Walk Before You Run for Weight Loss
Friday, December 24, 2010
LifeTime WeightLoss in Exercise, Paul Kriegler, cardio, running

Written by Paul Kriegler, RD, CPT, CISSN

Have you ever tried running to lose weight? How successful was it? Did you truly enjoy your weight-loss process? 

Perhaps you’re like many others who take up running or jogging as a means to an end ‑ only to find out that it didn’t get you to that end! To make matters worse, you may have picked up an injury or illness along the way!

Runner see, runner do?

Many dream of running their way to the physique of the amazing runners we see on TV at the Olympics, but have realized that simply running doesn’t change their body enough. In a previous article, Running or Weight Loss Versus Running FOR Weight Loss, we examined some of the reasons why simply taking up running may not be the best way for one to lose weight. 

Recently a small, rudimentary study was conducted on recreational marathoners. It found that only 11% of those taking part in marathon training were able to lose weight in the process (interestingly 11% of the participants gained weight training, too). For all the miles logged and calories burned, only seven of the 64 subjects lost weight. Many of the participants reported eating more during training, but given the sheer amount of training more of them should have been able to lose weight. Right?

Is your pace right to lose weight?

One possible explanation is the pace many runners train at doesn’t provide the right stimulus to encourage higher rates of fat burn. Running may burn lots of calories, but what type of calories does it take for you to run? 

Running for a prolonged period is thought of as aerobic activity, which means the body can breathe in oxygen and send it to the working muscles to combust fat for energy. Aerobic activity still allows one to maintain a conversation while working out. Yep, you should be able to talk while you burn fat stores. Even the leanest runners have dozens of hours of this fuel stored!

For many people, using the muscles to run uses a higher rate of energy production, mostly from stored carbohydrates, called glycogen, in the muscles and liver. This type of energy burn is largely anaerobic, meaning no oxygen is needed and little fat is burned to maintain the activity. Instead, the body releases hormones such as cortisol to increase the glucose (sugar) available to maintain the activity, even if that means breaking down its own muscle tissue!

If one trains the body to depend on glycogen as the primary fuel system for the running activity, it will frequently run out of this glycogen fuel in a matter of one to two hours and need carbohydrates to re-fuel these energy stores.  In this common instance, one would feel fatigue from the workouts and likely have trouble avoiding cravings for carbohydrate foods. This is possibly the main reason runners tend to eat more when they train more. 

Thousands of steps worth of impact, rapid production of energy and waste, and typical diets high in inflammatory sugars and processed carbohydrates create an environment conducive to rapid aging and breakdown of healthy tissue. In all honesty, most recreational runners create a rather hostile environment within their bodies from the physical demands they put on it.

The chronically inflamed physical state of the endurance enthusiast requires extra effort when it comes to nutrition strategies. The most important include eating enough protein to repair all the damage done in training, healthy fats to calm down inflamed tissues and moderate carbohydrates rich in vitamins, minerals and antioxidants (mostly vegetables, legumes and fruits). 

Slow down, lose fat. (Notice there is no question mark here.  It works.)

When beginning a program to lose weight, and especially if that weight-loss goal is focused on reducing body fat, one of the best things you can do is slow down.  Seriously?  Burn fewer calories per minute? Per hour? Precisely. You may burn fewer calories by slowing down in the beginning, but the returns vastly outweigh the alternative. For many that means their running program starts with walking.

Finding your aerobic base and exercising at that intensity for most of your training time allows the body to adapt its fat-burning energy hardware to become more efficient at combusting fat. These changes take place over the course of weeks, months and years of low-to moderate-intensity training, and allow the body to rely more on fat stores for fuel around the clock. Perhaps the most beneficial side effect of this easier training is the increased ability to stave off carbohydrate cravings! 

What do I do next?

If you’re planning your next move toward weight loss and running is something you’ve considered, here are the steps to follow to ensure your time spent on the treadmill or trail is not wasted:

What have you got to lose? 


  1. Seebohar, Bob.  Metabolic Efficiency Training: teaching the body to burn more fat.
  2. Burfoot, Amby.  Does Running Melt Off The Pounds? Sometimes, Yes. But Just As Often, No.  Runner’s World Peak Performance, December 1, 2010. http://peakperformance.runnersworld.com/2010/12/dec-1-does-running-melt-off-the-pounds-sometimes-yes-but-just-as-often-no.html#comments
  3. Antonio, Jose.  Essentials of Sports Nutrition and Supplements. ©Humana Press 2008.

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