I’m a Runner – Why Can’t I Lose Weight? (10 Common Pitfalls)

Why is losing weight so challenging? Even if you are a runner, several factors may be hindering your weight loss. Throughout my years of research and constant communication with both recreational and serious runners, I’ve discovered 10 common pitfalls that often stall a runner’s weight loss. Learning how to identify and eliminate these disruptive habits can put you on the fast track to weight loss success. What’s sabotaging your weight loss?

Problem #1: Emotional Eating and Binging

We don’t always eat to satisfy hunger. In fact, it’s extremely common to turn to food as a way to cope with stress, anxiety, sadness, loneliness and even boredom.  Emotional eating can stem all the way back to childhood. Parents often give kids a treat to stop a specific emotion—a cookie to halt crying over a lost toy, a piece of candy to distract from missing mommy or daddy or an ice cream cone to make a bruised knee feel better. We learn from an early age that food can help us cope with uncomfortable emotions like sadness, loneliness, pain or anger.

Several different emotions can trigger overeating, yet experts often site stress as the main reason adults overeat. In fact, countless studies show that individuals select unhealthy, high-fat foods when experiencing stress. Although this common emotion negatively affects men’s choices too, more women report increased food consumption during times of tension than men. An article in Physiology and Behavior mentions two studies that highlight stress’s effect on food selection. In one experiment, results showed stress to correlate with the selection of unhealthy, high-fat foods like candy over healthier, low-calorie options like fruit. The second study showed that food choices made under stress typically involve the same foods we consciously avoid when trying to lose weight or eat healthily.

A study highlighted in the publication Obesity found that people who eat for emotional reasons like stress lose less weight during a weight loss program than those who avoid emotional eating. The study also found that emotional eaters who succeed at losing some weight are more likely to gain it back than those who don’t practice emotional eating. Although this practice may be derailing your weight loss efforts at present, thankfully, such a learned behavior can be managed.


The first step to solving emotional eating involves identifying what provokes us to overeat. Once we identify our triggers, we can then find new ways to deal with our uncomfortable feelings. For example, the next time those emotions occur, instead of opening a bag of chips or automatically reaching for a tub of ice cream, try taking a warm bath, calling a friend, making a cup of herbal tea or writing in a journal. If those tactics don’t work, go for a short run, do some relaxing yoga, or read a good book. Something as simple as waiting five or 10 minutes to rethink why you’re eating can help realign your choices. Emotional eating doesn’t have to derail your weight loss goals. A little focus on the reasons behind your actions and finding an enjoyable substitution instead can be just what you need to stay on track.

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Problem #2: Reward Eating

Like emotional eating, reward eating often stems from patterns developed in childhood. Many adults reward children with food—a trip to the ice cream parlor for receiving a good grade, a lollipop for behaving at the doctor’s office or a candy bar for playing nice with a sibling. It’s certainly okay to feel good about completing a task, and it’s great to feel pride after accomplishing a run or workout (you should!); however, rewarding yourself with food may negate the calories you’ve just burned.


Do you often feel the need to reward yourself for a good workout? Instead of doing so after each run, give yourself a treat for a larger, cumulative accomplishment. Indulge after reaching your weekly or monthly mileage rather than daily goals. If possible, take food out of the equation. Find other ways to reward yourself—a do-it-at-home facial, a trip to the spa, the purchase of a new pair of running shoes or shorts, etc.  Simply writing down your accomplishments in a training log or journal may give you enough of a boost. If you do feel the need to congratulate yourself with food, however, make sure the reward doesn’t negate the benefits gained from the task. For example, you can allow yourself a double scoop of mint chip ice cream (my favorite) for reaching or surpassing your weekly mileage goal, but don’t reward yourself with such a high-calorie treat for achieving a daily goal; if you do, the calories consumed will likely surpass the calories burned. Instead of eliminating the reward, replace it with a healthy alternative.

Problem #3: Not Eating Enough

If you’ve been struggling to lose weight, drastically reducing your caloric intake may seem like a sure-fire way to quickly drop pounds. But not eating enough can actually derail your long-term weight loss goals. Believe it or not, too little food can be just as detrimental as too much food. Limiting your intake to extreme levels can stall your metabolism. According to the Weight-control Information Network, part of the National Institutes of Health, a difference exists between a low-calorie diet and a very low-calorie diet. A low-calorie diet, defined as 1,000 to1,200 calories for women and 1,200 to 1,600 for men, is typically considered safe and easy to follow. A very low-calorie diet, one that dips below 800 calories a day, may seem like a quick and easy solution. Yet such diets have been found to yield the same long-term weight loss effects, but they aren’t as safe; they should only been done with a doctor’s supervision (and often only if the subject suffers from obesity or severe medical complications due to excess weight).


It’s true that eating fewer calories than you burn will lead to weight loss, but be careful not to take it too far. Make sure you are consuming a healthy number of calories depending on your activity level. If you’re an active individual trying to lose weight, you shouldn’t drop below 1,200 calories a day; you may need to consume even more, depending on your running program’s intensity and mileage. If your diet consists of a variety of wholesome foods, and you limit high-calorie junk food, you should easily lose weight on a 1,200 to 1,500 calorie diet. 

Problem #4: Late-Night Snacking

Late-night snacking, if done carefully, may not cause weight gain. In other words, a small, healthy snack or a portion-controlled indulgence won’t necessarily derail your weight loss goals. The problem occurs when late-night snacking gets out of control and too many calories are consumed at an inappropriate hour, which, unfortunately, is often the case. People tend to consume excess snacks out of habit or boredom. Research shows that women often take in almost half of their day’s calories during after-dinner snacking. Another study found that more than 30% of people consume 15% of their calories extremely late at night, meaning after 11 p.m.

Eating too few calories during the day can trigger nighttime eating. A study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association found that people with night eating syndrome—a condition when the majority of food consumption takes place late at night—often only eat a third of their daily calories by 6 p.m. On the contrary, people without night eating syndrome have typically consumed three-quarters of their food by that time.


Nighttime snacking doesn’t have to hinder your weight loss. If you must snack after dinner, simply make healthy choices, and be sure to add those calories to your daily calculation. When late-night snacking, we tend to reach for high-calorie junk food. Instead, swap out junk for healthier options, and be mindful of your eating. You can limit the number of calories you ingest by simply pausing and asking yourself whether you’re eating because you’re hungry, bored, stressed or in need of a mindless distraction while watching TV. More often than not, late-night eating stems from habit rather than hunger. If you have a late-night sweet tooth, try to make a new habit of eating a piece of fruit or drinking a naturally decaffeinated herbal tea. It may do just the trick without sabotaging your weight loss. You can also choose portion-controlled snacks to help limit your consumption. A 150- to 200-calorie energy bar trumps grabbing a box of cookies or chips, as it’s often difficult to stick to a single serving when larger packaging is involved. 

To read pitfalls 5 through 10, download the free Runner’s Guide to Weight Loss.

Dawna is a mom of two, author of ten books and founder of Women's Running magazine and the Virtual Women's Half Marathon series. She is also a certified health coach and motivational speaker. Dawna has appeared on the Today show, MSNBC and morning news programs on NBC, CBS, ABC, and Fox. Dawna has launched and sold two wellness companies and loves combining her passion for health and wellness with her love of running. Learn more about Dawna Stone.

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