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Running For Fat Loss: Optimal vs Possible

Knowing what is possible and striving to be brave shouldn’t make us throw common sense out the window, but often we do. Sometimes we even celebrate it. We celebrate training until we puke, injuries gained in the struggle to get stronger, and how far we can push our bodies. I am not claiming superiority. I am not above being proud of surviving a gash. At the end of the day, this isn’t about doing as I do, it’s about doing as you should. It has been a lesson I have come to understand the hard way.

In my field, we argue a lot. In fact, I can count on one hand the things that the majority of my address book has in common. What is the one trait we do have in common? It is that steady state running is not for everyone, and if done, should be done in the right way just like any other sport. If we took a poll, almost every coach, trainer, and faux authority would agree.

Why Do So Many Flock to Running?

The obvious reasons? Running is free, and technically, anyone can do it. We can all run if we have to and it requires no equipment. For many, it also provides a personal solace and stress relief along with a connection to nature. However, the majority of people start running for weight loss. Poll any marathon line, and being leaner is the purpose of most. Speed, distance, and improving their expertise usually falls to the back of the list, if they are listed at all.

Bad Form

The technical purpose of running is straightforward: move from point A to point B as efficiently as possible. Running is an art; a human mechanical art at that. Think of it in relation to a golf swing. If your arms, hips, wrists, club, and head all fall on the right line, at the right moment…the ball will soar perfectly to its destination. Running is no different. The best (or worst) part about running is that you need to perform this over and over again with no breaks in between to make adjustments. Talk about a sport.

The Running for Fat Loss Argument Loses Steam

Ultimately, my point is not to go into a long rant on the proper mechanics of running. My point is to pose the question, “Why are you running?” Choose your answer below.

1. Weight loss/weight maintenance/fear of gaining weight.

2. You love to run/lifestyle choice.

Most people will have a combination of the two. Regardless of the reasons, I will show you how to do it right, if you are going to do it at all.

Possible Doesn’t Mean Optimal

Could you attach a rope to the front of your car, strap yourself to a harness, and pull it to get to work? Sure, it’s possible you could get there, alive. Is it optimal? No. For most people, running for fat loss makes as much sense as pulling your car to work. Sure it’s possible, but it isn’t optimal. Instead of rambling on with another brilliant analogy, here is a list of the positive and negative things running can bring.


-Personal enjoyment/mental release (for some)
-Decent caloric burn
-Easy to find partners or join groups
-When proficient, it’s a great skill to have
-Better chance of outrunning scary people
-Great for conditioning, increase/lowering of heart rate


-Taxing on the body
-A lot of dedication needed to achieve proper form/function
-Frequent down/recovery time is required
-Time + effort = much less burn than expected
-Near insanity from boredom (for some)

When it comes to fat loss, those certainly aren’t the cons you want to have. Being that fat loss is taxing enough on the body, you should adopt the notion of “less is more” and “effective over flamboyant.”

Conditioning Doesn’t Equal More Caloric Burn

This is going to be a enormous wake up for some of you. The more conditioned you get, the less calories you burn. You burn less in training and in your overall day. Now, conditioning is more valuable than just caloric burn, and we shouldn’t train for the sake of burning calories only. However, most people think that running is going to provide them their best burn bang for their buck, but it doesn’t.

The Rule of Training Adaptation

When you do something repetitively, hopefully, you are increasing your ability or performance. Let’s take a classic game of catch between a child and a parent. In the beginning, the child throws the ball in a very uncontrolled manner. They will over compensate in their movement to catch the ball or they will miss it entirely. Over time and after practicing, the movement becomes less exaggerated. There will be less activity in the throw, in the catch, and less energy expended.

When you first start running, your body is going to react, adjust, hurt, compensate, etc. In the matter of a few weeks, you will fall into an energy pattern. While you can increase distance and terrain, at a point you will flatten in your energy curve. The better you do at gaining in intensity, things that were more difficult before become easier.

Ever played a video game all the way through to the end and then go back to the first level when you were done? It’s a piece of cake, right? Almost effortless? Over time, that is what running (or most any activity) becomes. The difference with running is the impact and strain to the body doesn’t let up. You may be able to take the repetitive pounding better, but repeated pounding it still is.

Another point I want to touch on briefly is that animals and humans, in general, do what we find the easiest. When you do it for a period of time, running (or any one activity) becomes the easy way out. This is why it is necessary to challenge yourself in a variety in movements, training, and progression.

When you look at this as a whole, running leads to less burn as time goes by and causes a high amount wear and tear on your body. For women especially, the research is overwhelming and not in favor of this style of training. Women are plagued with problems from lower body injuries to constant menstruation issues. Most of this can be avoided if the proper steps are taken and the demand on your body was treated with the respect it deserves.

How To Do It Right

Step 1. Understand form and method.

Don’t assume you know how to run, learn how to run. While everyone’s “form” is a unique code, there are fundamentals and techniques you should learn. Here is a excellent article from the Science of Sports blog on running. You aren’t going to find a more comprehensive conversation than this, but if you are too lazy/need less words, let me know and I can write a short article discussing the basics.

Step 2. Training nutrition.

The more intense or straining to your body something is, the more you need to focus on nutritional recovery. For the time being I am not going to cover race nutrition and assume you wouldn’t be stubborn enough to enter a race without properly investigating loading for long term events, right? You wouldn’t be stubborn enough to race while in a deficit, right? (Fine, I will write about that too, later). For any training session, you should take into account the degree of deficit, how long, and how taxing the training is. In this case, if you are running more than four to five hours per week (while in a deficit), I would recommend a more cautious training nutrition schedule.

Running nutrition example:

Can be liquid or solid. For “during” training, nutrition liquid makes the most sense and will be the fastest acting.

.25 x BW = carbohydrates

.10 x BW = protein

.02 x BW = fat

For a person weighing 150 pounds it would look like this.

150 x .25 = 37.5 g Carbohydrates = 150 kcal 150 x .10 = 15 g Protein = 60 kcal 150 x .02 = 3 g Fat = 27 kcal

= 237 kcal total training nutrition

The best thing is to not utilize running as a fat burning exercise, but as an overall caloric increase. Feed during the training if you need and sip on your drink.

Step 3. Strength and recovery program.

Runners often neglect the importance of a lifting program to aid their performance. Recovery programs are almost always neglected by everyone. Incorporating a comprehensive program is critical to your appearance and performance. In general, everyone should have a strength and recovery program in place. That is the beauty of resistance and mobility training, everyone can and should do it. Running, not so much. This is why you will hear me and other coaches guide people toward different exercise methods if possible. We don’t hate running, but we do acknowledge it isn’t for everyone. As trainers, we look for the best risk-to-reward ratio because it is our responsibility to take care of you. Remember this isn’t prejudice.

Step 4. Training breaks count for cardio too.

People assume cardio or endurance work does not require training breaks. They do. I will be writing more about this soon, but a basic schedule to follow is to take at least one day off per week, and every 12 weeks assess your training progress/recovery and take at least a seven day training break.

Remember, fat loss is tough enough without adding more strain than necessary. Crawl before you walk and jog before you run. But when you run, run right.

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