Posted by: Joe English | June 19, 2008

Training: Food as fuel; Your diet, weight loss and running (part II)

[This is part II of a series on weight loss and building a diet for runners. The first part of the series is posted here.]

Part II: Building a diet that meets your needs

If you’ve made it through Part I of this article, then you’ve already had the basics. Food is fuel and you need to pick out the right types of foods to support your activities. When you do that, you’ll be providing your body what it needs for energy, meaning that you’ll feel better and you’ll be able to manage your weight, whether that goal is to lose, maintain or gain weight.

What ‘ya doin’ tomorrow?
In order for you to know how many calories you need in a day and what types of food you need to eat, the first thing you need to think about is what is it that you’re doing in a particular day and how many calories these activities require. There are lots of tools for estimating calories, but I’ll give you two simplistic ways to estimate.

The first method is to do some basic math to figure out how many calories you burn in a day:

Take your weight in pounds and multiply that number by 10. (150 pounds x 10 = 1,500 calories).

This result is a basic estimate of the number of calories that you’ll burn just going through your day: talking, breathing, digesting food, thinking and so on. This is a good place to start.

Now take that number and divide it in half and add that to the first number (1,500 / 2 = 750 . 1,500+750= 2,250 calories).

This result adds in calories for you to things you do in your day, like walking around, going up and down stairs, picking up baby and unloading the groceries from the car. This second calculation is highly dependent on your activity level, so this is really just a guide post. (See below for an Internet tool that will help you get more specific).

The final step is to add in calories that you’ll burn during your running or exercise. The amount of calories burned during exercise is a factor of both the intensity of your workout and your weight. The more intense the workout, the more carbohydrate will be burned. A heavier person also burns more calories by having more physical mass to carry around with them.

A simple estimating tool is that running burns about 115 calories per mile. Walking at a moderate pace burns about 80 calories per mile.

So if you were planning to run 6 miles tomorrow, you’d add that your caloric needs:
150 pounds x 10 = 1,500 calories
1,500 x 2 = 750 calories
6 miles @ 115 calories = 690 calories
Total: 2,940

The total is the total number of calories you would burn in that day. Theoretically, if you ate that number of calories and the calculation was correct, you’d just about maintain your weight. (Aside from issues related to fluid weight fluctuations.)

The Internet method
Perhaps a less intimidating method would be to let an automated tool do the math for you. Here’s a link to a good tool that will help estimate your calories based on your weight on exercise level:

Losing weight
So how does one make the number on the scale move downward? Nutritionists suggest that you should reduce the number of calories calculated above by about 20% to safely lose weight. With that said – I’ll make the legal disclaimer here – if you’re trying to lose weight, you should really consult a nutritionist who can help you make sure that you’re getting enough of the nutrients (including proteins, vitamins and minerals) that you need to stay healthy.

The next step in the process is to pick out the foods that will provide these calories. A good guideline for people that are exercising is to split up your caloric needs into the following proportions:
 60% of calories should come from carbohydrates
 10% of calories should come from protein
 30% of calories should come from fat

It’s important to remember that these percentages above a not hard and fast rules and they are tailored for people that exercise.

When to eat what
The last piece of the equation is to think about when during the day to eat and how much at each meal. What you’d really like is a method of fueling your body that spreads out energy across the whole day so that you don’t feel the ups and downs associated with being hungry and then wanting to stuff yourself when you finally get to eat. One way to do this is to simply split up your calories and distribute them in four or meals across the day.

As nutritionist Nancy Clark says, “eating should be a time-line, not a crescendo.” Meaning you should be eating on an even and consistent basis and not stuffing yourself at the end of the day – something too many of us do.

So if you were planning on eating say 2,000 calories in a day, you could split this into four meals of 500 calories each: breakfast, lunch, snack and dinner. All of the meals would be roughly the same size and you’ll keep a flow of fuel coming into the body throughout the day. The afternoon snack is also especially helpful is you plan to exercise in the evening before eating dinner, so that you’re not starving several hours after lunch when you start your workout.

Finally, think about what you need on a day-to-day basis as well. If you know that you’re going to do an especially heavy workout of several hours tomorrow, then today you should be eating additional complex carbohydrates to get ready for that workout. On the other hand, if today is a rest day, then you may not need so many calories. Over time, you’ll can get the hang of this and it will become second-nature.

As we close, remember what I told you way back at the beginning of this article: food taken into the body should be thought of as fuel. Think about what fuels you need on a given day and how much of those foods you need. Managing your food is not the same thing as dieting – it’s about taking charge of what you need to eat and when. When you get into this mindset, you’ll find you’ll have a new set of tools at your disposal to help you manage your weight and your energy at the same time.

If you’d like more information on this topic, there are many great books available. Two of my favorites are available at They are Nancy Clark’s Food Guide for Marathon Runners and Nancy Clark’s Sports Nutrition Guidebook.

Coach Joe English, Portland Oregon USA
Running Advice and News



  1. I found this INCREDIBLY helpful. I started the South Beach Diet approx. 2 months ago, and have lost a healthy 10 lbs. (In the past 5 years I have fluctuated between 200 lbs. pregnant and 109 lbs. anorexic. I put my body through this cycle twice.) I am now trying to get fit in a sane, keep me alive way. I began working out (mostly cardio in the form of climbing/running and light weights) 3 weeks ago. This is something I did a lot of before, but I am finding a lot more resistance from my body as far as weight loss is concerned this time around, especially the thigh and hip area. Do you think it’s possible that because of the incredible strain that I have put on my body, I might have altered it’s response? Do you have any suggestions?

  2. Pamela,

    You raise an interesting question that has to do with the body’s response to repeated gain and loss of weight. There is annecdotal evidence of dieting becoming “harder” after gaining and losing weight multiple times. I’m not sure if there is scientific evidence to back this up, but it is something that I hear often.

    The best thing that you can do is work to mix-up, change and intensify your workouts. What we see is that if the body is subjected to the same types of workouts over and over, they will eventually become less effective. In other words, the body adapts to the load that is being placed on it and becomes better or more efficient at performing the workout — so you’ll see less of result from the work.

    So start by throwing out your tried and true workout plans and doing some new things. Get into some spin classes, body pump or other high enegy classes, or other exercise programs that will rev up your metabolism and burn some calories. Use some muscles that you haven’t used before and try to spread the workouts over the entire body.

    Finally, make sure that your workouts are intense — or “high quality” — rather than lower intensity aerobic workouts. The more intense workouts will both burn more calories and will get your body back into a mode of adapting to the load, which should get you back on track.

    Keep at it. Over time, you’ll find a combination that works for you. When you’ve found it, change it up and make it interesting for yourself once again.

    Coach Joe

  3. […] Click here to continue to part II. […]

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