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How to Look Like An Athlete – The Distance Runner Conundrum

Barring professional darts and sumo wrestling, distance running is one of the only sports where you might be hard pressed to distinguish between a world-class athlete and an exercise-averse member of the general public. Take my friend Matt – a naturally wiry tech guy who smokes a pack of 20 a day – when stood next to a long-distance runner he could look like an athlete, but to the best of my knowledge he has never broken into a run (aside from perhaps his college years when having to chase a bus).

For pure aesthetics, you’d better off choosing nearly any other sport. Long distance runners often do not look ‘in shape’ in the way you might expect from an elite athlete. What then, is the reason for this, considering that distance runners dedicate just as much -if not more -time to their training as all other athletes?

Movement Efficiency

I’ll keep it concise as I’m sure 99.9% of you already know the answer to this question. It essentially boils down to movement efficiency, a lack of external resistance for the upper limbs to work against and the typical eating habits of runners.

What do I mean by that?

Generally, the more you do something, the more efficient you become at doing that thing. In the case of running, your body’s goal is to expend as little energy as possible whilst getting you from A to B in one piece. Carrying a lot of weight, be it muscle or fat, requires more energy to move than it would if you weighed less. It also increases your chances of injury due to the greater impact forces your body absorbs, per stride, when compared to a lighter athlete. When you start running regularly and gradually increase your weekly mileage, your body will do what it can to facilitate movement efficiency, i.e., drop unnecessary weight. That means a reduction in fat and muscle folks. If you’re chasing 100-mile weeks, having huge biceps isn’t the big help you might think it would be. But it gets worse.

Energy Availability and Cortisol

Chronic exercise addiction combined with under fuelling is rife in the distance running world (and amongst athletes in general). Whilst many would appear to be the epitome of health and fitness, their blood panels often tell a different story. Commonly known as REDS (Relative Energy Deficiency in Sports) and a topic worth familiarising yourself with.

One common by-product of overtraining is chronically elevated cortisol levels (associated with decreases in muscle tissue and increases in abdominal fat). Throw in a stressful job, kids etc and it becomes easy to see how, despite all the consistency in the world and a diet that you might consider to be healthy, it’s not uncommon to end up losing weight from where you want to keep it and gaining weight in places that you’d rather lose it.

How do we prevent muscle loss?

The question is really, “How do we prevent muscle loss and keep bodyfat levels optimal?”

Clearly starving ourselves doesn’t work. The human body is far smarter than your ill-conceived attempts to subsist on a diet your rabbit would waste away on whilst simultaneously training yourself into the ground. This is due, in part, to a clever concept known as NEAT (Non-Exercise-Activity-Thermogenesis). In its essence, NEAT is your body’s method of controlling how many calories you expend on a daily basis. If you’re not eating enough food, your body will reduce energy expenditure in areas outside of your training. Whether you know it or not, whilst dieting you will move less.

Burn More Calories by Eating More

Studies have shown calorie burn between those with high NEAT and low NEAT can be as large as 2000 per day. You know those people who just can’t seem to sit still? Compared to the rest of us who are happy to sit on a couch for 3 or 4 hours, they’re burning an awful lot energy just being them.

So how do we increase NEAT?

Drum roll please…. We eat more calories.

Eating More Is Good

Eating more restores energy, balances hormones (which makes burning fat easier) and allows your exercise sessions to be that much more productive. If you are struggling with any of the aforementioned issues but still really feel the need to drop weight, you’d probably be better off increasing your calories and exercising more productively in comparison to eating less, lethargically going about your day and – I want to say – ‘half-arsing your workouts’ but due to the bodies clever way of allocating limited resources, many still find they are able to perform to some degree. Don’t be fooled though, this will only last so long. Your body is clever enough to know that it cannot continue on this path indefinitely. Injury or illness is never far from those with unsustainable training/nutrition practices.

Brilliant, then. Eat more food. It’s an easy win right?

Eating Quality Fuel is Good

Before you gleefully trot down to the bakery to pick up a box of yum-yums, there is a caveat. Muscle loss cannot be attenuated by eating the way most runners prefer to. Whilst this is based largely on observation, I feel I have stumbled upon a phenomenon almost exclusive to the endurance world, which is the innate ability to subconsciously omit any and all quality sources of protein from their diet. Look at the way athletes outside of the endurance world approach their nutrition and you will find that protein is usually priority number one when it comes to meal planning (interestingly, protein comes from the Greek word protos which literally translates to ‘first’).

A Protein Baseline

What are the staples of a typical runner’s diet? Toast and jam. Cereal. A banana (I annoyingly know far too many runners who have a taste for Avocado Wraps – are these people deliberately trying to strip all contractile tissue from their skeleton?!) It appears we have gravitated to these types of foods because they sit well prior to a run. They are easily digested and provide quick energy. That’s fine. But if the rest of the day continues along the same theme of low protein food sources, you may not have the constituent amino acids – or calories – your body needs to prevent muscle breakdown from occurring. Try adding in a Whey Isolate shake into your pre- or post-run meals. They’re easy to digest and provide a quick, tasty hit of protein without sitting in your stomach as a steak would.

General recommendations for protein intake are 0.8-1g per pound of bodyweight and can come from meat, fish, dairy or whey/vegan protein powders. You can meet your needs eating a vegan diet by combining grains, nuts and beans/pulses, but to hit 0.8-1g of complete protein, I’d recommend a quality pea or pea/rice protein shake to make things easier.

Building the Right Muscles

Now, eating more calories and establishing a good baseline of protein is a start in fighting off muscle loss and powering a healthy metabolism, but these should be thought of simply as a metaphorical ‘lock’. The ‘key’ to truly changing your body composition comes in the form of resistance training.

There are two important factors in successfully navigating a ‘toning up’ program. The first is this. Unless you’re a sprinter, running more and more miles really isn’t conducive to gaining a little muscle. My advice to you would be to take 8-16 weeks to work on shorter distances (5-10k). Cut out any run that does not have a purpose. You’ll need your sessions, your long run and some easy miles. It’s impossible to say how many easy miles, but you should not be doing so many that they interfere with your sessions and certainly no 20+ easy mile runs on the weekend).

Lastly, you have to hit the gym (you didn’t expect me to say that, right?)

Hit The (Home) Gym

Home training is certainly possible but let me say this; you will struggle to make any form of visible progress if you do not have a home gym which houses no less than a barbell, plates, some dumbells and a squat rack. Most would have absolutely no idea where to even begin in making continued progress doing bodyweight exercises alone. If you do, all the more power to you. During lockdown Holly and I created a home workout plan that offers continuous progression with minimal equipment, but honestly? Going to the gym is so much easier. There is also something to be said for the very act of going to the gym. At home, distractions are everywhere. When you step onto the gym floor you are there for one reason only.

Weights Won’t Add Weight

2 full body sessions per week will work just fine. My recommendation is to focus on one session dedicated purely to strength (for improvements in areas such as performance/economy & bone density) and one to hypertrophy (muscle gain/retention and ability to tolerate lactate). If you’re a serious runner and weight is a concern to you, let me say this. I know men and women who dedicate their lives to building muscle. Cardio rarely fits into their equations. They track every calorie, hit their protein requirements and virtually live in the gym.

If they’re lucky, they’ll gain a few pounds of muscle in a year.

Now, this isn’t a bad thing. In terms of body composition, a few extra pounds of legitimate muscle tissue will probably give you the ‘toning effect’ you’re looking for and, in terms of affecting your athletic performance, will likely make you a more powerful runner. Yes, lifting weights can improve your speed and running economy.

Do not be fooled into thinking that two weeks of lifting will turn you into Arnold Schwarzenneger. You will still look like an athlete! At the same time, understand this; some of us are genetically predisposed to putting on muscle more easily than others. In the case of both male and female athletes, I have seen those who gain muscle incredibly easily, and sometimes NOT in the places they want to. For example, I have always found it easy to put mass on my legs, when all I ever wanted was a bigger upper body! To me this was a curse, to others this would have been a blessing.

Perspective, I guess.

If you know that you easily gain weight across certain muscle groups and would rather not, you will have to decide whether you think the benefits of adding weight training outweigh what you may consider to be negatives.

Train Happy

I won’t venture down the path of exactly how to train as this would no doubt see me ramble on for far more pages than you’d care to read (no doubt some of you are at breaking point already). You can check out our eGuide ‘How to Lift & Run’ over at if you would like to know more.

So, there you go. In a nutshell; cut down on junk mileage, eat more protein (and calories in general) and lift some weights. Or if you’re happy doing exactly what you’re doing, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that, because, at the end of the day nobody cares what you look like or how fast you run.

Just do the things that make you happy.

Holly gives you 5 Strength Training Tips here

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Holly Rush
Holly Rush
GB Marathon/Ultra Runner Team Silver European Champs & World Mountain Champs 8th Commonwealth Games ASICS UK FrontRunner Manager Marathon Talk Podcast Co Host Coach

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