Confessions of a Ballerunner

Essays on Sports, Arts, Culture, and Life

Does running regularly give one license to eat?

Does running regularly give one license to eat?

I don’t know the definitive answer to this question, but I suspect the answer is probably no. Even for those among us who have a healthy body mass index (BMI) and who have achieved a high level of cardiorespiratory fitness.

I used to run with a fairly hard-core, fit group of runners (many of whom would win races or finish near the top in their age category) until I got injured; I still run regularly, but I now also participate in other sports for cross-training to mitigate the risk of further injury. Anyway, when I used to run with this group of talented runners, it was customary to hit the local pub twice a week following a run for beer, a burger & fries or big plate of pasta. Although I didn’t personally partake in this food/beverage post-work-out feasting ritual, I did (and still do) regularly indulge in a fair amount of dark chocolate.

With all this unchecked eating/drinking among runners/athletes I knew, I often found myself wondering whether the running really undid these regular dietary splurges. Despite the amount and type of food consumed, the runners didn’t seem to gain weight (that I could see), but was there anything else adverse happening inside their bodies, metabolically? I don’t know, but it’s a question I’d love to know the answer to.

Many years ago, as part of a Master’s in Nutrition, I did a study of people with untreated high cholesterol to see if prescribing a cholesterol-lowering medication (in this case, a statin drug) affected whether people adopted the concurrently recommended ‘usual’ lifestyle advice given for eating healthy and exercising regularly. My hypothesis (or hunch) was that if people were given a pill, which they believed would control their cholesterol, they wouldn’t see the need to eat healthy or exercise regularly. My study was small (53 people), single-blind (participants didn’t know whether they were receiving a statin or placebo, but the investigators did), and only conducted at one site, so the findings have important limitations. Nonetheless, we did not find any appreciable differences between groups in any of the parameters we investigated, including weight, food intake, or exercise after 12 weeks, suggesting that maybe the presence of a pill didn’t affect behavior. It’s only one study, though, and a small one at that. Had I gone on to do a PhD, I would’ve liked to probe this question further in a larger, longer, more detailed study, perhaps in another group of patients, where we would also look at hormone levels and other endpoints.

Regardless, I have now been sensitized to my own dietary indiscretions after reading that the amount of exercise I do likely doesn’t completely vanquish all those chocolate (and other indiscriminate) calories I consume like I hoped it would. (See I’ll still exercise regularly, because I love it, but I won’t count on it for undoing the bad dietary choices I make.


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4 thoughts on “Does running regularly give one license to eat?

  1. In general I think I lean toward your thinking – I still make healthy eating a priority and try not to undo the health benefits of being active with poor food choices. But on the other hand – I find that when my husband is at the peak of marathon training and running high mileage weeks – the pasta “binges” are necessary. (for him…not for me 🙂

    • Mmmm pasta; I remember those happy carb-loading race-training days… I’ve often thought it’s far easier to exercise regularly than to eat healthy regularly (i.e., nutritional quality and proper portion size). Tonight, for example, I am sore from xc skiing yesterday, tired, and yet, I summoned up (just enough) energy to get my butt out the door for a run, but couldn’t get myself to prepare a more inspiring meal tonight other than a sandwich and of course, chocolate 😦 (for the requisite serotonin boost). I’m curious what my diabetes patients would say about which is harder to adopt: engaging in regular exercise or preparing healthy meals regularly. For me, it’s definitely the latter.

  2. I’m always hungry but when I am ramping up for a marathon my apetite can be enormous. It’s not unusal for me to basically eat two dinners in one seating.
    The challenge is to back off of this dietary train wreck when I’m just running maintenance miles.

    • I used to be on the heavier side – back in the day when I was playing team sports (i.e., varsity basketball). It was only when I began my MSc in Human Nutrition program that I experienced a teachable moment when we were asked – as part of a clinical nutrition course – to keep a food diary and calculate our caloric intake, along with carb, fat, protein breakdown. I got a shock when I saw just how much I was eating; my perception had been totally distorted. (In fact, nutrition research has shown that people tend to underestimate their caloric intake.) Although knowledge typically doesn’t translate into behavior change, for me, it did, as I immediately took steps to change my eating behavior. The fact I was also racing to finish writing my thesis also helped in that I was not thinking about eating. In any event, I lost a lot of weight and kept it off with regular walking to/from work and subsequently taking on a job that kept me almost constantly on my feet or going up and downstairs – such ‘active’ work is great and a rarity these days, sadly. It was only 4 years later that I took up running seriously – for stress management, not weight control.

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