Running For Weight Loss: An Expert Explains All

If you’re looking to lose weight, running is a straightforward way to go about doing that. It’s not like you need to learn some complicated new set of exercises after all. Just walk, but faster.

But while running can certainly help you lose weight, there are pitfalls which, unless you’re aware of them, can be pretty dispiriting. While running is straightforward, running in the right way for maximum weight loss is not. So we asked Dr Justin Roberts from Anglia Ruskin University’s Cambridge Centre for Sport and Exercise Sciences for guidance.

What sort of running routine is optimal for sustained weight loss?

We tend to burn less fat with high-intensity work, strictly speaking, but we burn more calories. If someone wants to lose weight, I would probably recommend lower intensities, but with high-intensity work – things like interval runs or tempo runs.

But if you’ve got someone who’s quite new to running, I wouldn’t throw them in a high-intensity programme from day one, I’d opt for a slower run – what we call fatmax training. Technically it is maximal fat oxidation and the intensity this occurs at is called the fatmax intensity, which can be correlated to heart rate. It will differ between people, with fitter people tending to have a higher fatmax.

I’d also think about when you run as well. There’s good evidence that running in the morning increases metabolic rate, and this might also link to increased weight loss or fat loss later on.

Is running on its own enough, or do you need strength training to accompany it?

Many runners run with muscle imbalances or specific imbalances, so by strengthening the muscles around the joints, for example, this might improve the likelihood of running more efficiently and reduce the chance of developing injuries. Plus, if you’re gaining lean mass, this might also improve or have a positive influence on your metabolism.

How can people avoid plateauing?

Typically, I’ve found people hit a plateau because they’re just trying to do the same thing time and again. I think there’s a lot of sense in mixing up your training – so a long, slow and steady run one day, and intervals or hill runs on another, for example.

When I try to understand someone’s plateau, often it’s because they haven’t set a training goal. So the first thing is to maybe look at the goal and whether it’s challenging.

What sort of diet would help you have enough strength to complete runs while still losing weight?

This is a tough one, because it depends on a number of factors. If someone’s trying to lose weight, the assumption is that they’re going to be doing some sort of negative balance diet so their calories in are lower than their calories out – eating slightly less or maybe exercising a bit more. But one of the big problems I’ve found working with runners in particular is when they’re not eating enough to fuel their training.

So there’s a conundrum here because, yes, if you eat less food, you’re reducing your calories and creating that negative balance, which might then lead to weight reduction – but you may not have enough energy to sustain lots of training over multiple days. So I would say it’s about making sure that any deficit is a minor one, and that it should come from the exercise, rather than reducing what you eat too much.

If you’re going to do resistance training as well, most of the research I’ve read talks about having a more balanced macronutrient split: something like 40 to 50% of your diet for carbohydrates, 20 to 30% protein and the rest in fat. There’s also a lot of evidence to suggest that most runners need somewhere between one and 1.4g of protein per kilo of body mass per day. If strength training is involved and we’re including some sort of calorie reduction, that might increase to about 1.5 to 1.8g per kilo per day.

Is it worth trying fasted running if you’re trying to lose weight?

First of all, we need to define what fasted running means. If you run when you haven’t eaten for a long time, such as before breakfast, you’re tapping into your liver glycogen stores and part of your muscle glycogen stores, making the session more geared towards reverting to fat metabolism. So if you’re trying to encourage the body to utilise fat stores during exercise, training on an empty stomach in the morning has its advantages.

But I would also be conscious of what you’re trying to achieve here. If it’s pure weight loss and someone’s doing a fairly high-intensity programme, is it sustainable?

Is there any kit you’d recommend especially for overweight runners?

In our lab, once people have done their physical testing, we often recommend they see a running specialist and undergo a gait analysis to see which type of shoes would be beneficial for them. They must be comfortable and well-fitting. The rest of your gear comes down to personal preference, although it’s important to avoid chafing and make sure your clothing is breathable.

You don’t necessarily need all the fancy gadgets like GPS systems, but having a very basic heart rate monitor can be useful. If someone’s looking to see if they’re adapting to the training, one of the first signs you see is a reduction in the heart rate.

Some people struggle to lose weight just by running. Why might that be?

You have to look at the person and what they’re actually doing. I’ve had people come into the lab and say, “My weight seems to be the same, what’s going on?” What they’ve actually done is gained lean muscle – maybe they’ve lost half a kilo in weight and gained half a kilo in tissue, so the net loss is zero. It’s not that they haven’t made improvements, it’s just they’re not seeing it by simply measuring weight.

Other people may monitor their weight every day in the morning and say, “Well, I’m only shifting by 0.1 of a pound” – but they’re looking at it in a micro fashion and not seeing the bigger picture. So they probably are losing weight, but just not seeing it over a typical day.

When people weigh themselves is a factor as well. If I go for a typical run, which uses muscle glycogen, and then I consume carbohydrate to replace that muscle carbohydrate, that’s going to lead to an increase in weight as well.

You could also be drinking or eating more food without realising it. I remember one case where a client was eating quite healthily, but snacking throughout the day, and drinking things like lattes, which are calorie-dense.

Written by Alan Martin for Coach and legally licensed through the Matcha publisher network. Please direct all licensing questions to

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