Will Running a Marathon Make You Skinny? A Surprising Answer is Not Necessarily

The marathon is the iconic distance shrouded in mystery, and crowned with glamor. Just finishing it is considered an accomplishment.  At one time it was widely believed that just running a marathon would make you immune from a heart attack, and this belief was widely held until running evangelist Jim Fixx, and best selling author of The Complete Book of Running, died of a heart attack – while running:

Fixx often quoted California pathologist Tom Bassler who stated that any nonsmoker who could run a marathon in under four hours would never die from a heart attack.


So, can people run marathons without necessarily losing weight?  The study is small, the exact implications are not clear, but fitness researcher Mary Kennedy of the Harvard Medical School was surprised to find  that for whatever reason some people who run marathons will not necessarily loose. weight. There are many breathless iterations of this story on the web, and I have not been able to find the original research, but New York Magazine’s “The Science of Us” web page carried the most reasonable version of the story stripped of the sensationalism. Here is a quote from that story:

She conducted a small, simple pilot study, limited to her group of 64 charity runners, comparing their weight before starting the training program to their weight after completing it. About 11 percent of them did lose weight, but just as many gained weight (and of those who gained, 86 percent were women). But for the remaining 78 percent, their weight stayed almost exactly the same, even after three months of running four days a week.

This summer Runners World ran a remarkable article about Mirna Valerio who is a 250 lb, and they actually use the term, “obese runner.”  She is a distance runner who also runs the occasional marathon.  You can read the story here:  http://www.runnersworld.com/runners-stories/ultra  and I urge you to visit her  interesting blog Fat Girl Running.

So now we know that running marathons does not guarantee that you will not have a heart attack, and there continues to be reports of runners who look fit, but who die while running like my friend and mentor Arne Richards, of whom Joe Henderson has written so movingly.

We need to understand that being thin, my friend Arne was very thin with practically no body fat when he died while running at age 42, does not guarantee being physically fit or healthy. Same thing applied to Jim Fixx.  Conversely, we need to understand that running long distances is no guarantee of shedding pounds.  It is more complicated than that.

A life of holistic moderation lived mindfully is the target that I am aiming for.  That includes a good diet, adequate sleep, reducing stress, and an exercise regime that is backed by empirical evidence rather than wishful, and simplistic, thinking.  All of these things work together.  I will close now by referring you to an article in Women’s Running by Rachel Cosgrove which is simply outstanding.  It is entitled Weight Loss Fact and Fiction.  Please read it.


Galloway’s 5K and 10K Running – A Review

Jeff Galloway promotes the run-walk-run method of training, and he has written about it extensively in other books. Jeff Galloway competed in the 1972 Olympics in the 10,000 meters, and has been a runner for over fifty years. As an authoritative figure in the running and fitness world he is somebody you want to listen to.*  In this book Jeff Galloway applies the run-walk-run method specifically to training for a 5k and 10k run.  It is an intriguing idea that taking walking breaks systematically throughout your run can decrease recovery time between runs, decrease injuries,  and actually improve average time over a given distance.

5k/10 Running by Jeff Galloway
5k/10 Running by Jeff Galloway

So far I have only experimented with the Galloway method, but it is something I plan on implementing this spring. The one barrier to me has been psychological.  Having been conditioned to see walking as cheating or showing weakness, walking in a race, or a training run, doesn’t feel right.   Back when I was running a 5k at the 12 minute per mile, or slower, pace I would regularly be passed by people who took turns alternating between walking and running. I would pass them while they walked and then they would fly by me when they ran. I hated them.  I was delighted that not all of them beat me. At the time I was vaguely familiar with Galloway’s theory, and wondered if there was something to it. It was that interest that eventually brought me to read this book several years later.  However several years later, this past season, when I was running between 8 and 9 minutes per mile nobody using run-walk-run method finished ahead of me.  I am not sure why. Maybe there is a sweet spot for this method with diminishing returns as your speed improves, or it  could be this method is counterproductive for the competitive runner.  Or, just as  likely, it could be that as runners improve their speed over distance they are more reluctant to slow down. I know I am. I also suppose there is a very slight chance that this method might not have the benefits of sustained running, but I seriously doubt that.

At the start of this review I noted that he has written other books.  Well, he has written a lot of them, and there is a lot of overlap in their content, but also something for just about everyone. This just happened to be the first book of his I have had the pleasure to read.  Before buying this book, or any of his other books, I would recommend looking at his titles and finding those that appeal the most to you.  For example, he has a book for women, for walkers, and even for people who are trying to qualify for the Boston Marathon.  He also has a specific book on the run-walk-run method.

The final word? I think this is an outstanding book for beginning runners who want to compete in a 5k or a 10k for the first time, and helpful to those who want to improve their times at those distances. It provides structure, and a plan, from an experienced coach. Personally, I am interested in the run-walk-run approach that Jeff Galloway advocates, particularly as I get older, if it will make me more durable, and allows me to run longer.  I am more interested in running for my own pleasure,  to keep the weight off, and stay fit.  I compete for fun.  I do recommend this book, but also recommend checking his other titles to see if there is something that might be a better fit for your particular situation. In addition to his books, Jeff Galloway’s  web site, www.jeffgalloway.com, is worth visiting.

I would also like to see research comparing this and other training philosophies. What works, and under what circumstances?  From time to time future posts will be dealing with what I call data driven fitness, powered by best practices.  That is, using data to track fitness, and being guided by empirical evidence as to what works and what doesn’t. There is a lot of good research out there we should all be aware of.


*I am not alone in that opinion. Joe Henderson, a former columnist and editor for Runners World, and best selling running author himself,  is another person I have the utmost respect for (he also knew my late friend the legendary distance runner Arne Richards), and he thinks very highly of Jeff.  Not only as a coach, and runner, but especially as  a person.  See Going Far:  Reflecting on the years when running grew up, and a writing career took off,  pages 117-120.