Long, Slow Running Isn’t the Best Option for Weight Loss
There is no doubt that Covid-19 has changed our lives. The devastating effects of the virus created a real urgency to address health and wellness. The coronavirus is disproportionately affecting individuals with underlying health condition including chronic preventable health diseases like diabetes and heart disease. According to the CDC, 6 in 10 or 60% of Americans live with at least one chronic disease. These chronic preventable diseases are the leading causes of death and disability in America, and they are also a leading driver of health care costs.
Regular exercise can help manage symptoms and improve health. With just 30 minutes of daily aerobic exercise, it can help improve heart health and endurance and aid in weight loss.
While the shelter in place orders were enacted across the nation, many people used that time to work on their fitness. Our neighborhoods were all of sudden filled with joggers and walkers like never before. This was really great to see for us as fitness professionals. People were moving!
Since gyms were closed and weight equipment was hard to find, running became a go-to for many. Running is a great form of exercise and has many health benefits that can help address chronic preventable diseases. It can help improve cardiovascular health, lower risk of heart attacks or stroke, help with sleep, mood and concentration during the day, all things that help us stay healthy and have a good quality of life. But if you decided to run to help with weight loss, well, you may have better options. Long runs don’t necessarily equate to big weight loss. Focusing on steady state running, or running at a low intensity really doesn’t have a big caloric expenditure in the long run contrary to popular belief.
This can be deceiving because many people do lose weight initially. But this effect is a result of your body responding to lower stress levels. If you’ve been inactive for a while and then you start to exercise, your body will be burning a lot of calories because it’s not used to having to work and keep up with new demand for fuel/energy. But once you build endurance – when your body is able to efficiently use glucose for on-going activity – it takes longer to get fatigued, your body has become a lot more efficient and won’t burn as many calories as before. Also, when you’re running but not strength training, research shows that the weight loss will mostly come from losing both fat and muscle mass, and losing muscle is never a good thing.
The other issue with all of a sudden running long slow runs is the risk of injury. To go from not running very often (or at all), to all of a sudden running every day or suddenly increasing distance, this can create injuries. Over-use injuries result from taking on too much physical activity, too fast, or not having the proper form or the right kind of strength to help with the great amount of force pounding the pavement causes. Joints take the biggest brunt of this pounding force – knees, ankles, hips become injured often without the proper preparation and especially if you are losing muscle.
Adding strength training is going to be an important part of your running and weight loss journey. There is no doubt that strength training builds muscle which helps prevent injuries and help you be a more efficient runner. Muscles also use up a lot of calories and losing muscle is not only dangerous but you are losing another mechanism to expend calories during activity and even while at rest. Since muscle has a higher metabolic rate than fat, having more muscle raises your resting metabolic rate (energy expenditure) so even at rest, you burn calories! Strength training and getting stronger doesn’t mean you get big and bulky, but rather, it will mean having the strength to support you own body weight and lead to a better quality of life.
Long, slow runs can be too costly when trying to lose weight. They require a lot of time, your appetite will increase, often times negating any calories lost, and you may lose muscle mass if not strength training properly. In fact, shorter, 20-30 minute of higher quality workouts, are actually a lot more effective for weight loss than an hour run. If you’ve been mostly inactive, easing into any new exercise routine is best. Once you’ve developed an exercise routine, like any other workout, you have to progress the routine to continue to see results. This may mean that you may start by walking for 20 minutes. After about four weeks of consistently walking 4-6 times a week, then you may want to add short intervals, ie, walking 60sec, jogging 15sec for 5 rounds once or twice a week. Strength training should be implemented throughout at minimum twice a week. However, don’t confuse HIIT workouts that use light weights as true form of strength training. A common misconception is that if you are using weights with a HIIT workout, then it must be a strength training program. This is false. HIIT training is a great conditioning option and you can pair with true strength training, but HIIT isn’t strength training. Check out our article where we go into more details about strength training versus conditioning.
And don’t forget about your nutrition. The biggest driver for weight loss is your nutrition. As we described in a previous article, weight loss is a result of a caloric deficit – you have to burn more calories than you eat – nothing more, nothing less. Create a calorie deficit, keep at it, and you will lose excess fat. However, make sure you don’t ever go below 1,200 calories unless you have medical approval and supervision because your body needs 1,200 for normal body function and stay alive. To start creating a calorie deficit plan, start by figuring out your daily calorie needs. A registered dietitian can help or you can use this resource from the Mayo Clinic for guidance. Then keep a food log – measure and weigh your food and track your intake by writing it down in your food journal or by using an app like MyFitnessPal. You won’t be able to outwork a poor diet, so make sure you create good eating habits that you can sustain for a lifetime.
It has been a common belief that long, slow runs are a great solution to weight loss. For many, that’s the reason they choose to make marathon training a goal. If you have a passion for running and want to improve heart health, this is a good fit for you. But countless research continues to show that short, quality workouts, rather than those long runs, are actually a much better strategy for weight loss. Pairing conditioning workouts with strength training and a balanced nutrition plan will have the heart healthy effect you need and the weight loss results you want.