There’s a woman on the Coolrunning forum asking why she isn’t losing weight from running. I understand the frustration, especially after my eighteen-month weight plateau early on:

I know that running in and of itself isn’t a weight loss program but still….. When I started running last February I was 30 lbs overweight and I was looking for a way to get fit, gain energy and not be so frustrated with my appearance anymore (I gained the weight with my two kids and it just stuck.  Before that I was always slender.)  What I found was that I love running.  I just love it.  I love the peace it gives me, the stamina, the sense of challenging myself, all of it.  I got rid of the scale and just ran.  I average between 15-20 miles a week (running five days a week 2m, 3m, 4m, 3m, 7m-ish) and I’m increasing mileage and doing speed work.  For a while I was feeling pretty good but the holidays came and the usual food/drinkfest happened.  Today in honor of the new year, I stepped on the scale (My Wii fit, the same one I used last year) and over the course of the year I lost….wait for it….two pounds.  I actually gained 7 in the past six months (the last time I weighed myself before now.)  Seeing a seven pound weight gain from the last time I logged in and hearing my Wii say, “That’s overweight” just made me feel so defeated.  As it is I always feel like the fat runner people look at and think, “If that fat girl can do it, anyone can.”  I know I should be proud of my accomplishments but honestly, I just want to cry.  The funny part is, more than wanting to lose a size or look better, I keep feeling like if I could drop the 30 lbs I’d be so much faster as a runner.  Being heavy makes me feel like a fraud as a runner – I was in a running store and when I told the person what I do for distance and what races I have coming up I could just feel the look of, “Okay, sure you’re a runner.”  I know some of it is my own insecurity, but some of it is real.

I’ve been meaning to answer her: Keep the faith, keep going. The thing is, everyone else is telling her to count calories, eat less.

I despise counting calories, and I despise limiting the quantity of my food intake. To me, that’s the lowest quality of life! And ramping up exercise while restricting calories is, in my experience, a recipe for physical misery. It’s also a good way to get a lot less than you could out of your workouts due to low energy. I’m not saying I haven’t done it or would never do it, but I definitely avoid it.

I did not lose my weight that way, by restricting calories or food quantities. You often hear about the 80/20 rule from trainers and nutritionists — that fitness is 80% diet and 20% exercise. I suppose if you’re existing on Ho-Ho’s and Big Macs, that might be true! But I was already eating a healthy diet of organic, natural foods, with at least the minimal amount of produce, when I weighed thirty pounds more in 2006. It’s true I tend to eat too much sugar, especially chocolate. (That’s the main vice I’m addressing with going low carb for right now!) But it was exercise that improved my metabolism and built muscle and dropped fat. My food choices improved some, too, because your tastes change when your body demands food for fuel. So for me, it was really 80% exercise and 20% diet.

However, my weight loss was incredibly slow at points. But I was convinced that consistent exercise would eventually yield results that looked like consistent exercise! And my body composition did change over time, which is a slow process. My weight finally stabilized itself, and (with exercise) regulates itself. I know from experience, that isn’t true when you “go on a diet” to lose thirty pounds in three months. You tank your metabolism; lose as much muscle as fat; and set up a starvation response in which your body tries to regain the weight by increasing your appetite to out-of-control proportions. It’s not even a responsible thing to recommend to someone, in my opinion, though it’s recommended all the time! It’s based on the false idea that humans can voluntarily restrict their food intake indefinitely (because you need to for maintenance, too), which just isn’t true.

I keep coming back to this example that fascinates me. Hillary Swank ate 4,000 calories of low-carb protein and fat every day for three months to gain muscle for Million Dollar Baby. She drank 1,000 calories of flax seed oil; and she woke up for a protein shake in the middle of the night to get in more calories. I’m not at all interested in going to those extremes! But I find the direction to eat more — so different from the usual advice to restrict calories while working out — informative and inspiring. Granted, she started out a waif, not overweight. But it seems to me all conventional wisdom would have predicted her blowing up into a fat little piggy on that diet, workouts or not, instead of gaining nineteen solid pounds of muscle.

Of course — and this is important — it was her workouts that made the 4,000 calorie plan work.

For years now, since I started biking for hours and then running again, I’ve been eating 3,000 or more calories on workout days, and healthily into the mid-2,000s on off days. (I’m naturally not as hungry on off days; that seems to be self-regulating, too.) That’s a lot more than I “should” be able to for my gender, age, and weight (and another reason I can’t stick to a 1,400-calorie diet!). Everything I’ve done has increased my metabolism, by increasing my muscle mass, capillaries, mitochondria (the furnaces inside our cells that “burn” fat and sugar), and metabolic enzymes and hormones. Dieting does the opposite. These adaptations have made me leaner, though they sometimes can cause weight gain (not fat gain). When I trained hard to race for elite status this fall, my weight went up eight pounds! (it’s back down now). The Coolrunning woman’s seven pound gain may easily be from these factors. Personally, I no longer have a particular weight goal; I go by body composition, and look and feel.

My weight is up about two pounds now on my Jillian/low carb combo, but my bodyfat is down for the first time in ages. That means I’m gaining muscle with a slight net loss of fat. I’m definitely not getting skinny quickly, like I would on a “diet,” ten pounds of weight loss in a month. Instead, I’m relying on what I’m doing now to slowly alter my body composition some more (at over 20%, it’s still not quite athletic). This is the picture I always have in my mind: If you change the ship’s course slightly, point the nose to one side by a degree, you won’t notice a difference today — but later on, you’ll end up in a completely different part of the world!

My own conclusion is that if you want to lose “weight” quickly (with consequences), diet is 80%. If you want to change permanently, exercise is 80%.