How My Running Changed When I Lost Those Last 5 Pounds
It started with a bet.
My gym partner asked me to go on a diet with her. In truth, I’d long since stopped worrying over my weight, but I was still 5 pounds away from my pre-second-kid number on the scale and I had a cute pair of shorts I hadn’t worn in eight years, so I said sure, I’m in. Our motivation was whoever didn’t lose the weight had to do an obscene number of burpees. We promised to give up the concession stand at our kids’ baseball games. We gave ourselves five weeks to whittle down. And to my absolute shock, it worked.
I’m now at my lowest weight since even before my first kid, having shed those last 5 pounds plus 2 more. My clothes are looser, which is nice, but immediately I began to dream of 5K PRs and age group awards. Would losing weight help me get faster, as I’ve read in so many runner guides over the years?
Here’s the truth: Losing the weight didn’t impact my running in the way I expected.
How I Lost the Weight
Now I know a lot of people will be wondering, “How did you do it?” Everyone wants some magical, exciting answer, but the truth is it was pretty simple and straightforward. I ate less food. That was literally it.
I didn’t track my calories. I just made logical reductions. Instead of having a granola bar or pretzels at lunch, I drank an extra cup of tea. I cut out my mid-morning snack. And I stopped eating after dinner. As runners, we often think we deserve to indulge, but the truth is extra calories are extra calories, and as soon as I cut them out, the scale went down.
What Happened to My Running When I Lost Weight
I dropped weight almost immediately, and so I expected my running times to drop immediately, too. I was shocked when, on a run during week two of the diet, already 3 pounds down, I was sucking wind. What the heck?
The next run was like that, too. And the next. And so I got confused. I’d read before that losing 10 pounds would reduce your average speed for a mile by 20 seconds. Having lost almost half that, I expected to be pinging out miles more quickly already. But it turns out this is not an exact science. That takes into account your performance under optimal conditions. And I was not running under optimal conditions.
Let’s take a look at where I went wrong. I think this is an important lesson, because too often in sports, and in running in particular, we think of losing weight as good. We think it is not a piece of an equation but the answer and all that matters. Well, that’s not the truth.
Though I did lose weight, I wasn’t treating my body well in other areas, such as:
Stress. The magazine I’d worked at for 15 years had recently shut down, and my anxiety at starting a new career as a freelancer was off the charts.
Sleep. See stress, above. I was taking every freelance assignment I could in an effort to make money, which led to 4 to 5 hours of sleep per night, since I was also trying to wake up early to run.
Nutrition. I was eating less but not necessarily better. I’m a stress eater, so I was still eating sugar, and skimping on good stuff like protein and healthy fat to make up for it. (You could probably call this part “don’t skip lunch and dinner after you eat 6 cookies at 10 a.m.”)
All those other things took a toll on my body. It was skinnier, but also exhausted and not particularly well nourished.
Taking Control and Improving My Running
It took me a full month after the diet bet was over to realize that this was what was hurting my running. It wasn’t that the number on the scale didn’t matter. It was that so many other factors were conspiring against me, I didn’t really have a chance.
And so, slowly, I brought those other things under control. I started to calm down about my new work situation. I learned to balance my assignments and go to bed earlier. And I decided even if I gained the weight back, I should probably go back to eating things like eggs, beans and grains that, while higher in calories, also didn’t give me the blood sugar peaks and valleys I was getting with those six-cookie meals.
Did my mile time suddenly drop once I improved my health in other areas? Ah, once again, no.
In fact, those runs were some of the worst slogs I have endured in my life, maybe because I kept waiting and hoping for them to get better. You know what they say about the proverbial watched pot. But I did notice I was having less trouble on hills. I felt stronger on them. Small steps, I told myself, and then I got busy with my kids’ baseball schedule and I forgot all about getting faster.
A Breakthrough, At Long Last
You know where I’m going with this, right? Of course. Once I stopped trying to force the weight loss-running improvement correlation, I suddenly had the breakthrough I’d been hoping for. I was doing a treadmill speed workout, after about a one-month speedwork layoff. I decided to try 400s with 2-minute rest in between.
But a funny thing happened. I felt so good after 400, I decided to try for 600. And that felt so easy, I figured why not turn it into a 1.5-mile tempo run? Soon I extended it to 2 miles, then 2.5. I had to be leaving for my son’s baseball game by the time I neared the end of 2.5, but I still had time to crank the treadmill up to a number I hadn’t sustained for more than 20 seconds in years, and I ran that for the final 2 minutes. I cooled down feeling triumphant.
Could it be coincidence? Yes. Is that reflective of my new average mile time? No. I’ve been running for 20 years, and I know you have good days and bad. You can’t always predict them. But on my last few runs, I’ve picked up the pace so I’m running about 20 seconds faster than my usual average. And you know what? It didn’t feel great, but it did feel doable. Maybe those last 5 pounds do have an impact on running after all.