A Runner’s Guide to Weight Loss

by Molly Hurford
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A Runner’s Guide to Weight Loss

Whether you’re a runner who wants to drop a few pounds or a nonrunner who wants to pick up running to shed some weight, running to lose weight can be tricky. The main contribution to this conundrum is that running expends energy, and we need to eat to stay energized — but how much we eat is the difference between weight gain, loss or maintenance and performance.

There’s a fine line between losing weight and losing performance. Think of weight loss like tackling an ultramarathon. It’s not a sprint. Expect results, but expect them to be slow and steady instead of dramatic. With that in mind, there are a few ways to bust through a weight-loss plateau if you’re already putting in the miles but not shedding the pounds.

DECIDE YOUR GOAL WEIGHT

Make your plan specific. Know exactly what your goal weight should be, so you know what you’re working with. Expand beyond your overall weight to also include goal body fat and some simple body measurements to keep you honest (and motivated) on your journey. A tape measure is cheap, and an accurate scale (especially one that measures body fat) can be a big help.

PRIORITIZE YOUR NEED FOR SPEED OR WEIGHT LOSS

If you’re just trying to improve as a runner, and you think losing weight might help, consider switching your focus to improving your run instead of losing weight. Sports nutritionist Matt Fitzgerald, author of the book “The Endurance Diet,” says you can’t focus on both power and weight loss at the same time. If you’re dieting to drop pounds, don’t expect your running to improve during that same period. If you’re focusing on improving your running, you might notice some positive changes in body composition as a happy result.

ADD MILEAGE, BUT SLOWLY

You’re not going to lose 10 pounds in a week by running 26 miles instead of three this Saturday — and even worse, you might get injured. Change your training slowly, either by making your long runs longer or making them harder (more on that in a second). Don’t change too much at once, or you may end up overtrained and sore rather than toned and fit. If you have trouble adding run miles, add walking before and after your run instead.

CLEAN UP YOUR DIET

Most of us don’t suffer from consuming too many calories, but rather from consuming too many empty calories. Before you try to cut calories, Fitzgerald recommends adjusting your diet to eat better than you were by cutting back on cookies, white bread and anything processed. Replace the junk with more fruits, vegetables and lean proteins and see what happens. You’ll likely see good results and feel better just by adding more high-nutrient foods, and you’ll naturally cut calories when you make the switch.

MAKE SURE YOU’RE TAKING IN ENOUGH CALORIES

Often, athletes are chronically underfueling, and that slows their metabolism to a crawl, explains Nanci Guest, the dietitian behind the Canadian Olympic team during the Vancouver Winter Olympics. If that isn’t the case for you (and you’ve tracked what you’re eating so you have that data), then you can cut some calories. But stick to lowering your intake by 500 calories a day, maximum. Don’t cut more than that, or you won’t be able to fuel your training (that’s any cardio: riding or running have similar requirements) properly, according to Nanci Guest, with whom I co-authored the sports nutrition book “Fuel Your Ride.”

ADD HIGH INTENSITY

Study after study has shown high-intensity interval training (HIIT) is a fast way to shed fat. The American College of Sports Medicine says HIIT promotes “loss of abdominal fat and body weight while maintaining muscle mass,” and a study in the Journal of Applied Physiology showed that seven sessions of HIIT over just two weeks induced marked increases in fat burning for moderately active women. Don’t make every run an interval, but add at least one HIIT session per week during your run. If you prefer longer, relaxed runs, consider trying some kind of HIIT class like Crossfit instead.

DON’T SKIMP ON PRE-, POST- OR MID-RUN FOOD

Cut back at dinner if you run in the a.m., or have a lighter lunch if you’re running later, but don’t try to chop calories around your workout for performance and recovery reasons — that’s the biggest mistake Guest sees high-level athletes make. Fasted-state training might make you a better runner, but only if you’re refueling and recovering afterward, Guest explains.

SNEAK IN STRENGTH TRAINING

Cardio alone may not get you to your ideal body weight. Adding some strength training will boost your running abilities while torching fat and building lean muscle. A 2008 study showed that women who added resistance training to a weight loss regimen were able to drop pounds and preserve lean body mass better than those just doing aerobic training or nothing. Just make sure you’re recovering properly and getting healthy proteins after a lift session.

ADD A WALK

If you’re already maxed out on your run capabilities, add an extra mile or two of walking around the neighborhood, or sub one short errand or coffee meetup for a walk. The low intensity will keep your calorie-burning engine revved without taxing your system or making you ravenous.

One last word of wisdom: Avoid fad diets, exercise programs, pills and anything that promises crazy weight loss in days. Again, weight loss is a marathon, not a sprint.


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  • Dan Smullen

    Hey Molly great article, I completely agree it’s not all about workout intensity to lose weight i.e. running 26 miles and feeling that’s the best option to loose weight. Sometimes weight loss is not just about loosing weight and its more about bodycomposition and muscle mass as outlined in this article here http://www.iconhealthclub.ie/body-composition-versus-weightloss/ but at the same time as you addressed diet is a substantial consideration when trying to loose weight. Sometimes we believe that effort equals result but if you are overtraining it might cause an increase in cortisol thus increase our ambition to eat rubbish despite the amount we train or our attempt to get fitter!

  • I appreciate this informative post which you have shared. Thanks.