Reader Question: Why are so many marathon runners overweight?

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A quora user asks:  Why are so many marathon runners overweight?

NOVA had a great documentary a few years ago which followed several ‘novice’ marathoners through their training programs. Marathon Challenge — NOVA | PBS

(It looks like you can also find the full documentary on Youtube.)

It’s been a while since I watched it, but I recall that only one of the participants lost any substantial weight, and that was because she was purposely trying to lose weight. That meant she was being careful to watch her caloric intake and was doing a lot of supplemental exercise that the other runners were not doing. Some of the runners were surprised they hadn’t lost much or any weight, but as Bruno said, losing weight is hard even for runners.

You have to run a lot for it to affect your weight; for example, world class marathoners will put in sometimes 120 – 160 miles per week of running, along with strength training, cross training, and flexibility work. At that level, it becomes difficult for most people to maintain a healthy weight, that is, not lose too much weight. Very few people can withstand that kind of training. Contrast that with what ‘mere mortals’ do; novice marathoners usually run from 3 to 5 times per week, averaging 25 – 40 miles per week, and may or may not do some cross training and other exercise. Intermediate marathoners might do 40 – 60 miles per week, and more advanced but still not elite marathoners might do 50 – 70 at most (all gross generalizations, but about average). Most then go back to their sedentary jobs in an air conditioned office. As exercise science and obesity expert Steven Blair, himself a fit but somewhat rotund gentleman, has said, we evolved using a lot of energy to survive, but in modern society we no longer have to work hard physically to obtain our food and shelter. Instead we try to “graft on” a bit of artificial (non survival related) physical activity which we call exercise to try to stay healthy. If you think about it, most runners are sedentary 22 – 23 hours per day. That was a luxury our ancestors could not afford.

It just takes A LOT of physical activity to lose weight, which is why it is important to reduce calories in an intelligent manner; one that doesn’t result in lower metabolic rate, which is difficult to do while training. I recommend the book Racing Weight by Matt Fitzgerald for runners who could benefit by losing a few pounds in a sensible manner. Dropping weight by cutting too many calories too quickly will only lead to reduced ability to train, and possible injury, which defeats the purpose.

Keep in mind also, that a lot of those ‘overweight’ marathoners you see have lost a substantial amount of weight as part of adopting a healthy lifestyle, for which running is only one part. Some will have leveled off and some are still losing weight, but nearly all are generally more healthy than the majority of “normal weight”  sedentary people. It is more important to concentrate on health and fitness than weight loss per se when setting goals to improve one’s health and well-being.

Another factor is that marathons have become both more popular and less “elite” over the last couple of decades. The latter means that many races have extended the cut-off time for completing the course to 6, 7, 8 or more hours, which gives a lot more people time to finish. A few decades back when only a few hearty souls, nearly all men, ran marathons the cut-off might have been 4 hours, which today is faster than more than half of all marathon participants run. (For perspective, the world record for men is under 2:03 and for women is about 2:15.) The great thing about running is how inclusive it has become, and that fact that the elites cheer for and support the back of the pack runners. It’s a wonderful thing.

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