A somewhat trite complaint about shitty running dicta

One of the main things that separates people who started running in or before high school and runners who got started as adults is that the latter are more fond of reading books, magazines and Web sites about the subject. What seems intuitive to some of us thanks to early exposure is actually ingrained, not innate, and so it seems curious to some of us, or at least to me, that people like to read running books, often more than one at a time. This is coming from someone who did run in high school and nevertheless did used to read a lot of running books and magazines, and in fact is personally responsible for a running book and a great many magazine and Web articles about it, so maybe I’m just tired of it and have resorted to compartmentalizing my mind in order to continue earning much of my income continuing in this vein. In any rate I like to bash certain aspects of the running world and I can really only do that on my own time, as I’m doing now.

I deal closely with one of the aforementioned adult-onset runners, and this one is especially dangerous because she’s very intelligent and obsessive and analytical and hence perfectly positioned to get in her own way. Earlier today she claimed to have read somewhere that every extra pound of body weight slows runners down in a race by two seconds per mile. I’m sure whoever came up with this had the best of intentions and possesses some whimsical, pseudoscientific means of justifying his claim, but it fails on its face.

This leads me to write about a bunch of running rules that suck. (If you are ever curious about whether a rule you’ve heard about anything to do with running sucks, go visit the Runner’s World Online forums. If there’s a fight about it, it most likely sucks. In fact, if it’s even there at all, the likelihood that it sucks approaches unity.)

“You’ll slow down by two seconds a mile for every pound that you gain.” I don’t know the origins of this one, but the main reason it’s problematic is obvious: There’s no way to determine an ideal baseline from it. When I was at my fastest, by this metric, dropping under 125 pounds would have had me running in the 13:30s for 5k, which would have been pretty damned fast for a 34-year-old — national-class, even. It also would have meant that I had been on the streets smoking crack or drinking MD 20/20 for an extended period or the experiential equivalent,and thus poorly prepared to enter running races, or stand on my own two feet for very long.

Another reason this idea sucks is that it feeds the neuroses of people who weigh themselves daily, like the person I just mentioned and many other runners. No matter who you are, but particularly if you are a premenopausal woman who deals with hot temperatures most of the time, your weight is going to fluctuate around some mean by a couple of pounds in either direction, more if you’re a heavier runner to start with. To wake up on marathon morning 3-4 pounds heavier than you’re used to — which you really should do, as this is likely a sign of proper carbo-loading (which involves water retention) and hydrating — and assume that this is going to cost you several minutes in the race is shit that you do not need. Even if it were true it wouldn’t do you anything but harm to know it.

This afternoon I drank a quart of water about 15 minutes before going running in 90-degree weather. I have a strong background in math, so I can tell you that this entailed an immediate “weight gain” of two pounds. Yet I am pretty sure that I did not run my six-miler thirty seconds or so slower than I would have without the water shot at the same effort level. In fact, since I also have an excellent grounding in human physiology, I’m confident that I would have performed poorly out there in the sun, and cursed more, and acted unruly toward motorists and small children, and finished at a mollusk’s pace with a bellow of rage and frustration and plans to empty a Glock 18 into the
drive-thru window of a McDonald’s. If not that bad, then close.

The take-home message, as I tried to explain it to this beleaguered athlete, is that looking at your weight as a stand-alone number every single morning is about as meaningful as looking at the weather outside right now to try to get a sense of the regional climate. In fact, I compared her to global-warming denier, in terms of her approach if not as an intellectual specimen, a rhetorical gambit that failed to earn me any affection but put paid to the whole argument. I frequently debunk her bullshit and although she claims to have grown tired of this, I’m certain that she is grudgingly grateful for my dazzling input.

My comments about other rules will have to wait. I didn’t know this thing would grow so long and throb with such passion and panache.

14 thoughts on “A somewhat trite complaint about shitty running dicta”

  1. I believe there have been numerous studies proving that those who weigh themselves daily are most likely to accomplish weight maintenance and/or loss goals, so that the head dietician at a large local hospital told me that is the best method for maintaining weight; ditto with several other nutritional and eating disorder experts with whom I have spoken.

    Also, you have agreed that there is some relation between weight and running. Yes, the baseline is the question–but assuming any person is above their baseline–I imagine you wouldn’t disagree that they need to lower the numbers on the scale.

    The rest of what you said is hogwash, but I’ve got a blog post to finish.

  2. Way to not address the thrust of what I said. I certainly did not claim that there is no relationship between weight and performance. And people can weigh themselves to their lard’s content — no argument there. In the end it’s pretty hard to lose weight without an objective metric, outside of my cocaine-and-booze regimen. The point is that drawing lessons of the sort SOME people do from the information thus gained is misguided. If you weigh yourself every day for a month and notice a PATTERN of gain, and wind up, say, five pounds heavier in a systematic way, then you have cause for concern — assuming that you weren’t underweight to start with, which in runners with scales under their feet too often is frequently the case.

    So, nice red herring with a coating of slippery-slope sauce, sport, but everything you wrote is blogwash and I have a hog post to finish.

  3. You seriously don’t know what you are talking about on this one. Do you have any idea how difficult it would be for a 41 year old woman to lose 5 friggin pounds?! I don’t think so. I am fully aware that my weight fluctuates–quite normally–within a range of maybe 2 pounds when I’m not PMSing, and a little more if I am. That being said, however, when I get to the upper limit of 2 extra pounds, I start to lower my portion sizes, skip dessert, or whatever–so that I don’t ever reach the 5 pound mark and then have a much more difficult time turning the ship around. Suggesting that a woman who likes to eat and genetically probably tends toward very large wait an entire month before she decides–hell–I’ve gained 5 pounds, really proves that you understand women about as well as you grasp the futility of understanding the list of cognitive distortions.

  4. “you understand women about as well as you grasp the futility of understanding the list of cognitive distortions”

    Don’t take this the wrong way, but I think you’re always PMS-ing, and in generous portion sizes.

      1. Classic KMB and, kudos, b/c I fell for it, again. Once you have nothing of substance to say in reply, you change the subject with some random inflammatory comment. But I still love you, so no worries.

  5. I don’t know if this is the ultimate origin of the 2 secs/mile/lb claim, but no less a coach/Olympian/physiologist than Jack Daniels has made this claim in DRF (or perhaps one of his videos, but I remember it coming from him). Of course, he was very careful to qualify that the lost pounds MUST be strictly in the form of excess body fat, and not muscle tissue. Perhaps that not-so-subtle point is lost on many people.

  6. That admittedly not-so-subtle point is not lost upon me, nor probably most analytical distance runners. I think the harder question is knowing whether you have any body fat to lose without what I presume is primarily elite-level access to some fancy underwater or otherwise somehow perfectly calibrated body fat percentage weighing machine. Also, primarily in the case of men, I would assume that the loss of some muscle weight above, say, the belly button, might be desirable from a run performance standpoint.

  7. the american record holder for 10K (26:59) is Chris Solinsky who comes in at 6’1″ 161lbs. http://www.usatf.org/athletes/bios/Solinsky_Chris.asp People have pointed out this is on the heavy side for an elite, as, to my knowledge, there has never been anyone this heavy going sub27. I guess if Solinsky lost some weight he’d beat Bekele? I don’t think so.

    there may be an optimal weight for performance but it’s pretty individual. If you’re running a lot of miles, the last thing you really need to be worrying about is weight. Listen to your body. If you’re hungry, EAT! But that doesn’t mean eat fried mayonnaise balls -> eat the right things, stay hydrated, and don’t pay attention to daily weight fluctuations. As I said before when I drop a deuce I might lose a few pounds. If I go out for a run I lose a bit more. Then if I go out and eat some food to recover from that, I’ll gain some. who cares?

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