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 the real world, the vast majority of people who lose significant amounts of weight and keep it off are exercisers. The National Weight Control Registry (NWCR) researched a population whose members have all lost at least 30 pounds and kept the weight off at least one year. Ninety percent of these individuals report exercising regularly, and the average member burns more than 2,600 calories a week in workouts.
Many kinds of exercise can be effective for weight loss, but running is among the most effective. In a 2012 study, Paul Williams, of the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, found runners were leaner and lighter than men and women who did equivalent amounts of any other type of exercise. The main reason seems to be that people typically burn more calories per minute when running than they do when swimming, riding a bike or anything else.
Running is a great way to lose weight. Countless women and men have shed excess pounds and kept them off with the aid of this simple form of exercise. Success is not guaranteed, however. A sensible diet is an essential complement to running for weight loss.
Studies involving NWCR members and others have demonstrated that exercisers are much less likely to yo-yo. So unless you are interested only in temporary weight loss, you should change your diet and exercise. There’s another benefit to combining diet changes with exercise when you’re trying to lose weight. When people lose weight through calorie restriction but without exercise, they tend to lose muscle along with body fat. But when they change their diet and exercise, they preserve muscle and lose more fat.
Understanding the most effective ways to run for weight loss before you start helps you avoid common mistakes — and gets you the results you want.
Make your plan specific. Know exactly what your goal weight should be so you know what you’re working with. Expand beyond your overall weight to also include goal body fat and some simple body measurements to keep you honest (and motivated) on your journey. A tape measure is cheap, and an accurate scale — especially one that measures body fat — can be a big help.
New runners need to remember it’s important to ease into your new program. Increase the challenge level of your workouts gradually to lower injury risk and get the best results. As a high-impact activity, running causes more overuse injuries than other forms of cardio.
Unfortunately, the risk of injury is greatest for heavier men and women who are likely to run specifically for weight loss.
Experts recommend that overweight men and women use these three rules to start a running program on the right foot:
RULE #1: START WITH WALKING OR WALK/RUNS
Compared to running, walking is less stressful on the bones, muscles and joints of the lower extremities, yet it’s stressful enough to stimulate adaptations that make these areas stronger and more resilient. This makes walking a great tool to prepare your body for running.
Your early workouts may consist entirely of walking or a mix of walking and running, depending on how ready your body is for running. As the weeks pass, tip the balance further and further toward running until you are comfortable doing straight runs.
RULE #2: RUN EVERY OTHER DAY
Bones, muscles and joints need time to recover from, and adapt to, the stress of running. For most beginners, one day is not enough time for these tissues to come back stronger. So limit your running to every other day for at least the first several weeks of your program. If you wish to exercise more frequently, do walks or non-impact workouts, such as cycling, between run days.
RULE #3: INCREASE DISTANCE GRADUALLY
You’re not going to lose 10 pounds in a week by running 15 miles instead of 3 this Saturday — even worse, you might get injured. Change your training slowly, either by making your long runs longer or making them harder (more on that in a second). Don’t change too much at once, or you may end up overtrained and sore rather than toned and fit. If you have trouble adding run miles, add walking before and after your run instead. The 10% rule is a good guideline for sensible running increases. To practice it, simply avoid increasing your total running distance or time by more than 10% from one week to the next.
Here is a four-week example of a sensible way to ease into a running program:
To lose weight, it helps to maintain a daily calorie deficit. In other words, you need to burn more calories than you eat each day. There are two ways to do this: Eat less and move more.
Running helps you maintain a calorie deficit by increasing the number of calories you burn. You can increase your calorie deficit and your rate of weight loss — at least in theory — by eating less. The problem is that running, like other forms of exercise, increases appetite which makes it difficult to eat less — something known as the compensation effect. This is the primary reason exercise often fails to meet people’s expectations for weight loss.
Individual appetite responses to exercise are varied. Working out has little effect on hunger in some people, yet makes others ravenous. There’s not much you can do about it either way. If running increases your appetite, you will probably eat more. What you can do to ensure that the compensation effect doesn’t stop you from reaching your goals is increase the quality of the foods you eat.
Actually, most of us don’t suffer from consuming too many calories, but rather from consuming too many empty calories. Before you try to cut calories, sports nutritionist Matt Fitzgerald, author of the book “The Endurance Diet,” recommends adjusting your diet to eat better than you were by cutting back on cookies, white bread and anything processed. Replace the junk with more fruits, vegetables and lean proteins and see what happens. You’ll likely see good results and feel better just by adding more high-nutrient foods, and you’ll naturally cut calories when you make the switch.
High-quality foods — foods boasting macronutrients, micronutrients and fiber — are less energy dense and more satiating than low-quality, processed foods, so they fill you up with fewer calories. By increasing your overall diet quality, you can eat enough to satisfy your heightened appetite without putting the brakes on weight loss.
Here are lists of high-quality and low-quality foods, given in rough descending order of quality.
When you start running, make a simultaneous effort to eat fewer foods from the right-hand column and more from the left-hand column. There is proof it works. Danish researchers reported that new runners who ran more than 5K (3.1 miles) per week for one year — but did not change their diets — lost an average of 8.4 pounds. Meanwhile, new runners who also changed their diets lost an average of 12.3 pounds.
However, make sure you’re taking in enough calories. Often, athletes are chronically underfueling, and that slows their metabolism to a crawl, explains Nanci Guest, the dietitian behind the Canadian Olympic team during the Vancouver Winter Olympics. If that isn’t the case for you — and you’ve tracked what you’re eating, so you have that data — then you can cut some calories. But stick to lowering your intake by 500 calories a day, maximum. Don’t cut more than that or you won’t be able to fuel your training (that’s any cardio: riding or running have similar requirements) properly, according to Guest.
If your goal is to lose more than 12.3 pounds in a year, there are, once again, two things you can do: Eat less and move more.
While it’s important to lose weight gradually, you can progress your running until you’re doing as much as you can with the time, energy and motivation you have. If you are highly motivated, consider a long-term goal of building up to 60 minutes of running per day, 6 days a week. For example, a 150-pound person who runs 10-minute miles will burn more than 4,000 calories per week on this schedule.
These additional increases in running will likely stimulate additional increases in appetite and eating. But chances are such compensations won’t cancel out your hard work. Research tells us that the average person eats roughly 3 extra calories for every 10 calories burned through exercise.
If you’re already running as much as you can and you’ve already improved your diet quality and you’re still not losing weight as fast as you would like, there’s something else you can try: Decrease the size of your meals by about 1/5. Research by Brian Wansink of Cornell University has shown that people can eat about 20% less at meals without noticing the difference in terms of satiety. That’s because in our society we have been trained to eat beyond our natural satiety level. Just be sure to do this only after you have allowed your food intake to adjust to your increased running.
Study after study has shown high-intensity interval training (HIIT) is a fast way to shed fat. The American College of Sports Medicine says HIIT promotes “loss of abdominal fat and body weight while maintaining muscle mass.” A study in the Journal of Applied Physiology showed that seven sessions of HIIT over just two weeks induced marked increases in fat burning for moderately active women. Don’t make every run an interval, but add at least one HIIT session per week. If you prefer longer, relaxed runs, consider trying some kind of HIIT class like Crossfit instead.
Cardio alone may not get you to your ideal body weight. Adding some strength training boosts your running abilities while torching fat and building lean muscle. A 2008 study showed women who added resistance training to a weight-loss regimen were able to drop pounds and preserve lean body mass better than those just doing aerobic training or nothing. Just make sure you’re recovering properly and getting healthy proteins after a lift session.
If you’re already maxed out on your run capabilities, add an extra mile or two of walking around the neighborhood or sub one short errand or coffee meetup for a walk. The low intensity keeps your calorie-burning engine revved without taxing your system or making you ravenous.
The compensation effect isn’t all about increased appetite. For some people there’s also a reward effect at play. Too often, runners celebrate the completion of workouts by eating low-quality treats such as cookies and potato chips. In many cases, these treats contain more calories than were burned in the workout.
The best way to avoid this type of self-sabotage is to view your runs themselves as rewards rather than as chores to be gotten through and rewarded. Another recent study by Wansink found that people ate less than half as many M&M’s offered to them after a walk when they had been told before it that it was a “scenic walk,” compared to when they had been told it was an “exercise walk.”
As this study shows, the mindset you bring to your exercise program is important. In fact, whatever your weight-loss goal may be, your number 1 goal should be to enjoy running — or learn to enjoy it. That’s because you will only benefit from running if you keep doing it, and you will only keep doing it if you enjoy it.
For this reason, you should do whatever you need to do to enhance your enjoyment of running. Studies have shown that when people manipulate their workouts in ways that make them more fun, they are more likely to stick with their programs. If you enjoy running with music, run with music. If you prefer running with a friend or group, do that. If you like running in the park, run in the park. There’s really no wrong way to run for weight loss if you’re having fun.
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