Running for Weight Loss

Running for Weight Loss

So, you’ve heard that running can be a great fitness activity for weight loss, but is it true?

The short answer is yes, it can be and no, it can’t. Running for weight loss is not necessarily the very best exercise or activity for everyone when it comes to weight loss, but it can work effectively for many and it’s worth trying out.

You don’t have to be an athlete or even aspire to be one to start running. It is an excellent exercise for a beginner to try. It is, in essence, a cheap and easy activity to participate in (until you start adding expensive gadgets and gear into the mix that is). The added bonus is that you can enjoy it alone or with a friend or group.

The overall benefits of running are not just about weight loss. Improved cardiovascular health, lower blood pressure and cholesterol, as well as a revved-up metabolism and positive self-esteem are all great benefits you can achieve with this one simple exercise.

Other benefits are that running works even when you’re at rest. High-intensity exercise stimulates ‘afterburn’ (meaning that your resting energy expenditure stays elevated after you run). Better still, in the long-term, studies show that calories burned through running can achieve up to 90% more weight loss than those burned through walking.

Running is time efficient and can be super intense over shorter periods if desired. It can also be convenient and accessible. There are fewer barriers to maintaining a routine and running can be enjoyed anywhere, at any time, wherever you are in the world, no gym or fancy equipment required.

Studies have also shown that runners experience a ‘flood of euphoria’ following a hard or long run. This floaty, happy sensation affectively termed the ‘runner’s high’ is a real thing. Scientists have found a link between moderate to intense exercise and morphine-like brain chemicals, known as endocannabinoids (endorphins alone aren’t the only reason runners ‘get happy’).

Getting geared up: the beginner’s guide

First things first, the shoes

Young man choosing preferred running shoes.

Sure, anyone can run barefoot, but if you’re going to try and take it seriously don’t even think about heading out with nothing on, or with a pair of regular tennis shoes, sneakers or cross-trainers. There’s a reason running shoes have a whole section of their own at the sports shops. They’re designed to give you the best benefit possible.

As simple as the mechanics of running are, it is a ‘traumatic’ activity for certain parts of the body. The action of the exercise creates specific kinds of forces on the body. A good pair of running shoes is designed to absorb and minimise those kinds of forces. Many will tell you that a good pair of shoes will be the most important investment you’ll make as a new runner. They’re right. A good pair is worth the spend.

A good fit is also very important. Part of the impact of running includes blisters, bruised toenails and shin splints, which won’t be encouraging for you to want to continue the activity. Try on a pair, walk around, run around. It’s important your feel comfortable.

You’ll need to also keep in mind that one pair won’t last a lifetime. Running shoes have a lifespan. A pair may still look to be in good condition, but shock absorption diminishes and as a runner, you will begin to feel it.

One step at a time

Young woman walking outdoors.

The best way to start is gradually. You’re not competing with Usain Bolt in the 100-metre dash. You certainly won’t achieve a level of improved fitness or weight loss goals in a hurry either. If you’re going to start running for a specific goal, especially weight loss, ensure that you understand it’s going to require a level of commitment. Results shouldn’t be quick or drastic in the short-term.

Too much, too soon can also lead to injury. One of the worst things you can do is start running, get injured and then stop exercising altogether.

Before you begin any new fitness regime, and especially if you are a man over 45, a woman over 50 or have health concerns, it is a good idea to consult your family physician (GP – general practitioner). A check-up to assess your overall health before making a change to your routine that will have an impact on your body is a good thing. Know your life digits – your blood pressure, BMI (body mass index), cholesterol and blood sugar levels. These will be impacted in some capacity by any out-of-the ordinary fitness activity you begin doing. Your doctor can also help you understand how to ‘listen to your body’ and process any changes which may be red flags.

A good way to get going is to alternate between short bursts of light jogging and walking. Try walking for 5 minutes (warm up) and then jogging for two minutes. When this becomes less strenuous, steadily increase the amount of time you spend running until you’re able to jog / run for 20 minutes at a time. Once you’re able to achieve that, you can start increasing your running distances. If you are trying to increase your fitness levels but have been sedentary for some time, start by walking only and gradually build from there.

Be careful. An increase of 30 seconds or even 1 minute at a time may not seem like much, but it can be. Be realistic about the amount you gradually increase by. Listen to your body. Alternating between running and walking allows the body, overall, to adapt to the new stress on the joints and muscles. Every second is felt by your body’s ability to adjust.

Steady progression is key. Your cardiovascular system needs to adapt and a gradual increase in activity will help it improve easily this way. Your cardiovascular system will certainly adapt more easily than your musculoskeletal system. People generally stop running because of injury, not because their heart didn’t seem able to adapt to the increased activity.

Getting started is the most difficult part. Often the first few weeks are when you’ll experience the most difficulty in getting out the front door. You can take comfort in the fact that before long you’ll start to feel the difference as you get stronger. Before you know it, you’ll be feeling so good, you’ll look forward to your runs.

Inside or outside?

Young woman running outdoors.You may find yourself asking the question, “Should I run on a treadmill or outside?” The simple answer… you’ll get a great cardiovascular workout either way, so it really is just about personal preference.

The added benefits of a treadmill are that you’re never far from home (which can make for more comfortable exercise if you’re working your way back from an injury) and you’re less likely to feel intimidated about being out in a public space where people can see you. Bad weather isn’t a factor and won’t hamper your plans. You can also adjust the treadmill to a lower-impact which equates to running on grass.

A treadmill, quite simply, doesn’t simulate the outdoors. Fresh air, sunlight (vitamin D), great scenery and a newfound sense of adventure are some of the most appealing things about running outdoors. If safety is a concern, local communities around the globe have gatherings in safe environments regularly enough that you could join and still meet your weight loss goals. The extra motivation will also give you a boost. Little beats the outdoors, but you won’t lose out on your goals by using a treadmill.

How to keep that feel-good feeling

Once you’re running a little more comfortably, these tips will help you feel good during your runs:

  • Ensure that you can pass the ‘talk test’: If your pace is comfortable (ensuring that you won’t burn out too quickly), you should still be able to talk conversationally. If you’re breathless, you’re pushing yourself too much.
  • Count time, not kilometres or miles: As a beginner, it is better to focus on the time you are able to run than how far (distance) and at what pace. Set your goals in minutes rather than kilometres or miles.
  • Young woman drinking a bottle of water during a run.Stay hydrated: Your body will lose water. You will sweat. You will need to ensure that you stay sufficiently hydrated, especially during the warmer months of the year. Carry water with you or know exactly where you will be able to get safe drinking water along your route (if outdoors). Don’t forget to drink water after your run too.
  • Strength-training: This is key to building muscle and bone-density. If you are to start running successfully, your muscles and bones, which take the biggest amount of strain during a run, will need extra protection against injury. A 20-minute workout a few times a week is all you need.
  • Save stretching for last: Stretching doesn’t necessarily warm up your muscles before you run. In fact, stretching cold muscles increases your risk for injury. Warm up with a little walking for a few minutes. Save your stretching for after your run, when muscles are warm. A good stretch can help prevent muscle ache and stiffness later on.
  • Stick with it: Stay consistent with when and how often you run during the week. Keep a logbook or journal. This will help you plan your runs and for how long you will run. The added bonus is that it can help your level of commitment too and ensure that you stick to your goals. If you’re tracking your weight loss goals as well, these logged entries will most certainly be motivating for you too.

Running rules for weight loss

Young woman using measuring tape to check her weight loss progress.

Running is a great way to lose weight, but works best with a sensible nutrition plan to complement your new-found exercise programme. In general, those who lose significant amounts of weight and keep it off are exercisers. Exercisers are much less likely to yo-yo, too. Your food is your fuel and if you’re burning off the right kind combined with a healthy amount of aerobic exercise, there’s little reason for you not to achieve your weight loss goals.

Research has shown than those with weight loss goals who ran more than 5 kilometres per week for 1 year but did not change their diets lost about [kilograms:3 – 4]. New runners who ran the same amount of kilometres (miles) per week for one year lost an average of [kilograms;5 – 6].

Slow progress is sustainable. If your weight loss goals are higher, it is best to work with a nutritionist and trainer to formulate the best plan for you. You can build up to 60 minutes per run session as a way to burn more calories. You must remember that the more exercise time you build, the more you will stimulate your appetite.

It may be a simple activity to participate in, but it is just as easy to make silly mistakes. Getting your exercise and eating habits right are crucial for effective weight loss. When you focus more on calorie restriction than exercise, you tend to lose muscle along with body fat. If you make the correct changes to your nutrition and exercise routine, you are more likely to preserve muscle and lose more fat.

Running (correctly) is among the most effective exercises for weight loss and can leave you looking leaner and feeling lighter than many other activities. Typically, you burn more calories per minute when running than you can when riding a bike or swimming.

  • Rule 1: If you’re heavily overweight, walking is far less stressful on your bones, muscles and joints of the lower extremities. You don’t have to start your weight loss journey by running and potentially cause yourself unnecessary injury. Walking is ‘stressful’ enough to begin stimulating adaptations in the cardiovascular and muscular systems of the body to make you stronger and more resilient. Prep your body by walking first. When you’re ready, gradually ease into a running programme.
  • Rule 2: Don’t run on consecutive days (initially). Recovery is just as important a part of the process as exercising and healthy nutrition. Bones, muscles and joints need time to recover from the stress of running. Your body’s tissues can only come back stronger if they can heal. For beginners, sometimes one day isn’t enough to recover. You can incorporate non-impact workouts in between run days if you wish to continue activity on your non-run days.
  • Rule 3: Take care not to increase your run time by more than 10% each week. The 10% rule will ensure that you don’t increase your running volume too quickly and overdo it. It also promotes sensible and consistent running increases which your body can adapt to more easily and maintain. If you struggle in the beginning, start at the lower percentage end and work your way up to 10%.
  • Rule 4: Create a healthy calorie deficit (i.e. burn more calories than you eat in a day). Running will help you maintain a calorie deficit by quickly increasing the amount you burn per run. You will find that your appetite increases as a result (either by just a little or you may find yourself feeling ravenous). For those with a weight loss goal this might be a frightening thought. The key is what you eat, when and keeping within the limits of the portion scale. Increase the quality of the foods you eat, more so than the quantity. High quality foods are less energy dense and are more satiating, allowing you to fill up without the added calories. 

Are you sabotaging your run?

Yes, you can actually sabotage your running regime, and it’s surprisingly easy to do. Avoid the ‘one step forward, two steps backward’ effect by being mindful of these common mistakes, which will sabotage your progress:

  • Unhealthy diet options and foods.Post-run rewards and pig-outs: Avoid celebrating your run by eating low-quality treats such as biscuits and potato chips. These usually contain more calories in one bag than you just burned off. You may feel famished and basking in the glow that comes with a ‘runners high’ (yes, it’s a real thing), but it’s crucial to refuel wisely. Post-run snacks packed with protein and filling carbs (not exceeding 150 calories) are all the reward you should need. If you’re excessively hungry post-run, take a look at how you’re fuelling up before your run.
  • You don’t run enough: Doing one 45-minute run or several 20-minute runs a week may not burn all that many calories, and ultimately means you aren’t likely to see results of your weight loss goals. The right combination of fuel (nutrition) and calorie burning exercise will get you there. A good rule of thumb is to run 3 to 4 times a week and incorporate other forms of calorie burning cardio, as well as metabolism-boosting strength training during your in between days for added benefit.
  • Fitbit Charge HR (wearable tracker).You’re burning less than you think: Just because you got sweaty during your run doesn’t necessarily mean that you’ve burned maximum calories. If you didn’t run for that long or at a fast pace, you might not be burning as many calories as you thought. Here’s where a wearable tracker (and supporting app) can come in handy. These nifty little gadgets can help you keep track of the calories you’re burning with surprising accuracy. Alternatively, you can learn to use an app (without a wearable) on your phone (which means you will have to remember to take your phone with you when you run) only to help you keep track your distance.
  • Same run route, different day: Running the same route can make you feel stronger and help you to develop a trusty habit, but you’re not fooling your muscles. They quickly adapt to the demands you’re placing on them, and in so doing makes it all too easy to hit a weight loss plateau. Mix up your run routes, include speed intervals, hill runs, long runs, short runs and try out different surfaces. Muscle mass burns off calories and speeds up your metabolism. The more you mix it up, the more chances you have of being able to burn more and stay on target with your weight loss goals.
  • Young woman standing on the scale with measuring tape assessing her weight loss progress.You become obsessed with your scale: Here’s the danger… Running is a great way to lose body fat (especially around the tummy / belly) while building muscle and toning your lower body. Muscle tissue is denser than that of fat, so it takes up less space. Building muscle affects your weight. You may discover (in horror) that your weight even goes up when you stand on your scale when you first begin a running programme. Check your other body measurements before you panic. Your waist circumference, bra size (for women of course) and even shape of your derriere (bottom) will have changed over time as a runner. The scale might not be budging, but you will find that you can fit into a pair of skinny jeans at some stage during your weight loss journey. You’re losing fat, not muscle and the scale measures everything.

Top Running Apps

  • RUNNING for weight loss: This app provides workouts and meal plans that encourage you to slim down in at least 8 weeks. Training is convenient and keeps you motivated with a built-in music player (with tempos you can adjust to your workout rhythm).
  • Pacer (pedometer plus weight loss and BMI tracker): This app requires no wearable tracker or wristband, or hardware. Download, plug in your goals and get going (for free). You can track all your activity, lose weight, as well as connect with friends or family to stay motivated and challenged.
  • MyFitnessPal: A popular fitness app for good reason, it has the biggest food database (more than 6 million listed foods), allows you to track nutrients, calories and customise your eating habits. Logging your exercise (cardio and strength), and steps is also very easy, and syncs up well with Fitbit, Jawbone UP, Garmin, MapMyFitness, Runkeeper, Strava, Runtastic, and many more other devices / apps. You can add friends for motivation purposes and celebrate your success with handy charts and reports that graph your progress.
  • Runkeeper: This app is almost like a little community of runners. The app encourages like-minded folks to get outdoors and really enjoy the exercise of running. The GPS app allows you to track your runs, set goals and make strategic plans, sweat it all out and see your progress as you go. It even comes with audio cues to help you relay your pace, distance, and time. This app won’t let you fall short of your goals.
  • Nike+ Run Club: Track your progress, stay motivated and compete with friends or family. Whether you’re on the trail, treadmill or pounding it out on the tar, the app’s MotionX® combined with GPS and accelerometer provides accurate tracking. You can measure your every step with in-run audio feedback. This app will certainly come in handy when you’re ready to start training for an actual race (yes, you can!).

Disclaimer - is for informational purposes only. It is not intended to diagnose or treat any condition or illness or act as a substitute for professional medical advice.