Exercise Monday: The Marathon Effect
This is going to be a controversial post but I don’t care. I need to talk about it because it is something that is near and dear to my heart personally. About 4 years ago I participated in a Marathon; the Lake Tahoe one to be exact. It is about 6,000 ft elevation and I not only had to train for endurance, but I had to train for high altitude. The “track” is around the lake and the up and down mountainous climbs also needed to be trained for. Some of the inclines felt about 50% grade or more. It took me about 5 months to train and that was short. One more thing, I walked it – not ran. I am not, nor will ever be, a runner. My body is not built for it and I make no apologies. I completed it in 7 hours which is a good time for a walker.
I trained in horrible summer heat of about 95 -100 degrees due to the marathon taking place at the end of Sept. It also happened to be a bad fire season in southern CA that year. I had to wear a surgical mask when I trained so that I wouldn’t breathe in ash. On one excruciatingly hot day, I was at mile 18 and fainted from the heat. I also needed to eat something because training can be strenuous on the body especially when you are up past 3 hours. There is no stopping to rest in training. I wore one of those strap on waist packs that carries two water bottles. I looked like a freak with my fanny pack and mask on marching around in sweltering heat, but I had a mission to accomplish. One woman, after seeing me look like hell, asked if she could give me a ride somewhere. That was embarrassing! After the fainting spell, I ran out of days to train. I was actually supposed to go 2 more miles that day, but the fainting/heat/fires put a stop to it. Plus, I didn’t want to experience that again. So I knew going into the marathon it would be painful because I had only trained up to mile 18. A marathon is 26.2 miles for the record. On one afternoon, around mile 16, I ran into a bear. He actually saw me first and ran away, but I was about 30 feet from him. That got me running!
Anyways, I want to talk about the fact that while I was doing hours and hours of training for this monstrous feat, I gained a lot of weight in the process. This was the most frustrating and irritating problem for me. I wanted to do the marathon to lose weight, not gain it for heaven’s sake! Think about it: exercising for hours on end burning hundreds if not thousands of calories only to gain weight steadily every week you train harder!!! This was confounding. Then I heard someone explain a principal of fat storage that began to make a lot of sense to me.
It was about 2 months after the marathon that I heard about this concept or bodily process, but it suddenly dawned on me that it made perfect sense and that I was an unfortunate victim of it. I want to say up front that I don’t have any facts to share with you yet, but just theories and guesses. I also have my own body as a guinea pig to prove it. The idea goes that your body uses different types of fuel to get you through a workout session: Fat, Glycogen (sugar in bloodstream), and Muscle. Muscle is used in a desperate situation when the body is overtaxed and has nothing left to operate on (you NEVER want to be in this state). Most people burn either fat or glycogen when they exercise. An endurance trainer needs to exercise at a pace that will carry them through a long period of time. If they go too hard, they will burn out quickly and have nothing left. I saw this happen in the marathon. Many runners racing past me were cramping and sitting down up the road when I reached them due to them either not training enough, or pushing too hard too fast. They were probably pacing themselves wrongly in what I call the High Intensity Heart Rate Zone which is approximately 80 – 90% of your maximum heart rate. This is very hard on the heart and lungs for long periods of time and is usually only done in short spurts of energy output such as what a sprinter or pole vaulter would do. Endurance runners/walkers have to not work out as hard and keep their pace in the Fat Burning Heart Rate Zone which is about 60 -75% of your maximum heart rate. This will ensure that they have enough energy to empower them to go long distances without fatigue or failure. And to go even further, those who work out in the HIHRZ burn/use glycogen as their fuel (at first, until it runs out) and those who exercise in the FBHRZ burn fat as their fuel.
Here’s the problem. Once upon a time it was thought that burning fat as you worked out was a great thing! It sounds it, doesn’t it? The idea of piles of fat melting off as you walk up and down the block is a dieters dream come true. The controversial part of this post comes here: Only burning fat as fuel while you work out sets up the body to immediately store fat once you stop exercising and eat your next meal. The fat burned off will be replaced by more fat (the body protecting itself) and the more you keep doing that,the more fat you store making you gain more and more weight. Even if you are working out 6 hours a day like I was. You also have to keep in mind that strict endurance training does very little in building muscle mass or tone. It can also use muscle as fuel if you start to overtax yourself. Burning glycogen on the other hand, like sprinters who work out in minutes of fast explosive episodes, makes the body replace glycogen when you are done exercising and not fat. Also, exercising in the HIHRZ makes the body burn fat when you are at rest, oddly enough. (I’ll keep searching for relevant articles relating to my conjecture here. I know that this may sound like a bunch of hoo-haw.)
So I was gaining weight even though my diet was roughly the same and I was working out like a bitch. Oh the frustration!!! (I am not the only one who has experienced this and has talked about it). Look at the difference between an endurance trainer and a sprinter. The sprinter is often times very muscular; whereas the endurance runner can be skinny (scrawny?), and oddly flabby in the upper body. Those who are older than 35 look down right pudgy. I know because I passed thousands of them the day I raced.
Side Note: The people who look ”buff” also do strength training in addition to running and/or are usually below the age of 30 (males).
Conclusion: Don’t do endurance training if you want to build muscle and be fit and toned. Keep workouts short: 20 -30 minutes, but with high intensity. Do endurance training if you like wind in your hair and running all day long.
Think of it this way as well, endurance training such as walking or running on a machine for an hour or more while reading a magazine or talking to a friend will burn calories. But the minute you get off that machine, the calorie burn is over. Strength Training on the other hand allows you to quit exercising and burn fat for hours on end after the workout has ended. That sounds like a better bargain to me. I’m not against cardio training, but only do it in moderation of short periods of high intensity now.
P.S. I couldn’t walk for 4 entire days after the marathon. This is not a good thing to do to the body. It wreaks havoc on the joints, ligaments and sockets. The repetitive motion causes way too much stress and strain. There is a reason that the original marathon runner promptly died after doing it.