Exercise Science Secrets: How High Intensity Endurance Training Can Leave You with a Belly

by Sean Etsitty, CPT

The marathon commemorates the legendary Greek messenger who ran 25 miles from Marathon to Athens, then collapsed and died from exhaustion1. Such a strenuous activity is understandably highly respected, and any athlete who can complete this feat should be proud of themselves. 

But have you ever heard some of these athletes sharing their marathon experience, and the audience won’t believe them? If you haven’t, google marathon and belly and plenty of stories pop up. Though this phenomenon sounds counter-intuitive, it isn’t uncommon to walk around the finish line of long endurance events and see a few runners with a belly paunch that won’t disappear2

Why does this happen? Honestly, there can be a few explanations for an overweight endurance athlete. In fact, this phenomenon even has a nickname; the ‘endurance 15’4. It could be the athlete’s diet2,4. It could be the whole ‘no pain, no gain’ mentality that has plagued gyms since the 1970s. How exactly does this mentality cause belly fat? 

Well, it has to do with both training volume and training intensity3,6,8. Most people who want to lose weight or compete in high endurance events generally go on runs that hurt. Painful runs mean you are running above the heart rate needed to use fat as your primary fuel source3,4. Painful runs mean you are exhausting your non-aerobic energy systems for an activity that should rely heavily on your aerobic system in order to be efficient4

Why are painful runs, or high intensity training in general, touted for quick weight loss results? Because an inefficient body burns through more calories. But chronic inefficient training–which takes place when you run every run with the ‘no pain, no gain’ mindset while preparing for a high volume activity like a marathon, or a triathlon–can leave a person overtrained,exhausted,and suffering from lack of sleep3,4,5,6,8. An overtrained endurance athlete with a sleeping disorder is likely to suffer from low testosterone and high cortisol levels, which can cause a hormonal imbalance that will leave a person with poor bone density, less muscle mass, an inhibition to store more belly fat, and an increased risk for stress fractures5,6,7,8.

So what can you do to avoid these issues? The answers are pretty straight-forward: 

(1) Focus on your nutrition. Eat a variety of different colors of vegetables and fruits and around 1.2-1.4 grams of protein for every 2.2 lbs of desired body weight to help ensure you are getting all necessary nutrients9. (Example: 180 lbs / 2.2 lbs = 82 X 1.4 grams of protein = 115 grams) Also, fats in the right quantities are NECESSARY for performance. Our body is a power plant, and every nutrient is a component that ensures your power plant runs as clean and as efficiently as possible. If you are lacking nutrients, you are more likely to have cravings and binge eat. 

It is also important to note the more you run, the fewer calories you will burn running. You become more efficient, which means you burn fewer calories. 

(2) Turn Down the Intensity. No pain no gain should not be the standard, it should be the exception. If you are just starting out, it is important to build a strong aerobic base by keeping most of your runs at a 5/10-7/10 on the OMNI scale. These are called your tempo runs7. The OMNI scale is simply a scale ranking how you feel during the exercise. Though heart rate monitors and fancy gadgets are nice, taking the time to feel and correlate how you feel to where you are on the OMNI scale helps build self awareness and autonomy as a runner. 

Figure 1. Adult OMNI Walk/Run Scale 10

(3) Make sure and include a strength and conditioning program that takes into consideration your off-season, pre-season,and in-season requirements. RUNNING IS NOT A REPLACEMENT FOR STRENGTH TRAINING. Strength training is a good stimulus for anabolic hormone development like testosterone, AND it will also help keep you injury free while running. USAT Coach of the Year Mike Ricci notes a study found a strength training program resulted in improved energy cost of locomotion, improved maximal power, and improved maximal strength for endurance athletes5.

A good strength training program does not have to be complex. In fact, 2-3 days per week of a 30-45 minute strength training program is more than adequate for all levels of endurance athletes. Here is a minimalized program that can be used in the off-season to help build strength for an endurance athlete who has some experience in the gym.

3 Day Program

Tuesday

Warm-up: 3 rounds, 10 reps each with 2 minutes rest in between rounds

  • Glute Bridges with 2 second pause at top
  • Full Mountain Climbers (marching pace, 20 reps total)
  • Quadruped Hip Abduction (20 reps total)
  • Pushups
  • Single leg Deadlifts (20 reps total)

Workout: 5 sets of 5 reps at 7/10-8/10 on OMNI scale. Rest 2-3 minutes in between sets.

  • Barbell Conventional Deadlift
  • Dumbbell Floor Press

(Optional)

4 sets (total) of 45 second holds with 1 minute rest in between

  • Side planks

Cooldown: 4 sets of 30 second holds

  • Deep lunge stretch
  • Frog stretch 
  • Kneeling Lat Stretch
  • Downward Dog
  • Standing Mountain Pose

Thursday

Warmup: 3 rounds, 10 reps each with 2 minutes rest in between rounds

  • Glute Bridges with 2 second pause at top
  • Full Mountain Climbers (marching pace, 20 reps total)
  • Quadruped Hip Abduction (20 reps total)
  • Pushups
  • Single leg Deadlifts (20 reps total)

Workout: 5 sets of 5 reps at 7/10-8/10 on OMNI scale. Rest 2-3 minutes in between sets.

  • Barbell Sumo Deadlifts
  • Dumbbell Neutral Grip Military Press

(Optional)

4 sets (total) of 45 second holds with 1 minute rest in between

  • Side planks

Cooldown: 4 sets of 30 second holds

  • Deep lunge stretch
  • Frog stretch 
  • Kneeling Lat Stretch
  • Downward Dog
  • Standing Mountain Pose

Saturday

Warmup: 3 rounds, 10 reps each with 2 minutes rest in between rounds

  • Glute Bridges with 2 second pause at top
  • Full Mountain Climbers (marching pace, 20 reps total)
  • Quadruped Hip Abduction (20 reps total)
  • Pushups
  • Single leg Deadlifts (20 reps total)

Workout: 5 sets of 5 reps at 7/10-8/10 on OMNI scale. Rest 2-3 minutes in between sets.

  • Barbell Conventional Deadlift
  • Dumbbell Floor Press

(Optional)

4 sets (total) of 45 second holds with 1 minute rest in between

  • Side planks

Cooldown: 4 sets of 30 second holds

  • Deep lunge stretch
  • Frog stretch 
  • Kneeling Lat Stretch
  • Downward Dog
  • Standing Mountain Pose

Program periodization:

Weeks 1-2: 5 sets. 

Weeks 3-4: 6 sets.

Week 5: deload (significantly decrease the weight) 

Week 6: new program.


Figure 2. Adult OMNI Resistance Exercise Scale 10

(4) Get adequate rest. Your body needs you to sleep 7-9 hours to recover from all of the hard work. Sleep is one of the best natural performance enhancers, but consistency is key. You cannot make up for sleep. Every day you have to be consistent. 

Works Cited

1. Nix, E. (2014). Why is a marathon 26.2 miles? Retrieved November 14, 2020, from https://www.history.com/news/why-is-a-marathon-26-2-miles#:~:text=The idea for the modern,After making his announcement, the

2. Heid, M. (2018). This Is Why Running Doesnt Always Get Rid of Stomach Fat. Retrieved November 15, 2020, from https://www.vice.com/en/article/mbkpb8/this-is-why-running-doesnt-always-get-rid-of-stomach-fat

3. Bach, M. (2020). When Low Testosterone And Training Clash. Retrieved November 16, 2020, from https://www.triathlete.com/training/low-testosterone-training-clash/

4. Kattouf, D. R. (2014). Weight Gain During High-Volume Training? How To Avoid the “Endurance 15”. Retrieved November 16, 2020, from https://www.trainingpeaks.com/blog/weight-gain-during-high-volume-training-how-to-avoid-the-endurance-15/

5. Ricci, M. (2018). Heavy Lifting for Endurance Athletes. Retrieved November 16, 2020, from https://www.trainingpeaks.com/blog/heavy-lifting-for-endurance-athletes/

6. Bruggen, S. V. (2019). Hormones & Endurance Training – Testosterone & Cortisol. Retrieved November 16, 2020, from http://gpcsquad.com.au/hormones-endurance-training-summary/#:~:text=Excessive amounts of cortisol are,and breakdown of muscle tissue.

7. Mateo, A. (2020). Could Heart Rate Training Be Your Secret to Getting Faster? Retrieved November 16, 2020, from https://www.runnersworld.com/beginner/a20812270/should-i-do-heart-rate-training/

8. Alves, J., Barrientos, G., Bartolome, I., Maynar, M., Munoz, D., Toro, V. (2020). Hormonal Changes in High-Level Aerobic Male Athletes during a Sports Season, International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health. https://doi.org/10.3390/ijerph17165833

9. Kato, H., Suzuki, K., Bannai, M., & Moore, D. R. (2016). Protein Requirements Are Elevated in Endurance Athletes after Exercise as Determined by the Indicator Amino Acid Oxidation Method. PloS one, 11(6), e0157406. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0157406

10. Mays, R., Goss, F., Schafer, M., Kim, K.H., Nagle-Stilley, E.F., & Robertson, R. (2010). Validation of Adult Omni Perceived Exertion Scales for Elliptical Ergometry. Perceptual and Motor Skills, 111, 848 – 862. https://doi.org/10.2466/05.06.PMS.111.6.848-862

About the Author

Sean Etsitty is Co-Founder of the Healthy People Project LLC, and a multi-certified fitness professional who has developed and implemented hundreds of personal training programs tailored to clientele goals. He is a graduate of the Exercise Science Exercise-specialist program at Fort Lewis College and is certified by the National Council of Strength and Fitness as a personal trainer. Sean specializes in kettlebell training and strength training for young athletes, in addition to being certified by the American Association of Diabetes Educators as a Level I Career Path Paraprofessional.

8 thoughts on “Exercise Science Secrets: How High Intensity Endurance Training Can Leave You with a Belly

  1. I enjoy what you guys are usually uup too. This type oof cleveer work and reporting!
    Keep up tthe very good works guys I’ve aadded you guy to my own video.

  2. I’m missing something with this post. Your premises are fautless, but unfortunately it’s unrealistic to count upon what others might think. Please elaborate, because I think you are an excellent blogger and I want to read more from you!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *