In an ideal world, it would be easy to lose weight. You'd try a new eating plan, go for a run, and that'd be that. While reality is slightly more complicated, running is still an effective way to lose weight, though how fast you shed those pounds depends on a number of factors.
Weight loss is a matter of simple math. You need to be in a calorie deficit, or consume fewer calories than you burn, in order to see results. The number of calories you burn in a day — also called total energy expenditure — is made up of resting energy expenditure (the calories needed for basic body functions), energy used during digestion, and energy used during physical activity. Running can help increase the calories burned part of the equation, inching you closer to the roughly 3,500-calorie deficit you'd need to create in order to lose one pound of fat. (The rate at which that happens will vary, but it's generally considered safe to lose one to two pounds per week.)
Unfortunately, there's no linear relationship between running and weight loss, because energy expenditure is based on a number of individual factors like age, sex, genetics, activity level, and more. But that doesn't mean running isn't effective for those looking to drop a few pounds. Here's why it's a great workout and how you can optimize your runs to get results.
Why Is Running a Good Workout For Weight Loss?
The best type of workouts are ones you like and that you can stick to on a regular basis. Running is one exercise that requires very little equipment or money to get started. At a minimum, you need a good pair of running shoes, a stretch of road, and a little motivation. But that's just one reason it can be helpful in shifting the number on the scale.
"Pound for pound, running is one of the most efficient forms of exercise that exists," Nate Helming, cofounder of the training community The Run Experience and strength coach for the exercise tracking app Strava, told POPSUGAR. "Unlike, say, cycling where you only have to push on the pedals and can coast easily on downhills, in running, there are zero breaks — uphill, downhill, flats. That's because you not only have to produce positive forces to launch yourself up and off the ground but produce negative forces that catch and support you with every footfall and landing."
John Thornhill, an ACE-certified personal trainer and master trainer at fitness brand Aaptiv, added that "running is an excellent addition to your overall fitness routine because it strengthens your cardiovascular system, and depending on your intensity, running expands both your aerobic and anaerobic capacity."
That said, no matter how many miles you run, if you proceed to refuel afterward with several pumpkin spice doughnuts, you're not likely to reap the benefits. You've probably heard the saying, "You can't outrun a bad diet." It's important to consider both what you eat and how you move when you're trying to lose weight.
How Many Calories Can You Burn Running?
Because everyone's body is different, we expend energy differently. "Calorie burn is dependent upon each individual's intensity, age, and general health. On average, for every 10 minutes of running, you can burn anywhere from 80 to 110 calories," Thornhill told POPSUGAR.
Here's some additional good news: being a beginner may actually help you burn more calories. "The newer you are to something, the less mechanically efficient you are at it, meaning the more you'll be working to run that mile," Helming said.
How Many Times a Week Should I Run to Lose Weight?
If you're new to running, you're not likely to get off the couch and immediately run a 5K. For beginners, Thornhill suggests trying a walk-to-run program to build consistency before you increase the intensity and duration of your runs. (Aaptiv has several audio-based walking, walk-to-run, and race-training programs for all levels.)
As for the frequency of your workouts, "depending on your experience level, running three to four days a week is optimal with recovery days in between," Thornhill explained. "As your running time increases, be sure that you are foam rolling, stretching, recovering, and hydrating adequately."
How Can You Optimize Your Run For Weight Loss?
We're an on-demand generation, used to getting everything immediately or with a push of a button, but remember that healthy, sustainable weight loss is a long game. You'll need to listen to your body and not push it beyond its limits.
"Many people start running because they want to get fit. But often, they aren't fit enough to run without injury or burnout. And there's nothing more discouraging than starting a program only to drop out a few weeks in," Helming said. "The key to any fitness and weight loss goal lies not in any individual exercise or session. It lies in your ability to keep showing up, day after day, week after week, and banking a whole heap of them. It's about building a new lifestyle around healthy habits. But none of this can be built effectively if your Achilles feels like it's going to snap off after every run."
To maximize your runs for weight loss, you'll need to work to prevent injury and mix things up as much as possible to keep your body from going into autopilot. Here are some ways to do just that:
- "Add a set of dynamic exercises into your warmup to raise your body temperature, increase blood flow, activate key muscles, and improve joint range of motion," Helming said. He suggests this 7-minute running warmup.
- Break up your workout by running for 30 seconds, then doing 30 seconds of drills — like high knees, butt kicks, and lateral shuffles — a total of 10 times.
- Add speed intervals or HIIT days. "Think short bursts of high intensity with short recovery periods, repeated consistently," Thornhill explained.
- Run uphill on a treadmill or a hill as a way to grow stronger and run faster.
- Add 10 minutes of postrun mobility exercises to restore range of motion. Recovery is important!
While running can be a great addition to help along your weight-loss journey, remember that it's not a magic bullet. "In my experience, the ticket to long-lasting weight loss and health is centered around building a lifestyle that includes varied physical exercise that both feels good on the body and that you look forward to doing on a regular basis," Helming said, adding that the exercises you do should vary in difficulty.
"Different movements and modes should be explored, but running is a great pillar to center your efforts around. And you should keep doing it each and every week," he said. "While initially, it will require some serious willpower to get started, it can and will become easy and automatic! Complement this approach with good sleep, regular hydration, and fresh, healthy, local food with ingredients your grandmother would recognize, and you'll be well on your way."