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The novice marathoner’s lament: Why am I gaining weight?

Question: If Peter Riddle started out weighing 190 pounds, burns about 150 calories a mile training to run the Boston Marathon, and has run 240 miles so far, how much does he weigh now?

Answer: Don’t ask.

“I’m up to 205,” said a disappointed Riddle, a Boston Children’s Hospital charity runner and a man who carbo-loaded for runs that were canceled by the snow and ate too freely even when he did run.

“I’m starting a diet right after the Marathon,” Riddle vowed this week. “I didn’t know you could gain weight while training.”

Who would? Between those front-of-the-pack waifs you see crossing the finish line on TV and training regimens that can burn several thousand calories per week — and can stretch for 20 weeks — the message to recreational runners is clear: By the time you cross that finish line, you’re going to be a toothpick.

But packing on the pounds is actually fairly common for beginning runners. And, no, it’s not all — or even mainly — muscle mass.


As Nancy Clark, a Newton-based expert on sports and nutrition, put it: “Bill Rodgers does not look like Arnold Schwarzenegger.”

How is it possible to exercise more than you ever have in your entire life and end up with tight pants?

The simple answer involves the cruel math of dieting: He who eats more calories than he burns gains weight — even if he “deserves” to pizza-load because he’s exhausted by his job, his family, his running schedule, and, on top of it all, serious fund-raising requirements.

Marathon-training-induced weight gain is so prevalent that it’s been studied by researchers and addressed by Runner’s World magazine, which periodically runs stories with headlines that read as if plucked from the satirical Onion publication: “How to Avoid Marathon-Training Weight Gain,” and “10 Tips to Avoid Weight Gain While Training.

In 2009, when Mary Kennedy was coaching charity marathon runners for the Arthritis Foundation and studying nutrition and food policy at Tufts University, she heard about weight gain from so many runners that she decided to investigate.

The diagnosis: magical thinking. “What they achieve on race day is so big,” she said, “that they think weight loss is going to be an amazing side effect.”


But the reality for many recreational runners, although certainly not all, is that that doesn’t generally happen, Kennedy said.

“Many people equate marathon training to huge volumes of exercise, but in reality, many training programs are not a lot more rigorous than a person’s usual exercise routine.”

At the same time, she said, long runs make people very hungry, and marathon training — especially as part of a charity team — can be a very social experience.

“People become very close with their teammates. They go out on a Saturday for a run and then plan to go out later, for fun. They’re hungry from their workouts, and they treat themselves to extra calories they may not have otherwise.”

All that bonhomie can be fattening. Of the 64 runners in Kennedy’s study, seven gained weight, 50 managed to hold the line, and seven got skinnier.

The majority of the weight gainers in Kennedy’s study were women, but in an informal Facebook poll in March, Susan Hurley, who runs a North Andover management service for charity runners, found that an equal number of women and men have gained unwanted pounds.

Eric Gagnon is one of those men. “My body is doing weird things,” he said. “I’m getting more muscle in my legs, which makes sense, but I’m gaining fat in my upper body.”

Eric Gagnon.Jim Davis/Globe Staff/Globe Staff

Gagon, a merchandise planner for Rue La La, the flash-sale site, has raised $7,200 for the Martin W. Richard Charitable Foundation so far — and in the process added 10 pounds to his 5-foot-9-inch frame.

“I think my body is storing away fat thinking that I’ll be needing it,” he said, “when in reality I keep taking in a lot of pasta and bread. I don’t need to store anything.”

Stephanie Kaplan Lewis, a cofounder of Her Campus, an online site for college women, and part of the Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center team, says increased hunger and physical and mental exhaustion have lowered her self-control in the face of treats. At 5 feet 7 inches and 130 pounds, she’s heavier than she’s ever been. “It’s as if I’ve been pigging out on vacation,” she said.


Meanwhile, if there’s anything more surprising than gaining weight training for a race, it’s got to be putting on pounds during one.

A local athlete named Hal Gabriel pulled off that feat in 1980 when he and Dave McGillivray, now race director for the Boston Athletic Association, competed in an Ironman triathlon in Hawaii.

“I turned and looked at him and he was stuffing his face with all kinds of treats — cupcakes, cookies, etc.,” McGillivray recalled. “I think he consumed $40 worth of groceries during the 112-mile bike ride.”

Reached at his home in Newton, Gabriel, 73, confirmed the snacking and remembered being weighed several times during the race — a practice aimed at making sure competitors don’t lose too much weight. “Some officials thought I was an impostor,” he said. “I had gained two or three pounds by the end of it.”

Couch potatoes of the world, rejoice!

Beth Teitell can be reached at Beth.Teitell@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @bethteitell.