Can running help with weight loss?
As always there’s a simple answer, followed by a complex one.
The simple answer is – yes. Running can help with weight loss. I’m testament to that.
If you’ve read any of my previous posts, you’ll know the complex answer will follow.
A lifestyle change in the mid noughties saw me balloon to my heaviest ever weight. It was the perfect storm of too much food, beer and age, coupled with an absence of exercise. I was also a keen smoker, to add to an all-round appalling bill of health.
A friend recently pointed out that I had a “football head” back then. Based on this rare photo of me from the time, it’s hard to argue otherwise.
It had to change
There was no epiphany. I wasn’t exactly close to death. To be honest, I don’t even remember feeling unhealthy. Quite boringly, I realised that I was too fat. And I wasn’t happy about it.
Then my brother (the talent behind itsgoingon photography), entered the Bath Half. Before I could stop the words leaving my face, I announced that I’d join him. In another instance of unstoppableness (what?), I went ahead and actually entered the race.
I didn’t realise it at the time, but in that moment I became a runner.
Run Fat Boy, Run
In what’s best described as step one, my weight loss journey began.
That first step was hard, in so many ways. My body wobbled as I plodded along the pavement. Belly straining against an ill-fitting t-shirt. Loose shorts billowing ridiculously around my legs. My not-running trainers seemed designed to inflict blisters on anyone foolish enough to run in them.
Lumbering through leafy streets, I remember feeling fraudulent. Everyone must be laughing at this tubby joker, I thought. The Bath Half felt painfully out of reach.
But, with odds stacked against me, I persevered. I bought proper gear – sized for the runner I wished to be. And I subjected my feet to gait analysis, before being relieved of more money than I’d ever spent on footwear.
I continued running without knowing what to do. There was no theory to my training. Running was enough, I assumed. I knew nothing of cadence or cross-training. I wouldn’t have believed that yoga would help. And I would have laughed at the idea of torturing myself with a foam roller.
Importantly though, it was working. My football head deflated (more positive than it sounds). As did my belly. Crucially, and despite ditching the cigarettes, I was losing weight.
More than running
As much as I’d like to believe otherwise, running couldn’t take all the credit.
Weight loss depends on a delicate balance of diet and exercise. And that balance shifts as we progress through our weight loss journey. Moving from a sedentary lifestyle to a more active one means we’ll burn more calories. Plus, muscles require more energy (calories) than fat does. Anyone who’s taken up running will confirm that your legs quickly develop muscle. Bingo, you’re already churning through that excess fat.
But we’re often quick to overestimate how many calories we burn through running. The temptation, I’ve discovered, is to over-compensate. This way, it’s easy to gain weight, even as you up the miles.
Moderating your calorific intake is as important as burning the calories in the first place. Equally important is your choice of fuel – runners cannot live by bread alone.
Big bowls of pasta for every meal does not a slim runner make. Balance matters. Protein for your muscles, fibre to help absorb sugar (not refined) and carbohydrates for energy. This handy NHS guide offers some sound advice.
While it’s not for everyone, a food tracking app, coupled with a step counter, can make the journey a little easier. For a few years, I strapped a fitbit to my wrist and logged meals on MyFitnessPal. It was a labour of love. Logging all your calories is tedious. But it’s the tedium that makes it so effective. Not only are you acutely aware of everything you eat and drink, sometimes you’ll avoid that extra snack, just so you don’t have to log it. It works, really.
Heart rate zones
I don’t want to be the bearer of bad news (although, it wouldn’t the be the first time), but running isn’t the most efficient way to burn fat.
You might be familiar with heart rate zones. Ranging from resting to maximum, we can optimise exercise by training within certain zones. This post from Polar offers a good, simple explanation. In brief, heart rate determines the intensity of your training. In turn, intensity determines how your body fuels that training.
We’re an incredible being, able to draw from various reserves of energy, from body fat to the glycogen we store in our muscles. The more we train in certain zones, the better the body adapts to using different energy sources. We dip into fat reserves at a modest 60% to 70% of our maximum heart rate. For me, that’s around 150 bpm or, typically, the first mile of a moderately paced run.
This means that, while you might burn plenty of calories, you don’t necessarily burn fat. It’s said that runners typically take their slow runs too fast and fast runs too slow (this particular Ordinary Runner is definitely guilty of that). If weight loss is your motivation, then slow those slow runs down. Not only will that burn more fat, it’ll also help keep injuries at bay.
So, what can you do about it? Well, the good news is that running is still a good way to lose weight. However, the most effective way to burn that belly is to add other types of exercise to your regime.
Serious cyclists may disagree. But for the less enthusiastic among us, cycling is usually done at a much lower heart rate. With relatively little effort, you can stay in the fat burning zone for a decent amount of time. Clearly if you’re out to push the pace or tackle tough hills, your heart rate will soar. But with steady peddling, you can get your heart pumping and the fat burning for as long as you like.
Another fantastic sport for weight loss. Low impact and combining cardio and strength, it might be the ideal running companion. Again, it’s possible to maintain your fat burning heart rate for a decent stretch, with water resistance adding all over tone to your workout.
Since I lost my football head my weight has been up and down, although never quite back to my pre-running days. As I write, I’m trying to work off my ‘lockdown belly’. This time I’ve added core work to my running. Having planked every day throughout July, I’ve kept up my daily efforts into August. What’s more, I’ve included press ups and squats for good measure. There’s no real impact on the scales (yet), but I can see my waist reducing and the beginnings of some tone to my torso. I hesitate to mention abs because, as a forty-something with a taste for craft ale, abs are hard to come by. But those planks are definitely doing something, so I’ll keep going. Besides, perhaps the abs are there, hidden somewhere beneath my comfort layer.
Weight loss suffers a diminishing return. At first the pounds can fall like autumn leaves. Ambitious targets seem easy to achieve, but that initial progress can stutter and stop – not (necessarily) through any fault of your own. It’s normal that, as you approach your preferred size, the weight becomes more reluctant to shift.
If that’s you, don’t lose hope. Through varied exercise, a balanced diet and stubborn determination, you can lose weight and keep it lost. Beyond running, it’s possible you’re fighting a lifetime of habits and behaviours that are hard to break. I love food and enjoy a drink. Despite myself, I find it easy to over-indulge in both. No matter how much I run, that over-indulgence will keep the extra pounds hanging around my waist.
But weight loss isn’t the be all and end all. Of course it’s good to shed some excess belly. But, if you’re running, weight loss or not, you’re going to benefit, so keep running – just, maybe, slow down occasionally.
Header image by Yunmai on Unsplash