Last month, I wrote a post about how was I working to get rid of cheats and back to all the habits that made me healthy in the first place. One of the things I had to get rid of was running – specifically, training for a half marathon. I know what you’re thinking – don’t they do half marathons on the Biggest Loser? And those other weight loss shows? Those runners seem pretty healthy to me…?
I know, it’s confusing. For me, runners have always been the pinnacle of health – lean, fast, lots of endurance. I managed track and cross country in high school just to be a little closer to runners. I ‘couldn’t’ run back then and I wan envious of other people’s ability. And when I say I couldn’t run – I was 18 years old and had never run once around a track (which is 1/4 of a mile) without stopping.
I tried running in college, but honestly, I was more interested in other things that had nothing to do with improving my health. When I lived in Maine and New York, I walked a lot but it was out of necessity. Then, when I broke my pelvis, one of the promises I made while lying on the floor unable to move was that if I got through this, I would do better by my body. I broke my pelvis in October and all winter long I was terrified of slipping on ice… terrified that I would break apart if I put sudden pressure on that side of my body. Then spring came, and on my 26th birthday, I decided to try and trust myself again. I put on my sneakers, walked out my front door and ran down Bedford Ave in Brooklyn. I reveled in that fact that I could run, and without pain… I was just grateful for the ability. And, albeit infrequently, I continued running.
When I moved back to Iowa, my dad was sick and I wanted – needed – something I could control. So I ran more and I tried to eat better. I did my first half in 2010 and when I finished I was a hot mess. My legs were jello, everything hurt… it was awful. I have no idea why I have wanted to do it again. But I did another half in 2011, in better shape than the last, and I felt decent when I finished.
For me, running does not and has never really felt good physically, but it does feel very good psychologically. I felt like I was accomplishing something; by going farther or faster, I felt successful, tough… I could list tons of adjectives that speak to how running helped me from a metal stand point, almost like meditation. But physically, well, you would think that by training to do half marathons, I would have lost weight. I was jogging multiple 5ks per week each time I trained but the scale never budged more than 5 lbs. I would try to lower my calories while training (this was before I discovered paleo) but running that much made me CRAZY with hunger. Also, running that much at the weight I was at was painfully hard on my joints. It was a vicious cycle – one that I put myself through because I thought I HAD to if I wanted to look a certain way… I thought if I just ran further or faster I would be lean…
But then I found paleo – which is not just an approach to eating, it’s approach to living, including how achieve health and fitness. I had figured out by then that I needed to change things slowly, so I focused on my eating and didn’t worry about running or working out at all. I lost over 30lbs before I ever set foot in a gym, just by changing my eating habits. And, once I had the food thing down and those 30 lbs off, I decided to add the work outs.
I figured if the paleo approach to food had gotten me this far, I would try the paleo approach to fitness – which is lift heavy things and walk. So that’s what I did: weight training with a trainer, 3 times per week in the beginning. I didn’t run. I would take walks, and sometimes I would sprint short distance during my walks. I didn’t do it often. And it continued working. The weight training transformed the shape of my body – I didn’t bulk up like I feared, I got longer and leaner, it was easier to wear clothes, my posture was better, I felt so strong.
Now that I was in such good shape, I kinda thought I could do whatever I wanted with my body. Healthy people can run half marathons, so I signed up for another one. No big deal because I had run two when I was heavier and in much worse shape, right!? This past spring, in preparation for the race, I ran a lot – back to 5ks multiple times per week. And I got down to lifting once per week or not at all. My legs would cramp up in bed at night and I didn’t get good sleep. While once I had very good control over my food cravings, when I was running consistently, it was so much harder for me to control my cravings (a sign that your hormones are up and down) – I would eat like a crazy person or sometimes not at all. My stomach actually got flabbier. (There’s a scientific possiblity for this – steady state cardio can be perceived as stress in the body, which produces cortisol, and a side effect of elevated cortisol is mid-section fat). I just didn’t feel good anymore – I was constantly up and down where once I had been level and steady.
Eventually, I had to admit that this running thing was not really working for me. I didn’t feel strong anymore – I felt tired or slightly less tired, but never fully recovered. Running took up a lot of my time and I wasn’t seeing such great results and I didn’t really understand why. Was it just me and my faulty non-runner body? Was I just being lazy and whining?
So I started doing some research. You can do the same research if you need to and I’ve listed articles and resources at the bottom of this article where you can start. To sum it up, there are unintended consequences to running long distances (or any form of pro-longed cardio). I think ‘do lots of cardio’, and the general idea that more is always better if you want to lose weight, is ingrained in most of us, but when it comes to exercising… depending on your goals, that might not be the case.
If your goal is to be an awesome runner, then go run. Running (and trying to be good at it) is a sport. Or maybe it’s a hobby, that you do with friends. Maybe it’s a form of meditation, or a one time challenge you want to do, just to say you did it. Training for those half marathons certainly made me grow as a person, helped me develop greater respect for what my body is capable of – and what I can mentally push myself to do.
But – and it’s a big but – running did not produce the results I was hoping for in terms of shaping my body, shedding fat, and helping me to develop a sustainable routine to maintain my health. For me, it is not so important that I can run 13 miles – my main goal is to feel healthy and strong, and be able to do that without spending hours in the gym. I was running because I thought it would get me closer to my goals. I realized it wasn’t working… running was actually derailing me from my goals.
I’ve gone back to walking a lot and lifting 2 or 3 times per week and have been doing so for about six weeks. I feel awesome again. I’m able to lift heavier than I have before, have more energy throughout the day, my flabby stomach is flattening out and my clothes fit better. 3 of those things are why I was running and I actually got them when I stopped.
Like I said – if running brings you joy, then keep doing it. I’m not here to judge. But if you are running to achieve a specific result, please consider that there may be another way to achieve those results that’s less time consuming and less stressful for your body. Doing low level exercise like walking might not ‘feel’ like you are accomplishing as much as a super intense 3 mile run – but the walking might actually help you more than that run. It took me a really long time to wrap my head around that, and I was only convinced after I experienced it myself. Just like I’ve said in regards to trying to eat paleo – try quitting the running/cardio and trade it for lifting and just see what happens. Get a good trainer who can help you lift safely and teach you good form. At the very least, make it a point to add some lifting/strength training into your fitness routine. Winter is actually the perfect time to do it, because no one I know LOVES running on a treadmill. Who knows… you might see results that you never knew were possible!
I’m not a trainer or a doctor, but here is what I do, and it’s gotten me results, without taking up a lot of my time. What I Do in an Average Week:
Monday – 5 minute walking warm up, 30 minutes of heavy lifting (usually 3 or 4 exercises, 3 sets of each)
Tuesday: walk 2 miles
Wednesday: walk 2 miles. Planks – holding for 30 seconds x 3
Thursday: 5 minute walking warm up, 30 minutes of heavy lifting (usually 3 or 4 exercises, 3 sets of each)
Saturday: 3 – 5 mile walk
Sunday: walk 2 miles. Planks – holding for 30 seconds x 3