Here’s the thing… For years now we’ve been told cardio-vascular exercise is essential for weight loss and while you cannot outrun a ‘bad diet’, an exercise programme rich in CV workouts in conjunction with ‘healthy’ eating is the way to lose weight.
I’m slowly coming to the conclusion the above is mostly bullshit. And frankly I’m getting a tad pissed about being lied to all the time by the ‘experts’.
Before you tell me to take a chill pill, I am going to quantify all of this. And because I don’t want this post to sound like a research paper, most of my observations will be just that, anecdotal observations. But, I will say, there appears to be plenty of research out there to quantify the outburst above. This is a very good place to start if you are interested in reading more.
Anyway, last Sunday I was in Brighton. It was a beautiful warm sunny day (my poor peeling face is testament to that) and I was supporting my beloved who was running the marathon.
The day prior we had to visit Brighton to pick up race packs and since it was rather lovely, we opted for coffee and a seat on the beach to watch the developing sunset. While waiting in line for coffee the lady in front of us (clutching a marathon pack like her life depended on it) had a breakdown because the stall had ran out of porridge.
I mean like seriously, it was about 5pm.
On being told the news, she panicked and ordered a hot chocolate as a replacement item. It was a bit like asking for Jif Lemon juice and being given a banana. Especially since the coffee shack was actually Oatopia who at the time were proffering a stunning array of flapjacks right in front of her face. “I’m supposed to eat porridge” she huffed as she turned to her companion. “How am I going to carb load now? I’ll have to put sugar in the hot chocolate”. Her partner sensibly kept his opinions to himself after presumably assuming the question was rhetorical.
Meanwhile I was coming to the conclusion that carbs actually make you dolally. Or maybe it was the marathon running? Who knows?
Anyway, I tucked the thought into my unconcious mind for filtering, got my coffee and went to sit on the beach and pocket pebbles for using as paperweights in the office because they felt nice to touch.
The next day, having squeezed McGill and wished him good luck, I wandered down the road away from the race start at Preston Park and into Brighton centre to set up camp at my personal supporting station just before Mile 15. I grabbed a coffee from the kiosk there, enjoyed a nice chat with a local about this being the much better end of town and then settled in my position.
I love watching marathons. Especially in the later stages when I’m fuelled by caffeine and the relaxing notion of not having to run myself. 15 miles is about the time when the truth serum kicks in. Honesty etched into each runners face as the glide or plod by. Here, you can almost see into their soul. And in a world currently turned on its head, it was a relief to be in a familiar place.
I was lost in thought through much of it, consumed by mixed feelings: a desire to run; frustration at being in less than optimal health at the moment; enjoyment of the sunshine; annoyance at the bangy inflatable stick thingies a supporter was relentlessly drumming and counting runners wearing headphones (I’d hazard a guess at a disappointing third of the runners were embracing them).
My thoughts turned to running, the motion of running, the science behind it, did I miss being all embraced by it and talking about it. And so, I just started to watch the runners. Observing their different gaits, biomechanical quirks, what shoes they were wearing and clothing choices and then I noticed something very, very strange.
A significant proportion of participants were displaying excess body fat. Mostly around their abdomen and enough to be considered overweight. Now do not get me wrong here, I’m in the wrong sort of glass house to be throwing those kind of stones. I wasn’t in any way judging, just observing, and it was really quite bizarre.
For ages, I could not focus on anything else. We were still within the sub 3.45 and 4 hour finishers here, so they were running relatively fast but many, indeed a significant proportion, were running with protruding, wobbly tummies, man boobs and fleshy bottoms. I compared with the general public around me and (as long as I keep myself out of this), people running IN the marathon (and this is just a visual comparison) appeared to be ‘unhealthier’ than people around me supporting. And the longer I watched and the slower the field became, the more overweight (and now clearly obese) people passed.
It was completely bonkers, and then the penny dropped.
Despite being told by the highest official health authority in the country that the secret to losing weight is to eat more fibre based carbohydrate, reduce dietary fat intake and exercise more. Training for and running a marathon did not automatically help you lose weight. In fact, it appeared to be quite the opposite. And I wondered why, especially as these people in front of me would surely be the best examples of the advice given by NHS England?
I reflected on the countless seminars I had chaired or sat in on regarding training for marathon. The question of fueling for training and carb loading for the race itself came up a lot. (In the last 10 years I can actually only think of one person who said they did not eat refined carbs and refused to succumb to the circus around carbs). When questioned, runners time and time again would insist they had to eat a diet high in carbohydrate with particular focus on porridge, bananas, gels and energy drinks. The classic example being my lady at the coffee kiosk above. If I even questioned this theory, I was met with hysteria and distrust. But too be honest, I can’t really blame them, almost every ‘expert’ and governing body sells them the lie and it takes a strong person to question the status quo.
Want an example? Here’s an exert from Runners World UK on the process of carbohydrate loading prior to marathon running published in 2016…
‘Give yourself a week before race day to focus on carb-loading
You can begin carb-loading as early as five days prior by slightly increasing your carb intake and then, in the two days before the race, really start to pound those carbs. In order to not totally overwhelm yourself with calories, it’s not unusual for protein and fat to fall by the wayside during these two days. To get into the specifics, aim for a carb intake close to 3.6 to 5.5 grams per pound of body weight in those one to two days immediately before the race. When you do the math, this tends to be a whole lot of carbs, and the reason why protein and fat often get put on the back burner in the hours before the race.
The easiest way to achieve a simple, successful carb-load is to include carbohydrate-rich foods at every meal and snack. This means bread, pasta, rice, cereal, potatoes, and fruit should be mainstays. Simple sugars and refined grains, while usually not a large component of your diet (right?), get the green light in the days leading up to the race. These foods are quick to digest and don’t often contain the fibre which has been known to cause GI distress as the mileage piles up.
Now let’s really look at it. Firstly, it suggests carb loading for a week prior to the race. A WEEK!!! Now, how many of you have gone on holiday for a week with a ‘sod it, I’m on holiday I’m going to enjoy myself’ and come back 7lb to 10lbs heavier than when you went?
Yup, my hand’s up too.
That’s how much damage you can do in a week. Especially if you follow my favourite bit in the above passage… ‘To get into the specifics, aim for a carb intake close to 3.6 to 5.5 grams per pound of body weight in those one to two days immediately before the race‘. Flipping heck – an average slice of bread is around 12 grams of carbs net. If you multiply the top recommendation of 5.5g per POUND OF BODY WEIGHT for an average bloke weighing 80kg that would be 80 slices of bread in the days leading up to the race. We don’t call it a ‘food baby’ for nothing and good luck on race day with that.
Now let’s take race day itself. Even if we accept the general calorie laws we’ve been fed (ie, you burn approximately 100 calories in a mile – don’t forget your basal metabolic rate would burn around 30 calories anyway so you can really only claim 70) that would add up to around 1800 calories burned during the course of the marathon – not enough in the general consensus to burn 1lb of fat. And while we’re there…trust me, don’t believe the calorie burn on your garmin – that’s a sure fire way to gain weight when marathon training.
But of course, we have to add in the calories ingested during the course of the marathon – breakfast, the pre race energy drink and the advised gel every 20 minutes of the race – an average of 88 cals per gel so if we only take these into account for a four hour runner it would add up to a whopping 1000 calories in gels alone. The spare 800 would barely cover a post run ice cream and bag of chips. (we were in Brighton after all) and it certainly won’t touch the weight you gained in the week prior to the race carb loading.
Actually, looking at these figures was mind blowing but at least now I had a context to what I was seeing in front of me. Basically, following general nutritional and exercise advice when training for a marathon is a sure fire way to get fat – even if you are trying to achieve the opposite.
Following on from the above, it certainly put my own experience into context. I’ve ‘trained’ for over 20 marathons in the last 15 years. Not once in that time have I ever lost weight doing so while following a carbohydrate focused lifestyle. But, when following a paleo focused lifestyle I got stronger, leaner, lighter and became a better (faster) runner even while my run training was relatively low in comparison. I was also injured and ill a lot less and so was able to train much more consistently.
A high carb, high cardio lifestyle to lose weight and get healthy just does not make sense anymore. I’ve said to many in the last few weeks that now my old life is behind me, going forward, my new project is me. In the next few weeks, I’ll be cataloguing how I’m focusing on regaining my health and fitness (and the progress I make) and you can bet your house I won’t be following governement guidlines anytime soon.