Why am I not fitter and thinner?
July 29, 2008 1:25 PM   Subscribe

Why am I not fitter and thinner? I started running/walking spring 2007. June that year I did my first 5k in 36 mins. Carried on walking 9 odd miles a week and running 5-8 per week or going on the elliptical trainer an hour or two a week through the summer.

This year have done about the same amount of running and walking (separately). Have done as races: 5 mile (56 min), 10 k (1 hour 8), 8.5 mile (1 hour 38) and 5k (35 min). See the last, almost no faster than last year.

Now preparing for my first half-marathon at the end of Oct, I am doing 13-14 miles running per week (typically a 2, a 5 and a 6 or 7) plus a bit of walking and some free weights on the arms. I am in Week 4 of this plan, which I got off a running website. I am eating as I have been for the past 2 years but trying to add in more protein in the form of fish and some red meat.

I lost 2 stone in the first year. Stayed off for a year. Now I am staying the same weight (5 foot 2, about 10 stone, so still "overweight") and I don't really feel any fitter. Same effort for same effect, though I can do 7 miles in one go now... What am I doing wrong? Please, not too much technical info, otherwise I'll just ask on a running website. I want to look better and perform well!
posted by LyzzyBee to Sports, Hobbies, & Recreation (32 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
What does your daily diet look like?
posted by alcoth at 1:39 PM on July 29, 2008

Best answer: I've been a distance runner for years, and I find even when I'm training for a really long race, I don't drop any weight with running alone. I have to watch my calories, too. (Though losing a few pounds makes me faster without having to do any speed training!)

I don't really notice changes in my body due to running, but other people specifically notice how different my legs look, and comment on it. I'm not thinner, but my muscles change shape and grow more defined the more I run. I still don't really see it, at least not as much as other people seem to, so maybe it's possible you're the same way, and your body is changing without you noticing.

(Is there any chance your half-marathon is the Nike+ Women's Half Marathon? I did it last year, and it was great! Best-fitting finisher t-shirt I've ever received, too.)
posted by adiabat at 1:39 PM on July 29, 2008

You started exercising, ate the same as ever, and lost weight. Why? Because you were burning more calories that you took in.

Now at a lower weight, you don't need as many calories, but are still consuming the same amount. So you're not loosing weight. You have effectively reached a steady state where your caloric intake perfectly matches your basal metabolic needs and what you burn through exercise.

Eat less or workout more and you'll start loosing weight again. You sound like you're in a similar position regarding fitness, if you never increase your distance or speed you will just maintain a steady level of fitness. Push yourself longer or faster, or even better do some full body workouts besides runs. Then you'll really become and feel fitter.
posted by Science! at 1:43 PM on July 29, 2008

Even if you don't feel fitter, you would find yourself a good deal fitter if you took measurmnets, I suspect.

You aren't losing weight because you are now a nice effcient running machine and your body doesn't expend the calories it once had to for your running. Note how you got a nice weight drop at first from running, but now you have fully adapted.

Excercise, unless you do it very frequently and VERY intensely, will not be factionally effective at reducing weight as will permanent long term dietary changes. By which I mean reducing your caloric intake. Trading carb calories for fat calories for protein calories will, again, only make minor short term changes.

If you are looking for weight reduction from excercise, lift weights. Heavy weights on a serious regime.

More importantly, reduce your daily caloric intake permanently.
posted by dzot at 1:46 PM on July 29, 2008 [1 favorite]

As far as being thinner, you probably would need to start controlling your diet as well. Running and walking don't really burn many calories, maybe 100/mile or so. So if you run 10 miles a week, that's only 1000 calories, which is pretty easy to negate through eating (a single Big Mac would almost do it--not saying that's the kind of thing you eat). To lose one pound of fat you need a deficit of 3500 calories.

Do you care more about your running performance, or looking and feeling better? If the former, I think you just need to run more (seems like serious runners are usually running 30 miles per week or more), and attempt more difficult runs (intervals, etc.) If the latter, I think it would be more beneficial to get more into weightlifting and strength training than to rely mostly on the cardio.
posted by dixie flatline at 1:47 PM on July 29, 2008 [2 favorites]

And by factional, I mean fractional.
posted by dzot at 1:48 PM on July 29, 2008

Have you considered adding in free weights, cardio involving the upper body, and/or swimming?

These can get you off of a plateau and help to develop muscle groups which aren't receiving as much attention in the running-focused regime, leading to better fitness overall.
posted by batmonkey at 1:52 PM on July 29, 2008 [1 favorite]

You could try adding more strenuous exercise, instead of just running more or faster. Do you have a sports stadium near you? (At a school perhaps, it doesn't have to be a college.)

You could try running stadium steps. In this exercise you run up and down the rows of seats in a stadium (well you run up the steps leading past the rows). It's a lot harder than running on a flat surface. So, you could easily increase the amount of work that your doing without increasing the amount of time that you spend working out.
posted by oddman at 1:53 PM on July 29, 2008

Best answer: I agree that you need to challenge your body again, as you did when you first started running. Right now you're basically just maintaining.

Try some speedwork to reduce your race time over the same distance (run intervals), and instead of just logging miles, try doing different types of running-pace workouts (fast/race pace, tempo, easy) to shake things up for your body. Run some trail runs and some hills in addition to road and treadmill running - it is more intense. It gets awfully comfortable to run at the same speed all the time, but if you do, you'll never break through those time barriers and your body will be in a running rut. Next time you run a distance you've run before in a race, set a time goal that's a few percentage points below your last race, and train to beat it, intentionally.

Try some cross-training to work muscle groups that are not as well developed through running - swimming, rowing, cycling once a week or so. Aim to keep moving at an equivalent time to how much time you'd be running on the same day.

Finally, weights weights weights. A full program, not just a little for the arms. It is astounding what free weights will do - not only are you working the active muscle group, but getting an entire core and balance workout as your body compensates for the weighted area. As your muscles firm up and develop, you will use more calories even while totally at rest. If there is one thing that will make you feel and look fitter, it's probably weight training rather than increasing mileage.
posted by Miko at 1:57 PM on July 29, 2008

Response by poster: Crikey - thanks for all this info!

OK a typical day's diet:

Breakfast - fruit and fibre cereal (that's wholegrain flakes and dried fruit) with semi-skimmed milk, probably 1.5 - 2 times the "portion" they state on the pack. Cup of tea

Snack - small amount of dried fruit and nuts

Lunch - 1 wholemeal pitta (dry) (130 cal I think) ; third of a pot of low-cal humus or 2x dairylea cheese slice (60 cal); low-fat chocolate mousse (80 cal); tomato; handful of pretzels

Snack - small banana

Dinner - 80g (dry) wholemeal pasta with homemade tomato/kidneybean & chickpea or soya mince and mushrooms, spinach sauce with grated cheese on top, OR something like grilled fish and 50 g rice plus veg, OR a chicken or quorn curry with 50 g rice; low cal ice lolly (80 cal) and 2-4 squares of cadbury milk chocolate

Drinks - in day no-added-sugar cranberry juice about 40 ml made up into 2 l of squash, one 330 ml glass of squash with dinner, 2 more cups of tea

I swim so badly it won't make a difference to my fitness, and I hate it. I don't like other sports. I do try to do interval training within the running, and the programme builds up to about 20 miles per week. Am I eating enough to sustain that?

I wonder if it's also cos I am exercising at a higher heart rate thus not in the "fat burning" zone like I was when I was walking mostly (which is when I lost all the weight, though I did make some diet adjustments too)

Thank you so much for all your time so far. Hopefully this will help and I'm open to suggestions on different foods. I'm trying to like an omelette for lunch in the weekend rather than the pitta thing or cereal again (not so much of it) as I know eggs are good for me.

oh , and I did get my blood pressure down, so am getting one result I wanted!
posted by LyzzyBee at 2:04 PM on July 29, 2008

Have you considered adding strength training to your routine? You say 'a bit of walking, and some free weights for the arms'. Can you be more specific about what weight work you're doing? If that means you go into the gym and lift hard for 30-45 minutes, then disregard the following advice. If it means that you move a pair of light dumbbells around for 15 minutes, read on.

Consider devoting 2-3 days to lifting weights to build strength. Each day should be a full body exercise in that it should work lower body, upper body, and your core (lower back, abs, obliques), but each day should have different exercises. Avoid using machines. Instead, learn to use barbells and dumbbells, even if it means hiring a personal trainer for a few sessions. Use large, compound exercises in which more than one joint moves, and lots of muscle groups are activated. Structure your program around exercises like: Deadlift, squats, cleans, pull-ups, dips, bench press, standing overhead press, and stuff like that.

If weight lifting isn't really your thing, here are some other cross-training activities you could try: rock climbing; kayaking; mountain biking, martial arts, etc....

Also, what about adding some speed work to your running routine? Do some fartleks, or intervals, or sprints. Those are brutal.
posted by HighTechUnderpants at 2:05 PM on July 29, 2008 [1 favorite]

Diet. Get the diet right and you needn't even exercise to lose weight. Get on a clean diet and try out high intensity interval training to shake up your body a bit, it's too used to the slog of a regime you're on just now.
posted by fire&wings at 2:06 PM on July 29, 2008

To gain fitness you need more than just miles, you need tempo and interval training. They hurt, but they work.
posted by caddis at 2:09 PM on July 29, 2008

Congrats on getting your blood pressure down! BTW, have you mentioned this to your physician? I'm wondering if your thyroid levels are normal, (hypothyroidism).
posted by 6:1 at 2:19 PM on July 29, 2008

From your diet, it looks like you are trying to go low-fat which I don't think works that well as your body does need fat, but it needs good fat. I would also suggest that if you want to lose weight you should cut out most of the carbs you are eating (bread, pasta, rice, cereal, sugar and high-carb fruits and veggies like bananas and corn). A lot of "low-fat" foods replace the fat with sugar and that is not any better for you, maybe worse. Replace those "bad" carbs with good carbs like fruits and veggies, and go for fruits/veggies that are low on the glycemic index. Switch out the milk chocolate and replace it with dark chocolate. Make sure you are getting enough protein and fats you need these for fitness.

As for your workout, I read a lot of great suggestions for mixing up your routine a little, and I definitely support the idea of adding in some strength training.
posted by kenzi23 at 2:27 PM on July 29, 2008

After looking over your diet, I think that (A) it sounds overly restrictive (have you added your total calories/day?) and (B) that you are definitely not getting enough fiber and produce. I would advise you eat a lot more vegetables in less-processed form. Salad, veggie sticks to dip that hummus in, vegetable soups and gazpacho, whole berries for snacks (rather than intensely concentrated juice).

You might do well to eat a breakfast with protein rather than cereal - the protein has much more filling, lasting power. Some yogurt with almonds or an egg, some peanut butter on a whole wheat English muffin, that sort of thing. Carb-based breakfasts seem to make me end up eating more later in the day.

I can't tell if you're a vegetarian - looks it - but you will get more bang for the buck out of lean protein than from beans/rice. You can, of course, get equal nutrient value, but you have to eat more of it to do so.

But on the whole, apart from lack of phytonutrients, your diet doesn't look so bad. As a runner who eats, I really don't think too many calories is your problem. It's just that your body has reached an efficient stasis. Challenge it! Make yourself work harder!
posted by Miko at 2:28 PM on July 29, 2008 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Thanks for the comments about my diet - re fibre - I haven't put in as many veg and fruit as I eat (really and truly, promise I'm not making it up) as I have another portion of veg usually with dinner. Doesn't dried fruit have fibre? And the wholemeal cereal and pasta or brown rice?

I am aware of the sugar thing in low fat puddings (but thanks for mentionng)- I don't touch "diet meals" like those horrible ready meal things, but I have a sweet tooth and if I want a snack mousse thing, I'd rather have the nice mousse and half the calories, than nothing. I might swap back in a square of dark choc for that, though.

Re Miko's comment, I don't find my diet restrictive, I like it, I think I have a variety of stuff at the weekends (the OR OR bit in the dinner). I don't count calories as such and I'll tell you why - I have a good friend who is anorexic. I found at the beginning of my diet, I could really feel I could restrict and restrict, I could feel good about getting lightheaded before my next meal - and my friend was in hosp on a drip feed at the time, and MAN, that stopped me going that way, big time. So I am careful to try to dwell more on nutrition than on calories, if that makes sense.

I am not a veggie, but I'm not hugely keen on meat... I try to have fish a couple of times a week (other half cooks it for me!) even if it's fishfingers, I just like beans n stuff more than meat!

Re the weight training - I do not have the resources to get a personal trainer in etc but I will look out for more stuff. At the moment I am doing about 20 mins twice a week with a pair of 1.5 kg weights (I bought ones that are those, 3 and 5 kg). I recall from my time in a gym that I bulk up quite quickly, so I'm looking at more reps of a lighter weight rather than fewer of a heavier, think that's right.

RIght... so ancillary questions would be...

1. What protein rich foods might I like to eat (I can only bear eggs in omelettes (or bread and butter pudding!) and I don't like liver etc) Oh and I HATE peanut butter, I can't bear it, it makes me gag just to think about it. And I KNOW how useful it is so that's annoying!

2. Does the fact that all of my runs include up and down hills (some hills take about 3 mins to get up) help me?

3. How much speed should be in speed work? I managed 1 mile at 12 min, 1 mile at 10 min, half a mile at 6.5 min, 1 mile at 10 min, half a mile at 6.5 min and 1 mile at 12 min, does that work? Or should it be shorter bursts of faster speed? My comfortable race and normal training run speed is 11.30 mins per mile.

Thanks all, I really appreciate your input here!
posted by LyzzyBee at 3:06 PM on July 29, 2008

Response by poster: OH, and on the blood pressure thing - Yes, my physicians know (I was put on vile pills by an overweight doctor who shouted at me for being overweight, the pills made me bloat up and lethargic, then she referred me to the hospital). I just got signed off from the hosp, they said I was in the 5 percent of patients who say they will get fit and keep of meds and do so. My GP is a runner and is very proud of me, we have been in some of the same races! My thyroid is fine, as are all my other insides, which is why I took on exercise as a last resort (no salt, no booze, no cigs) and it has actually worked. But thanks for the comment.
posted by LyzzyBee at 3:10 PM on July 29, 2008

What I know about diet and exercise I could write on my hand, but even so...

Having read your typical day's diet, I'm wondering if you might not be feeding yourself enough? If you're getting a lot of exercise but a small amount of calories, it's possible your body will go into starvation mode and be holding onto excess fat.

This happened to me, nearly a decade ago. I got overly into fitness and was working out every day and had cut my calories down to 1200 (when it should've been at least 2000 given my activity level). I couldn't understand why I then gained 5 lbs and couldn't get it off. Then I went on vacation and stopped dieting and the weight dropped back down.

It might be worthwhile to see a nutritionist or do some research into diet to see if you're getting the right amounts and the right ratios. It can't hurt to know, even if this isn't the cause of any weight retention.
posted by sinderile at 3:24 PM on July 29, 2008

I'm with Sinderile. It looks like you're eating around 1000 calories a day, which is not enough for an inactive person, and really not enough for a runner. I'd suggest adding some protein to your breakfast and lunch, maybe a hard-boiled egg to your breakfast and some turkey to your lunch? This is really not just something they tell anorexic teenagers, you need to get a certain number of calories to lose weight.
posted by lunasol at 3:37 PM on July 29, 2008

echoing comments above, your diet is okay but I think it has too many carbs as well.

Some options since you don't like meat: cottage cheese, protein powder (you can get this in chocolate!), walnuts, milk, guacamole.

If you want to do interval training, I would do just 1 day a week, and do short distances at very high speed (like 100 m - 200 m, 400 m max). Think, "run my heart out for 30 seconds!" as opposed to trying to run a mile faster.
posted by unexpected at 3:41 PM on July 29, 2008

You aren't eating enough and you need to build your base.
posted by konolia at 3:42 PM on July 29, 2008

You're not getting enough protein or fat for all the activity you're doing.

Add a half a container of tofu a day. Take it like medicine if you have to. Blend it into a smoothie. After two weeks you should feel a lot peppier and fitter.

If you're not keen on the tofu for whatever reason, switch in something else. But really, think of it as medicine, not as part of your diet. It's that important for a person with your lifestyle.
posted by [NOT HERMITOSIS-IST] at 5:14 PM on July 29, 2008

Doesn't dried fruit have fibre? And the wholemeal cereal and pasta or brown rice?

yes, but check out a fiber content chart and notice how much less dried fruits and grain products (pasta, cereal, bread) have than fresh produce does. The fresh produce also contains a great deal more moisture and roughage, so it's just more filling, and tends to be higher in antioxidants.

The only way to know whether your diet is too calorie restrictive is to really track what you eat each day, and then do the math. When you know your intake, you can estimate the amount of calories you burn and see whether you're in balance. There is definitely a "sweet spot" where you take in enough calories to balance your activity level; too much and you gain, but too little and, oddly, you don't lose easily. If you aren't getting enough calories, but still working out a lot, your body will stubbornly hold onto the energy it needs to have and adjust your metabolism to burn energy more reluctantly. You can still work out, but your body will feel tired and resist developing in the direction you want. I wonder if you might be there.

I'm sympathetic to your desire not to become obsessed with calorie counting, but it doesn't have to be a sick process. Think of it more like the mileage indicator in a car - how much energy you'll need per day to do a certain amount of work. You're an athlete with race goals -- you've got to have enough fuel. Here is a good, sane website telling how to calculate your calorie needs.

It may be that your diet is not the culprit, but it remains a major suspect unless you actually sit down and figure out whether you're undereating. From what you've said, it's possible. If that's not it, thenincreasing your weight training (adding core and legs and doing many more reps with a little bit more weight) and intensifying your workouts are probably the way to go.
posted by Miko at 6:33 PM on July 29, 2008

Try a diet log, where you take a week or two and write down everything you eat. A lot of people are surprised when they see their real diet on paper. (not saying you're making anything up, but after posting you said that you actually eat a portion more of fruit or vegetables with dinner. it can be easy to forget things or fail to include things that aren't everyday items.)
posted by paperzach at 7:32 PM on July 29, 2008

What am I doing wrong?

Running is not enough to make you (personally) fit or thin, you are coming into this with an incorrect set of assumptions. Running and eating a low-protein diet like the one you are currently eating will probably make you somewhere between thin and flabby and just flabby. Lifting 1.5kg is nothing. Every woman thinks she bulks up easily, pretty much none of us do, and if you're bulking up, you are eating too much (muscle does not spin itself out of thin air). You do not need a personal trainer to figure out how to do free weights, start here, and read everything she has to say about both exercise and diet.
I'm not bullshitting you when I say that the 5'2-4" 140ish pound woman that runs a lot and fails to lose weight is exactly the woman that should seriously consider cutting down on the running and lifting real weights. I have been you, stuck around 140 at 5'3" despite working out an hour a day and eating similarly to your current diet. Cutting way back on the slow running, lifting HEAVY weights, and eating a protein-rich but fairly unrestricted diet has me 20 pounds lighter, inches smaller, and incredibly fit. I'm a believer that every person needs to find their own good diet and exercise plan, but it is pretty clear that what you are doing right now is not working for you, so you are probably not a person that will get thin and fit merely from running.
posted by ch1x0r at 8:08 PM on July 29, 2008 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: Can I just ask - obviously I've started this harder and more challenging running in the last 3.5 weeks - does it take a while to see an effect? WHen I first started the walking, I lost weight almost straight away?

I will log my diet for 2 weeks and see a dietician - thanks for that advice.

And all of the advice!
posted by LyzzyBee at 10:00 PM on July 29, 2008

Losing weight and avoiding 'bulking up' muscle are somewhat contradictory goals.
posted by BrotherCaine at 3:09 AM on July 30, 2008

Be cautious of people telling you your diet doesn't appear to be enough calories. I have been counting and logging the calories of absolutely everything that goes in my mouth for the past 4 months, and your diet appeared to be around 1800 to me. It's difficult to tell without exact portions, but the calories in everything that isn't a veggie add up far more quickly than you might expect.
posted by Polychrome at 6:11 AM on July 30, 2008

your diet appeared to be around 1800 to me

Which is low end of reasonable for a runner in training of her size.
posted by Miko at 6:17 AM on July 30, 2008

Best answer: I agree with those who suggested adding some heavy-weight weightlifting. Trust me, you will not bulk up too much, unless you've got very rare genetics -- once you get past the initial "bulk quickly" part, you'll find that you won't get much bigger than that. The vast majority of women do not have to worry about getting "too big", because it simply is not possible for us to do so with normal weight training and eating habits... It takes a lot of effort to "get big" as a woman, so rest assured that it won't happen unless you want it to, and often won't happen even then!

For more info on women's weightlifting, including exercise and nutrition plans, check out Stumptuous. See, she's not that big, and she is hard freakin' core! Also, look at the women on the stumpfit blog; everybody there lifts, and nobody is a muscle freak. :)

As for your diet, I agree with those who've said that you're not getting enough protein. FitDay is a free site that can help you work out your daily nutritional balance -- you enter the foods you eat, and it counts calories and displays a graph with your fat/carbs/protein percentages. If you're active as a runner, you should shoot for a daily intake of at least 30% protein.
posted by vorfeed at 10:16 AM on July 30, 2008

Response by poster: Right. I'm going to keep up the running I am doing, so I can do the half-marathon in Oct comfortably.

I'm going to look to be fitter and leaner, rather than "thinner". If my BMI doesn't work with the tables but I'm alert, healthy, toned and defined, that's cool.

I'm going to do my weights three times a week, look at some online routines and try to move up from the 1.5 kg weights. I will not fear bulking. I will not get that bulky. If I do, heck, it's fit muscle not fat'n'flab.

I'm going to try to eat more protein - from animal and non-animal sources. I'm going to define a list of protein I can bear (I hate turkey and peanut butter and boiled eggs but I will eat chicken, prawns and beef and scrambled eggs and beans, so there must be more stuff out there).

I'd love to let y'all know how I do - I don't know if the chatfilter works for that. If you really want to know, I have an LJ in this name with an exercise filter and I'd be happy to add anyone on.

Thank you again all - you've been an inspiration, both in the carefully considered advice you've given, and in spending time addressing this at all!
posted by LyzzyBee at 1:28 PM on July 30, 2008 [2 favorites]

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