Run a Half-Marathon and Lose Weight Along the Way With These Expert Training Tips

Running a half-marathon: it's a sure-fire way to lose weight, right? True, running is one of the best ways to drop pounds, but it can also backfire. If you're not paying attention to your diet and the types of runs you do, running and training for longer races like half marathons can actually cause weight gain. So how do you avoid it? To answer that, we need to figure out why it happens in the first place.

Why Do People Gain Weight Training For a Half-Marathon?
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Why Do People Gain Weight Training For a Half-Marathon?

It's pretty simple: "running can make you hungry," said trainer and exercise physiologist Nicole Zachwieja, ACSM, of the Northwestern Medicine Delnor Health & Fitness Center. It's natural to want to eat more during training.

On top of that, "many people 'reward eat' after running workouts, believing that since they have burned calories, they have 'earned' the right to consume more," said exercise physiologist and Bowflex fitness adviser Tom Holland, MS, CSCS, author of The Marathon Method. You burn roughly 100 calories per mile, Tom said. It's easy to overestimate that and consume more than you burned, leading to weight gain.

And if you're a new runner, you may not know which foods are best to fuel your runs, keep you satisfied, and prevent weight gain, said registered dietitian Kristin Kirkpatrick of Cleveland Clinic Wellness. "Some new runners may rely too much on sugary options for 'energy,'" she told POPSUGAR, or may refuel with energy gels or bites during runs of under an hour, which isn't typically necessary.

It's important to remember that weight gain can be caused by a number of factors beyond what you eat and how much you exercise, including your age, hormones, and how much you sleep, Nicole said. We'll go over a few ways to train and eat to help you avoid weight gain when prepping for a half-marathon, but if you're still seeing extra pounds, consult a weight loss doctor or registered dietitian to explore other causes.

Half-Marathon Training For Weight Loss
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Half-Marathon Training For Weight Loss

Beyond weight loss, the length and frequency of your training runs depends on a bunch of other factors, including your fitness level, experience, and timing goals, Tom told POPSUGAR. For a beginner, he recommended running three to four times a week. (Check out this half-marathon training plan for beginners for a more detailed schedule.)

For weight loss specifically, high-intensity interval (HIIT) workouts can be a game-changer. Not only are they great for burning calories, both during and after the workout, but higher-intensity work can actually decrease your hunger hormonally, making you less likely to overeat than after a longer, slower run. You don't want to do these intense workouts for every run, though. "It is still very important to balance faster runs with easier efforts during the week," Nicole said. "Going as hard as you can every time you head out for a run will only put you on the fast-track to injury."

Tom recommended doing one interval workout a week, to improve your speed and potentially help you control hunger and prevent weight gain. Try this 30-minute sprint interval workout to start.

Don't forget about cross-training! You can still work out on the days you don't run — and you should, if you're trying to lose weight. Consistent cross-training workouts is another way to burn calories and get in shape but will also help you avoid injury, Nicole told POPSUGAR. "Ultimately, the healthier you are, the more likely you are to achieve success in weight management." Try biking, swimming, or rowing, all low-impact workouts that still help you maintain your cardiovascular fitness and burn fat, Nicole said.

However, she added, "Without a proper diet, there is no one magic workout that guarantees weight loss." Which brings us to. . .

Half-Marathon Diet For Weight Loss
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Half-Marathon Diet For Weight Loss

If you're worried about gaining weight while training, the main thing is to avoid thinking about long runs as excuses to overeat or snack on unhealthy foods. There are two components to that: portion control and making healthy food choices.

"Portion control is key," Kristin told POPSUGAR. If you've just finished a run, you've likely depleted your glycogen (stored glucose) stores and may have low blood sugar, Kristin explained, so it's normal to feel famished. Instead of sitting down to an enormous meal right then, she recommended starting with a small snack, like a banana, to get your blood sugar back up. Once you've curbed your initial hunger, you'll be able to make better choices at mealtime.

Of course, portion control is just part of the puzzle; you also need to look at what you eat during training. "I tell my runners to look at food as fuel," Kristin said. "That means utilizing the right whole grains, lean sources of proteins, and healthy fats." Your diet should be nutrient-dense, full of color, and low on processed foods, she added.

Healthy Pre-Run Snacks For Weight Loss

Avoid fats (like eggs, bacon, avocados), high-fiber foods (beans), and simple sugars (bagels, white bread, sugary cereals) right before a run: "anything that will cause digestive distress or a sugar drop," Kristin said. Instead, try snacks like:

  • Steel-cut oatmeal with blueberries and hemp seed
  • A banana with nut butter

Healthy Post-Run Snacks For Weight Loss

After a run, you can replenish and refuel your body (without overeating) by choosing whole, satisfying foods. Here are some healthy snacks Kristin recommended:

  • Sprouted-grain bread with turkey breast and cheese
  • Hard-boiled eggs with whole grain crackers
  • Lean meats such as chicken breast or wild salmon

The only time simple sugars might be necessary are during longer runs and the race itself, Kristin said. (If your run is under an hour, mid-run snacks likely won't be crucial.) She also recommended reaching for a sports drink with sodium and potassium to replenish your electrolytes. Try to avoid one with sugar alcohols, which can upset your stomach.

As you can see, training for a half marathon to lose or at least maintain your weight requires two focus points: you want to eat and train to perform during the race and to keep your weight stable or on a slight decline. Luckily, those two goals coincide. The satisfying fuel that will power you through long training runs is also good for your body and your weight. The runs that will help you get faster and stronger can also help you lose weight and control your hunger. If you put it all together, you've got a good shot at nailing your half-marathon and avoiding the infamous race-training weight gain along the way.