What you need to know about running for weight loss, according to an expert
Running is great for your general health and fitness, but can it really aid weight loss? We asked an expert
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Running can do wonders for your physical and mental health, but how effective is running for weight loss? Running style has a big impact, as does how often you do it. We asked an expert to share their insights and the other factors you need to consider when turning to this activity as part of a weight-loss plan.
There's no better feeling than lacing up your running shoes and heading out for some fresh air and a jog around the park. There are few other activities that are easy to squeeze in around a busy lifestyle. Armed with some comfy running shoes (see our best running shoes guide for top picks), it's an affordable sport and requires no fancy equipment or a gym membership, if you're an outdoor runner.
There are endless benefits to running. It's a high-impact activity that gets your heart beating faster and improves cardiovascular health. It can help lower blood pressure, reduce the risk of cardiac disease, build strong bones (increasingly important in fitness for women over 50) and build more muscle. Beyond that, running for weight loss can also be effective in addition to a healthy lifestyle—whether you want to know how to lose a stone or just plan to tone up.
How can running help with weight loss?
A high-impact activity like running can help you lose weight as it increases your heart rate and burns energy (which we often measure as calories). The number of calories you burn will depend on your pace, distance, and body weight. To get a more solid estimate, invest in a workout app or one of the best fitness trackers to help you work out how many calories you burn in every workout.
While running can help you lose weight, it has to accompany an active lifestyle and a healthy diet. It's a cliche in the world of fitness but it’s nevertheless true: you can’t outrun a bad diet. "Weight loss at its most basic is about burning more than you consume, but it’s critical that you give your body the nutrition it needs to perform at its peak, recover quickly, and adapt to your training," says Idalis Velazquez, creator of Beachbody On Demand's online strength and running program 30 Day Breakaway (opens in new tab).
However, there are some steps you can take to kickstart weight loss when running.
When running for weight loss you should:
- Ensure you're in a calorie deficit—use an online calculator or multiply your current body weight by 15 to estimate the calories you need each day. Then subtract 500 from your total to work out a healthy calorie amount that ensures you're in a deficit.
- Fuel your body with a diet rich in protein, carbs, and healthy fats—think chicken, tofu, wholemeal pasta and bread, avocado, eggs, and fermented foods.
- Eat the best superfoods for weight loss—boost your metabolism and swap the snacks you usually eat for foods like nuts and seeds, berries, yogurt, apples, and oats.
- Try different types of running workouts—combining long runs with speed work will help you use more energy and burn more calories while also improving your running technique. You should mix up your routine with other activities too, such as at-home workouts and the best bodyweight exercises to build strength.
The best types of running for weight loss
If you want to burn more calories, it's important to change up your running workout every now and again. "Many people make the mistake of doing the same workout every time. They tackle the same route at the same pace for weeks or even months on end," says Idalis. If your body becomes familiar with the workout, it works less efficiently and therefore uses less energy.
Try to opt for a mix of the following running styles:
- High-intensity interval training—great for time-poor days as it can give you a high-intensity workout that burns lots of calories in a short period of time. You can do HIIT on the road or inside on a treadmill (see our best HIIT treadmill workouts for inspiration). You can also do hill sprints to add a strength element to your training, too. Run hard and fast up a slope for around 20 to 30 seconds. Then, jog slowly or walk back down the hill and repeat multiple times
- Low-intensity training—if you have more time and want to build endurance and burn fat, try low-intensity runs. Your heart rate should stay lower than the rate you reach when doing interval training (around 70% of your max heart rate) and you can keep track of this on a fitness tracker as you workout.
As a caveat, there is no one type of running that's better than another for weight loss. The best type is simply the one you enjoy the most and therefore are more likely to sustain.
Workouts to try alongside running for weight loss
In general, strength training for women is so important as it builds muscle and compacts the natural loss of bone density that occurs as we age. Any running program should involve some basic strength training and conditioning work. This will help you avoid a training plateau halting progress, while also building strength and reducing your risk of injury.
Other exercises to aid weight loss and improve your running technique:
- Weight lifting using dumbells or kettlebells—strength and muscle building
- Resistance band workouts—strength and muscle building
- Bodyweight workouts—strength and muscle building
- Pole dancing—strength and muscle building
- Nordic walking—to improve stamina and overall fitness
- Hiking—to improve stamina and overall fitness
- Yoga for beginners—to help improve flexibility, balance, and core strength
- Pilates for beginners—to help improve flexibility, balance, and core strength
"Studies show including strength training in your running program can enhance just about every aspect of your fitness—including speed, running economy, and time to exhaustion—not to mention reduce your risk of injury and accelerate your fat loss,” says Idalis.
You can also strength train and run on the same day. ”Generally speaking, lifting weights affects running less than running affects lifting, so we always start workouts with strength training. If you find running first works better for you, that’s fine, too."
If you don't have time to lift and run on the same day, you can do the activities on different days. However, Idalis advises making sure you do both each week, breaking up your training schedule with rest days between workouts.
Yoga and pilates will help build core strength and stretch out aching muscles, making them a great option for rest days. While hiking and walking contribute to overall fitness and can be another good option for gentler exercise in between runs.
Kate Carter is an experienced journalist who worked for the Guardian for a decade before going freelance. She writes for the Guardian, Runners World, and World Athletics amongst many other publications, and presents for The Running Channel. She is also a sub three hour marathon runner and an England Athletics coach.