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Running For Fat Loss: Optimal vs Possible

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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.

Pros:

-Personal enjoyment/mental release (for some)
-Decent caloric burn
-Free
-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

Cons:

-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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37 comments

  1. Kris
    April 29, 2010 at 2:52 am

    Killer post. Video game reference made my brain click. I know I am lazy but I would like a cliffs note version of running form.

  2. Alice
    April 29, 2010 at 3:16 am

    Top post Leigh. I have been waiting for something like this, I am one of those people that started running for fat loss, but it has caused me to have some problems (obviously). Thanks for the link, I will read that tomorrow, but agree with Kris and would love a cliffs note.

  3. David (Fat Loss Guy)
    April 29, 2010 at 3:41 am

    Very informative, learn something new from your long post. i use to run everyday as exercise to let myself sweat a bit after long day sitting in office, but i personnaly think that running is not very effective exercise to lose body weight.

  4. Gráinne
    April 29, 2010 at 4:29 am

    Balanced and brilliant. I wish I had read it before I started running and broke my bones! I still plan on building up to running a bit again…but it’s no longer my main form of training. It’s more for the fun of it now. I’ve realised I can get better results in less time by doing other things. Cursed with lousy biomechanics!

  5. Barak
    April 29, 2010 at 4:55 am

    Is this true for all cardio types? What about cycling – any major differences?

  6. Erin Elberson
    April 29, 2010 at 4:58 am

    Thank you Leigh! I do not run unless I am being chased, and this is a great resource to refer people to.

  7. Kath
    April 29, 2010 at 6:08 am

    I got into running about 3 years ago after developing a base fitness through aerobics, spinning and weight training.

    As you mentioned running is great because it is free, you can just run straight our your front door without travelling and it is good for stress release.

    Another reason I like running is that you can easily track your progress and achieve goals. For example, I used to not be able to run around the block. My first non-stop run around the block was a great feeling of accomplishment as was my first 5km run, 10km run etc. I think achieving these goals is fantastic for your self esteem and future motivation to keep up a regular exercise routine.

    Entering fun runs (however slow you are) is great motivation and the camaraderie at these events is priceless.

    I agree that running is not for everyone, and I do like to still alternate running with weight training and other cardio but even for a plodder like me I feel that running has more positive advantages than you alluded to.

    Thanks for the link to the running technique articles….I’m studying them closely!

  8. Tony the Pink Panda
    April 29, 2010 at 7:14 am

    I have never gotten into running, mainly because my knees JUST cannot handle the stress, but this was invaluable information nonetheless. Thanks for yet another amazing knowledge bomb :D.

    • Tamara
      April 29, 2010 at 9:29 am

      Same here, Tony… I just don’t feel like I’m built for running, and it is not comfortable. (Plus I am one of those who finds it mind-numbingly boring!) But the info and perspective is so helpful, nevertheless. Thanks as always, Leigh!

  9. Karen
    April 29, 2010 at 8:16 am

    Here Here with Gráinne! Thanks so much for being a great source of knowledge.

  10. Jim
    April 29, 2010 at 8:23 am

    Great article. I began running with the goal of competing in a half marathon at the end of May (even against your recommendation). For the last six months, I’ve been running about 15 – 20 miles per week. I stopped doing all of my ‘other’ cardio routines. Interestingly enough, I gained 10 pounds over that six month period AND I now have achilles tendonitis that restricts me from running. I’ve rested for a few weeks and I’m re-introducing my previously enjoyed cardio routines. I’m built like a cadillac not a Jaguar, what made me think I should be running?

  11. Todd I. Stark
    April 29, 2010 at 9:53 am

    Superb article on a much needed topic that is rarely addressed adequately in my opinion.

    There are very good reasons why a lot of people are moving away from reliance on gyms and fancy or fad equipment and more toward minimum requirement, self-reliant exercise methods that just do the job well. Running is probably one of the best examples for the reasons you mentioned, plus the fact that it is so easy to control the intensity level with great precision once you are reasonably conditioned just by changing the pace. But many of us struggle with it because it is also particularly subject to repetitive strain problems if you have any prior lower limb injuries, are overweight, have poor shoes or poor form, etc., etc., which is virtually all of us who are not competitive runners.

    There are also I think some good reasons why many fighters rely heavily on “roadwork” which includes and builds upon running in order to keep their weight under control and condition themselves, but there are also good reasons why they usually kept the amount relatively low and don’t do running in huge amounts for its own sake in isolation.

    The question of whether to include running in a training program should be a carefully considered individual decision, and each person hwo decides to include it should approach it carefully and gradually, with an experimental attitude. If you find it isn’t working for you, you can find a good alternative before causing yourself unneccessary pain.

    I use running, but I use it very strategically in short interval bursts and hills between bodyweight exercises and walking because my own experimentation found that this creates the least joint stress overall, much less than slow or moderate jogging. But I had to work up to it experimentally and learn from my mistakes.

    Thanks for this great article, I find it inspires a lot of good questions and thinking.

  12. Sarah
    April 29, 2010 at 9:58 am

    Couldn’t these points be applied to all exercise? No matter what you do – running, walking, cycling, swimming, even weight training if you don’t increase – you’re conditioning and eventually your energy expenditure will go down (unless you continually challenge yourself by increasing speed, time, etc).

    I don’t agree with most of the cons you’ve listed specifically for running. Running may be slightly more taxing on the body, but everything else listed is applicable to other forms of exercise. And most people I know who have exercise-related injuries are weight lifters.

    That said, I love running. I’ve used it as an effective part of my routine (to shed 60 lbs thus far) and I plan to continue to run as long as I can. I appreciate your notes about running right, and incorporating rest and lifting. All good points. And thanks for the Science of Sport link.

    • Jannis
      April 29, 2010 at 1:07 pm

      Hi sarah, I just wanted to say I think you missed the part where Leigh wrote, “Running overtime (or any one activity only)” and a lot of other points she made. She made it very clear it wasn’t just for running but that running is more taxing and it is. Anyone that gets hurt from weight lifting is doing it wrong too but I see people more cautious about weight lifting than running. That is what I think anyway but who am I! 🙂

  13. Debby
    April 29, 2010 at 10:11 am

    Thanks for writing and posting this article Leigh.
    I think my bodytype is built for running, but I already had the opinion that running isn’t good for me. However, I do enjoy running and like using running for HIIT before/during long trail walks and run an occasional 5k.

    Debby

  14. Amy
    April 29, 2010 at 11:04 am

    Love the article, it stated what I expected: Run if you like, but don’t look to it for fat loss.

    I run because I like to run, and I like to push myself. I’m currently in an 8-week running program to increase distance and speed. I’ll be hitting the seven-eight mile mark by the end of the program, and I’m hoping I’ll lop a few minutes off my 10k time. We’re doing hills, tempo runs, 4×400’s and long runs.

    But I am still doing strength training as well, and am being waylaid into participating in a firefighters physical performance assessment, just for fun! Fun? my husband asks…yeah we all have different definitions of fun.

    Anyway, another great post, Leigh. Thanks!

  15. Mellie
    April 29, 2010 at 11:14 am

    The fattest I’ve ever been was when I was training for and ran a marathon. I can’t believe I way almost 30 lb less now, and maybe run twice a week, usually sprints and sometimes up to 20-25 minutes to up my calorie burn.

    What a relief.

  16. Rog Law
    April 29, 2010 at 11:59 am

    Good points all around, Leigh. I tend to get a lot of resistance from runners when I suggest that they cut back on their running volume and give some alternative methods a try. Quite often, they don’t even LIKE running in the first place, but they feel that its the only path towards a lean body. Many of them even keep running in the face of knee, hip and back injuries caused by excessive running volume.

    I’m glad you brought up the point that we don’t try to steer most clients away from running because we think its as wrong as another Pauly Shore movie, but because we care for their overall well-being, and to put them in a situation where they would most likely injure themselves would be irresponsible of us.

  17. Lauren
    April 29, 2010 at 12:16 pm

    Great article. I run most mornings but they are quick – 1.5-2.0 miles or about 15 mins. I usually do one longer run a week. I’m a boxer and I find this helps keeps my legs strong in the ring and keeps my weight in check, so running for me is just a small part of the overall conditioning.

    I can’t imagine doing long runs………soooooooooo boring

  18. Rickard
    April 29, 2010 at 12:47 pm

    Good post Leigh!

    I try to convince my little sister about this. She think running is musclebuilding and the “right” method to get shredded. When I say weights is the way to go she goes “I dont want to get bulky” and so on… I´ve given up. She has to go the hard way and learn from mistakes. Just like I did once 🙂

    /Rickard

  19. Jannis
    April 29, 2010 at 1:10 pm

    Oh great article too Leigh. I like running but I will admit I don’t challenge myself much in it or other training as I used to. I have certainly apdated.

    Also, do you think there is a body fat people should be at before they run?

  20. Daniel
    April 29, 2010 at 2:50 pm

    At the one hand you need to build some conditioning so that you can handle some work load and at the other hand you should not get overconditioned. I understand the logic, but in practice, while doing a workout, how are you going to make sure you’re not getting overconditioned. Is it really that important or is it just being anal? I am not running, but when I go to kickboxing and the coach makes me do high kick for 20 times with one leg, followed with 20 times with the other leg, I get out of breath. It would seem a good thing for me to improve my conditioning.

    • Todd I. Stark
      April 29, 2010 at 3:03 pm

      Daniel, I’m a little hesitant to start a conversation specifically about conditioning since the article is mostly concerned with weight loss, but I do think you make a great point and this article is really very generally useful I think. The trick in my opinion is to do something where the benefits most directly transfer to the activity you care about. The advantage of running for conditioning is that you can vary the intensity from very low to very high with great precision using a heart rate monitor or a little experience with perceived exertion. You then match the pace to the activity. Fighting sports generally involve rounds of several minutes of moderate to very high intensity interspersed with a minute of rest. You match that by doing hard training for several minutes interspersed with brief rests. It doesn’t have to be running, it could (and probably should at least sometimes) be bodyweight drills, resistance drills, and with some consideration for negative transfer, even certain kinds of skill drills. You match the conditioning demands of the sport with the demands of the training as closely as possible. That’s partly because you’re always dealing with tradeoffs between different attributes. Just my thoughts from my own experience.

  21. Leigh Peele
    April 29, 2010 at 6:25 pm

    Great comments thus far. I will respond to later this evening.

  22. kfit500
    April 29, 2010 at 6:37 pm

    Leigh, your running nutrition calculation example came up with 237 kcal. But what type and intensity and length of workout does that provide nutrition for? Does it represent an hour of running? I don’t see any units of time or RPE or calorie burn or any other measure of the work done. Or was that more to demonstrate the ratio of carbs to protein to fat?

    Also, about conditioning. I don’t think that’s such a bad thing. I like being conditioned to do the activities I love. I know I become more efficient and burn less calories–but I can also perform better and that feedback encourages me to keep challenging myself and makes me extremely happy. I would rather be an active conditioned person than an unconditioned couch potato. I think there should be more emphasis on frequently switching things up in your workouts for variety and to constantly add new and interesting forms of exercise to challenge different muscle groups so you don’t get caught in a rut. And that should be across the board for whatever activity is your favorite.

    But I get your point. Running only to lose fat isn’t the best way to do it.

    • Eric Garland
      April 29, 2010 at 7:22 pm

      Leigh stated, “In this case, if you are running more than 4-5 hours a week (while in a deficit) I would recommend a more cautious training nutrition schedule.” That would break down 4-5 60 mins sessions a week or more.

      This article isn’t about training apdaptations yet is what people are focusing on. Leigh is stating (and correct me if I am wrong Leigh) beyond just the apdaptations you have a high amount of physical strain to the body, so there are more optimal training methods while in a deficit.

      • Leigh Peele
        April 29, 2010 at 7:31 pm

        Eric, you are correct in your statements.

        The article is not only about training adaptations. The point of that interjection was to alert people to training adaptations, which I stated affect any one activity repeated.

        I stated, “Overtime that is what running (or most any activity) becomes.

        And,” Running overtime (or any one activity only) becomes the easy way out. This is why it is necessary to challenge yourself in a variety in movements, training, and progression.”

        The important part to note where running is different is this where I stated, ” The difference with running is the impact and strain to the body doesn’t let up.”

        The physical impact of running to the body is different than weight lifting circuits (done correctly), elliptical cardio, stop and go cardio, hill sprints, etc. There are dozens of training methods you can use to switch up the bodies reaction to training and conditioning that provide less “beating up” than running. This is especially true when in a caloric deficit. That is the point.

        Hope that clears up the view more.

  23. Eric Garland
    April 29, 2010 at 7:18 pm

    I love the video game reference as well and this this article does speak to all types of training and field. I think what most people are missing is the importance of the impact of this. They are missing that point big time.

  24. Tony Difilipo
    April 29, 2010 at 9:13 pm

    Leigh,

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

    Just to be sure I didn’t misunderstand this, you are saying that a person who is intent on running for performance should look at during-training nutrition as a chance to augment overall caloric intake to support performance and avoid (or for whatever reason at least minimize in the case of a goal that isn’t purely performance-based) a deficit as opposed to actively avoiding calories around/during runs and ending up in too much of a deficit? Or have I totally butchered the intent of that line?

    On a semi-related aside, what do you think of buckwheat groats eaten like a typical bowl of cereal and using some whey protein as the “milk” as a solid post-training (in this case after some type of endurance training of sufficient duration and intensity to warrant it)? While no particular food is magical, I keep hearing good things about buckwheat, and figured I’d ask since it’s not like we eat buckwheat as a staple food, unless you happen to have an Eastern European grandma who likes to ply you with kasha, that is 🙂

  25. kaylynn40
    April 29, 2010 at 10:29 pm

    Great article, Leigh! Lots of responses….so obviously this is a hot topic. I look forward to hearing more.

  26. Chris
    April 30, 2010 at 9:08 am

    Hi Leigh,

    Great post. I’m going to join your forums this weekend.

    I’m a runner and will be training to run a 1/2 marathon this fall. I’ve been running 10Ks. I’ve run on and off for most of my adult and teenage life. I also play women’s lacrosse so running helps tremendously with that. I train with a track group that is a great social group as well!

    For my body, I find running easier than say some higher impact aerobic activities. Like some of the other posters I also weight train and do yoga.

    Love your dog in all his/her hats!

    Looking forward to hear more thoughts from you about this subject.

  27. Jennifer
    April 30, 2010 at 7:21 pm

    All forms of cardio or excercise need to be done correctly. This is a great post for the runner who is injured and needs permission to stop. Now you can for fat loss.

  28. […] Peel talks about running for weight loss – optimal vs possible. The irony? Now that I have lost most of my weight I find the idea of running for sport very […]

  29. Stefan
    May 18, 2010 at 7:11 am

    I love that post! and i would add: you don`t run to get into shape – you have to be in shape to run…

  30. Leith
    June 14, 2010 at 6:26 am

    I became a single Dad, and porked it up accidentally. I hit a nasty 106kgs before I noticed.
    I began a training program and decided to incorporate running as it was the obvious choice for cardio. I had been a runner since I was 16yo, I am now 33.
    To my horror I could not run anymore as my weight was causing sheer agony on my knees. I began walking up a large hill near my home until I got my weight down enough to lift the strain on my knees.
    I ended up at 75kgs and shredded to a 6 pack.
    I have continued with running and weight training and I now weigh 95kgs, most of which is muscle…. apart from my current “winter coat” which I begin cutting in August in time for Spring.
    What I have noticed is, having gained 20kgs, my weight is once again getting too much on my knees yet this time its muscle not fat.

    I now find myself in the predicament of having to choose between Athletic ability and looking buff. I love running, its my great escape. But I also love the muscle!

    AHHHHH! What to choose, what to choose!!?!?

  31. The Best of 2010 | Leigh Peele
    December 28, 2010 at 8:30 pm

    […] 2. Running For Fat Loss: Optimal vs Possible3. Does Age Hinder Weight Loss And Transformation? […]

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