Running is not only great for your cardiovascular system and mental health, but it can also help you lose weight. I started running for weight loss, but when I hopped on the scale, I was actually gaining. And no, it wasn’t from the muscles in my legs and butt. I realized that exercise alone was an ineffective way to lose weight, and that I needed to tweak my diet and my workouts in order to maximize my results.
And, while you may think it’s as easy as throwing on some running shoes and heading for the park, running specifically to lose weight well (or lose body fat) is a more technical affair. Fortunately, we’re here to help set you straight on a) what you need to do and b) how to do it safely and sustainably.
So you want to start running and you want to lose weight. The minute you mention it, everybody starts telling you about someone they know who lost a lot of weight when they started running. And everybody else starts telling you about runners who went the other way, gaining weight during training.
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.
Running and weight loss really can go together, but you have to know how to make it work for you. Sometimes, how well running helps you lose weight has very little to do with running and very much to do with what you do around your run, especially what you eat before, during, and afterward.
Here is how to start running and how often you should run to lose weight.
How Running Helps You Lose Weight
You can lose weight just by running if your routine boosts your activity level beyond what it was before. So if you never exercise and you start running—even just around the block every day or running for 30 minutes—you’re going to burn more calories and drop some weight (unless you fall into the trap of eating extra. More on that in a minute).
But when that amount of running becomes routine—maybe you run the same three miles on the same three days every week for months on end—your weight will stay stable. To be clear: You’re still burning calories by running, but you’re not burning more calories than you did before. So if you run the same and eat the same, you’ll still weigh the same.
To burn more by running, you need to change something up: Maybe you go longer, maybe you go faster during certain sections (try these get-faster workouts), maybe you replace some flats with some hills. Any shift (that “anything more than you did before” thing) can boost calorie burn again.
What Equipment is Needed to Run?
Above all else, you’ll need a solid pair of running shoes with cushion. You’re going to be doing a lot of work in these shoes, so you need to make them your new best friend. Pulling those old Chuck Taylors out of your closest to pound pavement will set you up for a world of trouble—shin splints and knee pain galore.
If you’re serious about running for weight loss, you need to invest in a dependable pair of shoes that can take you where you need to go and help you achieve the results you’re after—without burning out on stress or discomfort before you can get there.
Shop men’s running shoes that can withstand massive amounts of impact without losing their cloud-like comfort. Trust us, when you’re starting on your running plan for weight loss, cozy cushioning will be priority number one. Ladies who are looking for a running program to lose weight should check out running shoes for women, which are anatomically designed for narrower female feet.
You don’t need much else than a good pair of shoes and a positive attitude when you’re running for weight loss, but several handy accessories can help track and promote your progress, such as:
Pedometer—unless you’re pre-mapping your routes, a pedometer will measure the number of miles you log while you do laps and run for fat loss.
Heart rate monitors are critical for running and weight loss because your elevated heart rate will let you know how many calories you’re burning. Keeping track of this is paramount for staying in a calorie deficit, so we recommend keeping an activity log to record your data.
unning apps—instead of taking it upon yourself and measure your distance, and tracking your calories, take advantage of a bevy of apps that can do it for you. After installing an app for running and weight loss, such as Couch to 5K, you’ll be asked to enter some data regarding your height, weight, and age.
Once your profile is complete, open up the app to log each run’s performance and record stats such as distance, speed, and calories burned. Plus, you’ll probably get hit with a motivational push or two during the day that’ll inspire you to get out and get going—and let’s be real, we can all use a little kick in the butt sometimes.
How to Running for Weight Loss
When you first start running, it’s important to ease into it to avoid injury and burnout.
“[Running] is hard on your joints, and it’s really important to give your body time to recover from the stress that you place on it,” says Katherine Beals, RDN, an associate nutrition and physiology professor at the University of Utah and an American College of Sports Medicine fellow.
Starting out too fast can be mentally challenging as well, and then it might not be enjoyable, says Karen Dunn, an RRCA Level II and VDOT Distance running coach, and owner of Strengthen Your Stride.
One way to start slow is the run-walk-run method, which alternates running with walking. For someone who is new to running and trying to lose weight, here’s a sample training plan that Dunn recommends. You should take a rest day in between each workout.
You Run at the Same Pace or Duration
“The slow, steady pace also means a slow, steady calorie burn,” Milton told POPSUGAR. You might see some weight loss right when you start your running program, but then you plateau. “This is because the body gets more efficient at that same pattern,” Milton explained. In other words, your body gets used to that pace or that length of run, and you’re not challenging it enough to see continued weight loss.
To push past this plateau, start mixing up your runs. Once you’ve been running consistently for more than four runs, Milton said, begin adding an interval run or a hilly route once a week. However, make sure to know your limitations when you’re starting a new style of run in order to avoid injury.
High-Intensity Running Continues to Burn Calories After Exercise
Doing any exercise regularly will help you lose weight, but only a few types of exercise will continue to burn calories even after you finish working out.
High-intensity types of running like hill repeats and interval runs can continue to burn calories up to 48 hours after you work out.
These exercises use many muscles and need more energy afterward to recover. This is often labeled the “afterburn effect” among the fitness community.
Several studies have found that the “afterburn effect” could help you burn significantly more calories over time.
In one study, 10 men cycled for 45 minutes at an intense pace to calculate how many calories they burned after the workout and for how long.
The average participant burned 519 calories during their workout and an extra 190 calories over the 14 hours following the workout.
Although the above example uses cycling as an example, the “afterburn effect” applies to high-intensity running, too. Cycling is simply a convenient way to measure calories burned in a controlled laboratory study.
An important part of your running training involves no running at all. Runners who lose weight and keep it off make strength training part of their regular routine.Not only will you burn calories while you’re strength training, but your increased lean muscle mass will improve your running performance. You’ll be able to run faster and longer, and burn more calories when running.
Having lean muscle mass also helps you burn more calories in a day overall, even while at rest. Strength training also helps prevent running injuries, so you’ll be able to maintain your commitment to exercise by staying injury-free.
Try doing resistance or weight training every week. Set aside time in your training routine for 2–3 sessions of 20–30 minutes of strength training each week. You don’t have to lift heavy weights to make a difference. Simple body weight exercises can be effective.
Start On The Right Foot
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:
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.
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.
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.
Eat A Healthy Diet
You’re more likely to see results if you pay attention to your diet as well. “If I don’t make any sort of alterations to what I’m consuming, running by itself is not going to promote significant weight loss. You have to do the two in combination,” Beals says.
If you are reducing your calorie intake to lose weight, you still need to eat a well-balanced diet. If you cut calories too severely, you may feel too tired to exercise, Beals says.
Here are some tips for healthy eating:
Eat more fruits and vegetables.
Focus on whole grains.
Eat more healthy fats.
Limit processed foods.
Interval Running for Weight Loss
So, which style is the best if you’re running for weight loss? Interval training is definitely the most effective running program to lose weight. The periods of high intensity increase your muscles’ stimulus, thus achieving a much greater effect in the same amount of time as a moderate base run.
It’s math. Incorporating interval training into your running plan for weight loss will help you cut tons of calories in a relatively short time. As a bonus, your muscles require a lot of energy after a high-intensity push to recover and regenerate, creating that after-burn effect. At the same time, your metabolism stays elevated, and your body continues to burn calories.
If your natural pace is 5 miles per hour, try to up your ante for a few segments. If it sounds challenging, keep in mind that you’re not running to win a race—you’re running to test the limits of your heart and drive. You’re here to take control of your health, and you’re capable of so much more than you think possible.
Here are some interval training tips to help you reach new running heights:
- Don’t forget to warm up: When you’re interval running for fat loss, you must warm up with a 10-15 minute base run to prevent injuries. Base runs should be performed at a pace that’s comfortable enough to carry on a conversation, not gasping for air (psst… now’s a good time to encourage a friend to join in on your running plan for weight loss!).
- Work periods: Once you’re nice and warm, your work periods should last about 15 seconds—shoot for a submaximal sprint, or in other words, not quite full speed. Follow this aerobic interval with a 45-second recovery period with slow walking. Work up to 15 intervals, which should amount to a 15 minute running for weight loss session. Cooldown is imperative, though. After your last push, be sure to walk it off for 10 minutes to lower your heart rate naturally.
- Start slow: As you first get into running for beginners’ weight loss, make sure you don’t overdo it—starting at once a week should be fine. Once you get into the swing of things, you can start increasing this running method’s frequency and up your intervals to 20-second runs and 40-second rests.
- Get some technological help: You don’t need a fancy timer to get good at these runs. Apps like Runtastic have an Interval Trainer feature with a Voice Coach that tells you when to start and stop each period. Prefer to run free and unencumbered? Try going by landmarks instead, sprinting and walking between each lamppost, for example.
Moderate-to-High Intensity Running Targets Harmful Belly Fat
Carrying excess belly fat is extremely bad for your health.
Many studies show a connection between belly fat and an increased risk of heart disease, type 2 diabetes and many other diseases.
Studies have found that moderate-to-high aerobic exercise like running can reduce belly fat, even without changing your diet.
An analysis of 15 studies and 852 participants found that aerobic exercise reduced belly fat without any change in diet. However, training at moderate-to-high intensity was most effective at reducing belly fat.
Another study of 27 middle-aged women found that high-intensity running considerably reduced belly fat, compared to low-intensity walking/running or no exercise.
Lastly, a study of 45 healthy but inactive women found that high-intensity interval exercise three times per week significantly reduced body fat and belly fat, compared to steady pace exercise or no exercise.
One way to boost the intensity of your run is to incorporate high-intensity interval training (HIIT), which involves repeated bouts of high-intensity effort, followed by recovery time.
For example, you can sprint for a certain amount of time, then jog at an easy pace, and repeat. HIIT workouts tend to burn more calories than traditional workouts, especially post-exercise.