Can running lead to weight loss? Along with a healthy diet, absolutely. How much weight can you lose by running? Well, that's a little more complicated. There are only so many factors you can reliably calculate; even equations and calorie-counting fitness watches can be a little off. Plus, every body is different. A running routine might lead to weight loss for one person and nothing but frustration for another, and there's no way to know how it'll work for you until you try. That being said, a few key rules of thumb can help you figure out what kind of weight loss you can expect from a running plan and how to maximize that to its fullest potential.
How Much Weight Can I Lose by Running?
"If you run to lose weight, you need to figure out how many calories you burn per mile you run," said Jorianne Numbers, MS, an exercise physiologist at Northwestern Medicine. You can get a rough idea of that by using a fitness tracker that takes into account your height, weight, age, and other physical factors. You'll also have to calculate how many calories you're consuming through food. When all of that comes together, Numbers explained, you'll need to be in a 3,500-calorie weekly deficit in order to burn one pound of body fat, or a 500-calorie daily deficit, which sounds less scary. The amount of calories you burn per mile, she added, depends on age, metabolism, weight, and your current fitness level, along with the pace and incline of your run.
In a more general sense, if you combine running with a healthy diet, "there's really no limit" to the amount of weight you can lose, according to Michael Fredericson, MD, professor and director of physical medicine and sports medicine at Stanford University. "The key is combining the running with diet changes. That combination can be really powerful," he told POPSUGAR. Besides aiming for a slight calorie deficit, those dietary changes can include eating fewer processed foods and drinks, which a study has shown can lead to weight gain. Meanwhile, aim to eat more healthier whole foods, such as fruits and vegetables, filling healthy fats like avocados and nuts, and lean protein like legumes and chicken. As for carbs, opt for whole grain options. (Here are some effective whole grains to try.)
Not all runs are created equal, however. "Obviously the greater the distance or intensity of your run, the quicker you will see results," Numbers said. "A more intense run will allow you to burn more calories." You shouldn't be running sprints day after day, though; mixing it up is important for both weight loss and injury prevention, Fredericson said. "You don't want to just go out and do the same run every day. You want to keep challenging your system and doing more high-intensity or demanding activities for a while," he told POPSUGAR. Along with your steady-state, longer-distance runs, Fredericson recommended doing hill workouts, speed work, or interval sessions to keep up with your weight-loss goals. Space out two to four of these HIIT-style workouts throughout the week.
High-intensity runs will also help you overcome the dreaded weight-loss plateau, Fredericson said. "As you run more, you get in better shape. And the better shape you get in, the less energy you burn," he told POPSUGAR. "If you're trying to lose weight, then it won't be as effective over time." Numbers also recommended cross-training as a way to keep your body on its toes (so to speak) and burning calories. Try a strength training session, an interval swim workout, a power yoga flow, or cycling. Whatever kind of cross-training you choose, make sure it's something you'll enjoy and will stick with consistently.
And though running can burn big chunks of calories, especially from fat, it's of course still crucial to incorporate a healthy diet. That means, for weight loss, lots of fruits and veggies (half of your plate at each meal, ideally), lean protein sources like chicken and fish, whole grain starches like brown rice and whole wheat bread, and low-fat dairy. Between running, cross-training, and eating well with a slight calorie deficit, you'll be giving yourself the best shot at weight-loss success.