Whether you’re a runner who wants to drop a few pounds or a non-runner who wants to pick up running to shed some weight, running to lose weight can be tricky. The main contribution to this conundrum is running expends energy, and we need to eat to stay energized — but how much we eat is the difference between weight gain, loss or maintenance and performance.
There’s a fine line between losing weight and losing performance. Think of weight loss like tackling an ultramarathon. It’s not a sprint. Expect results, but expect them to be slow and steady instead of dramatic. With that in mind, there are a few ways to bust through a weight-loss plateau if you’re already putting in the miles but not shedding the pounds.
In a recent TV commercial, a portly, middle-aged man walks gingerly up to the scale at his local gym. The scale reads 249 pounds. He sprints feverishly once around the gym and not so gracefully steps back on the scale. His face falls when, not surprisingly, the scale still reads 249 pounds.
The point of the clever ad is clear: Americans want a quick fix when it comes to everything, and that includes physical fitness. As the much-anticipated spring thaw sets in, many suburban dwellers are choosing running as a way to quickly trim off pounds and create a lean silhouette.
They pack the trails of area parks and forest preserves, their breath forming white clouds before them on cold mornings as they huff and puff through their exercise routines.
Running for Weight Loss – But is running a fast solution for weight loss?
According to those who specialize in exercise physiology and nutrition, the answer is no. While running is a very effective way to shed pounds, this transformation takes place over time and requires patience.
“That is probably one of the biggest problems that people have when starting any exercise,” said Kevin Davis, a fitness specialist and personal trainer at Loyola University’s Center for Health and Fitness in Maywood. “They don’t see results right away, and so they quit.”
Davis added that a one-mile run, which takes a new runner 10 minutes, does little for weight loss or cardiovascular health, though it’s a positive start. “In order to get full health benefits, you need at least 30 minutes each time,” he said.
Running for Weight Loss – Longer, slower runs
Statistics from the Weight Loss Control Registry, a research group that studies people who have successfully lost weight and maintained their weight loss, point to the need to consistently burn 2,800 calories through exercise each week in order to successfully lose weight. Rather than fast, exhausting runs, weight loss at this level requires longer, slower runs — about 25 to 30 minutes — spaced three or four times throughout the week.
In other words, a longer run at a slower pace will burn more calories than a short run at a faster pace.
Running for Weight Loss – Rate of weight loss declines
Starting weight also plays a substantial role in how many calories are burned during a run, according to research from Elizabeth Sadler of Vanderbilt University. For example, a 220-pound man who goes for a two-mile run will burn about 150 calories, while a 120-pound woman will only burn 82.
In order to lose a pound, the body needs to burn about 3,500 calories. A 180-pound person running for five miles each day will lose around five pounds per month. However, as runners lose weight, they begin to burn fewer calories per mile and weight loss begins to stabilize.
Running for Weight Loss – Put simply, it begins to take more time to lose more weight.
“The biggest problem for new runners is that you can’t just wake up and do it,” said David Patt, chief executive officer of the Chicago Area Runner’s Association. “It takes time and training like anything else, but people don’t want it to take forever.”
And Patt should know. He lost 60 pounds over the course of three years when he took up running and began to change his lifestyle.
“You eat differently when you start running,” he explained. “Your body doesn’t crave the same foods you ate before. It’s a process and your body gets used to it, but there is no magic pill.”
Running for Weight Loss
It’s tempting to think running is a magical form of exercise that will melt away any weight you’re trying to lose. The idea that running leads to weight loss has been alive and kicking for years, fueled by before-and-after stories, run-to-lose training programs, and articles touting the weight-loss effects of this popular sport you can do anywhere.
If you like running, then that’s great and there’s definitely a way to make running a part of your weight-loss plan (if that’s your goal). But if weight loss is your primary goal, focusing your fitness routine on mostly steady-state running—running at a low to moderate intensity at a relatively stable pace—isn’t the best way to get results.
“Relying on running alone isn’t the best way to lose weight because it burns relatively few calories for the time invested,” exercise physiology and nutrition expert Rachele Pojednic, Ph.D., assistant professor of nutrition at Simmons College and former research fellow at the Institute of Lifestyle Medicine at Harvard Medical School, tells SELF. While running does have its benefits, there are better things to focus on if your ultimate goal is to lose weight—though that doesn’t mean you need to ditch your running shoes entirely.
Running can be really beneficial in ways that have nothing to do with weight loss.
Weight loss certainly isn’t a goal for everyone, nor should it be. Even if weight loss is a goal for you, running can be worthwhile for other reasons. Running offers a slew of health benefits, from boosting mood and sleep quality to improving heart health.
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 3 years’ higher life expectancy compared with non-runners, although the debate still rages about whether “too much” running (that is, lifelong, marathoner-level running) is good or bad for your heart.
Running for Weight Loss – Too many calories
Losing weight is all about maintaining a calorie deficit, a.k.a., you have to burn more calories than you consume. Even if you run every single day, if you aren’t burning more calories than you’re consuming, you’re not going to see a difference on the scale. A good way to combat this problem is to figure out how many calories you need each day, then figure out how you can create a deficit of 3,500 calories, which is equal to one pound.
If you can eliminate 3,500 calories per week through a combination of diet and exercise, then you will lose about a pound per week. Calculate how many calories you can take in each day in relation to how many your burn, then download a calorie counting app on your phone or tablet to help you stay on track.
Some running forums out there boast that if you start running, you can lose weight without dieting. This could be true, if you are able to maintain the same caloric intake every day.
Running for Weight Loss – Running makes you hungrier
While this isn’t true for every runner, most of the time being on a regular running schedule will hike up your metabolism, making you feel more hungry all the time. Some people assume that if you are running nearly everyday, you have the freedom to eat whatever you want because you will just burn it off later.
This is not usually the case, and definitely not the case if you want to use running as a way to supplement weight loss. Try spreading out your calories throughout the day into 5 or 6 small meals so you don’t get too hungry and overeat.
Running for Weight Loss – Lack of variation
Although running will help you lose weight, you body will adapt over time if you keep repeating the exact same exercises over and over, leading to less calorie burn.
This is the primary reason that most runner hit a weight loss plateau. If you go into the gym and always run the treadmill at 5.0 for 30 minutes, after about two weeks or so your muscles will adapt to that workout, which means that they won’t have to work as hard and the amount of calories you burn will decrease.
Running for Weight Loss – Increase mileage
This one is pretty obvious, but it’s also the most effective. The more miles you run, the more calories you burn. Your mileage should increase gradually (which is why the schedule is important), no more than 10% per week.
Using running to supplement your weight loss will require a bit of patience, you can’t go out on week one and run 80 miles. Start small, around 8-10 miles per week, and gradually increase.
You’ll lose more weight over time as you increase the miles. One good way to make sure you lose weight over time, is to keep your weekly caloric intake the same. Say you consume about 7,000 calories per week, if you remain at that amount every single week, then the pounds will come off in higher and higher amounts as the weeks go by.
Running for Weight Loss – Have a sensible diet plan
Like I mentioned before, you don’t necessarily have to diet in order to lose weight running, but it certainly helps accelerate the process. Running will help you maintain a calorie deficit by increasing the number of calories you burn, but it’s up to you how large that deficit is.
Remember that the goal is to eliminate 3,500 calories per week, if you want to lose about a pound per week. The problem for most people is that running makes it difficult to eat less due to increasing appetite. If so, try spacing out your calories into about 5-6 small meals per day instead of three.
Running for Weight Loss – Change the way you think about running
Too often, runners celebrate the completion of workouts by eating low quality foods, heading out for a celebratory round of beers, or otherwise treating themselves to things that probably contain more calories than were burned in the workout.
They look at running as a chore, and food as a reward. My advice is to reverse these roles, and to think about food as necessary fuel and running as a reward. The mindset that you bring to your exercise program is important. Even though your goal might be to lose weight, one of your top priorities should be to learn to enjoy running.
You will only benefit from running if you keep doing it, and you will likely only keep doing it if you enjoy it. If you can adopt running as an enjoyable task in your life, then you are much more likely to maintain your weight after you have met your weight loss goal.
Running for Weight Loss – Change the way you think about eating
Many people look at dieting as a bad thing, a boring things, or an otherwise incredibly difficult thing to do. Try to think of food as fuel for your run. Avoid seeing food as a reward, instead try to look at exercise as a reward – in exchange for nourishing your body well, you receive a toned, fit body and a positive mindset as a result.
Fitness expert and weight loss guru Jillian Michaels encourages her trainees to become an 80/20 eaters, in which 80 percent of the food you eat each day is healthful and nourishing, and the other 20 percent is fun and indulging. This will help you increase your overall diet quality, without making you feel deprived and tempted to quit. Just make sure that in your efforts to eat this way, that you don’t go over your calorie budget.