What Most People Get Wrong About Running for Weight Loss
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The only times I’ve ever actually lost weight have always been purely as a byproduct of working out more and being active. I wasn’t focused on losing weight; I was focused on getting fit. And, it turns out my experience is backed up by research.
A new study found that for almost all markers of health, the primary goal should not be weight loss, but rather activity itself. Being active correlates with nearly every measurement of health and longevity, whether or not you lose weight.
But also, you’re more likely to lose weight if you’re focused on being active and healthy. Running for weight loss is great if running is what you want to do to stay active. If running gets you out the door and gives you a goal, then running will be great for weight loss. (And running for weight loss is more appealing than other activities because of how easy it is to do — minimal equipment involved.)
Did I run to lose weight? Nope. I ran because I like running and I had running goals. Did it help with me losing a few pounds and improve my body composition? Yep.
“In general, running is a great weight loss tool,” says Jason Fitzgerald, a USATF-certified coach and founder of Strength Running.
Running should be part of a comprehensive fitness and nutrition program that will help you lose weight. And the good news: It doesn’t even matter how fast you are.
Calories and Running
As you go about your day, you’re always burning calories. This is called your base metabolic rate. For every liter of oxygen you consume, you burn about five calories. (A calorie is the amount of energy used to raise the temperature of one gram of water one degree. In fact, calories used to be measured by how much a person inside a calorimetry chamber warmed the water surrounding them. Many studies ultimately determined that there was a direct correlation between the oxygen a person consumed and the amount of calories burned, so we don’t have to always use a calorimetry chamber to make the estimates anymore.)
On top of your base metabolic rate, you burn additional calories from extra activity, whether running, walking, lifting weights, gardening, or riding a bike.
When it comes to running, the rough rule of thumb is you burn approximately 100 additional calories per mile — regardless of how fast you run that mile — and that’s been backed up by research and, yes, by calorimetry chambers. A person running 10-minute miles for an hour would run six miles and burn about 600 calories; a person running 6-minute miles for an hour would run 10 miles and burn about 1,000 calories.
The caveats are that this can range (on average from 90 to 120 calories/mile) depending on how big you are and how efficient you are. Those super speedy pro marathon runners move very efficiently so they use less energy and burn fewer calories. (But, they run a lot more and burn a lot of calories overall.)
If you’re new to running, then you’re likely to be less efficient and use slightly more energy to cover the same distance as an experienced runner. It also takes more energy to move your body across a distance if you’re bigger.
While it doesn’t, in general, matter how slow you run, you do burn more calories running than you would during run/walk intervals. There’s a large energy difference between walking and running because of the spring and bounce off the ground while running. Over a six-year follow-up period, running was found to be far more effective than walking when it came to weight loss. So even if you get started by mixing in walking and slow running, it’s worth building up your running over time.
Other Calorie Considerations for Running and Weight Loss
Most research shows that slow running is just as effective as fast running for overall weight loss, says Jeff Gaudette, a former professional runner and coach with Runners Connect. But there is a slight thermogenic effect after high-intensity exercise or faster running, sometimes called the afterburn effect, during which your body’s metabolism burns slightly more calories and fat for up to 24 hours after the effort.
The potential for injury is higher if you’re sprinting around a track — especially if you’re new to running. If you want to use running for weight loss, it’s important to build a base of consistent easy-to-moderate-effort runs mixed with cross-training (like swimming or cycling or yoga) and weight training before running at faster paces. You won’t lose weight or get fitter if you get hurt. (More on that below.)
While running may not seem like it burns a ton of calories, compared with alternatives, it’s still a pretty good bang for your buck. It’s also easier to get started with than many other activities. Thirty minutes of slow running may burn just 200–350 calories when you start, depending on all the factors we’ve talked about, but 30 minutes of weight lifting for the same time is only 90–120 calories.
Weight training is an important part of a running-based weight loss program, though. It does burn some calories, but more importantly it helps with strength (of course!), which is good for overall fitness and injury prevention, as well as body composition — meaning it builds lean muscle. A bonus side effect, though not one you likely need to worry about until you’re putting on lots of muscle, is that muscle also burns more calories than fat.
Our understanding of metabolism is constantly evolving, and we now know that how your metabolism operates changes over time and over the course of your life. As you get healthier and fitter from all this running, it’ll also change again. After a few months, your baseline energy expenditure and needs will also change and you may need to readjust your weight loss plan.
Because the most important part isn’t what you do, it’s what you eat.
Diet Matters More Than Running for Weight Loss
“Running is really secondary to what you eat,” says Gaudette. “You can’t outrun a bad diet.”
“It’s really easy to eat 1,000 extra calories, but it’s really hard to burn 1,000 calories,” says Fitzgerald.
What they mean is that while running can give you an extra 200- to 500-calorie burn on days you run a few miles, that’s not really a huge amount of calories burned. Studies show that most people overestimate how many calories they burn and underestimate how many calories they eat — especially if they start an exercise program and want to “reward” themselves with extra snacks.
The best thing you can do, says Gaudette, is track your activity and food for two or three weeks so you get a rough overall idea of how many calories you’re burning and consuming, and then you can adjust from there.
In terms of what to eat, study after study shows that diet fads don’t help in the long run; they simply cause yo-yo-ing. A sustainable diet that you enjoy and can maintain in the long-term won’t cause as much back and forth. “No specific diet has been shown to be scientifically best for losing weight,” says Gaudette. “The one that’s best is the one that’s best for you.”
Sticking to the basics is best: choose whole grains, fruits and vegetables, lean meats or plant-based proteins, brain- and heart-healthy fats (mostly unsaturated fats and omega-3 fatty acids), and cut down on processed foods.
There are also a number of other factors that can contribute to weight gain, such as genetics, out-of-whack hormones, sleep deprivation, insulin resistance, certain medications, and some health conditions. Alcohol consumption may also contribute to putting on pounds.
Research on alcohol consumption by women showed that heavy drinking increased odds of weight gain, but that even light to moderate drinking may increase the risk of gaining weight for African-American women. Binge drinking (aka heavy drinking) for women is four drinks or more on at least one day in the past month according to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA). Similar findings were found in a large study of heavy-drinking British men; SAMHSA defines binge drinking as five or more drinks on the same day for men.
How can one too many sunset-hued cocktails derail your weight loss efforts? Alcohol, especially combined with sugary mixes and fruit juices, has extra empty calories and it’s typically tied to higher consumption of salty high-fat foods. It can also mess with your body’s ability to burn fat and retain water. And, alcohol affects your ability to sleep well. Regularly sleeping less than seven hours/night is linked to weight gain, because of the effects on hormones, insulin, and inflammation.
As you start running for weight loss, you’ll want to also be sure to sleep enough, recover well, drink plenty of water, eat healthy foods that you enjoy enough to continue eating, and build up your running and weight training with our plan.
Running for Weight Loss Plan
If you’re just getting started running, be sure to check out our beginner runner plan. It provides a template for how much and how frequently to run.
Start with what feels comfortable, Gaudette says, which may be 10 or 20 minutes of slow jogging. If you’re brand new to running or getting started again after a long break, then you may want to utilize a run/walk method. That means run for 1 or 2 minutes, then walk for 1 or 2 minutes, and repeat.
Even experienced runners use run-walk for a number of reasons: It helps load your tendons, muscles, and joints without putting extra stress on them. It also allows you to build up your running without causing injury.
The key to running for weight loss is building a running habit that you can maintain for weeks and even months. That means you don’t want to get injured (which would stop you from running) and you want to build up fitness. Sprinting for 10 seconds and then stopping isn’t going to build long-term fitness or help you lose weight.
Run easy or run/walk every other day, or three times per week. On the other days, add cross-training — like cycling or strength training — and take a day off each week. Strength training two times per week will help with your overall injury prevention, health, and weight loss. Start with basic strength moves, says Fitzgerald, like squats, deadlifts, lunges, and presses.
After one to two weeks, you’ll want to add five or 10 minutes to your walk/run, and you may be able to start adding short strides one or two times per week. Strides are typically done at the end of a run when you’re warmed up. Find a flat surface or grass field and build-up your speed over 10–15 seconds, or 50–100 meters. For more detail, be sure to try our beginning runner plan.
How Long Will it Take to Lose Weight?
You shouldn’t plan on losing more than one to two pounds per week, says Gaudette. If you lose too much weight too quickly, you can cause hormonal changes that will impact your metabolism and health that are ultimately counterproductive to your weight loss goals.
In two to four weeks, says Fitzgerald, you’ll start to feel a little different, maybe a little healthier and fitter. It’ll likely take one or two months, though, before you see physical benefits, he says. It’ll take three to six months before you’re going to notice “substantial changes.”
After four to six weeks of regularly running and building up your training, your baseline metabolic rate may go down because less weight burns less oxygen in the day, says Gaudette. And after four or five months, if you’re planning to continue to try losing weight, it’s also important to get out of a restrictive state — eating less than you’re burning — for your hormonal and mental health, and to reset your metabolism.
Final Things to Watch Out for When Running for Weight Loss
Being skinnier does not always mean running faster. In fact, in most cases, losing too much weight can cause hormonal dysfunction, especially in women. You should never try to lose weight and achieve performance goals, such as running a personal record, at the same time. It won’t work and many runners end up injured.
It’s important to have a realistic understanding of your energy intake and expenditure, and many fitness trackers can be inaccurate. Keep track for the first two or three weeks, but after that you may want to stop tracking so as not to develop disordered eating habits.
You may see some water retention weight loss in the first week, especially if you change your eating habits. It’ll take a few weeks for an overall stabilization of weight loss.
Get a free consultation with a certified personal trainer and running coach who can create a personalized weight loss plan and work with you 1:1 to meet your goal.