Cardio • 10.05.2017 • Tina Muir

Why Restricting Calories Does Not Work

by Tina Muir from RunnersConnect

It creeps on. Before you know it, you are heavier than you ever thought you would be. You see a photo of yourself and wonder who that big person is who looks just like you staring back at you. Or maybe you notice a scale at a friend’s house and cannot resist the temptation to get on it.

Runners, you’ll want to read this before restricting calories

We often have these inner battles with our minds. We do so well with healthy eating, but suddenly, all your focus is gone, and you are back to eating as you were before. Another diet attempt abandoned.

Two friends eating a mixed salad.

It has been made abundantly clear that if you are a heavier runner, you are putting extra stress on your muscles, bones, and tendons, which can put you at a higher risk of injuries, but realistically, most of us are trying to lose weight to look better. To feel more confident in ourselves for an upcoming event, be it a race, or just a party we are looking forward to.

But, before you go putting yourself in an intense calorie deficit, consider these reasons why it restricting calories just does not work:

1. It can cause the opposite

Many runners turn to restricting their caloric intake to lose those extra pounds. An effective tool, but one that if you take it too far will actually cause the opposite. If your body is used to 3,000 calories a day, and you suddenly cut back to under 1,000, your body will be very confused and will look back to our hunter-gatherer days when our ancestors would binge on food that was available and then go an extended period without anything.

When you limit your calories too much, your body will think this is what is happening. Therefore, it will cling on to every morsel that you consume, and you will gain fat as it tries to give a nice cushion to live on if there is no more food.

When we first decide that we want to lose weight, we think that the less we eat, the quicker the weight will fall off. Unfortunately, that is wrong, especially if you are running while you are trying to lose the weight.

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2. You’ll be missing out on important energy

Those calories you are putting in are energy, fuel for your training. If you do not put enough in, you are going to be unable to run as fast or as far. Without those calories, you are missing the opportunity to make a significant gain in fitness, which you will regret come race day.

3. Less nutrients for muscle repair and recovery

Your body will also not be able to repair itself correctly after a run, which means your muscles will break down to find that energy within themselves. This means you go into your next workout not fully recovered. The next time you run hard without enough calories, you will push your body further into a hole. Now you are risking overtraining. 

Okay, so what if I do not care about my performance? What if I am purely running to lose weight?

4. You will lose metabolically active tissue ??

If you do not care that your body will lose muscle as well as fat for running reasons, consider the following: Muscle is a metabolically active tissue (which means your body burns calories to keep that muscle). Muscle speeds up your metabolism so you burn more calories.

5. Your metabolism will slow down

However, if you start to lose that muscle or restrict enough, your body will slow your metabolism down significantly to save every calorie. You will not lose as much fat, but will keep losing muscle as your body holds onto the fat, knowing it can use it in times of severe starvation.

27.03._Restricting Calories (2)

So what is a healthy amount of calories to restrict?

If you want to lose weight, you should aim to have a deficit of 400-600 calories per day. If you try to lose 1,000-1,500 calories per day, you have to sacrifice some of the foods that are keeping you healthy. Think about all those vitamins and minerals, proteins, good fats, and carbohydrates that will keep you full of energy and strong.

By restricting, you are going to be hungry a lot. When you are hungry a lot, it just takes one weak moment to lose your focus, and before you know it, you have binged on all the junk food you could find, and you end up giving up this diet.

Cut back by 400-600 a day, and you will lose weight in a healthy and sustainable way, where you can keep it up for the rest of your life without feeling like you are missing out, and you will still continue to make improvements in your running, which brings much more true satisfaction and happiness to our lives.


Tina Muir

Tina Muir works as a Community Manager and Elite Runner. This platform is a community of expert coaches that provide custom and dynamic training plans tailored specifically to your abilities, pace and goals to help make you a smarter, fitter, and faster runner. "We're fellow runners and experts in one thing only—improving your running", says Tina Muir.
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  • Runtastic Team

    Hello Graham, thanks for the positive feedback. Stay active 🙂

  • Michael Addington

    Great article. Your views concur with all of the recent studies. Worst of all sudies show 5 years down the road your metabolism hasn’t recovered & to frustrate you even more 2 hormones that control appetite have not returned to normal.,

  • Dan SJ

    Thanks for this article! And I agree completely with the comment Graham made.

    I fell into a trap of a deep caloric restriction combined with heavy training loads. I thought I was just being weak and told myself to suck it up, but what I was doing was overtraining due to lack of proper nutrition. I lost some weight but it was more painful that it needed to be. If I consumed more calories but matched that with training harder, it probably would have been easier in the long run.

    It’s important to note that when you feel like you’re training too hard you should look very carefully into your intake of calories and to be sure that makes sense for the volume of training you are involved in. Some people brush off the overtraining feeling as a cue to just cut down on the training volume but it’s not that simple.

    • Runtastic Team

      Hi Dan, thanks for your comment! We completely agree 😉 Thanks for your input!

  • Ted Northrop

    Restricting calories is exactly what you are talking about – cutting back 400-600 calories is literally restricting calories.

  • Runtastic Team

    Thanks for your comment!

  • MikeyZ

    Tracking my intake vigilantly has been the difference for me as well. It’s totally amazing what my brain will try to do to trick me into thinking I’m not eating as much as I really am. Tracking holds me accountable.

    I have a weekly budget of 14,000 calories, and strive not to exceed 3000 in any given day (which I still have to make up on the back end).

    I’ve also found it totally amazing how the brain re-prioritizes food cravings when it’s on a limit. I don’t drink much beer any more, and have had almost no candy or other sweets. I’m unwilling to afford the opportunity cost of missing out on protein. Why have two bottles of beer when I can have half a pound of beef or fish instead?

  • cristina

    Thanks for the article. Very interesting.