Runners take to the sport for a wide array of reasons. Whether you are just looking to get active, to see your city in a new light or to lose weight, no reason is better than another for lacing up your shoes and heading out the door. Of course, you want to choose the best activity for your goals — and if that goal is to lose weight, getting your heart rate up is key. When it comes to losing weight, many wonder: Is running going to be the best form of cardio? According to experts, it isn’t as simple as ‘yes’ or ‘no.’
“The traditional answer is: Whatever you’ll be consistent with,” acknowledges Stephanie Mansour, a nationally recognized health and fitness, CEO of Step It Up With Steph. “So if you’d rather bike than run, then that’ll be better. However, scientifically speaking, any form of cardio that will get your heart rate up and that you can alter (by speed, level or length of time) will be the best cardio for weight loss.”
While the answer isn’t quite so clear cut, there are some common things we get wrong about running for weight loss that keep us at a plateau. Here’s everything you need to know to make sure you get the most out of your cardio work and can run your way to your goal weight.
THE KEY TO RUNNING FOR WEIGHT LOSS
When it comes to losing weight, the first few pounds are always the easiest. After that, it is common to hit a plateau. This often leads to frustration, but acknowledging you probably won’t hit your goal weight in just a few weeks is an important step. In fact, it may be the most important step and helps you approach the process in a healthy and sustainable way.
“The biggest mistake is to rush for immediate gratification,” admits Chris Hinshaw, top endurance coach and founder of aerobiccapacity.com. “People assume higher intensity is the fastest approach to hitting their weight-loss goal. This isn’t a sustainable strategy because it inevitably leads to injury and loss of motivation.”
If you are starting to run as a means to lose weight, Hinshaw recommends easy-to-moderate intensity. Not only will this build your cardiorespiratory fitness, but he says it prepares your bones, ligaments and tendons for the long-term effects of your lifestyle change. Of course, we must also recognize every body is different, so it is ideal to work with a trainer or coach to find what works best for you. If you aren’t seeing the results you are hoping for, make sure you try a specific regimen for a few weeks before moving on.
“Some people are too stressed out and have elevated cortisol levels, so a really intense workout will just increase their cortisol and stress levels and — in some cases — prevent them from losing weight,” shares Mansour. “Other people have slower metabolisms so they need to eat more to lose weight. Weight loss definitely varies person to person.”
WHAT TO DO IF YOU’VE HIT A PLATEAU
Mansour adds that the reason we hit a plateau is because it is easy for our body to get used to doing the same thing over and over. Because of this, the body stops changing as the muscles no longer have to adjust to the routine. This is where it can be argued that traditional distance running may not be the best cardio option for people looking to lose weight. However, this doesn’t mean running in general won’t suffice; you just have to approach it the right way.
“Training programs, as well as run workouts, must include different strategies to enable continuous improvement,” notes Hinshaw. “As an example, performing the same 30-minute treadmill workout will eventually offer little value because your body has adapted to the stimulus. It is important to remember that our bodies will eventually adapt to a training stimulus (assuming good nutrition and sufficient recovery).”
Just as you would vary your workouts to prepare for multiple terrains and conditions, you should be doing the same if you are running for weight loss. Mansour says to add intervals, uphill walking, strength-training bursts, and even turn to high-intensity interval training (HIIT) once you’ve built a strong base of fitness. Running the same distance at the same pace day after day won’t get you the long-term results you are looking for, but keeping your body guessing with speed work and interval training can.
TWO WORKOUTS TO TRY
Hinshaw recommends runners perform a combination of two types of run workouts. The intensity of these workouts will vary as your cardiovascular fitness increases, but they will help you maximize your training.
- Run at a moderate intensity (55–70% of max heart rate): The body is more efficient at burning fat at this intensity. As an example, running at a moderate intensity (versus hard intensity) burns roughly 20% more fat in a 30-minute workout.
- Run at a hard or high intensity (70–90% of max heart rate): This intensity burns more overall calories. As an example, running at a hard intensity (versus moderate intensity) burns roughly 30% more calories in a 30-minute workout. However, these hard workouts also create an oxygen debt known as excess post-exercise oxygen consumption resulting in an increased “fat-burning” metabolic boost for hours after the workout.
Hinshaw stresses the importance of post-workout nutrition when finishing these runs. If you are running for weight loss you should not be neglecting carbohydrates (often the first thing to be restricted during a diet). “In addition to protein, your muscles need 2–3 servings (40–50 grams) of carbohydrates post-run to replenish your lost glycogen stores and help recovery,” he concludes.