Running, Cortisol & Weight Gain
How to Run Less for Fat Loss & Fitness
...when you are running and running and gaining weight
First of all running is amazing for both your physical and your emotional health and will give you so much back for the long term when you approach it with intelligence and smart training.
From strengthening the cardiovascular system to strengthening bones to releasing those feel good hormones for mental health, running is the best but...there is an ugly side of running too.
When most people decide to start running, they grab the free app that tells them to run and run and run. This is fine if you have a base of fitness and you simply want to add running to the mix and build distance. Unfortunately, when you are a busy, tired, stressed woman who wants to run for weight loss who does not have a base of strength to push from or when you think running more and more long slow miles combined with less calories will help you shed the last 10 pounds you want gone, you are actually creating a stress reaction in the body that is sabotaging all your efforts!
Not only is running causing wear and tear on the joints and muscular stress, it is causing a real metabolic stress that the body treats just like any other stress, emotional or physical, by raising cortisol levels.
Cortisol is the bodies "stress hormone". It prepares the body for "fight or flight". Also known as the acute stress response, this is a psychological reaction that occurs in the presence of an intense fear or stress, either mentally or physically. During this natural response, certain hormones like adrenalin and cortisol are released, speeding the heart rate, slowing digestion, shunting blood flow to major muscle groups, and changing various other autonomic nervous functions, giving the body a burst of energy and strength.
Basically, when any kind of stress occurs in your life (distance running, exercise, work, kids screaming, husband yelling, being late for work, worry about finances, weight gain, what's for dinner, you know ALL THE STRESS OF MOM LIFE), cortisol is released to make energy available to deal with that stress. When the stress goes away, cortisol levels goes down, systems are designed to return to normal function via the relaxation response.
Unless stress is chronic.
In our times of high stress all the time, the systems do not return to normal function and cortisol levels stay high causing damage to the body over the long term. When stress is chronically elevated, cortisol levels remain high. This has been associated with increased belly fat, poor sleep, extreme fatigue, difficulty falling asleep despite that fatigue, brain fog, high blood pressure, high blood sugar, weight gain, the inability to lose weight and it even lowers your immunity. In addition, cortisol prompts cravings for “comfort food,” which are typically high in carbs and saturated fat. Routinely acting on these cravings can also lead to weight gain.
So What Does This Have to Do With Running?
During exercise specifically, the body perceives the effort as stress, just like any other stress. Cortisol is released at the onset of exercise and remains elevated throughout because the muscles create a great demand for energy.
The stress brought on by a lot of long, slow distance run training can be absolutely fine, assuming that you have a base of fitness to build and that your stress levels are in check in all other areas of your life. When you are running too much combined with other life stress, poor sleep and inadequate nutrition, running turns from healthy to harmful. Your body goes into cortisol over drive, over training occurs, injury risk is high and your body stores fat when you want to be burning it. Too much running on a stressed system can create a cycle that is difficult to break.
Most runners never think about the hormonal effect of too much running, not enough sleep, not enough nutrient dense food and how chronic stress affects their weight and training effect but you need to understand these concepts if you want to run for fat loss and fitness without gaining weight or further adding to the hormonal mess your system is already under in these especially difficult years after kids.
Your long, slow distance running can be causing more problems or it can be helping depending on your training program, existing fitness, mindset and unique life situation. This is a tough one for mothers runners because we use running to manage stress, right? Our first reaction is to "go for a run” to manage life and running long and slow is the automatic go to but I recommend you use the science of stress, cortisol and the stress reaction to run smarter during these times of life so you can still get the sanity, fat loss and fitness you desire without the injury, weight gain and exhaustion.
There will be seasons to push and run long and other seasons to run short, focus on strength, recovery and pull back. Clearly we need to balance the benefits of running with the negative side effects of elevated stress and cortisol levels. You need to run for sanity, weight loss and hormonal balance.
If your life is stressful and if you are "running for sanity", the first thing I recommend you do right now is too temporarily break from your "distance" or "race training" mode and try adding in other forms of exercise that will be easier on your hormones while still challenging your body and soothing your soul. Learn to exercise for hormonal balance.
- More running is NOT better. Short intense speed burst interval run workouts stimulate less cortisol production than longer endurance workouts. Less workout time and more recovery time allow your body to better handle the exercise induced cortisol levels. An added bonus is you put your body into oxygen debt for a short period of time and to repay the debt, your body has to burn fat. Yes to working out less, managing cortisol levels and burning more fat
- Efficient strength workouts. High intensity, runner specific, whole body movements incorporating more muscles and burning more calories during the workout and after your workout will reduce the duration of your workout and allow you to do more in less time stimulating less cortisol production than long, slow running while stimulating lean muscle growth. Lean muscle is how you raise your metabolism and your body will burn more calories for up to 48 hours after your workout is over.
- Work on your mindset. It is a myth that more running is what you need for fat loss and to become a better runner. Smarter training, more efficient workouts and learning to tune into your body to give it what it truly needs will serve you so well for the long term. You can run short and hard and still get that "runners high" you crave for sanity. You will run long again but right now, focus on strength, recovery, nutrition and reducing those cortisol levels.
If you are running and running and if stress and weight are issues for you, you need to get serious on taking good care of YOURSELF, body, mind, energy and hormones. The truth is that more and more running combined with less food to save calories is sabotaging all your fat loss, fitness and feel good efforts. During these stressful times, I want you slowing pulling back, learning about your body, getting in tune and giving yourself what you need to get healthy and strong from the inside out in a way that you can maintain through out all of life's chaos.
In addition to simply adapting your run training program, I also strongly encourage you to:
- Optimize sleep to reduce cortisol levels and burn more fat. Production of cortisol varies rhythmically throughout the day, being highest upon waking and declining to its lowest levels of the day at the time you typically go to sleep. Chronic, moderate sleep deprivation interrupts this cycle, causing end-of-the-day cortisol levels to remain high, an overall increase in cortisol causing fat storage, increased cravings, decreased will power, unregulated hunger hormones so you just feel more hungry and more.
- Eat more nutrient dense, body loving real food based on high quality macro nutrients. Food is fuel and medicine and food is strongly correlated with how you feel emotionally. It's critical to fuel your running and strength workouts properly with enough of the right foods, in the right amounts and at at the right times to power up your workouts and maximize your recovery WITHOUT dieting, rigid rules or counting calories.
- Practice juicy self care to reduce stress. Things like lavender epsom salt baths, eucalyptus showers, energizing essential oil difuser blends, do it your self body scrubs, morning magic time, putting on a face-mask, saying no to everything that isn't a "hell yes!!!", booking a mani/pedi or massage just because you deserve it, journaling, getting a coach or joining a group, spending time in nature or any other number of amazing things you can do to take care of YOU because seriously Self-care is about raising your own personal vibration and when you do that, stress and cortisol levels will go down. It is about doing things for yourselves because you know that you DESERVE to feel good. It is about nourishing the depleted parts of yourself in mind, body, and spirit so that you can have a greater impact on the world around you.
As you can see, stress is a problem when fitness and fat loss are your goals and you are desperately running and running and running. Whether it is the baby crying, the traffic on your way to work making you late yet again or your long, slow distance run on a system already overloaded with stress, exhaustion and a diet lacking in enough nutrients, a solid and holistic training programs that takes it all into account is what you need to get back to feeling, looking and running fit, lean and STRONG, not a free marathon training program that tells you to run and run and run. Get the cortisol under control, get strong, build muscle and learn to eat to reduce sugar cravings, rev metabolism, shed fat. Power up your short running game, fitness and get healthy from the inside out so you can get back to running long and strong again in the future without struggling between now and then with weight gain and frustration.
Any questions on running, cortisol and weight loss????
I hope you found this helpful. If you are a runner ready to focus on balancing your hormones and shedding FAT, I have put together the RunningMoms Online Training Club. I have put together all my top tips and strategies on how to traing and eat right to balance your hormones and truly transform your running and your body from an exhausted, sugar craving, weight gaining, hormonal mess into an energized, nutrient craving, fit, fast and fat burning runner. GET THE DETAILS HERE. The transormation will feel amazing!!!
XO - Carey
Physiotherapist & Founder of RunningMoms
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Helping women transform their running through simple, effective and holistic training, nutritional and hormonal re-balancing strategies so they can get fit, run strong and burn fat.