Does Running to Lose Weight Really Work?
When you exercise, you burn calories. That’s not open for debate. Walking, running, rowing, lifting, cycling all burn more calories than just sitting around on the back pockets of your ever-tightening jeans. If you burn more than you take in, you will theoretically lose weight. It’s simple math. If only it was that easy. The body’s metabolic processes are complicated. Evolution has produced a sort of core program that prioritizes protecting us from starvation rather than fitting into the next size down or finally seeing abs.
With that in mind, it’s easy to see that when you run to lose weight, it’s not just about burning calories. You need to teach your body what to do and not do when balancing out that calorie deficit. Fortunately, it’s not hard, and unless you are doing some extreme fasting or are testing out some unusual dietary restrictions, you might be on the right track already.
Before I get you excited about finally fitting into those jeans in the back of the closet, I have to say that I’m not a medical professional so be sure to check any advice you receive with a qualified professional first. What I’m going to impart is assembled from trusted sources and my own experiences after years of running and fighting nature’s desire to turn me into a pear. With that friendly warning out of the way, let’s first dig into the current science behind running for weight loss.
Yes. If you spend more than 30 seconds scanning search results for “how to lose weight fast,” you might be convinced by the tidal wave of contradictory and faddish advice that there is no science behind weight loss. Don’t confuse someone making crap up in order to make a fast buck with a lack of scientific data on how the body adds and loses weight. It’s out there, and elite athletes build careers following it.
How many calories you burn isn’t really just the number on a training app. Even if it knows your weight, height, age, hair color, and general fitness level, the number it displays is just a general estimate. If you understand some terminology and know what goes into creating that number, you can better estimate if your true calorie burn was higher or lower.
Weight and Basal Metabolic Rate (BMR): Your weight plays a significant role in determining your calorie expenditure. The BMR is the number of calories your body needs to maintain basic functions at rest. Heavier individuals typically burn more calories, even at rest, than lighter ones.
Running Intensity: The intensity of your run affects calorie burn. Running at a faster pace or on inclines burns more calories per minute than a slow, flat jog and mixing up your pace has been shown to affect the burn rate. For example, high-intensity interval training (HIIT) can be particularly effective for calorie burn due to its bursts of intense effort. It’s difficult for a typical running watch or calorie burn calculator to factor in this information when creating your calorie number. That’s why they put in small print that it’s just an estimate.
Duration: It makes sense that the longer you run, the more calories you burn. However, the relationship between duration and calorie burn is not linear. Contrary to what your training app might calculate, you probably burn more calories per minute during a shorter, more intense run than a longer, slower one.
Afterburn Effect (EPOC)
The afterburn effect, scientifically known as Excess Post-Exercise Oxygen Consumption (EPOC), is key to how running contributes to weight loss. It refers to the additional calories your body burns after exercise, even when you’re at rest. Yup. You read that right. The calories you burn from running continue on after you are done pounding the pavement or trail. This is one reason running is different and better than many other forms of exercise when it comes to shedding weight and keeping it off.
Elevated Metabolism: Intense exercise, such as running, increases your metabolism. After a challenging run, your body needs more oxygen to recover and repair muscle tissue. This greatly boosts your metabolic rate. If you’ve ever blamed your weight gain on a slow metabolism, then you should feel heartened by this fact. The key here is that you need to push yourself and vary the intensity of your runs. Simply jogging for a mile isn’t going to do much.
Calorie Burn After Running: This is my favorite. It’s like getting your body to burn off the fat while you lie around in bed and ignore the cat. The afterburn effect can extend from minutes to hours, and in some cases, even days after your run. The more intense your workout, the longer and more significant the afterburn effect tends to be.
Combating the Plateau: The afterburn effect can also help prevent you from getting stuck at weight loss plateaus. As your body adapts to regular exercise, incorporating high-intensity runs or interval training can keep your metabolism elevated and continue to burn calories efficiently.
Importance of Variation: To maximize the afterburn effect, vary your running routines with intervals, hill sprints, or tempo runs. This keeps your body challenged and enhances calorie burn during and after your workouts.
Along with burning calories with a flamethrower, running also influences several hormones that play crucial roles in weight management. It would be great if a running app could track the ups and downs of hormones like cortisol, insulin, and endorphins, because they play a big role in losing weight. I’ve done my best to summarize the critical information without this turning into a master’s thesis. Check out reputable resources online if you want to learn more.
Cortisol: Cortisol is often associated with stress. The kind of stress that leads to unhealthy choices, behavioral health problems, moodiness, and bad habits. The great news is that even moderate-intensity running can help regulate cortisol levels. Why do you care? Well, chronic stress is linked to weight gain, particularly around the abdomen for some reason. Control your cortisol levels and watch that belly fat melt away.
Insulin: Running improves insulin sensitivity, which means your body can use glucose (that’s sugar to you and me) more effectively. This can prevent insulin spikes and help manage blood sugar levels, reducing the risk of weight gain and type 2 diabetes.
Endorphins: Running triggers the release of endorphins, which are natural mood lifters and stress reducers. When you feel better emotionally, you have better eating habits which contributes to easier overall weight management.
Ghrelin and Leptin: These are appetite hormones that are getting a lot of press lately. Running can help regulate the appetite stimulant, ghrelin, and the appetite suppressant, leptin. It’s not just about getting rid of one and increasing the other. Keeping them in balance can help control cravings and prevent overeating.
Now that you understand the science behind running and weight loss, I want to remind you of something that is so easy to overlook. Your weight loss isn’t just a number on a scale. Running produces an incalculable number of changes in your body that scientists are beginning to realize can extend all the way down to your DNA itself. When you follow an intense running regime, chances are the number on the scale isn’t going to plummet. It might even go up slightly. Don’t despair. This is normal. Real fitness that sets you up for permanent weight loss, takes time to establish. Along with burning fat, you are building muscle, strengthening connective tissue, and increasing the density of bones.
Don’t look at the scale. In fact, hide it away. Judge the results by the mirror and the fit of your clothes. Take photos. Compare the photos from week to week and month to month. If you follow all this advice, you are guaranteed to see results. Just don’t give up. You aren’t burning your body to the ground, you are rebuilding while still living inside it. That takes time.
Running to lose weight is more than just lacing up and running regularly. Although regular, easy runs are great exercise and have terrific health benefits, if losing weight is your primary goal, you need to step it up a notch. Let’s look at the most effective techniques for achieving your goal.
Interval training alternates between short bursts of high-intensity running and periods of recovery or lower-intensity jogging or walking. You will sometimes here it referred to as high-intensity interval training (HIIT). It’s not only a proven way to improve your running performance, it’s a powerful tool for weight loss that goes far beyond simply burning more calories. Here’s how it works.
High Calorie Burn: The intensity variation in timed intervals has shown to produce a significantly higher calorie burn compared to steady-state running. I have found that it doesn’t take much in the way of intensity variation to see results in both weight loss and running pace improvements.
Super Metabolic Boost: High-intensity intervals stimulate your metabolism to work at a higher rate even after you’ve finished your run. This post-exercise calorie burn can extend for hours, contributing to weight loss.
Additional Muscle Engagement: Intervals engage different muscle groups and recruit fast-twitch muscle fibers, which can help build lean muscle mass. More muscle mass increases your resting metabolic rate, meaning you burn more calories at rest.
Time Efficiency: Interval training can provide effective results in a shorter amount of time compared to longer, steady-state runs. Long slow runs (sometimes referred to as LSD – Long Slow Distance) are a highly enjoyable way to experience running, but few of us can set aside hours just to go for a run. Interval training is the opposite. Consider it maximum calorie burn for minimum invested time.
To incorporate interval training into your routine, start with shorter intervals then gradually increase the intensity and duration as your fitness improves. Start with 30 seconds of sprinting followed by 60 seconds of recovery. Recovery can mean a slow walk or just a lower tempo run. Repeat this a few times either as your full running workout or as part of your regular run.
A simple method that has worked for me is using the first 15 minutes of my run as a general warm up, then kick into three sets of interval training. When I reach my final recovery section, I slowly increase my pace until I am back to my normal running pace, then finish my run. I have found that consistent interval workouts can be a game-changer for weight loss. For more info on incorporating interval training into your runs, check out my friend’s highly informative post on that very topic.
Incorporating Strength Training
When you add strength training to your running routine, you aren’t just burning calories, you’re also developing lean muscle mass. Why is this good? Lean muscle tissue is calorie-hungry and we’d all rather it went to muscle than thigh padding.
Bones and More Get Benefits: Running is already known for improving bone density and connective tissue strength. When you add strength training to the mix, you’re doubling down on these advantages. As your body adapts to the increased demands placed on it by both running and resistance exercises, your bones and connective tissues respond by becoming even stronger. This not only promotes healthier bones but also an overall more robust musculoskeletal system. Strength training also enhances joint stability and balance, reducing the risk of running-related injuries. Fewer injuries means fewer calorie-burning days spent recovering from overuse issues.
Lasting Benefits: Just like with running, regular strength training sessions can keep your resting metabolic rate elevated, which means your body will continue to burn calories efficiently even when you’re not actively exercising.
So, how can you incorporate strength training into your running routine effectively? If you’re accustomed to running daily, try alternating your running days with strength training sessions. This worked for me. I used to run five days out of seven. I didn’t want to give up too much of my enjoyable running time, so I replaced a run day in the middle with a strength training day and added a strength day to day six.
For you, it might work better to alternate days. Monday, Wednesday, and Friday are run days with Tuesday and Thursday dedicated to strength training. And when you do start up on those strength training days, don’t just focus on leg muscles. Aim for a variety of movements that target different muscle groups over your entire body to maximize the weight loss benefits.
Post-Run Recovery Meals
Recovery meals are important for muscle repair, replenishing energy stores, and supporting weight loss. Based on the nutritional guidelines we already discussed, you are going to choose the right mix of protein, carbs, and healthy fats, but there are a few extra points that you should keep in mind. You may want to make your post-run recovery meal different than all your other meals.
First, let’s consider timing. Consume a post-run meal or snack within 30 minutes to two hours after your run to kickstart recovery. Don’t put off eating because you think your body is burning away more fat somehow. The opposite can happen. You can inadvertently kick your body into a starvation survival mode that will cause it to burn calories more slowly.
Protein: A post-run meal should contain a good amount of protein to aid muscle repair. Check for a balance on packaged meals or when assembling from fresh ingredients. Look online to find out which foods you like contain a good amount of protein in relation to everything else.
Carbohydrates: It is important to replenish your glycogen stores by incorporating some carbs in your meal, but don’t overdo it. Carbs contain a lot of energy, but you just did your big energy burn for the day. Go easy.
Healthy Fats: Including some healthy fats like avocados or nuts can further boost satiety and aid in recovery.
Proper post-run nutrition helps your body recover faster, reduce muscle soreness, and maintain energy levels for the rest of the day.
You can’t start losing weight from running if you don’t get into a routine. The first time will seem hard. The second time will seem easier. By the third time, you’ll wonder why you didn’t do this earlier. After that, it’s your new weight loss routine and the most enjoyable one you ever started.
This time, it’s going to work!