After a few months of training for an Ironman competition, Danielle Lawson was feeling confident about the gruelling race. The weeks of swimming laps, pedalling for hours and running long distances seemed to be paying off. But then she stepped on the scales. To her amazement, the 52-year-old from Ottawa had actually gained 10 pounds.
"I'm the queen of training and putting on weight," Ms. Lawson says. The realization that she put on pounds after following a strict training schedule left her feeling shocked and dismayed. "It is very discouraging," she says.
As counterintuitive as it may seem that someone who is getting regular exercise would gain weight rather than drop pounds, it is actually quite common, sports nutritionists say. Many runners overestimate the number of calories they have burned during exercise, which can lead them to believe that they can have a slice of chocolate cake with dinner or an extra tall latte and still lose weight. And when they come home ravenous from a run, it can be difficult not to eat everything in sight.
"It's purely related to the mindset of feeling like, 'Yeah, I deserve this. I worked out hard today,' " says Andrea Holwegner, founder of Health Stand Nutrition Consulting in Calgary.
It is not a problem just recreational runners and weekend warriors grapple with, Ms. Holwegner says. "I've worked with all sorts of different Olympic athletes who train out of Calgary for winter sports and they have the same challenges."
Runners who are just a few pounds overweight are more likely than others to add pounds as they train. Typically, they will gain about three to five pounds, says Jennifer Gibson, a registered dietitian and nutrition consultant based in Victoria.
For a small percentage of those people, the weight gain is due to added muscle, especially if strength training is part of their routine. "That tends to be the person who's already in pretty decent shape, already probably at their ideal body weight and somebody who's taking on a new training program," Ms. Gibson says.
But for the majority of people who gain pounds, it's simply a matter of failing to realize how many calories they are burning versus how many they are consuming.
As Ms. Gibson points out, spending one hour on a light jog burns only about 400 calories. "It's really easy to eat 400 calories. That's just a sandwich," she says.
Yet some runners say scaling back their diets could hurt their performance come race day. "If I don't eat what I'm eating, I won't be able to train," Ms. Lawson says.
But after gaining weight while preparing for her Ironman race in 2006, she has become much more food-conscious, she says. For one thing, there are no more cookies in her house. "Because you are so busy with training and you're hungry, you have the tendency to just grab whatever is easy to grab," she says.
There is also a tendency among some runners to rush to load up on carbohydrates. "When we get in to the sport of running, we think, 'Oh, now we're an endurance athlete so we need to carbo-load.' Then people are just shoving in massive amounts of pasta, rice, potatoes and drinking juices all the time and they're taking gels and doing all this stuff," says Elizabeth Mansfield, a dietitian and founder of Peak Performance, a nutrition consulting company in Ottawa.
While carbs are certainly important, Ms. Holwegner recommends that runners also load up on vegetables, since they provide a lot of volume to fill your stomach with minimum calories. She also suggests eating warm foods, such as a bowl of soup, rather than a sandwich, since warm foods are perceived to leave you feeling more full than cold foods.
Perhaps most important, Ms. Mansfield says, is to avoid thinking that training sessions are all the exercise needed to lose weight.
Indeed, one mistake many runners make, especially people who are new to the sport, is ignoring the benefits of other physical activity, whether it's walking to the store rather than driving or taking the stairs rather than the elevator, she says. Instead, they think their morning or evening training session is enough to lose weight.
"The small things that you do throughout the day are a bigger difference in energy expenditure than going out to do your run," she says. "You tend to go, 'You know, that doesn't really count. It doesn't matter.' All of it adds up."
To prepare for the Ironman she will be participating in this summer, Ms. Lawson has begun tracking her calories on FitDay.com, an online diet journal. While she has not gained any weight recently, she has not lost any either. "I should be losing about a pound or a pound and a half a week, but I'm not," she says. "I have the Oprah syndrome. I look at food and I gain weight."
How many calories are you burning? Not as many as you may think, according to HealthyOntario.com's calorie calculator. The following figures are based on a 40-year-old man who weighs 182 pounds and stands 5 feet, 8 inches and a 40-year-old woman who weighs 153 pounds and stands 5 feet, 3 inches (the average height and weight of Canadians, according to Statistics Canada). The depressing chocolate cake figure comes from www.thecaloriecounter.com
1 hour of jogging: 240 (men); 216 (women)
1 hour of running at a 9-minute-mile pace: 360 (men); 324 (women)
1 hour of running at an 8-minute-mile pace: 420 (men); 378 (women)
1 slice of chocolate cake: 340