Many people start running hoping to lose weight. While there might be some weight loss in the beginning, it usually tapers off unless you have a plan. There’s no one formula for dropping weight, but there are some prescriptions for running long or running hard that work well for weight loss, depending on your skill level and experience as a runner.
PLANS FOR BEGINNING RUNNERS
“If a client is interested in losing weight by running, I prescribe building up distance,” says Andy Jones-Wilkins, Carmichael Training Systems (CTS) coach. “I don’t suggest doing a lot of intensity. The longer time on your feet at an aerobic pace, where you can carry on a conversation … That’s what’s going to help you burn fat.”
Start slowly adding more distance and time to your run. That might mean increasing from 30 minutes to 35 or from 65 minutes to 70. Whatever you do, don’t increase your mileage by too much, too soon. That’s a recipe for burnout, injury, fatigue and soreness that can leave you cracked and on the couch — and not dropping weight. If adding more mileage to a run seems impossible, just add an extra 5 minutes of walking to the beginning or to the end of your current runs, and focus on adding more and more time each week at your own comfortable pace.
CROSS TRAIN TO ADD HOURS
If you’re a new athlete who gets out for runs out three times each week, consider adding another workout or two of cross-training to your schedule. You may only be able to do a couple of miles worth running at a time before feeling tired and sore, but you can look to other activities to increase your overall hours and energy expenditures by adding cross-training. Even walking pre- and post-run as an elongated warmup and cooldown can provide extra stimulus to your metabolism, or you can add other sports like cycling to sneak in a couple more hours of training each week. And a 30-minute brisk walk on days when you don’t run helps maintain healthy weight, aiding your weight-loss goals. Remember, you likely still need at least one day off from strenuous activity per week, so don’t skip that for the sake of consistency.
PLANS FOR INTERMEDIATE RUNNERS
“If you’re an experienced runner who’s maybe put on a few pounds as you’ve aged, I’ve had success with fasted-state runs,” says Jones-Wilkins. “That’s when runners are running on an empty stomach. I’ve found that sparks fat burning in the body sooner than it might otherwise.”
Start small, making sure this is possible for you and won’t leave you feeling lightheaded. For a week, just add 15–30 minute brisk walks or light jogs right when you wake up, before eating anything. If that goes OK, make it tougher. “If you have a small dinner the night before, wake up, don’t eat anything and head out on a run for around an hour,” says Jones-Wilkins. “You’re going to spark your fat-burning engine faster than if you had a 100- or 200-calorie breakfast that would give you more energy for the run. It’s challenging, though, because you don’t have easy energy stores to draw on when running fasted. You have to train your body and mind to deal with what it feels like, but it works great for most people.” Don’t worry if you’re walking more than you’re running at first: It can be a tough adjustment.
Kylee Van Horn, a registered dietitian and owner of Fly Nutrition, regularly works with runners and says that while fasted runs may be beneficial, they need to be done correctly. “You should only do fasted runs that are no longer than 60 minutes long and feel easy,” she says. (For most people, about 20–30 minutes of easy, fasted running in the morning is ideal. “Then when you are done, just be sure you have some kind of food within the hour.”
MIX UP YOUR WORKOUTS
If you always do the same thing, it’s easy to plateau. Intermediate runners often end up sticking to a single type of workout — whether it’s steady runs, intense track sessions or long trail runs. To drop weight, though, you need to mix it up. “Metabolically speaking, doing both long and fast separate runs would be the best way to lose weight,” says Van Horn. “Faster workouts rev up the metabolism and keep it elevated for longer after the workout. Long runs put a lot of stress on the body and then the body needs to be in repair mode so the metabolism is up. But make sure your long run is done below 70% of your VO2 max — true endurance pace — since, at that rate, you will most likely be burning more fat as fuel.”
PLANS FOR ADVANCED RUNNERS
“For a more advanced runner, doing hard, fast intervals of 3 minutes or less — say 2–3 minutes at 90% effort with a few minutes of rest in between — will really light a fire for fat burning,” says Jones-Wilkins.
Any interval set starts torching fat, but a common one is 3-minute repeats — and it’s easier than remembering a complicated set. In an hour run, start with a 10-minute warmup, then hit 10 sets of 3-minute hard efforts (around 85–90% max heart rate) with a minute of rest between. Use hills if you have trouble keeping the pace hard, and don’t forget to cool down for at least 10 minutes. You can also combine this with the tip for intermediate runners by increasing your cool down. “One trick I found in that regard is to do 6 sets of 3 minutes hard, then do a long 2–4 mile cool down of relaxed running after,” adds Jones-Wilkins. “That has the same effect of running on an empty stomach, that long cool down.”
A recent study showed functional high-intensity training can be helpful in improving blood glucose levels and insulin sensitivity. How can you incorporate this into your running? Before, during and after easier runs, add short circuits of bodyweight exercises like pushups, air squats, burpees and jumping jacks to rev your metabolism.
An example set could look like five minutes of alternating pushups and air squats, then running easy for 15 minutes, doing five minutes of alternating burpees and walking lunges, running easy for another 15 minutes, then finishing with a 5-minute set of jump squats and mountain climbers.
A PLAN FOR EVERY RUNNER
Nutrition isn’t a workout, but it is an important factor in the weight-loss equation, explains Van Horn. “Eating too little throughout the day and doing an extreme calorie deficit will either cause injury or halt weight loss because the body goes into starvation mode and holds on to what the person has,” says Van Horn. “People also tend to restrict early in the day, then binge eat in the evening due to extreme cravings.”
Cutting calories Around runs is not recommended, but this is a common mistake intermediate runners, especially ones with the goal of dropping weight, tend to make. Make sure your pre-run(s) snacks, in-run fueling and post-run recovery meals include quality carbohydrates, proteins and healthy fats.
Check out more training plans on MapMyRun.