People often think of running and weight loss together, since running is a form of cardio exercise that burns calories. However, running does not always result in weight loss. If that is your only goal, running may not be your answer.
With that in mind, we asked expert nutritionists and our own running coaches your most common questions about running and weight loss, so that you can make healthy decisions.
FAQ: Will running help you lose weight?
While running may help you lose weight, everyone’s body is so different that it is hard to predict results. If your goal is weight loss, you should consult with health professionals before choosing a course of action.
Heidi Strickler, a Registered Sports Dietician, says that weight loss depends on many factors. Those include your running practice, nutrition, gender, hormonal health, and even the time of year.
“In my experience, individuals who are running with a goal of weight loss oftentimes become frustrated and mentally/emotionally burned out, and frequently end up with health issues when running is paired with caloric restriction, such as hormone disruption, poor bone health, and disordered eating patterns.”
Similarly, Dawn Lundin, Registered Dietician, advises, “I encourage people to think about running (and other forms of physical activity) separate from changing your body shape, size or weight. You should run because you love it, not because you want to change a number on the scale.”
Setting goals around your running is important, but weight loss may not be the right goal for you. If Coach Julia Lerner’s athletes are interested in setting a personal record or achieving a new race distance, she advises against making weight loss an additional goal. “Focus on eating enough to properly fuel your body to have great training sessions and race performance. You’ll be amazed what your body can do!”
At Team RunRun, our coaches help you map out a running plan that incorporates a healthy, full-body approach to include your nutrition. Our main goal is to help you fall in love with running, and to train with running in a healthy way!
FAQ: What tips do you have about running to lose weight?
If you choose to focus on losing weight as one of your fitness goals, running can help, but only if it is paired with a nutrition plan and consistent training.
Dawn cautions, “If your only motivation to run is to lose weight, then you may find that your expectations (losing weight) doesn’t match reality. If runners want to change their body composition and/or lose weight, there is a specific time during their training cycle where it would be recommended. Creating too much of a calorie deficit while training puts the runner at an increased risk for developing injuries.”
When her runners are interested in weight loss, Coach Rez Nguyen recommends they pay attention to what they eat in addition to hydration, sleep, and stress. Coach Jamie Ness reminds his athletes that fitness is a journey. “Running can’t be treated like a fat-burning tool only. You must consider the stress placed on your body and allow adequate recovery. Given enough time you will be amazed at what you can do, but it does require time.”
At the end of the day, Heidi cautions that weight loss has much more to do with nutrition and genetics than exercise. She advises, “If you are interested in weight loss, any body composition change, or are starting a new exercise program, I ALWAYS recommend working with a Registered Sports Dietitian who specializes in runners.”
FAQ: How much running burns 500 calories?
There is no simple formula to calculate how many calories are burned by running. Much of the formula is determined by your genetic makeup. In fact, even your fancy calorie-tracking apps may be getting it wrong!
Dietitian Dawn Lundlin explains it as:
“Generally speaking, you can estimate to burn 100 calories per mile you run. This would mean that a 5 mile run would burn approximately 500 calories. Please keep in mind that this number is a rough estimate, and calories burned while running are usually lower for people in smaller bodies and higher for those in larger bodies. The amount of calories that a person will burn is dependent on your age, gender, body composition (think fat mass versus muscle mass), type of run you are completing and your genetics.”
Meanwhile, Heidi Strickler admits a health-professional secret:
“We really don’t know, to be perfectly honest. We have always known this is complicated, but some recent research suggests that it’s more complicated than we thought, because it appears the body compensates at a certain point, as a protective mechanism. For example, if your watch says that you burned 500 calories on an hour-long run, you may have actually only burned 400 (hypothetically speaking). This is why so many of the fitness and nutrition trackers (e.g. MyFitness Pal) are faulty, and why running for weight loss can be problematic.”
FAQ: Will running burn fat?
Yes, running burns fat, but not always the way you think it will. Your body generally burns both fat and carbohydrates when running. Depending on your run – and, of course, your genetics as well as other factors – your body will burn through both types of fuel.
Dawn Lundlin illustrates it this way: “Let’s say someone has the ability to store 400 grams of carbohydrate as glycogen in your muscle and liver. This is roughly 1600 calories of carbohydrate. If you are running a marathon or ultra marathon, you will definitely use up your body’s glycogen stores during your run and start to burn fat if you do not consume any carbohydrates. If your glycogen stores aren’t topped off, then you may start to burn fat sooner.”
Heidi Strickler adds, “Some people burn fat more easily than others, and people with periods burn more fat in the second half of the menstrual cycle (between ovulation and your period). There is also a misconception that the fat you are burning is coming from your stomach or hips or other places where you can visibly see fat. However, much of the fat you burn comes from the fat stores in your muscles (called intramuscular triglycerides, or IMTG).”
Coach Tom Scott adds that new runners will burn less fat than well-trained athletes, so you have to adjust your expectations based on your personal fitness.
At the end of the day, running requires a lot of calories, and if you train regularly, you will probably end up burning both fat and carbohydrates in your body.
FAQ: Will running make you skinny?
This question implies that you want to become “skinny” – which has a lot of implications. “Skinny” is very subjective, so it isn’t a helpful goal. While running regularly may change your body composition by building muscles you don’t already have, there is no guarantee that it will make you look any specific way.
“Your body’s shape and size is dependent on more factors than your weekly mileage. Your genetics have a big role in your body size,” says Dawn Lundin. “Remember that being skinny doesn’t guarantee you will be running your best. Running a hilly course like the Boston marathon requires strong quads and glutes. When muscles build strength, they grow. I know strong runners of all body shapes and sizes. I encourage you to appreciate your body’s uniqueness and what it can do for you versus what it looks like.”
At Team RunRun, we support all body types. Coach Tom recommends readjusting your focus to improving your overall health and happiness. When you run because you love running, you can build a healthy lifestyle that empowers you in every aspect of your life.
FAQ: Can running build muscle?
Yes, running can build muscle as long as you are paying attention to your nutrition, too!
Since running requires a lot of effort from your muscles, if you feed them with the appropriate fuel, you can end up building muscle.
“If you are not meeting your body’s calorie needs, then your body could potentially break down muscle mass to meet your body’s nutritional needs,” Dawn Lundlin advises. “Protein needs are important for muscle growth, but you also need to be sure you are consuming enough carbohydrates so that protein can be used to build and repair muscle.”
Giving your muscles a period of recovery after a run is important for building muscle, too. Coach Jamie says, “If your muscles are allowed to rest, recover and provided good nutrition, it can certainly build muscle.”
Meanwhile, it is important to remember that running mostly builds muscles in your legs. Dawn recommends that you add complete core and upper body exercises to build muscles throughout your body.
With that in mind, if you have specific goals around building muscles, a running coach can help build you a custom training plan that targets those muscles while avoiding injury.
FAQ: What tips do you have for runners who *don’t* want to lose weight?
Since running does burn a lot of calories, sometimes you need to make an effort to keep yourself at a healthy weight. Again, the answer is in paying attention to your nutrition. “When in doubt, eat. Eat often; aat enough; eat foods that you like and that taste good,” says dietitian Heidi Strickler.
Keep in mind that as you increase your running mileage, you will burn more calories. That means you need to eat more to keep from going into a calorie deficit. Coach Tom advises, “If you are fueling adequately your body will naturally find a healthy weight range and stick to it pretty closely. If you are losing too much weight you need to fuel more!”
In addition, you’ll want to pay attention to when you eat. Says Dawn Lundin, “Nutrient timing is fuel before, during and after your run. If you’re not able to maintain your weight by honoring your body’s hunger and fullness cues, it may be helpful to work with a sports dietitian on nutrient timing.”
Running and weight loss are often interdependent, but one does not necessarily lead to the other. When considering your body and fitness goals, we encourage you to consult with health professionals. Above all, make sure your training plan supports your body in a positive way.