Running Wasn't Helping Me Lose Weight Until I Started Doing These 4 Things

I started running to lose weight, but when I hopped on the scale, I was actually gaining. And no, it wasn't from the muscles in my legs and butt. I realized that exercise alone was an ineffective way to lose weight, and that I needed to tweak my diet and my workouts in order to maximize my results. If you're running to lose weight, experts agree — make sure you do these four things.

I Ate in a Healthy Calorie Deficit
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I Ate in a Healthy Calorie Deficit

When I first started running, it increased my hunger so much, and I wasn't expecting that! But I assumed it meant my body needed to refuel, and I took that as a green light to eat whatever I wanted (like 800-calorie post-workout smoothies!). "Just because you're running now doesn't mean you want to increase your caloric intake or eat crap," said US Olympic level boxing coach Cary Williams, who's CEO of Boxing and Barbells. If you put back in all the calories you just burned, you won't lose weight, said Stephanie Ferrari, RD, a registered dietitian with Fresh Communications. I actually ended up gaining weight because I was eating so much, and no, it wasn't muscle.

When I started keeping track of my calorie intake and used 16:8 intermittent fasting (eating from noon until 8 p.m.) to help me stay in a moderate calorie deficit, that's when I noticed results. I also made a point to focus on protein, carbs, and healthy fats during meals to feel satiated, especially for dinner the night before my early morning runs.

"The bottom line in achieving weight loss is that you need to burn more calories than you take in," explained ACE-certified personal trainer Sabrina Correia of My House Fitness. Eating plenty of fruits, vegetables, and other good carbohydrates like whole grains, sweet potatoes, and legumes, as well as lean protein, should be the cornerstone of a good diet, registered dietitian Maddie Kinzly, MS, RDN, LD told POPSUGAR. She added that if you eat a diet high in sugar and refined carbs, it may require a lot more exercise to achieve weight-loss goals. And if you exceed your daily calorie needs each day (based on your gender, age, weight, height, and activity level), Ferrari warns that you may never be able to exercise enough to lose weight.

I Mixed Up the Route
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I Mixed Up the Route

Running on the road in my neighborhood was a great start, but my body quickly acclimated to the flat, even surface and my consistent pace. When I moved my runs into the woods, the uneven terrain, hills, curves, and logs and rocks to leap over forced my previously steady-state runs to be more challenging.

For weight loss, "adding sprinting intervals and hills are great for several reasons," Correia said. A varied running workout usually keeps people more interested and engaged. She added that they also activate different muscles, which prevents overuse injury from running on a flat road or treadmill all the time.

But the most effective reason to add sprints and hills to workouts is because you can accomplish similar results in less time, NASM-certified trainer Jared Hamilton explained. If you don't have time to go walk or jog on the treadmill for 45 to 60 minutes, you can do a 10- to 20-minute HIIT-style run and still make progress. Correia said just make sure your sprinting pace is much faster than your regular jogging pace, with an appropriate rest period.

Switching things up is key for making your runs effective for weight loss. "Your body burns the most calories the first time you perform a new exercise. As you become more proficient at the movement, your body expends less energy in the process," explained NASM-certified personal trainer Dani Singer with Fit2Go. With that in mind, try changing something about your running workout each month to keep your body guessing.

I Ran More Often
Getty | Guido Mieth

I Ran More Often

When I started out, I eased into two runs a week, and they were about 20 minutes long. It was better than not running at all, but it wasn't enough to burn fat. That's because my 20-minute runs, which were about two miles, only burned 180 calories.

When I increased my runs, by going three to five times a week, and upping the length to 30- to 45-minute runs, I not only lost weight, but I gained more muscle and changed my body composition.

"You want to make sure you start with at least three days a week of running," Williams suggested. Maybe you can only go half a mile, or you need to stop and walk a lot — that's OK! "Get your mind and body used to being consistent. When you start to create that habit and stay on a schedule, it will become easier to throw those shoes on and hit the pavement."

Exercising more than four or five times a week doesn't necessarily mean it's better. "Too many people go to the gym or work out every single day, but that's not realistic, and they get burned out," Hamilton said. He recommended to aim for what you can maintain for the long haul, doing three workouts a week, and staying consistent with that.

And as Singer mentioned earlier, be sure you mix up those workouts, even if you're only going three times a week. It's important to keep challenging yourself once workouts get easy. Maybe add in short sprinting intervals, or try running five minutes longer, or increase your overall distance by half a mile.

I Started Building Some Muscle
Getty | mihailomilovanovic

I Started Building Some Muscle

After reading so much about how strength training is necessary for losing fat, I joined a CrossFit box. Combining strength training with running was the real sweet spot, not only for weight-loss results and improved body composition, but it also boosted my confidence, both workouts complemented the other, and I just felt overall stronger.

Although strength training is not necessarily going to burn more calories than running for the same amount of time, Correia explained, it will improve your overall fitness level. And because having more muscle mass burns more calories at rest than fat, strength training will allow you to see faster weight-loss results.

"Running can put some wear and tear on your body, so it's important to keep your muscles strong around your skeletal system," Williams added. You'll feel less pain in your joints, which will allow you to run longer and harder.

Since strength training will make you gain muscle, keep in mind that on the scale, that may mean the numbers don't move, or they may actually increase. It's all good. You're still losing fat, so focus on other nonscale methods of measuring your progress, like how your clothes fit, taking progress pictures or taking body measurements.