Running to lose weight - a simple guide!

The running community around the world is massive. And what's so cool about this community is how inclusive it is. Men, women, old, young, every different ethnicity and nationality you can think of.

All of you run for your own reason. Maybe, like me, you just love running. Maybe you run because it's good conditioning for another sport. Maybe you run because you enjoy the communal aspect of it.

But for most of us, at least one reason we run is because it improves our health. Running (along with any aerobic activity) increases blood flow throughout our body, it strengthens our heart and lungs, and of course, it burns calories.

Many people use running as a way to burn fat and maintain a healthy weight. I mean it seems simple right? Running burns calories, so if you just run you should lose weight...

Well yes, considering every other factor in your life stays the same. But that's rarely the case. What happens so often with runners is that when they start running they also start eating more.

This isn't necessarily a bad thing. I mean, we need to fuel our bodies and give it the calories it needs. The problem occurs when people start eating more than necessary or start eating stuff they really should be avoiding.

In order to lose weight via running we need to be fueling properly and using the most effective running workouts to burn fat and build muscle.

In this article we are going to be talking about nutrition and weight loss so I just want to stop to tell you a few things before we get too far down this road.

First, I am not a dietitian, nutritionist, or doctor; nor do I have any formal training or schooling in nutrition. My understanding of diet and nutrition comes from my own informal learning (mostly via books and articles), and my own experience. The information here should not be used as medical advice.

Second, I'm not going to be talking about the quickest ways to lose weight, crash diets, or extreme diet or weight loss. I don't think those methods of weight loss are sustainable or healthy and I won't promote them here.

Third, nutrition and weight loss are extremely complicated and will be different for everyone. I am a believer that, in general, the {calories in < calories out = weight loss} does work, but there are caveats. I also believe that your macro breakdown and hormone regulation will impact your weight loss. Just remember, what has worked for me will not necessarily work the same for you. You have to be responsible for experimenting with your nutrition to see what works best for you!

Alright, with that out of the way, let's dive into this.

Nutrition first

So many of us think that exercise is the most important aspect of losing weight. If you run enough, bike enough, or lift weights enough, you will lose fat. That's just not true! The #1 priority for losing weight is understanding and implementing a good nutrition plan.

We really should be shifting our focus away from fad "dieting" to how we can maintain a healthy diet (as in, our eating habits) for life!

Too many of us (myself included) get sucked into these extreme diets where you have to eliminate whole food groups or macronutrients (like carbs) to lose weight. It's not necessary and studies have shown that while you may lose weight, you're extremely likely to gain it back. That kind of weight fluctuation is not what I'm looking for!

The most sustainable nutrition plans are the ones that allow you to eat the foods you like while still keeping your calories and nutrients in check.

If you're going to be running you need to adjust your nutrition plan accordingly. You can't expect to consume the same number of calories if you are now burning hundreds of calories a day by running! You will start to feel lethargic and weak, you'll start getting injured, and you might even start getting sick more often.

This is because you're body isn't getting the nutrients it needs to maintain a healthy body weight. Will you lose weight? Yes. Will you be miserable? Hell yes.

If you want to burn fat, you need to be in a calorie deficit. This may seem obvious to you, but lots of people have started trying to "debunk" this method of fat loss. When you get into the real science, "calories in vs. calories out" is what actually works in the vast majority of people, so let's stick with that.

However, like we touched on above, you can't be in a huge calorie deficit or you're going to feel horrible and it's not going to last. You need to find the calorie deficit that still allows you to feel happy and healthy!

To find out how many calories you need to be taking in each day, you need to find your Basal Metabolic Rate (BMR). I like this BMR calculator because it has a great explanation of how these numbers should be used and it also provides different numbers based on your activity level.

Now that you have your BMR (adjusted for activity level) you know that you need to consume that number of calories to maintain your body weight. If you want to lose weight you need to eat less than that. So how do you know how many calories you're eating? You can try estimating your daily calories, but the most accurate way is to you track what you eat.

I use MyFitnessPal to track my food everyday (not a sponsor or affiliate, I really use and like this app!). I know, not everyone likes tracking their food, but I do. I feel like it's the only way I can actually track the amount of food I'm eating. If I'm just trying to mentally keep track of how many calories I'm eating, it's usually way off.

For many calories do you think are in a PB&J sandwich? Well depending on your bread, it's about 400-500 calories. That's a lot more than I thought! That's why tracking my food is so important.

The thing that I love about MyFitnessPal is that in the free version you can customize your calorie intake goal. This makes it so you don't have to remember your BMR, you can just calculate it then set it up in your calorie tracker.

Another benefit of tracking calories this way is that you can also setup your Garmin or Fitbit to automatically import your workouts so your calorie intake goal will adjust accordingly.

All of this is to say...if you want to consistently lose body fat, you need to be mindful about what you are putting in your body, and how much of it.

I'm a vegetarian and generally eat a high carb, moderate protein, low fat diet. What that looks like for me is lots of fruit and vegetables, lots of beans and legumes (chickpeas, lentils, black beans), a decent amount of grains, and some eggs and dairy.

A day of eating for me might look like this:

  • Breakfast: Eggs and English muffin / Berries with Greek yogurt

  • Mid morning snack: High carb fruit like banana / apple / grapes

  • Lunch: Lentil stew / black bean burger / stir fry / salad

  • Afternoon snack: Cheese / fruit / carrots

  • Dinner: Chickpea curry / Veg. taco's / Roasted veg & potato / burrito bowl /

(I almost always workout from 12-1 pm, 6 days a week)

My calorie goal is set around 1,700 per day. I know this is low for a 200+ pound guy who is exercising 6 days a week, but this number has come down gradually over the past few years, and I feel really good around this mark.

Plus, after working out that number generally gets up to around 2,000-2,200 calories.

My macro goals look something like this:

  • Carbohydrate goal is between 180-250 grams/day depending on my workout. Higher amount of carbs for harder cardio days, lower for weight lifting days.

  • Protein goal is between 130-180 grams/day depending on my workout. Higher protein for lifting days, slightly lower for cardio days.

  • Fat goal is between 40-80 grams/day depending on my other macros. I generally just let fats fill up what's left of the macro breakdown and just try not to let it get too low.

I just want to quickly re-iterate, I'm not suggesting you use this breakdown, I'm just giving you an idea of what my daily macro breakdown looks like.

I know this has been a long section just on nutrition but it's such a massive part of weight loss and our overall health I think it deserves the attention!

Aerobic workouts

There are lots of different ways to run. I've written a whole article about the different running workouts you can use to reach your running goals.

The most important thing to know is that some workouts are better for fat loss and others are better for increasing top speed, building muscle or improving your running mentality! So, it's important to know what your goals are.

For those of us looking to lose fat, my suggestion is to focus on workouts that keep you in the aerobic zone. What is the aerobic zone? Ah, glad you asked!

The words aerobic and anaerobic actually refer to the level of oxygen available to your body. When you are exercising at a low-to-moderate level you are probably in the aerobic zone. One way you can tell is by how hard you are breathing. If you are breathing at a slightly elevated level, you are in the aerobic zone.

At the other end of the intensity spectrum is anaerobic exercise. Anaerobic means you are in a oxygen deficit, as in, your body needs more oxygen than it's getting. This is what happens when you push yourself super hard and you start gasping for air, feeling like you just can't breath fast enough. That happens because...well, you actually can't breathe fast enough to satisfy your body's oxygen needs.

Let's break this down so it's easier to remember:

  • Aerobic = Easier workout, slightly elevated breathing. (LISS = Low Intensity Steady State)

  • Anaerobic = Intense workout, breathing very hard. (HIIT = High Intensity Interval Training)

There are a few reasons that I believe you should be working out in the aerobic zone...

1. You burn a higher percentage of fat

That's right, because you are exercising at a moderate intensity your body can use the slower moving fat cells in your body for energy. During workouts that require short, intense intervals (think sprints or weight lifting) your body needs to use the glycogen in your muscles for fast twitch muscles.

2. Easier to recover from

Supporters of anaerobic training claim that it burns more calories than aerobic training. This is true, and obvious. If you sprint for 1 minute, you will burn more calories than you will if you jog for 1 minute. That makes sense.

What they don't talk about is that...A) You are burning more carbohydrate when sprinting and more fat when jogging. B) Recovering from a jog is much easier than recovering from a sprint!

The high intensity workouts that are all the rage right now just aren't suitable for people new to exercise, people dealing with injuries or joint pain, or people who are overweight or obese.

If you are able to finish these intense workouts you are going to be much more sore than you would be if you were to have done a longer, slower session of something like walking, running, biking, or rowing. When you can recover faster you can be more consistent with your workouts.

3. You can workout longer

In my opinion, one of the greatest aspects of aerobic exercise is the fact that because it is lower intensity, you can really extend the amount of time you're doing it. For example, I can burn 1,400 calories running 13 miles. You can burn 2,000+ calories running a marathon.

With most HIIT sessions you are capped out around 30-60 minutes because you just can't sustain the intensity for that long. If you're looking for a faster workout to squeeze in during your lunch hour, HIIT might be a better solution. But if you're looking to spend more time in the aerobic zone burning fat, LISS is going to be the better workout for you.

Promoting aerobic exercise is old news...which is why the fitness industry is pushing everyone to try this "cool new thing called HIIT if you really want to bust that belly fat!!!" It's the next "big secret" that you've been missing...

The only problem is, anaerobic exercise is not any better than aerobic exercise at burning fat. Let's talk about a few of the claims you'll read in these HIIT articles...

1. The "afterburn effect" The famous afterburn effect has been talked about in every HIIT article or video ever created. The idea is that, even though you may not burn a ton of calories in your HIIT session, you will burn more calories after your workout! This has been proven to be true. The problem is it only accounts for 5-10% of the calories you burned during your workout. So if you burned 400 calories in your HIIT session you may burn another 40 calories over the next 6-8 hours (which is how long the "afterburn effect really lasts"). The practicality of this afterburn effect is vastly overstated.

2. HIIT burns more calories! Again, this is true...I mean, of course it's true! We talked about this earlier, if you sprint for 1 minute you will burn more calories than you will if you jog for 1 minute. The problem here is that you are comparing HIIT for 30 minutes to LISS for 30 minutes. LISS is designed for "long" workouts. The beauty of these long workouts is that they can be almost limitless if you know how to pace yourself.

3. Increased metabolism The basis of this "increased metabolism" is rooted in the idea that you are building more muscle when doing these anaerobic workouts which will increase your Basal Metabolic Rate. Like all of these claims, there is some truth here. If you are weight lifting you are likely to build enough muscle to actually impact your BMR, but weight lifting sessions will be burn far fewer calories than a cardio session. If you are doing HIIT sessions, you are not likely to build enough muscle to have a significant impact on your BMR.

Now, that brings me to my next point about burning fat with running...

Incorporate weight training

Incorporating weight training into your exercise routine really is a good idea. Not only does weight training increase your muscle mass which will help you burn more calories throughout the day, but it will also help you maintain core strength, improve mobility, and help fight off muscle imbalances that may occur from poor running form.

Now, I'm not advocating that you hit the gym 5 days a week and focus on shoulders, biceps, and triceps...that might not be super helpful. But getting into the gym 2-3 times a week to focus on full body workouts can work wonders!

Be sure to be mindful of your running schedule when planning your lifting sessions. It's painful and inefficient to be running on super sore legs!

Also, remember this: You are not going to get bulky and inflexible from lifting weights. This is a common misconception that has little evidence behind it. If you focus on full body exercises and compound movements (movements involving more than one joint) you really shouldn't worry about bulking up!

Some areas to focus on when weight training include core, back, legs, hip flexors, and your bootay! You should also include some upper body workouts but you don't want to focus too much on chest and arms. Building large muscles in those areas will just feel like excess weight when running.

Consistency is Key

If you've read some of my other articles about running you know that I truly believe that being consistent with your running is among the most important aspects of improving. Building an aerobic base to improve upon only comes with consistency and time.

Sometimes I find myself getting frustrated with the fact that I just have to wait to get better at running! For example, I might go on a morning run, get back to house and start my day by 8am. Then all day I'm thinking about how I should go to the gym, or go on another run, or bike, or something to build my endurance or strength. The reality is, resting and recovering are just as important as running!

One of the key things that allows you to really improve your endurance, increase your mileage, or build strength is time. To be able to safely build your body to the point where you can run 50 miles a week you just need to give your body time to adapt (along with a proper training program). It may take you 2 years if you're starting from scratch, and there is very little you can do to expedite that timeline!

You can be doing all the right things, training smart, training hard, and recovering properly and it will still take you a long time to build your base...especially if you are starting from zero. It's just the nature of the beast.

The sooner you can accept this fact, the better off you will be.

Countless runners try to push themselves harder than they should, hoping that this one week of super hard or super long runs will make them a better runner. And you know what...maybe it will. But more times than not, those overly intense runs only cause injury.

Once you're injured...well, you know the story. You inevitably have to stop running for a while which kills any progress you were making, getting back into running is harder and more frustrating than ever, and people often end up quitting altogether.

So, my advice to you is this. It's not worth it! One awesome run isn't going to change the overall outcome of your running progression! You don't have to crank through back-to-back runs when you're feeling like death! It is far better to live to run another day!

If you have the option of running a single 5 mile run or five 1 mile runs, choose five 1 mile runs. When you progress with your running and start training for specific race then you can focus on long runs. But in the beginning, especially if you are overweight or new to running, choose shorter runs that you can be more consistent with.

Another thing to note is that even if you are running shorter distances consistently, you still may be prone to getting injured. It's super important to recover properly so that you can stay healthy and stay consistent. To learn more about recovering from runs, read this article!

Ok, I know this was a tough section to digest, but the take-away is this...extremes don't work, especially early on in your running journey. Choose to be consistent with lower intensity workouts until you feel like you've built a strong aerobic base (remember, if you're just starting to run this may take years), then focus on improving individual areas of your running!

Losing weight isn't easy. I know because I've struggled with maintaining a healthy weight my whole life. But if you want to make running a part of your weight loss journey I hope that this article helps you along the way!

Where are you at with your running journey?

Are you just starting out? Gathering the courage to run your first mile? Maybe you're on the way to running your 10th Marathon?!

Leave a comment below so we can remind ourselves that we're in this thing together!

I've got a bunch of other articles written for beginner and overweight runners, just click the links to check them out! Also, please share these articles if you know anyone who might benefit from reading them!

As always, thanks for reading!


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