Running for Weight Loss: A Simple Guide for Runners

When I think back on my running journey thus far, the first word that comes to mind is commitment.

About 16 years ago, I did a complete lifestyle renovation. I changed my diet from fast food to whole foods and started following Pilates DVDs instead of watching reality TV. But, seeing as I wasn’t leaving my living room to get my exercise in, I can recognize in hindsight that I was under the impression that I wasn’t “a runner”.

I would often see other people running through my neighborhood, and our annual local 10K literally ran right down my street every April. I’d wave from the sidelines of my yard. All of that was for other people.

But one day when I was on the treadmill at the gym, I increased my walking speed to a running pace.

When I finished running my first mile without stopping, I was astounded. I couldn’t believe that I had just accomplished that.

From then on, running was my thing. I wanted to improve and push my limits doing this activity that I had never really connected with before. I craved it. My mind changed, my body changed, and my routine definitely changed.

If you are working toward a weight loss goal, hopefully you’ve already realized that achieving such a goal requires commitment. You’re past the idea of fad diets and weight loss pills and you’re ready to commit yourself to a healthy and sustainable method of losing weight.

In this article, I am going to provide you with a detailed, step-by-step process on how you can use running to shed those extra pounds. If you’re not used to running yet and you’re starting from scratch, that’s ok, as I’ll also lay out a sample month-long plan that you can follow to get started with running.

Let’s start by talking about why running is a good choice for a physical activity if you want to lose weight and then go into a detailed guide of how to do this.

Why Running?

There are a lot of benefits to running for weight loss, but one of the main ones is that there are very few barriers to entry when compared to other exercises. All you need is some running shoes and space to run. You don’t need any expensive equipment or a gym membership to get going. Also, because you can run on a treadmill if you prefer, there is no time of year or weather that makes running off limits.

Some runners enjoy running in the cold and some even bear the heat, but if you’re not one of those people, these elements don’t need to stop you from working out.

You can run alone, you can run with a friend, or you can run with a running group–heck, you can run every day if you want, as long as you’re informed about recovery. Finally, you can bring this workout with you wherever you go. If you have to travel for work or you’re going on vacation, you don’t have to take that time off from exercising if you’re a runner.

It’s that kind of convenience that puts running among the best exercises for weight loss. In fact, in 2012, runners were found to be leaner and to weigh less than people who engaged in a different form of exercise. However, while many have lost weight (and kept it off) by adopting a running habit, it’s important to know how to run for weight loss so you can achieve your desired results while avoiding common mistakes.

For example, eating a healthy diet is an important component of running for weight loss.  Some people believe that as long as they’re exercising, they can eat whatever they want without any concern, however, having a more realistic idea of how many calories you’re burning vs. your caloric intake is key.

You may be surprised to see how much work it requires to burn calories:

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In fact, a recent study followed over 500 people for a year who were all new to running. Those who ran over three miles each week without changing their diet lost an average of four pounds over the year. However, the group that ran the same distance but also made a few healthy changes to their diet lost an average of 12.3 pounds over the year.

So, while you’re running for weight loss, it’s important to keep your diet in mind as well.

Now, let’s take a look at an approachable guide to running for weight loss.

Your Guide to Running for Weight Loss

1. Specify Your Goal

Make your goal specific and write it down. Decide on your goal weight to give yourself an idea of what you’re facing and how far you have to go. You can also make goals for things such as your body fat percentage and the measurements of your body.

Here is a video on how you can measure your body fat percentage at home.

Keeping these additional goals will help keep you motivated if the scale isn’t moving at the rate you had hoped.

Your individual goal will have so many unique factors (your age, sex, current weight, current activity level, etc.) that it’s difficult to offer a sample goal with solid numbers. To figure out how to write a SMART goal that may work for you, determine how long it would take you to reach your goal weight if you were able to lose about one pound per week. In order to do this, you need to have a 500 calorie deficit each day to add up to a 3,500 calorie deficit for the week, which equals one pound.

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This video helps explain how your caloric intake (and deficit) impacts your weight, and you can use this tool to help you figure out how many calories you should consume per day to help you lose weight.

2. Don’t Overdo the Honeymoon Phase

When you first get out there and hit the pavement, you may be tempted to really push yourself. However…don’t.

If you’re new to running, it’s important to understand the need to ease into this activity. Gradually increase your level of running to reduce your risk of injury or burnout. Because running is a high-impact exercise, it can lead to injuries more easily than other types of cardio workouts.

If you have a lot of weight to lose, you’re likely at a higher risk of injury than those who have less weight bearing on their joints. To mitigate this risk, start slowly by incorporating walking into your runs, make sure to give yourself rest days, and gradually increase the distance that you’re running on a regular basis.

You don’t need to worry about your pace–especially when you’re first getting started. Instead, focus on completing your miles and sticking to a consistent schedule. Plan your runs out each week and add them to your schedule like you would for any other obligation. Eventually, you’ll start to see results from your efforts in the form of weight loss.

3. Take a Look at What You’re Eating

You already know that you have to burn more calories than you’re eating if you want to lose weight. But with your increase in activity, you may also have an increase in appetite, depending on your body’s physiology. If you feel like you’re suddenly ravenous after you start running on a regular basis, how can you make sure you don’t end up gaining weight?

You need to take a look at where your calories are coming from and make sure you’re fueling your body with high-quality food sources. You want to limit (or eliminate) your consumption of empty calories or processed foods. Replace these with foods that are a single ingredient (or max of up to 5 ingredients) to start eating “clean”.

Take a look at this clean eating “cheat sheet” to give you a better idea of how you can fuel your body with high-quality foods.

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High-quality foods that have both macro and micronutrients as well as fiber will keep you satisfied for longer with fewer calories than processed, low-quality food. By increasing the quality of your diet, you can eat enough to keep you full, despite your potentially increased appetite, without hindering your weight loss.

Here is a list of high-quality snacks that all measure out to be about 200 calories.

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Keep in mind though, you have to make sure you’re fueling your body enough to make up for your increased activity. If you eat too little and end up with a daily caloric deficit that is far over 500 calories, you will slow down your metabolism, making it difficult to lose weight.

4. Increase Your Efforts

If you’re aiming to lose over 12.3 pounds within the next year, you will need to progress your running so you don’t hit a plateau. It’s best to always try to do as much as you can with your current time limits, energy, and motivation. If you have the time and the motivation, consider setting a long-term goal of working your way up to a full hour of running every day for 6 days a week.

If you feel like you’re already at your max in terms of running and you’ve changed your diet but you’re not seeing the weight come off, decrease your portion sizes by about 20%. Research has shown that when people eat 20% less at their meals, they don’t notice a difference when it comes to satiety. We often overeat without realizing it due to large portion sizes and the availability of second helpings. Once you get used to eating less, you will become full much faster.

If your running starts to become overly routine, meaning that you’re running the same four miles on the same five days every week for three months, the number on your scale won’t be moving very far. Sure, you will still be burning calories when you’re running, but you’re not all of a sudden burning more calories. If your running stays the same and your diet stays the same, so will your weight.

However you want to increase your efforts, whether it’s by adding hills, running faster, or running more frequently, any shift such as these can start to boost your calorie burn again.

5. Add in HIIT Training

Because we don’t want your runs to become predictable for your body, you will want to add in some high-intensity interval training. Numerous studies have shown that doing high-intensity interval training (HIIT) can result in quick weight loss. Adding HIIT to your runs even just once a week can add to your loss of abdominal fat and body weight without leading to a loss of muscle mass.

This video will show you how to do running intervals and explain the science behind HIIT training a bit more.

6. Rethink Your Reward

All too often, runners want to celebrate their success of finishing a long run by eating unhealthy snacks like cookies and chips. Oftentimes, these celebratory snacks contain more calories than what had been burned in the run.

In order to avoid self-sabotage, look at your runs as being rewards in themselves instead of a daunting chore that you finally completed. You have to switch up your attitude a bit–which is possible.

Take this for example: a recent study looked at two groups of people who were tasked with going on a walk, One group was told that the walk was “scenic” while the other was told it was for exercise. The researchers found that those who had the attitude of enjoying a scenic walk ate under half as many M&M’s once the walk was over than the group who believed they had just finished going out for exercise. Adopt a positive attitude about your runs and think of them as being a fun break in your day.

Your mindset surrounding your exercise program is critical to your success. No matter what your weight-loss goal is, your main goal should be to learn to have fun while you’re running. You will only be able to lose weight from running if you keep doing it and you won’t keep doing it if you don’t enjoy it.

So, if you prefer to run while listening to music, do it. If you want to run with a friend or group, that’s fine too. If you like to run on the treadmill, run on the treadmill. There’s no wrong way to run for weight loss if you’re enjoying it.

Now let’s look at a sample month-long plan that you can use to get started with running.

30-Day Running Plan to Get You Going

If you’re just starting out with running, you don’t want to do too much too quickly. Follow this guide to start transitioning from walking to running.

Week 1

  • Monday: Go for an easy 20-minute walk
  • Tuesday: Rest or do other non-impact cardio (such as swimming or biking) for 20 minutes
  • Wednesday: Go for a 25-minute walk
  • Thursday: Do non-impact cardio for 20 minutes
  • Friday: Do four rounds of walking for 4 minutes and running for one minute, totaling 20 minutes
  • Saturday: Do non-impact cardio for 20 minutes
  • Sunday: Rest

Week 2

  • Monday: Do five rounds of walking for 4 minutes and running for one minute, totalling 25 minutes
  • Tuesday: Rest or do other non-impact cardio for 25 minutes
  • Wednesday: Do six rounds of walking for 4 minutes and running for one minute, totalling 30 minutes
  • Thursday: Do non-impact cardio for 25 minutes
  • Friday: Do seven rounds of walking for 4 minutes and running for one minute, totalling 35 minutes
  • Saturday: Do non-impact cardio for 25 minutes
  • Sunday: Rest

Week 3

  • Monday: Do seven rounds of walking for 3 minutes and running for one minute, totalling 28 minutes
  • Tuesday: Rest or do other non-impact cardio for 30 minutes
  • Wednesday: Do nine rounds of walking for 1 minute and running for two minutes, totalling 27 minutes
  • Thursday: Do non-impact cardio for 30 minutes
  • Friday: Do seven rounds of walking for 3 minutes and running for one minute, totalling 28 minutes
  • Saturday: Do non-impact cardio for 30 minutes
  • Sunday: Rest

Week 4

  • Monday: Do six rounds of walking for 1 minute and running for four minutes, totalling 30 minutes
  • Tuesday: Rest or do other non-impact cardio for 30 minutes
  • Wednesday: Walk 5 minutes, run 20 minutes, walk 5 minutes
  • Thursday: Do non-impact cardio for 30 minutes
  • Friday: Run for 28 minutes
  • Saturday: Do non-impact cardio for 30 minutes
  • Sunday: Rest

Here is this plan laid out in a calendar format. As you will notice, there are more opportunities for days in this calendar that you can choose to designate as rest days. Use your best judgement on when you think you need to rest.

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And just like that, you’ve gone from walking to running in less than a month.

Going into your second month of running for weight loss, you can start adding in various types of runs to keep your metabolism up, such as:

Progression run: Begin running at your natural pace and finish up a bit faster (i.e. run 5 miles at your normal pace and your last mile at a faster pace.)

Long run: As you start to increase your distance, start challenging yourself to run distances you’ve never been able to run before.

Intervals: Interval running involves segments of low-paced jog followed by a burst of high-intensity sprinting. For example, this could look like four sets of a 100-meter sprint followed by a 20-minute jog.

Hill run: Hill running involves running uphill for different intervals, so can be performed easily on a treadmill. For example, you could do 10 sets of 45-second runs uphill, with a 1-2 minute rest period in between each run.

Recovery run: Take your recovery runs slowly, as these are literally laid out in your plan to allow your body to rest while still getting in some movement. For example, you may want to jog 3 miles at a slow pace after running an exceptionally long distance one day.

While you’re doing any of these types of runs, you will be transforming your body and your mind to becoming a motivated and resilient runner.

Final Thoughts on Running for Weight Loss

Along with the weight that you will lose through running, you will gain energy, improve your sleep, and skyrocket your confidence. Once you start to work your way up to running on a regular basis, it will begin to feel more natural. Because of all of the other benefits you will find that you’re obtaining from running, losing weight may even slide off your radar a bit as you notice how much better you feel each day.


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