Is Running to Lose Weight Possible?
Weight loss is accelerated when running is added to a calorie restricted diet.
There are more benefits to running. According to a research review published in Progress in Cardiovascular Disease, runners have a 25%-40% reduced risk of premature mortality and have a lifespan of 3 years longer than non-runners. Along with the obvious physical benefits of running, there are positive psychological benefits of losing weight. An increase of self-esteem from looking great while achieving your fitness goals is one of those benefits. So, are you ready to get started running to lose weight?
What is running?
Running is a method of travel allowing us to move rapidly across distances on foot. During this activity, both feet at some point are above the ground which is not the case when we walk. While running has always been a mode of travel for bipedal creatures, it took on particular significance in ancient Greece as the first Olympic games achieved success in the late 6th century BCE. It became popular among non-athletes during the running epidemic of the 70s and continues to be a popular past-time for athletes and fitness enthusiasts worldwide. With that in mind, is it possible for regular non-athletes to use running to lose weight?
Is running to lose weight a realistic goal?
Yes! Running to lose weight is one of the most effective and cheap ways to lose weight. To run, you aren’t required to get a gym membership, a new bike, or any other fitness gear except a pair of running shoes. The barrier to entry for this type of weight loss is ridiculously low… just you and a pair of running shoes. With that in mind, running to lose weight is easy to get started but will you lose weight? Yep!
Should I walk or run to lose weight?
For the most part, walking versus running a mile burns the same amount of calories. The difference comes from the time spent during the activity. If you are walking a mile you are probably traveling at 3 miles per hour. This means in one hour you will have walked 3 miles and burned approximately 300 calories. This is an approximation since there are many factors such as a person’s weight that determine how many calories they burn during exercise. On the other hand, you decide to run for an hour. Even running at a slow pace of 6 miles per hour, you will burn about 600 calories which is double what you would have burned walking.
If possible, choose running.
If you are physically capable, I highly recommend running even at a slow pace over walking if running to lose weight is your main priority. A study published by Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory surveyed over 15,237 walkers versus 32,216 runners on weight loss in free-living non-experimental conditions over a 6.2 years. The results confirm what we all know… running will help you lose much more weight than walking especially over time.
Two Major Types of Running to Lose Weight
Is all running created equal? No, it is not. I will cover two types of running. There are millions of training methods and techniques but these will work for the purpose of losing weight.
High-Intensity Interval Training (HIIT) –
It is my opinion that HIIT is the king of weight loss. High-intensity interval training is a method of training that consists of two primary phases. The first is an active phase and the second is a recovery phase. For example, running hard for 30 seconds followed by 60 seconds of recovery. With high-intensity interval training, you are taxing the body heavily during those 30 seconds. You want to push yourself to the edge and keep pushing until the 30 seconds are over. Once 30 seconds are up, you are either jogging or walking for 60 seconds. At the end of the 60 seconds, you should be ready to push it again for 30 seconds hard. If not, you may need to slow down or walk during your recovery phase until you have built up enough endurance and cardiovascular fitness.
Distance-based interval training is another HIIT option and is my favorite type. I prefer to do a ¼ mile high-intensity sprint followed by a ¼ mile recovery phase. There is another benefit to performing HIIT. With HIIT, your body will continue to burn calories even after the exercise is stopped due to a little biological process known as excessive post-oxygen consumption (EPOC). Without getting into the details and boring you, this means that your body has to use energy (calories) to clear out the by-products (oxygen debt) created during exercise. This thermic effect can last between 3 and 24 hours!
Low-Intensity Steady State (LISS) –
Let’s be honest. HIIT sounds like the ticket to success and it can be. However, HIIT is very taxing on the body and cannot be performed every day. This is where LISS comes into play. During this form of running, you simply run at a pace that you can easily maintain for an hour. I am talking about a pace where you can carry on a conversation without breathing heavily. Not only does LISS provide a nice addition to HIIT training, but it also allows you to continue exercising and losing weight every day which is something you could not do with HIIT alone. Low-intensity running gets the blood flowing and could benefit recovery as well as improve your exercise endurance.
Running to Lose Weight
Diet and Nutrition
Now keep in mind, some people have unrealistic exercise-induced weight loss expectations. Once you understand that weight loss occurs through the nose, might start paying more attention to the food you eat. This isn’t a joke.
Weight loss occurs via breathing for the most part. Inhaling oxygen and exhaling carbon dioxide is the primary method that fat loss occurs. Now heavy breathing alone won’t cause weight loss. Breathing is part of the metabolic process during energy metabolism. This is just my way to show you that exercise alone isn’t the best way to tackle weight loss.
So if you are serious about losing weight, you will have to tighten up your diet in addition to heavy breathing via exercise. If you are unsure how many calories per day you are consuming, I suggest you track everything you eat for the next 3 days. I suggest using a food journal app such as MyFitnessPal (this is the one I use). With this app, you can even scan the barcodes of food you eat to make sure you are tracking your food accurately.
Once you have an estimate of how many calories you consume per day, it is time to determine how many calories you burn in a day while completely at rest. This is called your basal metabolic rate or BMR for short. Here is a BMR calculator. Once your BMR is calculated, you will need to determine how much weight per week you want to lose. Unless you are competing on The Biggest Loser, I suggest you aim for no more than 2 pounds per week. Extreme dieting can seriously mess up your metabolism and create rebound weight gain and a host of other problems for you in the future. Two pounds per week may seem like not enough but please don’t exceed that unless you are competing for a sport or are under a doctor’s supervision.
So how do we figure out how much food we should eat daily? This can be tricky and results can vary widely. To burn a pound of fat, you must create a calorie deficit of 3,500 calories. The trick is to maintain enough caloric intake to sustain your metabolism while trying to create that deficit. Your best bet is to start by overestimating your BMR and week by week make adjustments to fine-tune your nutritional intake based on your individual metabolism.
Prepare your Running to Lose Weight Plan
Here is a fictitious example of someone who would like to lose 1.5 pounds per week. She is generally inactive most of the day in an office job when she isn’t exercising. This is important when calculating her daily caloric intake.
Basal Metabolic Rate:
1,578 calories per day at rest
1,894 calories per day with minimum activity
Current daily calories consumed: 2,000 kcal
Weekly calories consumed: 14,000 kcal
Calorie deficit needed for 1.5 lb weight loss per week: 5,250 kcals (3,500 kcals per lb)
25 miles per week
Calories burned per week: 2,500 kcal
Calories to cut from eating: 2,750 kcals (5,250 kcal – 2,500 kcal )
Caloric intake reduction per day: 393 kcals (2,750 kcal / 7 days)
Daily calorie target: 1,501 kcals (1894 kcals – 393 kcals)
If this individual who is currently eating 2,000 kcals per day wanted to lose 1.5 lbs per week, she would have to reduce her daily intake by about 500 kcals to meet the daily target of 1,501 kcals per day. She would also need to run 25 miles per week which is a little over 4 miles per day plus a rest day. As you can see, even at 1.5 lbs per week weight loss, the price can be pretty high.
I would never suggest a female go under 1,500 kcals per day and a male to eat less than 2,000 kcals. This scenario of just 1.5 lbs per week has this person at the bare minimum daily caloric intake I feel comfortable with. I am not a dietitian though and this is not medical or nutritional advice. If she wanted to lose 2 lbs per week, she would probably need to run an extra 17 miles per week.
Running Plan the Easy Way
If this was way too much math for you, it was for me too. There is a much simpler and probably only a little less accurate way to estimate your target daily calories to consume. Once you calculate your BMR on the BMR calculator link above, there is a daily calorie needs based on activity level chart.
Take the activity level that best fits your lifestyle. For the example above, her daily calorie needs were estimated at 2,722 calories. She does have a relatively sedentary life except for intense exercise 6-7 times per week. We must create a weekly calorie deficit of 5,250 kcals to lose 1.5 lbs per week.
BMR: 1894 kcals
Estimated calories needed per day: 2,722 kcals
Daily calorie deficit: 828 kcals
Weekly deficit: 5,796 kcals
Keep in mind, everyone’s body is different. Your best bet is to err on the side of caution in your daily calorie deficit and fine-tune your weight loss as the weeks go by. If you start at a too aggressive weight loss strategy, it is possible to stall your weight loss due to your body down-regulating your metabolism.
Getting Started Running to Lose Weight
By now, you are motivated to run and have figured out how many calories per day you need to eat and how many miles per week you need to run. The next step is to figure out a running routine.
How many days a week should you run to lose weight?
This will depend on how many miles per week you have estimated you need to run to reach your running weight loss goal and the amount of time per day to run. In the beginning, I would probably start with only one HIIT session per week and fill the rest with LISS-style training. Beginners should probably start with 3 running sessions per week.
Using the example above, we will devise a running routine. She has calculated that she needs to run 25 miles per week. This is above to recommended 15 miles per week for beginner runners. This increases her chance of injury such as shin splints especially if she is heavily overweight or is completely new to running. For this example, we will assume she has the running experience to handle 25 miles per week. I will further reduce her risk of injury by only including one day of HIIT per week. You will want to increase your running mileage with progressive overload to continue to make progress. It is recommended by most running gurus to increase total weekly distance by no more than 10% per week to reduce the chances of injury.
It is vital to warm up properly and stretch before exercising. This will allow your muscles and joints to warm-up thus decreasing the risk of injury. I like to walk for about 5 minutes and then stretch before I run to warm up the muscles. Here is an example stretching routine:
Intermediate Runner Routine:
Monday – 4 miles LISS
Tuesday – 2 miles HIIT (¼ mile sprint / ¼ mile walk)
Wednesday – recovery (no running)
Thursday – 4 mile LISS
Friday – 5 mile LISS
Saturday – 5 mile LISS
Sunday – 5 miles LISS
This may seem like a lot especially for a beginner. This is less than an hour per day exercising for 6 days a week. However, new runners with zero experience should not attempt this routine.
If you are an absolute beginner, this routine may be a safer bet:
New Beginner Routine
Run 3 times per week.
Run 2 minutes followed by 2 minutes of rest
Repeat for target running time or distance
Add 1 minute to the run every week
Decrease the rest time every week
Week 1 runs – 2-minute run / 2-minute walk
Week 2 runs – 3-minute run / 1 minute 30-second walk
Week 3 runs – 4-minute run / 1-minute walk
This phase is just as important as the pre-run stretching. You can perform the same pre-run stretching as a cool down. I would suggest ending the run with a nice walk to bring your heart rate back down to baseline. This is especially true for HIIT training. During intense exercise, your body is under many physiological processes from clearing lactate to providing oxygen and energy. If you simply cease exercise without a cool-down, this is comparable to driving 60 miles per hour towards your house and slamming on the brakes just as you arrive. Your body will thank you for a proper cool-down after each run.
Wow. If that seemed like a lot to digest, you can always start small with your weight loss goals. For example, start tracking your food daily and start the beginner running routine above. Increase your total weekly mileage by 10%. Monitor your weight loss and make small incremental changes to your daily caloric intake.
I hope this article has inspired you to take the plunge into running for weight loss. If you have any questions, don’t hesitate to ask and if you found this information useful please share it with friends and family with the buttons below.
Do you run or plan to for weight loss? Let me know in the comments below.