When Frank Pizarro tells people he ran the Walt Disney World Marathon last January, he’s not offended when they respond “A marathon? Really? You?”
Pizarro, 37, isn’t embarrassed that it took him nearly seven hours to run those 26.2 miles through four theme parks in Orlando, Florida. Instead, he hopes people look at his 270-pound, 5’11” body and think, “Well, if you could do it, maybe I could, too.”
No one tracks the average body-mass index of competitive runners, but it's more common to people of all shapes and sizes in major events like Sunday’s TCS New York City Marathon. As the number of competitive events has reached an all-time high — more than 28,000 in the U.S. in 2013 — more plus-size runners are challenging the stereotype that only the lean and lanky can be elite athletes.
“It’s a myth that it’s hard to run if you’re fat. If you go slowly, you’re not going to hurt yourself. You walk if you have to. Then maybe you trot for a while. The first time I ran five miles, I felt like Superman,” he says.
Pizarro took up running two and a half years ago after being inspired by watching contestants on the weight-loss competition TV show “The Biggest Loser” train for a marathon. He weighed 318 pounds then and could barely run a mile in 18 minutes.
“I used to really hate running. But when I saw that people on the show were doing it, I thought it couldn’t be that bad. I kept telling myself that if I could go at my own pace, I would get better,” says Pizarro, who works for a labor union in Vegas Alta, Puerto Rico and chronicles his progress on his blog “The Fat Runner.”
While research suggests people can’t really be “fit and fat” — a more common question is: How can anyone train for months to run 26.2 miles and still be fat?
Unfortunately, an emerging consensus among experts is that significant weight loss usually isn’t achieved through exercise alone. A study published in 2009 found that 58 overweight or obese people who followed an aerobic training program for 12 weeks without reducing their calorie intake lost no more than seven pounds.
Then there’s the role of genetics, which no string of 16-milers can temper, says Fabio Comana, professor of exercise science at San Diego State University, explaining that some people simply metabolize food or add muscle mass at different rates than others.
“No matter how many lifestyle changes you make, they might never be radical enough to overcome your genetic predisposition,” he says. “But that should never be an excuse. You can still make significant improvements through nutrition and exercise, but they might not lead to as dramatic results as you’d hoped.”
Many runners also make the mistake of eating more calories than they burn to satisfy running hunger or “runger.”
Pizarro was so famished in the weeks following his marathon that he indulged himself in dinners of bread sticks and seafood Alfredo and gained 10 pounds.
“I’m surprised that I haven’t lost more weight than I have,” says Pizarro of his 48-pound loss over two and a half years since he started running. Instead, he focuses on improving his pace and accepting that the pounds will continue to come off slowly. His goal is to finish next month’s half marathon in Philadelphia in under three hours.
“I’ve come so far. I just want to keep going,” he says.
People who are carrying extra weight shouldn’t be discouraged from embracing running, explains Mike Fantigrassi, master instructor for the National Academy of Sports Medicine based in Chandler, Arizona.
“They can improve their fitness level and cardiovascular health,” he says. Yet he cautions that excess pounds can take a toll on the body, including the lower back, knees, hamstrings, ankles and heels. “My recommendation would be to ease into it and immediately back off if something doesn’t feel right,” he says.
Beginner runners with a BMI of more than 30 had an increased risk of getting injured if they ran more than three kilometers (1.9 miles) during the first week of a training program, according to a recent Swedish study.
Trainers are increasingly taught to work with heavier athletes and can suggest exercises, such as side walking with a resistance band around the ankles or performing leg lifts that strengthen the sides of the hips to protect the knees and prevent collapsed arches, Fantigrassi says.
For Ragen Chastain, 38, distance running was a way to push her limits, not lose weight. Chastain, a professional speaker from Los Angeles who walked the Seattle marathon last year, has started training for the Ironman triathlon in Tempe, Arizona, in 2016.
“I’ve got no interest in losing weight whatsoever,” says Chastain who at 5’4” weighs 280 pounds and writes a blog about size acceptance called Dances With Fat.
“I’ve always been terrible at distance running, so training for the marathon was an attempt to push myself past my comfort zone and see what lessons there were in doing something I wasn’t good at.”
One of the first was about perseverance after a group of young men commented on her size and threw eggs at her as she was jogging outside.
“I spent a lot of my life dieting and waiting for another body to show up so I could do the things I want to do,” she says. “This is the body I have, so I decided to take it out for a spin.”