The Truth About Running to Burn Belly Fat and How Beginners Can Start

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The Truth About Running to Burn Belly Fat
A black woman running on a path

There’s a well-known saying in the fitness industry, “You can’t outrun a bad diet.” 

It’s true that running a mile won’t burn all of the calories in a large order of fries but running can help you burn belly fat — and lose weight — if you do it the right way.

“Running is one of the most efficient methods of weight loss. In fact, it’s hard to top when it comes to weight loss. In 10 minutes of brisk jogging, a 180-pound runner can use 170 calories. If the same athlete went for a 30-minute run, they would burn almost 500 calories,” explains Jake Dickson, NASM-CPT, certified weightlifting coach and contributing editor at BarBend. 

Of course, it’s important to recognize that the actual number of calories a person will burn while running varies significantly from one person to another. Factors like age, weight, gender, body composition, and running efficiency (beginner runners are less efficient and tend to burn more calories than more experienced, efficient runners) all play a role. That said, when comparing running to other activities, its capacity for eliciting higher levels of calorie burn remains significant. 

When you start losing weight, you’ll gradually lose fat around your belly as a byproduct of total weight loss. While ”spot reduction” isn’t really a thing, you’ll see changes in your body composition as a whole, which will include changes to your abdominal fat stores. 

That said, Dickson is quick to point out that running without any dietary changes is unlikely to burn enough fat to give you washboard abs. “Long-distance running on its own won’t be enough to reduce your abdominal fat. Alterations to your food and way of life are also necessary. Even if you’re a frequent runner who is cautious of what you eat, it’s still possible to have belly fat you just can’t shift. Diet has a major role in this.” 

So if your ultimate goal is to lose fat, and you’re particularly driven to lose fat around your belly, a well-designed running plan combined with a high-quality eating plan can help you meet your goals. 

Why It’s a Good Idea to Lose Excess Belly Fat

You don’t need to be on an expedition to unearth a six-pack to want to lose belly fat. In fact, if you’re carrying excess fat around your middle, chances are it includes visceral fat, a type of fat that lies deep in the abdomen, surrounding the organs. Excess accumulation of visceral fat is associated with an increased risk for cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and even sleep apnea

Losing belly fat, particularly if your waist circumference is greater than 35 inches for women, or 40 inches for men, can help reduce your risk of these types of chronic diseases. And that’s a good goal for anyone. 

The Basics of Weight Loss 

The science of weight loss is complicated. It’s impacted by individual differences in starting point, body composition, hormone responses, and how the body changes as the weight comes off. There are several research-supported approaches to weight loss, including calorie restriction, low carb, macro-controlled depending on your glucose metabolism, and intermittent fasting — all of which work for weight loss because they help create a negative energy balance

Truth talk: The approach that works best for you may come down to what you can stick with long enough to see the changes you desire.

People pair diets with running because the activity burns calories relatively quickly. 

“Many runners, in my opinion, make the mistake of assuming that the farther the run, the more abdominal fat they’ll burn. Long-distance runs are fantastic for improving your endurance and burning calories, but they may not be the most effective method for reducing your body fat,” says Dickson. 

Trista Best, MPH, RD, LD, simplifies the discussion. “Nutrition is the foundation to weight loss,” she says. 

“Turning to fad diets may produce weight loss, but loss from most of these diets isn’t sustainable. It’s best to consume a balanced diet focused on lean protein, whole grains, and fruits and vegetables, along with getting active most days of the week,” advises Best. 

Approach weight loss in a sustainable way. Strive to lose one to two pounds per week. But, how do you specifically lose belly fat? Well, you don’t. Not specifically, at least. 

“A common misconception is that we can target fat loss from a specific part of our bodies. Unfortunately, that’s not how our energy systems work,” says Heather Hart, CSCS, ACSM EP-C, and an RRCA-certified running coach. 

“Lower-intensity cardiovascular exercise, such as running at a steady state pace with a lower percentage of maximum heart rate, mainly uses our oxidative energy system. This energy system primarily utilizes carbohydrates and fats to create energy,” says Hart. “So running can indeed help with belly fat loss, as long as you’re in an overall calorie deficit.” 

The Beginner’s Plan for Running to Lose Belly Fat 

Hart encourages beginner runners to start slow. “It’s hard to give a solid plan because each individual is going to have different starting points, strengths, and weaknesses,” she says. 

The following beginner-focused tips will help you progress gradually: 

  1. Balance training with adequate rest. “Don’t run 7 days a week!,” she says. Active recovery means staying active on days you don’t run. Listen to your body and do less strenuous exercise like walking, swimming, yoga, barre, or bodyweight strength training. Take days off when you need them.

  2. Vary your workouts to include different intensities. Build a weekly run plan from a combo of mostly easier, steady-pace runs and one more intense interval workout. One study showed that runners who completed 15 sprint intervals of 30 seconds on, 30 seconds off each week for 12 weeks reduced their body fat and waist circumference.

  3. Increase volume gradually. “The ‘10%’ rule is a bit outdated, but it’s a great place to start for newer runners,” says Hart. “Start by increasing each week’s running volume by around 10% over the previous week’s volume.” So, if you ran a total of 9 miles your first week, you might aim for 10 miles your second week.  

Best suggests keeping your diet as “clean” as possible, emphasizing that different individuals will have different nutritional and caloric needs. 

The following tips will provide the building blocks for a balanced nutrition plan. Customize it to suit your needs, preferences, and diet type: 

  1. Get 50–60% of your total daily calories from plant-based whole food sources (whole grains, nuts, seeds, fruits, and vegetables)

  2. Get 40–50% of your total daily calories from lean proteins and mostly unsaturated fats with some saturated fats from animal sources (meat, cheese, yogurt, etc.). If you’re a vegan or vegetarian, substitute animals with plants.  

If you’ve been eating a steady diet of fast food, chips, cookies, and other sweets, adjust your nutrition gradually, in a way you feel you can sustain.  

For example, one week, try to eat a homemade meal once a day with at least two servings of produce. The next week, swap out one ultra-processed snack (like a candy bar or chips) for fresh blueberries added to one serving of plain Greek yogurt. Once you’ve integrated one new habit into your routine, add another one until it becomes second nature. 

Track Changes Beyond Belly Fat Loss

Belly fat loss is a natural byproduct of consistent fat loss. It may not be the first spot you see the fat coming off. Take measurements of your waist, hips, thighs, chest, calves, and biceps, and monitor those changes once a month. 

You want to see results quickly, but lasting change takes time. As you wait for your waist to slim, look for other ways to track and celebrate your progress.  

“One of the best ways to monitor the outcomes of a running program is to look at your overall progression. Are you able to run farther than you could when you started? Are you able to run faster than you could when you started? Are you feeling more energized day-to-day from starting an exercise program? Are other variables in your life improving: sleep, mood, or even health measurements like blood pressure or resting heart rate?” says Hart. “If so, then you’re on the right track.”  

Keep the Momentum Going

As you settle into your running and weight loss routine, you might find that if you continue to follow the exact same running and nutrition plan, your progress may stall.  

According to a 2009 study, more efficient runners use less energy (fewer calories) because they’ve adapted to the stress of running by using oxygen more efficiently. You’ll burn fewer calories running the same three-mile loop at the same pace six months after you first started. Physiologically speaking, this is what you want. It means you’re becoming a better runner.  

To keep seeing progress, change up your workout routine. Cross-train with an activity you enjoy, such as swimming, hiking, paddling, kayaking, or playing pickleball. Add hills, high-intensity intervals, or sprint work to your runs to increase muscle mass and boost post-workout calorie burn. Strength training stimulates muscle growth, and muscle is a more “active” (calorie-burning) form of tissue than fat. 

This could also be a good time to connect with a personal trainer, certified nutrition specialist or registered dietitian, or a certified running coach for a customized nutrition and running program that can evolve as your needs do.