Runners still need to watch what they eat

No matter which mirror you consult, it's telling you you're spreading in places you'd prefer not to be. Time to start exercising, right?

So you take up running – a 5km loop and you do it three times a week. You might notice that the weight's coming off, but you might also notice that it's not. There are reasons for both outcomes.

Peta Carige, an accredited sports dietitian who consults to the NSW Waratahs, the Manly Sea Eagles and the Australian Rugby Sevens, says it's a myth that running will automatically result in weight loss.

"Everyone's first step to weight loss is usually exercise, but you have to remember the 80-20 rule, which is that weight loss is 80 per cent diet or nutrition and 20 per cent exercise," says Carige.

"I tell clients and athletes that you can't outrun your fork."

You shouldn't be turning to exercise primarily to lose weight.

Peta Carige

Weight debate

In fact, she says, you can lose weight without doing any exercise.

"I'm biased, but it's 100 per cent better to start getting your nutrition right before anything else, then the client learns that it is their diet that is responsible for their weight loss. At that point they can add the exercise in and the good results will either continue or occur faster."

Carige says the reason people often turn to exercise before focusing on their diet is that changing eating patterns can be harder to do. "Exercising is fabulous and you should do it for fitness and toning. But you shouldn't be turning to exercise primarily to lose weight."

Carige says people from a sporting background who start a nutrition and exercise plan at the same time are more likely to be successful, because they are motivated by their exercise. "The combination would be the gold standard, but you can still lose weight without the exercise component."


Burning myth

So what gives if you're the person who is out there running regularly and not losing weight?

"With running in particular, because people believe it burns a lot of energy, two things can happen," says Carige. "One is that they believe they can eat whatever they want, for example a coffee and muffin after bootcamp. Trust me, that muffin is way more [energy value] than what they've burnt off at boot camp.

"Secondly, if they don't refuel adequately afterwards with good food, they get a delayed onset of hunger and then they overeat in the afternoon and evening." Er, guilty your honour ...

Carige says you want to be eating a healthy meal within 30 minutes of finishing a run because that's the optimal window to refuel your muscles most efficiently. And that helps prevent hunger later.

Beware of the plateau

That 5km run you like to do will need to change at some stage, too. Well, it can stay the same, but it'll need to be done at a different intensity if you want the exercise to continue triggering weight loss.

"As you lose weight and you're starting to become fitter, you're not burning as much energy," says Carige. "That's why you should always be increasing either the duration or the intensity of your running as you get fitter and leaner so you're burning more or the same amount of kilojoules.

"The general public who take up running often won't progressively increase their intensity and duration like an athlete would, therefore will often see a plateau in their weight loss. People aren't aware of this."

Feed the distance

If it's too hard to increase the duration of your run – let's face it, time is hard to come by – then to keep losing weight you have to reconsider your nutrition intake or up the intensity of your run over the same time period.

"The best thing about running is that pretty much anyone can do it and do it anywhere, so that's a huge positive as to why it's such a good exercise," says Carige. "You just need to factor in nutrition intake and managing your hunger. And realising that eventually you're going to have to change your duration, intensity or nutrition."

Simple really. If only.

What's your experience with running, diet and weight loss? Let us know in the comment section. 

Pip Coates is a running tragic who knows the euphoria of training for and completing a major race, but also the heartbreak of injury and every bend in the long road back. In between runs she is also the deputy editor of the Australian Financial Review Magazine.