changes) and a woman who is fat, or has fat in her body, has by definition failed.And women who dare to eat food in a way that shows enjoyment are disgusting, greedy, unfeminine and unworthy.”

        FUCK. THAT.

        I mean seriously, when writers start throwing around morality-laden words like “gluttonous” in what purports to be an article on health, that’s going nowhere I want to see.

  3. Interesting. I had gotten to a weight a bit higher than high school but a size much smaller. Just running intervals, the occasional “long” run and counting calories. Then I trained for some triathlons. And gained 5 pounds. And then I decided I wasn’t that fond of triathlons. I don’t like group swimming and I hate having to be there sooo long before the start to set up the transition area. I decided I just like running races. I still swim and cycle and even do brick workouts but I don’t compete in triathlons. But I trained for and did a half marathon. And I gained about 7-8 more pounds. I found this very frustrating. And then I had some health issues and major surgery and more pounds and its become really frustrating as I recover and work out again. I have added in heavy weight lifting and I run but have been keeping my races to 5K and 5 miles right now (mostly because I don’t have the stamina any more). But the weight sticks. However – except for my BMI – all the health numbers are great. And I wear the same size I wore in high school even though I weigh more. So – running has to be good for something!

    1. For sure it’s good for something – lots of health benefits. Your ups and downs at different times are good evidence that the expected result isn’t always the actual result. People just assume that this kind of training will result in weight loss not gain. But if the other numbers are great, that’s what matters. BMI is not what it’s cracked up to be. Sam has posted about it: http://fitisafeministissue.com/2012/09/09/fit-fat-and-whats-wrong-with-bmi/

  4. I run for a zillion reasons, apart from the weight one. I don’t weigh myself anyway, but I wouldn`t be in the least surprised if I am actually a whole pile heavier than I was before I started running three years ago. I certainly am not any thinner in my clothes. Just more toned.

    On the plus side, I eat more or less anything I want-actually, it`s usually more.
    My doc loves my resting heart rate.
    I am enjoying so much about being outdoors.
    Running has helped me stay sane.
    I have TONS of energy.
    I am fitter than most people my age.
    I can outrun kids thirty years younger than me.
    I enjoy life a whole lot more.
    I have found a great way to deal with stress.

    Great post, as always. Happy running!

  5. Thanks, Tracy, for the great post pointing out real complexities in the relationships among endurance (and other heart-rate zone) cardio exercise, fitness (in its many forms) and body mass. I can’t put my hands on the relevant studies at the moment, but there are a bunch of them showing marked gender differences in effects on body mass of intensive endurance training programs. The upshot of them is that women in general don’t lose as much weight as men when engaging in identical training regimens with commensurate eating plans (studies were in marathon and swimming training). My sports nutritionist, Nancy Clark (check out her sports nutrition books; she is knowledgeable and sensible) points this out to all of her active female clients. Two things I really like about what you are saying here:

    1) the beneficial effects of activity on all kinds of markers of physical and mental well-being make it the one of the best things we can do in terms of self-care, self-love even!

    2) physical activity can and does change our bodies in all sorts of exciting and sometimes surprising ways. When I started training for triathlons in 2005, I immediately gained 5 lbs, but my clothes fit better, and I liked having strong muscular legs! I’ve never liked my thighs, but seeing them change shape a bit and also do such tremendous feats for me was terrific.


Comments are closed.