How Gaining Weight for Marathon Training Rewired My Diet Culture Brain

How Gaining Weight for Marathon Training Rewired My Diet Culture Brain

I hate to admit this, but one of my immediate thoughts after signing up for my first marathon was, I wonder how much weight I’m going to lose. It’s not like I signed up for my hometown race in Columbus, Ohio, to lose weight, but my internalized diet-culture brain did hold onto it as a nice little potential side benefit. Which is why I was so disheartened when, a few months into training, the opposite started happening.

It feels gross typing that out and even worse knowing that others are going to read this, but I soon learned I wasn’t the only one thrown. When I took to Google, I saw headline after headline that, in sum, read “yes, weight gain can sometimes be a byproduct of marathon training” and made me feel like utter shit about it. There were stories that advised how to train without “sabotaging your waistline” and others questioning why anyone would take up long-distance running if it didn’t lead to shedding weight (to be exact, “You can run as many marathons as you like, but you’ll still be fat,” per the ever-subtle Daily Mail). The prevailing narrative was that gaining weight during my training cycle was a betrayal of its entire purpose. A mistake I should immediately work to fix.

I discovered a community of runners who not only accept their weight gain but also embrace and applaud it.

Increasingly, however, young women are outright rejecting this toxic framing. When I closed my broswer tabs and turned to TikTok and Instagram, I discovered a community of runners who not only accept their weight gain but also embrace and applaud it, knowing that it’s an essential part of preparing their bodies for the enormous endurance challenge of running 26.2 miles. The experience of training has, in fact, managed to rewire their entire view of eating and exercise—even outside of training, which is a Herculean feat given the pervasive pressure American women are under to be the thinnest possible versions of themselves. Their videos, racking up hundreds of thousands of views and with lively, affirming comment sections, were like an open invitation to a run club that’s always accepting new members. And I wanted to be one of them.

Twenty-seven-year-old account executive Hannah Gerson from New York City is who I see as the captain of that club. She’s posted several popular videos about the subject and is one of the most passionate and open-book runners on RunTok. This past summer was her second marathon training cycle, and she said she noticed her weight increase a month into that block. “My initial reaction was, ‘Why is this happening to me?’” she said, explaining that, like me, losing weight wasn’t a goal for her, but she assumed that running more meant she’d be weighing less.

This is the same line of thinking that sent me into panic mode when I noticed my pants getting tighter and my belly getting fuller. I was so programmed to believe any weight gain for any reason was a sign of something amiss that I was convinced I was overeating, not running enough, or otherwise doing something terribly wrong. That’s why it felt invigorating to see Gerson talk about her experience so candidly. “The point of this is normalizing weight gain during training but also to normalize weight gain in general,” she says in one video. “Don’t be hard on yourself—you’re doing something fucking sick.” In the comments, women chimed with their own enthusiastic endorsements.

“I gained weight for my marathon!!! Felt so much stronger and got so much more muscle, truly needed it to survive the whole 26.2,” wrote one runner. “Marathon Barbie is perfect just the way she is,” added another.

Marathon nutritionist and dietician Kristy Baumann told me that when our bodies are moving so much, they become more efficient at preserving glycogen—a stored form of carbohydrates—so that muscles can use this energy during workouts. But crucially, this isn’t a bad thing, explains Baumann. In fact, it’s a sign that you’re doing things right. “In order to feel good on your runs, in order to adapt to the training, you have to make sure that you’re eating enough to support that,” she says. “If you’re running to lose weight—and lots of people do it for that reason—you’re asking to be burnt out and injured.”

Science backs this up: Reputable research has shown that overly restrictive diets are rarely effective for athletes. In fact, they often can lead to a decline in performance and injury. The not-eating-enough lifestyle can also negatively impact runners’ iron levels, immune systems, and stress responses.

Instead of worrying that I didn’t “look like a runner,” I should’ve been paying more attention to what my body really needed.

So while I was fixated on whether I was eating too much, I should’ve kept my focus on keeping up my strength and energy. Instead of worrying that I didn’t “look like a runner” with all the requisite muscle definition, I should’ve been paying more attention to what my body really needed. In my defense, I grew up in a true millennial, early aughts hellscape, reading about celebrity diet tricks like eating “water popsicles” (literally ICE!!!!) to curb hunger. Turns out, this unhealthy view of weight gain imprinted on me as a kid was pretty hard to shake off as an adult.

I timidly began stacking on more protein to curb my stomach growling every hour, added more eggs to my breakfast, and started drinking chocolate milk after runs, but not much really changed. I was hungry. My body needed more. After a few weeks of trying to figure out where I went wrong, I switched to thinking about where I was going right. When I ate more carbs the night before a run, I crushed it. When I opted for salads and carb alternatives, I crashed. When I loaded up an extra helping of dinner before a speed workout, I PR’ed. When I ran before breakfast, I felt drained.

Once I discovered these videos and comments from other female runners, it all clicked. Every time I finished a long run, speed workout, or tempo trial, the last thing I thought about was how I looked. All I really felt was accomplishment and pride in my body for getting me to my goal. I stopped caring about my thighs and my stomach, and started eating what I craved, not what I thought I had somehow earned. That’s when I started feeling like a real marathon runner.

a man running in a race

Courtesy of Chevron Houston Marathon

The author crushing it. 

a woman running on a track

Courtesy of Chevron Houston Marathon

Many other women runners out there, like Megan Kanai, describe the exact same flip switch. The 28-year-old content creator in Atlanta told me that after years of struggling with eating disorders, gaining weight while running reframed her entire perspective. “I got so obsessed with that feeling of doing something hard that I never thought I could do that it stopped being about my physique and became more about performance,” says Megan.

Nicole Winter, a 29-year-old certified personal trainer from Austin who posts about her marathon training, said putting on extra weight showed her that women are usually expected to prioritize how they look above all else. “I’m tired of women not enjoying our lives and not doing the things we want to because society wants us to look a certain way,” she says. “We see that we should be this ideal body type and we should do this to be lean and ‘healthy’ and there’s so much pressure.” She posts videos about the positives of marathon weight gain so that other women can avoid the shame. “The body that’s gaining weight is going to carry you through 26.2 miles. How could you be mad at that?” Nicole points out.

More women than ever are competing in marathons—45 percent registered in the U.S. are now female. I hope that means more women are unlearning the toxic messages we’ve long been taught about weight gain. To be clear, putting on extra pounds shouldn’t only be accepted and encouraged when it’s related to marathon training or any other feat of athleticism. That’s just what it took for me—and many other women, I learned—to fix a warped mentality. The women I spoke with told me that they realized you can gain weight for all sorts of reasons—and that’s fine! Bodies are not meant to be static. “What people don’t talk about is that our bodies grow and evolve as we get older, and it’s normal for changes to occur. As women, we aren’t supposed to look the way we did when we were 20. Our bodies are stronger, wiser, and are constantly evolving,” notes Gerson. “It’s easier said than done—I struggle with body image too—but the more we normalize our bodies changing, regardless of whether we gain weight or not, the less worth we’ll put on the way we look.”

These runners shifted my perspective in a way that was so easy to understand, I was honestly a bit annoyed that I didn’t come to these realizations on my own. While it’s hard to shut down every self-criticism I have about my body, I’ve found something that quiets those thoughts. On marathon day, I did not give a single shit what I looked like or how much I weighed. All I cared about was crossing the finish line. And I did. My body ran 26.2 miles and felt a pride and love for myself that I didn’t know was possible.

Headshot of Summer Cartwright

Summer Cartwright is senior editor for Best Products and FirstFinds and is based in New York. She has written and edited for sites including Cosmo, People, InStyle, Food & Wine, Real Simple, and StyleCaster. Her interests outside of work include running, eating dessert, and playing with her two cats, Peaky and Polly. She received her master’s degree in magazine writing from New York University, and her bachelor’s degree in public affairs journalism from The Ohio State University.

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