Will you lose weight by running?

April 06, 2020

Will you lose weight by running?

It can be tempting to treat running as this magical exercise that will melt all our troubles — fat — away. The notion that running equates to weight loss has been going on for years. If you enjoy running, then good for you. You're one step closer to formulating an exercise plan. But if weight loss is your main goal, focusing your fitness plan or steady-state-running isn't the best way to get results.

Relying solely on running isn't the ideal way to lose weight because it burns comparatively few calories for the time spent. While running does have its advantages, there are greater things to concentrate on if your final goal is to shed some pounds—although that doesn't mean you should hang up your running shoes.

Weight loss isn't necessarily a goal for all people, nor should it be. But if it's your goal then running can be helpful for other reasons. Running offers a variety of health benefits, from improving sleep quality, enhanced cardiovascular endurance, and even mood boosting.

According to Self.com, a long-term study on 55,137 people published in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology even found that runners had a 30 percent lower risk of death from any cause, and a 45 percent lower risk of death from heart disease than their non-running peers during the 15-year study period. Researchers also observed that runners had three years of higher life expectancy compared with non-runners. However, the debate still rages about whether "too much" running  (that is, lifelong, marathoner-level running) is good or bad for your heart.

Different styles of running

Group of friends running

Healthline.com has identified six of the most popular types of runs:

  • Base runs: What most people would call a normal run. They are short-to-moderate length runs around 6 miles (10 km) and done at your natural pace.
  • Long runs: Longer versions of base runs done at the same pace but over a greater distance of around 10–12 miles (15–20 km). They help improve your overall fitness and endurance.
  • Interval runs: Short, intense runs repeated several times with short breaks in between. For example, 5 x 0.5 mile runs with 1/4 mile (400 meters) light jogging between each interval. These runs train your running power and speed.
  • Hill repeats: Similar to interval runs but done uphill. For example, 10 x 1-minute hill repeats. They train your running power and speed while improving stamina.
  • Recovery runs: Slow runs done after harder runs like hill repeats to add extra distance to your overall run. For example, a 4-minute run at a comfortable pace after a harder run.
  • Progression runs: These mimic competition-style runs by starting slow and finishing at a faster pace. They build endurance, speed and reduce fatigue. For example, 5 miles (8 km) at a natural pace, then 1 mile (1.5 km) at a fast pace.

Of these six runs, the one to best burn calories are base runs and interval runs. Base runs are done at a steady pace which is ideal for fat burning and interval runs (another form of HIIT) targets your heart, which benefits your arteries in the long run. Additionally, HIIT runs continue to burn calories after exercise. You get so much more than you bargained for.

The Runner’s Diet

the runner's diet

Did you know that exercise and physical activity only contributes to 20% of overall weight loss? The biggest factor of shedding pounds is your nutrition. If you’re running but overeating, you won’t see the results you want. A caloric surplus will keep you plateaued but a deficit is where you’ll see your results. When we say deficit, we don’t mean starve yourself. That’s a common mistake for runners who want to lose weight. They think that not eating is the solution to their problem. It’s wrong for a number of reasons, the first being that you won’t have any energy to run. The quality of your exercise will go down and you will slowly lose motivation. Second, you slow your metabolism down by skipping a meal. If it has nothing to digest then your brain will tell your metabolism to slow down to conserve energy, that’s why doctors and dieticians stress the importance of eating on time. 

There are over a million upsides to running, weight loss included. But it’s no excuse to ignore your diet, particularly for people who are trying to lose weight. There's no such thing as a specialized runner's diet. The type of food that is good for runners is the same healthy diet as that generally recommended for everyone. The trouble is, most people seem to fail miserably at staying within that target diet. Though runners maintain a healthier diet than the average Joe, however, all of us need to be aware of the overall balances of our diets.

A healthy diet is one that is high in carbohydrates — yes, you read that right, carbs are not the enemy and low in fat, and sufficient but not overdone on protein. This translates roughly to:

  • 60% carbohydrates
  • 25% fat
  • 15% protein

But all people are different and have individual needs. This proportion serves as a guideline for how you should be eating. Take note that there is a notable minority of individuals, who are, for example, insulin resistant to some degree (diabetes, PCOS, etc.). A diet of 60% carbohydrates will cause spikes or drops in insulin levels and result in too much fat storage, aka bloating in the abdominal area. If that's the case, an intake of 50% carbs, 25% fat and 25% protein will do them better.

That said, beware of fad diets because they don't work. They're just a marketing tactic. While many celebrities have posted many weight loss transformations while on these diets, they are destitute for runners because they find they are more sluggish and lack energy due to a lack of carbohydrates. Carbohydrates form the cornerstone of your diet because they’re a critical energy source for long distance runs. Rejoice! It’s your chance to load up on hefty portions of bread, pasta, and potatoes.

Speeding up your metabolic rate

Woman measuring her waist

The Mayo Clinic defines metabolism as the process by which your body converts what you eat and drink into energy. During this complex biochemical process, calories in food and beverages are combined with oxygen to release the energy your body needs to function.

Even when you're at rest, your body needs energy for all its "hidden" functions, such as breathing, circulating blood, adjusting hormone levels, and growing and repairing cells. The number of calories your body uses to carry out these basic functions is known as your basal metabolic rate — what you might call metabolism.

Several factors determine your individual basal metabolism, including:

  • Your body size and composition. People who are larger or have more muscle burn more calories, even at rest.
  • Your sex. Men usually have less body fat and more muscle than do women of the same age and weight, which means men burn more calories.
  • Your age. As you get older, the amount of muscle tends to decrease and fat accounts for more of your weight, slowing down calorie burning.

The best way to boost your metabolism and burn fat is through cardio training. Running or brisk walking are the best techniques to raise your metabolism to get the energy it necessitates from your untapped fat reserves. Everyone has fat reserves in their muscles that need to be burned. This slow process forms the foundation for more intense workouts in the future. Cardio training is best for amateurs because the exercises are done at low intensity.

How often should you run to lose weight?

Man going for a run

We’d suggest for beginners to take it slow at first. Don’t overwhelm yourself with the idea of running every day at five in the morning. Like all exercise programs you need to start slowly and build up. Start with walking or brisk running three to four times a week for the next month. Within that month practice a walk-run-walk cycle: two minutes of walking, one minute of running, and another two minutes of walking. Do this for half an hour. Once you’ve built up your endurance you can prolong your run time and shorten your walk time. But don’t try to rush into it because you’re at risk of injuring yourself if you do so.

Once you’ve built up the stamina to run three to four times a week, consider cross-training on your off-days. Cross-training helps strengthen your non-running muscles and rests your running muscles. You can focus on specific muscles, such as your inner thighs, that don't get worked as much while running and may be weaker than your running muscles. You'll maintain or even improve your cardiovascular fitness. However, if getting out the door for your half hour runs is still physically taxing on your body, don’t start cross-training just yet. You might overdo it.

Even the pros need rest days, part of weight loss is recovery. Once you’ve reached a certain level, you will plateau and feel like you’re not losing as much weight as you want to. But that’s alright, it happens to everyone. You don’t have to run twice a day, seven days a week to see results. Recovery is key to weight loss because it prevents you from getting injured and allows your muscles to grow and regenerate. When you run long distances you don’t just burn fat, you burn muscle too. Taking a day or two off from running every week will give your body the repair it needs. If you run without resting you may injure yourself and throw yourself out of your own game. Which in turn leads to weight gain due to a lack of physical activity.

Running isn’t the end-all and be-all of weight loss, but it sure does contribute to your overall health. One important thing about running is that starting the habit isn’t healthy if you’re doing it to change your physical appearance. You should run because you want to see improvements in your health. The aesthetics will follow.

And remember, before you start a new exercise program, don’t forget to consult with your physician.

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