Does Running Burn Fat? Experts Explain

An exercise physiologist and trainer give all the info you need to know on running and fat burn, plus the best workouts to turn up the effects.


There are tons of benefits to gain from a regular running routine — from improving your cardiovascular health to getting a mood boost (hello, runner’s high!). And for many people, one reason to lace up and log those kilometres is for the metabolic effects. You may wonder though, does running burn fat? In short, the answer is yes.

“Compared to other endurance exercises, running offers the highest calorie burn per minute, which will help you burn the most fat overall,” says Michele Canon, a certified personal trainer and running coach with STRIDE Fitness.

That being said, when it comes to maximizing fat loss, not all runs are created equal. Keep reading for more about the various ways running can help you shed fat (yes, even stubborn belly fat), plus two workouts to shift your burn into high gear.

How Running Can Help You Burn Fat
Running slashes fat in two ways. First, your body taps into your fat stores for energy during the workout itself. That’s especially true during steady-state aerobic outings.

“Running below 80 percent of our maximum heart rate is very effective for burning fat,” says Canon. “That’s because when we train in the lower heart rate zones, we’re using type I, or slow-twitch, muscle fibres, and those are fat oxidative. In other words, they use stored body fat as their primary source of fuel.”

Fat is a good source of energy, but it’s broken down slowly — so when you’re running above your aerobic threshold (below 80 percent of your max heart rate), your body starts to tap glycogen, a form of sugar, as its main source of fuel, says Canon.

The other way running contributes to fat loss happens after the workout. “High-intensity interval training, or HIIT — which involves running short, really intense bursts followed by a rest period — increases your metabolism and causes you to burn calories after your workout is completed, a sort of afterburn effect,” says Greg Justice, an exercise physiologist and owner of AYC Health & Fitness in Kansas. “The bottom line is, the more calories you burn, the more fat you’re going to lose.”

Compared with steady-state running and resistance training, running sprints during a HIIT session has been shown to increase EPOC (Post Exercise Oxygen Consumption) the most, increasing total calorie burn over the rest of the day and leading to significantly higher fat burn.

Intervals as short as 20 or 30 seconds are enough to boost the burn, research has found, provided you’re running those sprints at an effort very close to your max. One recent study from Brazil, which included only 10 runners, found that a sprint-interval workout increased EPOC only slightly more than a steady-state run, but that it also increased lipid metabolism, which researchers say can boost fat loss.

The EPOC effect is greatest for the first couple hours following your workout, but it doesn’t stop there. A sprint session on the treadmill led to increased burn for at least 14 hours in a 2021 study published in the International Journal of Exercise Science. (This study did only involve seven aerobically fit women, though, so exact results may vary.)

Although you can’t spot-train and try to lose only belly fat, note both Justice and Canon, HIIT sessions significantly reduced overall fat, belly fat, and visceral fat (the fat between your organs), in a 2018 meta-analysis of studies published in the journal Sports Medicine. That review also found running above 90 percent of your max is the best for overall fat loss, while sessions under 90 percent have a greater impact on belly fat loss in particular.

Justice says the belly fat burn may be a result of EPOC being greater after intense exercise. Another research review indicates that because energy stores in skeletal muscles are limited after intense exercise, our bodies turn more toward that connective fat tissue between organs (adipose tissue) for energy.

Duration, Frequency, and Intensity to Maintain to Maximise Running’s Fat-Burning Potential
The general recommendation, says Justice, is to get at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise per week. Canon recommends devoting three to four days a week to moderate-intensity runs of at least 30 minutes and two days to higher-intensity workouts. The interval workouts can be shorter than 30 minutes (see below for a couple sample sessions), but make sure you’re totally warmed up before diving into sprints.

Another good thing about intervals is there’s no one way to do them. “Keep it fresh and mix up your training — using different time intervals and intensities can increase the burn,” says Justice.

Including both steady-state and sprint workouts in your week means you’ll be blasting fat mid-run and reaping that EPOC burn, too. Plus, it’s not sustainable to do high-intensity sessions for every single workout — you’d be setting yourself up to burn out or wind up injured.

Finally, add some strength training to your routine (or keep it up if you’re already doing it) to burn more fat over time. “By adding strength training to the mix, you’ll increase your muscle mass, which causes you to burn more calories at rest,” says Justice. “The more muscle you have, the more fat you burn.”

The Bottom Line on Running and Burning Fat
At the end of the day, to burn the most fat running, you need to actually run regularly. If you find yourself skipping HIIT sessions and would rather do a slower-paced run instead, go for it. Another steady-state run is better than no run.

“Ultimately, when clients ask which is most effective, I always tell them the most effective program is the one they will commit to regularly,” says Justice.

Two Run Workouts to Try
To boost your overall fat burn, try adding these sample sessions from Justice into your regular mix of runs. Each includes intervals of high intensity to keep your engine revved longer afterwards.

The first is based on speeds clocked on a treadmill; feel free to adjust the paces based on your level. The second is based on effort level, so you can run at the paces that feel right — just make sure to push it on the intense intervals to reap all the EPOC benefits.

Treadmill Pyramid
Warm up by jogging at easy effort for 5 to 10 minutes

After each of these fast intervals, walk or jog at easy effort for 90 seconds (at about 5.5 kph)

  • Run for 1 minute at 11 kph
  • Run for 1 minute at 13 kph
  • Run for 1 minute at 14.5 kph
  • Run for 1 minute at 16 kph
  • Run for 1 minute at 16 kph
  • Run for 1 minute at 14.5 kph
  • Run for 1 minute at 13 kph
  • Run for 1 minute at 11 kph

Cool down by walking or jogging at an easy effort for 5 to 10 minutes.

Tabata Session
Warm-up by jogging at an easy effort for 10 to 15 minutes.

  • Run for 20 seconds at an intense effort (think 7 to 9 RPE)
  • Recover for 10 seconds at an easy effort
  • Repeat 5 to 8 times

Cool down by walking or jogging at an easy effort for 5 to 10 minutes.

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