Essential Guide to Running for Weight Loss

Whether you’re a runner who wants to drop a few pounds or a non-runner who wants to pick up running to shed some weight, running to lose weight can be tricky. The main contribution to this conundrum is 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.

THE EXERCISE-WEIGHT LOSS CONNECTION

In the real world, the vast majority of people who lose significant amounts of weight and keep it off are exercisers. The National Weight Control Registry (NWCR) researched a population whose members have all lost at least 30 pounds and kept the weight off at least one year. Ninety percent of these individuals report exercising regularly, and the average member burns more than 2,600 calories a week in workouts.

Many kinds of exercise can be effective for weight loss, but running is among the most effective. In a 2012 study, Paul Williams, of the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, found runners were leaner and lighter than men and women who did equivalent amounts of any other type of exercise. The main reason seems to be that people typically burn more calories per minute when running than they do when swimming, riding a bike or anything else.

Running is a great way to lose weight. Countless women and men have shed excess pounds and kept them off with the aid of this simple form of exercise. Success is not guaranteed, however. A sensible diet is an essential complement to running for weight loss.

Studies involving NWCR members and others have demonstrated that exercisers are much less likely to yo-yo. So unless you are interested only in temporary weight loss, you should change your diet and exercise. There’s another benefit to combining diet changes with exercise when you’re trying to lose weight. When people lose weight through calorie restriction but without exercise, they tend to lose muscle along with body fat. But when they change their diet and exercise, they preserve muscle and lose more fat.

Understanding the most effective ways to run for weight loss before you start helps you avoid common mistakes — and gets you the results you want.

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.

START ON THE RIGHT FOOT

New runners need to remember it’s important to ease into your new program. Increase the challenge level of your workouts gradually to lower injury risk and get the best results. As a high-impact activity, running causes more overuse injuries than other forms of cardio.

Unfortunately, the risk of injury is greatest for heavier men and women who are likely to run specifically for weight loss.

Experts recommend that overweight men and women use these three rules to start a running program on the right foot:

RULE #1: START WITH WALKING OR WALK/RUNS

Compared to running, walking is less stressful on the bones, muscles and joints of the lower extremities, yet it’s stressful enough to stimulate adaptations that make these areas stronger and more resilient. This makes walking a great tool to prepare your body for running.

Your early workouts may consist entirely of walking or a mix of walking and running, depending on how ready your body is for running. As the weeks pass, tip the balance further and further toward running until you are comfortable doing straight runs.

RULE #2: RUN EVERY OTHER DAY

Bones, muscles and joints need time to recover from, and adapt to, the stress of running. For most beginners, one day is not enough time for these tissues to come back stronger. So limit your running to every other day for at least the first several weeks of your program. If you wish to exercise more frequently, do walks or non-impact workouts, such as cycling, between run days.

RULE #3: INCREASE DISTANCE GRADUALLY

You’re not going to lose 10 pounds in a week by running 15 miles instead of 3 this Saturday — 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. The 10% rule is a good guideline for sensible running increases. To practice it, simply avoid increasing your total running distance or time by more than 10% from one week to the next.

4-WEEK PLAN FOR BEGINNER RUNNERS

Here is a four-week example of a sensible way to ease into a running program:

CLEAN UP YOUR DIET

To lose weight, it helps to maintain a daily calorie deficit. In other words, you need to burn more calories than you eat each day. There are two ways to do this: Eat less and move more.

Running helps you maintain a calorie deficit by increasing the number of calories you burn. You can increase your calorie deficit and your rate of weight loss — at least in theory — by eating less. The problem is that running, like other forms of exercise, increases appetite which makes it difficult to eat less — something known as the compensation effect. This is the primary reason exercise often fails to meet people’s expectations for weight loss.

Individual appetite responses to exercise are varied. Working out has little effect on hunger in some people, yet makes others ravenous. There’s not much you can do about it either way. If running increases your appetite, you will probably eat more. What you can do to ensure that the compensation effect doesn’t stop you from reaching your goals is increase the quality of the foods you eat.

Actually, 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, sports nutritionist Matt Fitzgerald, author of the book “The Endurance Diet,” 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.

High-quality foods — foods boasting macronutrients, micronutrients and fiber — are less energy dense and more satiating than low-quality, processed foods, so they fill you up with fewer calories. By increasing your overall diet quality, you can eat enough to satisfy your heightened appetite without putting the brakes on weight loss.

Here are lists of high-quality and low-quality foods, given in rough descending order of quality.

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