7 Science-Backed Tips to Start Running for Weight Loss
Anyone, at any size and in any shape, can be a runner. And there’s an abundance of reasons to get into the sport and benefits you’ll gain from doing so.
One popular reason people start running is for weight loss and for good reason, as clocking kilometres offers a vigorous form of physical activity that can help you burn calories, build muscle, and get more steps in your day. (Not to mention it boosts your mood and supports your general health!)
Accessibility also helps to make running one of the best workouts for weight loss. “You just need a pair of decent shoes, some creativity, and maybe a friend or two to develop a walking or running plan,” says Prof Daniel O’Connor, professor of health and human performance at the University of Houston. “It’s less expensive than joining a gym or having a personal trainer.”
You’ll still need to shift some things around to make running a serious part of your life, but being able to run right out your front door, free of charge, eliminates some very real roadblocks.
Still, running for weight loss is a little more complicated than hitting the pavement and hoping the weight melts away. There’s a strategy involved, and thankfully, we have seven science-backed strategies to share about running for weight loss.
1. Focus on the Runner’s High
The runner’s high is real, and if you give running a chance, say for just a few weeks, you’ll feel that jolt of feel-good hormones that make you want to keep going.
To prove the runner’s high, a Journal of Experimental Biology study showed that running releases endocannabinoids, which are associated with pleasure and could keep you coming back for more.
Don’t worry if the idea of a runner’s high feels more distant than a marathon finish-line. You just need to move past the point in which running feels really hard and into the phase where it’s your new favorite activity. To do that, start slow and gradually build up your mileage and your speed.
“Your body is made to run, but you won’t have the conditioning if you never do it,” Angela Rubin, USAT level I triathlon coach says. “Work your way up by running regularly and it should start to feel more natural over a month.”
You also don’t need to run for hours to see the positive effects of running, whether that’s the mood boost or weight loss. Instead, consider starting with walk intervals, mixed with running, to incorporate high-intensity bursts of movement and work your way up to longer run intervals. This is an effective strategy both to become a runner and to lose weight.
2. Understand the Role Nutrition Plays
Think of it this way: Rather than dieting for weight loss, make some changes in your eating to support your successful running plan. Consider increasing your protein, ditching the overprocessed food, and minimising your added sugar intake.
“Most people overestimate the calories they burn on a run,” says Rubin. As a very general estimation, you burn about 60 calories per kilometre . So if you run four to five kilometres, you’ll burn about 240 to 300 calories — a solid workout.
“Weight loss is about creating a caloric imbalance, where you’re using slightly more calories than you’re consuming, say 200 calories per day,” O’Connor says. If losing weight is your ultimate goal, keeping your portions in check can come in handy.
However, it’s still important to know that you do need calories to perform on your runs and focusing on counting calories isn’t the best way to lose weight. Instead, take that holistic approach to your nutrition, aiming to get in a mix of protein, healthy fats, and carbs that fuel your runs, and looking to whole foods to fill your plate.
3. Consider the Number of Days You Run
Yes, athletes are constantly optimising their training plans and race-day strategies, but you don’t need to go crazy if you’re just starting out. Many factors come into play when determining how many days a week you need to run for weight loss — or any goal for that matter — but you don’t want to go from zero days to seven days a week.
“When it comes to weight loss, moving and burning calories are what matters,” O’Connor says. “If you like sprints, which have a higher rate of calories burned per minute, then have at it; but if you prefer walking or slower jogging, you’ll just need to spend more time to burn those calories.” In other words, you could start with intervals just a couple days a week (even walk/run intervals) and then gradually build up to more days or more time on your feet.
That said, a Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise study found that runners lost more weight than walkers over a six-year period, possibly because of the afterburn effect. “Running at a high intensity will create an afterburn, which is when your body continues to burn calories when you’re no longer moving,” Rubin says. She suggests starting with three 30-minute runs a week, adding in sprints of 30 seconds then recovering for 30 seconds to 1 minute.
4. Push the Intensity When Running for Weight Loss
Most physical activity guidelines tend to emphasise duration of exercise when it comes to weight loss — i.e. the more kilometres you run, the more calories you’ll burn. Turns out, though, that short workouts may be just as beneficial as long runs, at least when it comes to fat burn.
A 2019 review of the scientific literature found that interval training (four minutes of high-intensity work followed by three minutes of recovery was the most commonly used routine in the studies reviewed) provided 28.5 percent greater reductions in total absolute fat mass than moderate-intensity continuous training.
HIIT workouts are generally much shorter than steady state runs. In fact, you can get the same fitness and metabolic benefits from two minutes of really hard running (i.e. four 30-second max-effort sprints followed by four and a half minutes of recovery for a total of 20 minutes) as 30 minutes at a moderate pace, according to a 2018 study from the American Journal of Physiology-Regulatory, Integrative and Comparative Physiology.
5. Make Strength Training a Part of Your Routine
Cross-training is important for a few reasons: First off, it makes you a stronger runner and reduces your risk of injury. “Running is only hard on your joints if you don’t have the muscle to support them,” Rubin says.
Secondly, lifting can help you lose weight, because it helps you build muscle. “The more lean muscle mass you have, the more calories you’ll burn at rest,” she says. That’s right, more muscle means more burned calories when you’re just sitting around.
Get started with strength training by doing bodyweight exercises to get movements down, then work your way up to adding in weights.
6. Schedule Morning Runs for Weight Loss
According to research, people who exercise in the morning are more successful at losing weight than those who worked out at night. In the study, researchers divided 48 women into two groups —one that did aerobic exercise in the morning for six weeks, and another who worked out in the evening — and asked them to record what they ate during the period. The results found that the early bird exercisers consumed less calories throughout the day and ultimately lost more weight than the night owls.
Other studies have found that exercising in a fasted state — i.e., running before you eat breakfast in the morning — burns more fat than running after eating. If you are heading out on an empty stomach, though, aim for a shorter and easier route, so you’ll avoid bonking midway through. It’s crucial not to go on a long or high-intensity run under-fueled.
7. Don’t Forget About Quality Sleep
While maintaining good habits during the day — eating well, exercising regularly — are crucial for weight loss, resting at night is just as important for keeping off the weight. In a study published by Plos One journal, researchers found that people who skimped on sleep were more likely to have higher body mass indexes and larger waist circumferences than those who got adequate shut-eye.
The good news is, running may help you fall asleep easier and sleep more deeply. Numerous studies have found that daily aerobic exercise — specifically the moderate to intense type, like cardio and strength training — improves our sleep quality, which helps us avoid the consequences of sleep deprivation such as increased risk of cardiovascular disease and metabolism issues.
If you run in the evening, make sure to leave enough time before bed to let your body temperature and heart rate lower, so you don’t feel too revved up to fall asleep.