Running for weight loss seems to be the go-to strategy. Sit in any park when Spring hits. You’ll see everyone scurrying around in running attire, sweating their asses off, looking like they hate life.
Is that you? If that’s you, lean in because I’ve got some good information for you. I’m going to answer once and for all whether running for weight loss is effective. I’m going to do that by exploring whether running is good for you at all.
Why people think running for weight loss is effective
If you believe the myth of calories in–calories out, running seems like a perfect activity.
For one, it’s an easy plan to execute. You run around your town every day burning a bunch of those little mini-Satans called calories.
There’s no fancy equipment to mess with and no classes to sign up for. You walk outside and run in a big ass circle. It’s free, it’s painful, it’s outdoors, it must be working.
Pair that with some good old fashioned calorie cutting and you’re going to be hitting weight loss goals in no time.
Not so fast.
There are 7 important factors we need to look at when it comes to deciding whether you should be running for weight loss.
I want you to contemplate these for two reasons:
- Because there’s nothing I hate more than watching people do shit they hate. And there’s an epidemic of that when it comes to running.
- Even if you’re “a runner,” I want you to be aware of the potential downsides. This gives you valuable information you can use to mitigate a lot of the damage, even if you’re still going to run.
Ready? Let’s do it…
#1: Weight is not fat & running isn’t always great for fat loss.
The typical language sounds like this: “I want to lose weight so I’m going to start running.” But losing weight – as we’ve discussed before – is a goal that lacks context.
What you actually want to lose is fat. And what a lot of runners lose – especially avid runners on calorie cutting diets – is lean muscle mass.
Once you put “weight” in context, it becomes clear that’s not what you want to lose.
The reason runners lose muscle and not fat is the combination of a calorie deficit and an increase in cortisol.
Cortisol is a stress hormone that has some side effects. Two of which are storing belly fat and cannibalizing muscle. Chronically elevated cortisol can also lead to insulin resistance, which makes you metabolically “inflexible.”
This becomes even truer if you don’t get enough sleep, don’t rest enough in general, and are under a lot of lifestyle-driven stress. You know, like pretty much everyone in America.
This isn’t to say that all running is bad. The more you run the more you’ll experience the law of diminishing returns.
What’s working against you is the culture of running. The culture seems to suggest that increasing your running distance and frequency is of primary importance. This plays you right into the hands of high-stress, inflammatory outcomes.
#2: You can’t out-run ANTI foods.
There are very popular running programs, such as Couch to 5k, that promote running for weight loss. The problem is that they say nothing about nutrition.
What you’re eating is 80% of the process of achieving a healthy weight.
What we’ve ended up with is a bunch of people running often while still eating all the stuff they used to eat. Worse, they think running by itself is going to take them to the promised land. Even worse than that, they sometimes use running as an excuse to eat things they’d normally try and avoid.
If you’re trying to “eat better,” then this may not apply to you. That’s hard to determine, though. 75% of people think they’re eating healthy but aren’t.
In my experience, most people who are running are also engaging in traditional dieting tactics. Namely, calorie cutting, fat-avoidance, and using “heart healthy” vegetable oils. That’s a recipe for disaster.
Your absolute first step you should be to make sure you’re truly eating healthy for your body.
#3: Running increases inflammation and reduces testosterone.
We talked about the elevated cortisol levels earlier but didn’t really talk about why cortisol levels become chronically elevated with running.
Exercise is an inflammatory activity. In that regard, pretty much all exercise is going to promote cortisol production. This isn’t a bad thing. Cortisol has some important functions in the body and acute cortisol increases are normal.
The issue is that running often falls in the category of being excessive and physically abusive. You’re taking a pounding movement and repeating it thousands of times. Then you wake up and do it again tomorrow.
If you’re a daily runner, when does the body get to rest? When does it get to slow down on the cortisol production? When does it heal?
All of this adds up to one thing: chronic inflammation. Keep in mind that inflammation is a key marker for disease and a key deterrent to fat loss.
Secondary to that, overtraining and long chronic training regimens can significantly reduce testosterone. There’s a great article here on the relationship between overtraining, cortisol, and testosterone that you should look deeper into.
#4: Chronic stress from running can mess with your thyroid.
When it comes to health, happiness, and fat loss, there’s a lot to say for your thyroid. My discussion with Dr. Lo on Rebooted Body Podcast Episode 32 more than alluded to that fact.
If running creates chronic inflammation and a chronic stress response, that means there’s going to be an impact on your thyroid. And that impact can have implications in every corner of your body.
So what does that impact look like? It turns out it can be pretty extensive. The consequences range from low TSH production to the inhibition of T4 to T3 conversion. Excess estrogen is also a possibility.
I recommend you take a few minutes and run through this article by Chris Kresser on stress and hypothyroid symptoms.
#5: Running drives serious hunger.
Losing excess fat, without cannibalizing muscle, can be a difficult process.
If you listen to conventional wisdom, you’re likely to be hungry during that process. This is especially true if you’re avoiding fat and limiting calories.
On a program like Total Body Reboot, this is a non-issue because you’re giving your body exactly what it needs. On traditional approaches, hunger can become a nightmare.
Want to know what burning a lot of calories through inflammatory exercise does? It makes you want to eat. Everything.
This is especially problematic for people who struggle with cravings or emotional eating. Binges from this style of training and dieting are very common.
You may not notice this right away, but as the weeks go by your hunger meter is going to go haywire. This has derailed a countless number of people.
#6: Running is a fantastic way to get injured.
The overall injury rate for non-competitive runners is 37% to 56%. Of those, 50-75% are over-use injuries (also contributed to by poor mechanics — more on that later).
20% to 70% of sustained injuries will occur again in the runner later on, which means this is an ongoing issue.
Age, gender, body mass index, running hills, running on hard surfaces, participation in other sports, time of the year and time of the day are not correlated to the injury rates. That means you can’t escape injury by being younger or running on trails.
In comparison, the injury rate for American Football is significantly lower.
That’s not surprising because injuries in most sports often depend on unplanned events. Things like physical contact, misstepping, turning wrong, etc.
With running, injuries are simply inevitable. The bottom line is that you can’t reach your goals if you’re injured, and running is a very injurious activity.
#7: Running can promote chronic physiological dysfunction.
Finally, we arrive at one of the most compelling arguments that I can make against running. The long-term degradation of the body due to poor mechanics.
Are you a runner? Who taught you how to run? Oh, you think running is something everyone knows how to do? Wrong.
There’s a proper running technique. If you aren’t taught proper technique, you’re subjecting your body to millions of punishing movements over the course of a lifetime.
These movements don’t only degrade your foot mechanics, but everything up the chain from there. Your knees, hips, back, shoulders, and neck. An improper running technique is destructive to every major area.
Even if running were the best exercise for fat loss (it’s not), I’d still argue, but at what cost?
What doesn’t kill you might make you stronger, but what you don’t know might kill you.
There’s a bunch of people running around thinking they’re doing something beneficial. What they’re actually doing is buying a ticket to dependence. Dependence on walkers, wheelchairs, canes, custom orthotics, and surgeons.
Is it worth it?
So, what’s my official stance on running for weight loss?
There’s two camps of people: those who like to run and those who don’t like to run. If you don’t like to run, stop running…immediately. In fact, stop doing shit you hate in general—in all categories.
If you enjoy running, that’s fine. I just want you to be aware of what you’re doing to your body so you can take the proper steps to mitigate the damage. I want you to enjoy your activity without doing yourself harm. And ultimately, I want you to reach your goals.
Perhaps you could consider a few adjustments…
- Consider reducing how much you run. Don’t make it your only activity. Supplement with other things. At the least, include rest days where you walk instead of run. Or, focus on other ways to run sometimes, such as mastering the mile.
- Consider getting a running coach to teach you proper form. This is imperative to make sure you’re reducing the toll on your body and to prevent irreparable harm.
- Consider minimalist shoes or barefoot running. This will help make sure you’re not forced into bad mechanics via modern footwear.
- Consider getting your diet and lifestyle on point. Enroll in a program like Total Body Reboot so you can learn to nourish your body with food, movement, sleep, and other self-care habits.
- Consider limiting running to days where you get 7+ hours of sleep. Match your activity to your sleep patterns. Earn your activity by prioritizing sleep. If you run on poor sleep, you’re stacking major stressors on top of each other. That accelerates the damage.
Seriously, though, let me repeat this: If you don’t enjoy running, stop doing it. Running for weight loss comes with too much downside. You can lose all the body fat you need to lose without running.